Saturday, February 2, 2013

Still Life With Robin: DC, The Show

by Peggy Robin

Earlier this week I started watching the new series on FX, The Americans, a spy thriller set in Washington and Falls Church in the early 1980s. You can read about the show in these two reviews, from the New York Times and the Washington Post, respectively ( and, but I am not writing to review the show itself (although if I were, I'd  give it high marks). I am here to comment on how well the show does at representing life in and around DC circa 1981.

Let me start by saying I have learned from experience never to expect the producers of big-budget TV or movies to get DC right in the details. Some standard mistakes: They tend to give the main characters Hollywood-mansion-sized houses, designer clothes, and the latest and flashiest model cars, even when the heroes work for government salaries. And they make it a lot faster and simpler to get around town than it ever was or will be. The most memorable example of this practice was in the movie No Way Out, when Kevin Costner, playing a naval officer/spy, raced over Key Bridge on foot and then jumped into the "Georgetown Metro." What?! Even more disconcerting, the "Metro" train he boarded was the type used in the Baltimore system. Hollywood also often fails to get the reality of DC life in the smaller but telling details: I'm thinking of the scene in Die Hard 2 when Bruce Willis, in the middle of fighting terrorists at Dulles Airport, stopped to make a call from a payphone (remember those?) that was clearly marked Pacific Bell.

"The Americans" doesn't make these basic mistakes. The spy couple who are the main characters are Soviets passing themselves off as typical American suburbanites, and they're shown living in a new development of cookie-cutter fake Colonials with rustic-style mailboxes neatly lined up at the beginning of the cul-de-sac. They drive a '77 Oldsmobile with a trunk roomy enough to hide the defector they've kidnapped and still leave plenty of room for the jumper cables their neighbor has come over to borrow. And when that new neighbor first asks what it's like to live in the neighborhood, the question he most wants answered is "How's the commute?" Which elicits a somewhat defensive but absolutely standard half-truth in response: "Not so bad." The line is delivered in that shrugging, defensive way that you might expect from someone who has had to resign himself to 45 minutes twice a day spent creeping along in rush-hour traffic. It's also an answer that makes you aware of the fact that the Metro had not yet arrived in Falls Church -- and it makes you respect the producers and writers for being aware of it, too. (Of course, a quarter of a century later, the overcrowded, poorly maintained Metro can also make for a long, uncomfortable commute.)

While noticing the things that the show does spot on (another example, the way the women's clothing has shoulder pads, but not the wildly overstuffed, exaggerated variety that scream "1980s" at you), I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that there are no mistakes at all. I did note three little ones -- though none of these mar the tone of the show. Still, I'm proud of myself for finding them. First, there's a close-up shot of a getaway car being fitted with a new DC license plate, which has both letters and numbers at a time when DC plates were all numbers. Second, the spy couple's 10-year-old son is said to attend "middle school" when I would be willing to bet a stack of Susan B. Anthony dollars that a public school child of that age in that era would have been a fifth grader in an elementary school. "Middle School" was a term used mainly by private schools, while public schools grouped seventh and eighth grades, and possibly ninth, as "Junior High." The third slip occurred during the middle school principal's introduction of the celebrity guest speaker as a former Gemini astronaut -- with "Gemini" pronounced as "Gem-i-nee." That school principal, having presumably grown up hearing newscasters and NASA officials commenting on space flights of the Gemini program, would have known that the last syllable was always said with a long I, "Gem-i-NIGH."

Of course, it could turn out that the license plate error is actually a clue in the kidnapping plot, and that I'm wrong about how public schools were organized in Falls Church in 1981, and that the "Gem-i-nee" pronunciation was widespread at the time. In any case, I am looking forward to more episodes, which I'm sure will keep me guessing about how much of what I'm seeing is real -- or could have been real in its time.

"The Americans" (, is on the FX network on Wednesday nights at 10 PM.


Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.


  1. I think you'd win that stack of Susan B. Anthony dollars quite handily. Two different school systems serve students who live at an address in "Falls Church." Many of the schools where those children attend are part of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). Elementary aged children in FCPS schools attend through 6th Grade even in the present day, and they did the same back in the 80s. I know this to be true because my husband's children attended school in Fairfax County back then! As for the two elementary schools that are part of Falls Church City Public Schools (FCCPS), children attend elementary school through 5th Grade now, though I don't at what grade level FCCPS elementary schools capped back in the 80s. I would, however, think that children likely attended elementary school at least through 5th or 6th Grade then, too.

  2. Five years later, I must apologize to the creators of The Americans for calling them out on the "mistaken" pronunciation of "Gem-i-nee." Here's the definitive answer, explained in the New York Times, Oct 17 2018 The preferred pronunciation at NASA was indeed "Gem-i-nee," while dictionaries and most of the public preferred "Gem-i-nigh." Now I'm REALLY impressed with their attention to detail!