The Americans is one of the most critically-acclaimed television programs of recent years, and the critical accolades frequently highlight two aspects of the show – its narrative complexity and its attention to historical details. The narrative complexity is partially a result of its genre mixing, as the story merges elements of traditional espionage thrillers with the familial concerns of the suburban domestic melodrama. And the show’s 1980s setting is brought to life through the meticulous selection of period-specific props, costuming, dialogue, music, and technology. The impact of both of these elements is enabled by intertextual references within the series and intertextual knowledge on the part of viewers.
As John Fiske has argued, 'The theory of intertextuality proposes that any one text is necessarily read in relationship to others and that a range of textual knowledges is brought to bear upon it' (108). When we, as viewers, encounter a television text, that text activates our knowledge of and familiarity with other texts we have seen, and consciously or unconsciously, we make connections between them. Meaning, as Graham Allen notes, 'exists between a text and all the other texts to which it refers and relates' (1). This process of making meaning by way of connections between texts is not unique to The Americans. But the show’s complex intertwining of international espionage and suburban domesticity and the show’s careful references to 1980s history and culture, along with the critical praise heaped on these elements, make The Americans a particularly interesting case study for investigating intertextuality.
This video explores and demonstrates how The Americans mobilizes intertextual references and viewer knowledge to build its diegesis, generate narrative conflict, and convey meaning. Whether through vague references to familiar genres and settings, pointed nods to specific media texts, or the use of television clips to locate the narrative in a particular historical moment, The Americans relies on existing texts and audience knowledge of those texts to create meaning for viewers. Because each viewer’s familiarity with the various references will differ, the meanings created through these references will also differ from one viewer to the next. As indicated by the title 'My Americans', this video reflects the intertextual meanings that I make from The Americans. As someone who has actively studied espionage dramas, suburban narratives, and 1980s media and culture as part of my work, these references are particularly salient to me and perhaps influence my reading of The Americans more than they would others’ readings. But while the nuances may be unique to me, the general process is the same for all viewers.
This video is broken into three main segments, each focused on a particular type of intertextual meaning making. The first segment visualizes the process of building meaning through connections to familiar settings, situations, and genres. As Allen notes in his discussion of literary intertextuality, individual texts 'are built from systems, codes, and traditions established by previous works' (1). Although The Americans does not typically offer overt references to other spy dramas or suburban-set narratives, viewer knowledge of codes and traditions established by other texts informs the reading of this story, setting expectations and establishing an ongoing dramatic conflict between elements that typically do not coexist in a single narrative. Using split screen and picture-in-picture imagery, this segment aims to recreate on screen a process that typically only happens (often subconsciously) in the mind of the viewer.
The second segment takes up an individual scene from the pilot episode of The Americans, which offers a direct reference to a similar scene from the pilot of Miami Vice, a show that was produced and aired during the time period in which The Americans is set. Both scenes feature their main characters driving around the city at night, exchanging little dialogue but plenty of dramatic glances, as Phil Collins’ 'In the Air Tonight' plays prominently on the soundtrack. The clips are initially synced up by way of their music, and they demonstrate many visual similarities. Because the scenes use slightly different edits of the song, the soundtracks fall out of sync part way through, which helps to foreground the differences between the relationships and situations shown on screen.
The final segment presents scenes from The Americans that feature characters watching news or entertainment content on television. The additive nature of this segment highlights the ongoing work of building a world and an ideological perspective piece by piece, as the creators of The Americans did over six seasons. Additionally, as images linger in the background while the viewer focuses on something else, they mimic the distracted way we often encounter television in our lives. While most of the clips are presented here in the order in which they appeared in the series, the scene where characters watch The Day After (from an episode in Season 4) is held until the end of the segment. Given the main characters’ strong reactions to the TV movie (paralleling those of viewers who watched it in 1983), this segment is the most prominent example of a real television text shaping the fictional narrative. It highlights the impact of television throughout the diegesis, shows how one’s perspective shapes their interpretation of texts and events, and captures one of the series more powerful moments. Working on this segment, I couldn’t help but notice that the 16:9 aspect ratio of The Americans makes the framing feel slightly 'off' when presenting vintage clips with a 4:3 ratio. (This difference is also noticeable in the split screen of the previous segment.) For me this is a visual reminder that when we revisit past events, stories, and images, our contemporary framing necessarily influences how we see them. I should also note that the visual approach of this section – keeping clips on screen and repeating them as new clips join the visual collage – was inspired by Matthew Thomas Payne’s video essay, 'Who Ever Heard…?', which uses a similar technique for a very different effect.
The visual juxtaposition of old and new texts in this video allows us, as Catherine Grant notes, not just to know how intertextual meaning is made, 'but also to experience it' by presenting 'new phenomenological, as well as epistemological, evidence' (n.p.). The creators of The Americans drew heavily on existing texts and relied on viewer knowledge of those texts to create meaning in their own show. But as this video demonstrates, the process of making meaning flows in multiple directions. As The Americans circulates in the media landscape, its meanings will continue to shape and be shaped by other texts with which it interacts.
Allen, Graham. (2011) Intertextuality. Routledge.
Grant, Catherine. (2013) 'Deja Viewing? Videographic Experiments in Intertextual Film Studies'. Mediascape: UCLA’s Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, Winter, n.p.
Fiske, John. (1987) Television Culture. Routledge.
Payne, Matthew Thomas. (2020) 'Who Ever Heard…? Genre, Gender, and Repetition in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'. [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies vol. 7, no. 1, n.p. http://mediacommons.org/intransition/who-ever-heard%E2%80%A6
David Coon is an Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma, where he teaches courses in film studies, television studies, and video production. He is the author of Turning the Page: Storytelling as Activism in Queer Film and Media (2018) and Look Closer: Suburban Narratives and American Values in Film and Television (2014). He has published essays in The Journal of Popular Film and Television, Feminist Media Studies, The Journal of Homosexuality, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Journal of Film and Video.