The new show The Americans on F/X features a perfectly typical (ok—TV typical, meaning white and affluent) family living in the DC ‘burbs just shortly after Ronald Reagan became president. The catch is that, really, they’re super undercover Russian spies. So super undercover that they never ever speak Russian and even in flashbacks to their spy-in-training days they merely have heavy accents. Their kids aren’t in on it and so they innocently pipe up with the occasional mindless anti-Soviet remark. Meanwhile their mom, Elizabeth (Keri Russell), bustles about the kitchen but is really wondering whether she should go cut the throat of the Russian defector tied up in the trunk of the family Oldsmobile.
There are two ways to explain the appeal of the show’s premise. One is to put it down to Cold War nostalgia. The other is to chalk it up to 1980s nostalgia. Of course, since they happened at the same time, the answer can also be both. If the political issues were serious, the rest of the 1980s now seem quaint and laughable: look at those glasses! that hair! Isn’t that Roxy Music? Really, though, it’s the mom jeans. The show’s drama is supposed to be dark and serious, its moral quandaries, quagmires. But when the suburban mom / Russian double agent is wearing mom jeans, we’re in Red Dawn territory. No, not the remake, the original with Patrick Swayze (rest in peace), C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Grey and even Charlie Sheen. The movie’s Cold War conceit—that high school students would lead the resistance after a Soviet invasion of the heartland—was pretty late in the game to be convincing. By 1984, the dark threat of nuclear annihilation still loomed, but fears of a full scale invasion were so 1950s. Thus Red Dawn—the dawn of the Soviet occupation that is—was more of a red herring. The movie’s most dramatic moment comes when C. Thomas Howell executes one of their own when he’s found to be hiding a Soviet tracking device. The Cold War setting just happens to be contemporary but its values have more in common with the 1980 WWII film, The Big Red One. And so it is with The Americans. It’s not about the Cold War, it’s about characters who aren’t sure who they can trust. Its 1980s setting seems like comic relief.
The mom jeans, in other words, beg to be laughed at. Just in case you didn’t know this, what we now call “mom jeans” are direct descendants of the above-the-bellybutton style of the ‘80s. Some people debate whether the high waist alone is enough to define a pair of pants as mom jeans, but it’s nearly impossible to look at people wearing jeans from the early ‘80s and not think it. To test this theory, you might try watching one of the live versions of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing. As they perform the power ballad of the decade, the band members are decked out in muscle shirts, mullets, and, c’mon say it, mom jeans. Even so, surely one of the reasons the song has remained a hit for all these years, is its total sincerity. Its chorus, and Steve Perry’s performance of it, don’t hide a trace of irony. The band still tours on the strength of this song, even now that Perry refuses to have anything to do with them. (Amazingly, the remaining members managed to outsource the job to a singer from a cover band in the Philippines who they discovered via a youtube video. Really.)
The nostalgia of looking at and laughing at early ‘80s style in a 2013 show would seem to have a lot to do with the reputed sincerity deficit of our own times. No doubt it also has a lot to do with the fact that people who were teenagers in the 1980s are now forty-somethings, and suffering the first pangs of mid-life crises. It’s somehow less ridiculous to look back longingly for one’s lost youth if one first engages in ritualistic mockery of it. And sad to say, middle aged women bear the brunt of it (mom jeans, after all, feminizes something that was unisex back in the day). How else to explain the popularity of recent episodes of What Not to Wear that featured makeovers of Mindy Cohn (Facts of Life) and Tina Yothers (Family Ties), adolescent stars of 1980s hit shows? Both decided to hide their aging, and now less than famous selves, behind ill-fitting clothes until Stacy and Clinton swoop in to save them. The show’s usual early doses of humiliation are made collective by virtue of the fact that they were practically family for those old enough to have watched TV in the 1980s. The women’s ultimate redemption—now clothed in of the moment style—is that much more satisfying for the suffering. We can laugh at the 1980s and love them, too. The Russians in The Americans are about as threatening as they were back in that Wendy’s commercial. But Boy George, who was hard to take seriously back in 1983, now seems so sweet, so sincere, and so right when he points out that the past is never truly gone.
Karma karma karma karma karma chameleon,
You come and go, you come and go-oh-oh-oh . . .
Sing it, everyone.