jason stives brings us back to the cold war…
To some, FX’s newest espionage drama The Americans might veer too closely to Homeland and the critical hold that show has on a current audience. While both shows deal with foreign operatives infiltrating American soil, The Americans is far more secretive in its approach being based during a terrifying time in our nation’s history by simply never knowing what the next move was. The Cold War may not seem too fascinating to some but I have always found interest in the notion of two sides plotting secretly for years rather than acting out in the open. Sure, in The Americans you get the occasional kick ass brawl but it’s a show far more about morals and the dilemma of identity rather than acting out who you are.
The Americans tells the story of Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), two KGB operatives who have been living in the United States for 15 years, building a family as a front. By day they raise their two kids and work as everyday people but many long nights are spent conversing with allies at a Soviet safe house or rendezvousing with possible sources into the heart of the newly minted Reagan Administration. Elizabeth is the rock that holds their Soviet duties in place while Phillip is a man who respects the cause but slowly begins to conform to American ideals which brings into question what matters more in the relationship with his wife, a successful mission or a successful marriage?
The gender dynamic switches greatly within this context because Russell very much acts as the true comrade versus Philip and his possible thoughts of defecting. It’s done in subtle ways like how Phillip progresses at a middle school assembly from mouthing the pledge of allegiance to giving it its rightful attention. Phillip wants to embrace this marriage that is both a mission but a long jesting situation that may mean more now as the years have gone on. Elizabeth is still fueled by her duty and the past that has abused her into remaining that way. Phil isn’t always sympathetic and when he needs to be rough around the edges he is. The moment when he ends up on her level of understanding comes near episode’s end when he learns that an ex-KGB operative abused his wife in the past. In that moment he reverts back to what he was and seeing that in her husband brings out a passion in Elizabeth that probably would normally be reserved for business affairs like we see in the opening, um, exchange.
Of our leads it’s Russell that shines the brightest and for someone like me who never saw anything beyond her Felicity exterior there is such an intensity in her that makes you wonder how an actor can pull that. Beyond the aforementioned abusive past and stonewall mentality of her mission, Elizabeth is a character that is about keeping the appearance genuine even if she doesn’t truly feel it. That isn’t to say she doesn’t love her children but its baggage that always came with a price and that it wasn’t done for love but for duty. Rhys on the other hand is yet another one of those British imports who steps into an American role like putting on a fine glove. He has a more sympathetic edge which is very cliché in context but because he can also backtrack and be ruthless it makes you question what he really wants and what he will do to get it.
The great dueling theme of The Americans is how the life that these two have created conflicts and corresponds with their feelings about their mission. You can tell there is love buried deep under all that years of training and that is the main focus of the pilot. Yes, there is the developing presence of the FBI closing in on possible KGB operatives but its all second hand. The second hand stuff is really what falls short in the narrative including a storyline involving a creepy guy hitting on Phillip’s 13 year old daughter in a department store. Oh, and the fights are pretty awesome too. You can’t expect them not to be there but it seems surprising to have as many hand to hand combats in a show center around a rather non combative time period. I would say the silliest development but the most expected is that the new neighbor of the Jennings family is an FBI agent named Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) who just happens to be dealing with the news that the President is outraged about the spy snatch that has gone on in their country. Obviously someone needs to constantly be on the trail of the Jennings even if they aren’t known of yet but having that person also is their neighbor felt like the most perfect strangers scenario on the planet and rubs you a bit wrong.
Setting is everything to this show and the fact that it takes place in the early 1980s is wonderful because that is a part of our American history that goes unnoticed. It was a turbulent time but also a strange transitional one that has only been covered in shows like Freaks and Geeks and to see it come around again was perfect. The sudden reemergence of the true Patriot ways of America was so dropped into the Reagan Administration but it felt exactly right and it feels right here in buckets. Not everything is perfect and some things are done for the shock value of being on edgy cable television but it doesn’t hamper the overall tone of the show which is set perfectly within the first ten minutes. That first ten minutes prior to the title card may be the most jolting and exciting set up to a show I have seen in a long time and it says almost everything we need to know about this husband and wife team. There are of course certain things that reminded me greatly of Homeland or any show where a spy might be found out but that’s expected.
We are also dealing with a show ripe with not so subtle cues and that’s fine because the eighties sure as hell weren’t subtle about anything. I mustn’t forget the musical cues of the premiere which range from the cliché but well placed (the use of “In the Air Tonight” near the end of the episode) and the brilliant which includes the opening chase sequence being cued to “Tusk” by Fleetwood Mac. Seriously, kudos to finding a great use for that particular song!
In a TV age where shows debut and then disappear quietly without any interest, The Americans certainly is the most refreshing premiere this season and based on the coming attractions trailer for the season we will get a nice dose of espionage pumped into future episodes. For now, the premiere was a great example of methodically thought out television that paces strongly and doesn’t drag when it needs to slow down thanks in part to some great performances and solid storytelling.
Rating: 8 out of 10 (Excellent)