Lucy Fife Donaldson
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Layers of style
Design and embodiment in The Americans
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Set during the 1980s, The Americans (FX, 2013–18) is a US drama series whose narrative combines cold-war spy thriller with family melodrama; a stylish evocation of spycraft in the period embedded within a substantive, emotionally complex serial drama. This chapter illuminates how the style, and stylishness, of the series are made material and dense, through attention to design. Style is often aligned with surface, with artifice, construction, ephemerality. The work of the central characters, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), involves inhabiting different styles or disguises, and the design of the programme foregrounds the artifice of their work through surface changes of costume and make-up. Substance, on the other hand, is concerned with complexity, with materiality, thickness, solidity. The layered narrative of The Americans, as well as its historical/political grounding and multifaceted lead performances, delivers such weight and seriousness. Special attention is paid to the intersection of design with Keri Russell’s performance, as her embodiment of Elizabeth Jennings – a key surface in the show’s design – enables a focused opportunity to track the materially meaningful qualities of style. Russell’s performance engages carefully with costume and make-up, to render her character through a meticulous layering of elements: ruthless violence, tender tactility, professional detachment, patriotic dedication, vulnerability and ferociousness.

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Substance / style

Moments in television


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