TV Review: The Americans [Spoilers]
The Americans – “Pilot”
Season 1, Episode 1
The latest new series from FX is already looking like one of the better dramatic efforts from a channel that’s given a ton of quality (Justified, Terriers) and one all-time great show (The Shield). That isn’t to say the 1980s-set spy drama will be as enjoyable and fondly remembered as those series, but it’s off to a good start.
The series has a chance to achieve something great because so much of the conflict comes from the very human and believable performances of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. They star as a pair of Russian KGB agents that have been embedded in the Washington D.C. suburbs for 16 years now. The focus isn’t just spycraft and action, but how that time spent in the U.S. has sympathized or hardened each of them to their enemy’s point-of-view and affected their own relationship and their feelings about the pair of very American children they are raising.
Trained to be impersonal business partners putting on a front, a lot of the best work in the pilot revolves around how much Rhys’ Philip Jennings honestly loves the woman he’s been living this lie with. It’s a fantastic dramatic close to the pilot that he would be willing to defect (although no viewer would seriously be worried about that happening in the first year, let alone the first episode) until he finds out the traitor in his Oldsmobile trunk raped Elizabeth while she was a trainee back in Russia. Philip is immediate and intense; choking their captive to death, and Elizabeth’s reaction in the background in wonderfully torn between admiration and her hardened professional shell.
After years of following the James Bond franchise, as well as series like Chuck or Alias (not to mention FX’s own Archer), it’s refreshing how down to earth and realistic everything is portrayed. Part of that is the technological reality of the period setting, but spies have always had cool spy gadgets. It says something about how on their own Philip and Elizabeth are. Yes, they have supervisors (who, as revealed at the episode’s end, are more than a little concerned about whether or not Elizabeth sees the more Americanized Philip slipping from the company program), but a big part of the series is how isolated they are, both practically from a larger support structure and psychologically from the rest of society.
The Americans is probably the strongest new series debut since Showtime debuted the awards juggernaut Homeland back in October of 2011. Even more impressive though, is the idea that having a period setting (all the rage since Mad Men debuted six years ago) should be an essential facet of your show, not just some pointless window dressing, and it works especially well since it isn’t being shoved in your face. The low-tech spycraft, lack of cellular communications, and the occasional high-rise jeans and male perm are comfortably in the background. Even the opening and closing sequences earn a huge bonus point — scoring them to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk fits the setting. It is a terrific song, but isn’t casually defined as an “Eighties Tune,” and thus doesn’t draw the eye rolls that some more ostentatious musical choices would have.
The one bit of griping I can’t avoid is having the FBI agent (who specializes in understanding and defeating the techniques of embedded hostiles) move into the same Washington suburb as the Russian agents. It’s a contrivance that at once seems glaring and unnecessary. Did we really need them living in the same area to manipulate the dramatic tension or fully integrate Noah Emmerich into the series? I say no on both counts, but it isn’t too large a sin to have to forgive.
Besides the performances, the pilot was as technically solid as anything on television right now. Creator and former CIA officer Joe Weisberg (Falling Skies) clearly has a firm handle on the characters, and setting and director Gavin O’Connor pulls on his motion picture background (Miracle, Warrior) and handles both the USSR-USA tension and action sequences handedly.
Both Rhys and Russell come across as earnest and anxious to dig into more substantive roles than they’ve had in recent years. Thanks to their terrific combined efforts — and with so many of today’s great shows led by flawed characters or outright villains — I don’t expect to have too much trouble getting behind enjoying the adventures of a pair of enemy terrorists.