‘The Americans’ Series Premiere Review

Published 1 year ago by , Updated January 31st, 2013 at 7:46 am,

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in The Americans The Americans Series Premiere Review

There was an excellent scene in season 2 of Homeland where the characters played by Mandy Patinkin and F. Murray Abraham reminisced briefly about what the intelligence game was like during the Cold War. There was a wistful glint in their eyes as they almost fondly remembered their adversaries and the art of brinkmanship that both the United States and the Soviets engaged in time and again.

In essence, the pair romanticized a period filled with a different kind of paranoia and anxiety than exists today. In FX’s newest drama The Americans, the basic premise takes the audience back to the Cold War with a storyline focusing on two KGB spies who are posing as an average American married couple with kids in early-1980s Washington, D.C. And although this particular milieu is dripping with the same kind of us versus them gamesmanship that Patinkin and Abraham’s characters were remembering, this superlative and exciting pilot is far from a simple trip down memory lane.

Like any good pilot, the episode diligently sets up the series’ framework – which is comprised of several elements that make cable television so popular and successful right now. First and foremost, The Americans has the benefit of being a period drama (still a plus by most networks’ standards), but this series, unlike many period drams, is driven by more than simply having the right attire and casually making mention of events happening at the time. Instead, with Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys playing Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, respectively, the plot deftly splits its time between the couple’s increasingly dangerous spy games and their otherwise prosaic existence as a family in the suburbs.

Keri Russell as Elizabeth in The Americans The Americans Series Premiere Review

In that sense, The Americans has added elements of other great dramas like The Sopranos (nefarious stuff going on in the suburbs) and Homeland (government paranoia and fear that people aren’t who they seem to be) to its bag of tricks, but there’s also a whiff of AMC-fare like Breaking Bad, too. Still – in the pilot anyway – the series manages to take its conceit and make it successful by offering plenty of surprises and a decent amount of character building in the first episode.

Much of the pilot is devoted to an ex-KGB colonel who has defected to the United States and is now the kidnapping target of Elizabeth and Phillip (along with another deep cover operative named Rob). In a stirring opening sequence, Phillip and Elizabeth get their man, but at the cost of Rob and, to an extent, the successful completion of their mission. After the botched operation, the couple has no choice but to keep the defector stowed away in the trunk of an Oldsmobile in their garage. The situation intensifies when it becomes clear the U.S. government is aware of the kidnapping, and then things get worse after it’s revealed the colonel was responsible for a heinous crime committed against Elizabeth when she was still a teenager in Russia.

All of this is compelling stuff. The pilot manages to wring sufficient tension out of a car sitting in a seemingly innocuous couple’s garage, but where the pilot really excels is in its depiction of Phillip and Elizabeth. For one thing, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are superb in their roles, which is so incredibly important since the real drama ultimately hinges on the actors’ interactions in a staged domestic setting and how that works against the show’s larger backdrop of historical fact (and the sometimes-overwrought spy game elements).

These moments at home manage to break The Americans down to a more intimate examination of two people compelled to act on behalf of a country they haven’t stepped foot in for nearly two decades. Phillip is the affable one; he is engaging with new people, interacts with his children on a deep, fatherly level and, as we quickly come to understand, is a big fan of his life in the U.S. – a fact that has him pondering the feasibility of defecting and living without Soviet entanglements. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is more detached; she bristles when her daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) mentions a social studies assignment about how the Russians “cheat on arms control” and later vows to teach them how to be socialists. Whether her disengagement is due to her steadfast devotion to her mission or the possibility that this life can (and probably will) come crashing down on them at any minute is not yet certain, but it does add an extra dimension to her character and the family dynamic as a whole.

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in The Americans The Americans Series Premiere Review

Still, as much as they initially adhere to one side of the coin, the characters are capable of surprise – even when aspects of the plot are more reliant on convenience. (But as long as the characters can convincingly sell it, those elements remain trivial objections.) Phillip has a protective streak in him that emerges in moments of deadly violence, and despite her cool exterior, Elizabeth’s emotions aren’t nearly as fortified as they may appear. This balancing act between two people playing roles they were thrown into is clearly the series’ strongest element so far.

As much as The Americans plays at the drama of family interaction and spy novel intrigue, there’s also a situational comedy element to the series that keeps the storyline from becoming too rigidly reliant on its ability to ramp up the pressure for Phillip and Elizabeth. The arrival of their new neighbor and FBI counter-intelligence agent, Stan Beeman (played by the always welcome Noah Emmerich from the season 2 finale of The Walking Dead), supplies a great deal of the humor (nervous as it is) with his gut instinct that something’s not quite right with Phil. Normally, something like this would be a hackneyed storyline component, but here it comes off as something darkly comical and quite useful – an already tense situation made potentially disastrous by the worst possible circumstance.

That’s a lot of elements at play, but somehow, despite occasionally taking the easy way out, everything manages to fall into place.

It can be difficult for shows that rely this much on tension to maintain it for an extended length of time, and that may prove to be the undoing of The Americans down the line. But if this pilot is any indication, the series isn’t at a loss as to the direction it wants to pursue, which should certainly ease any early concern for the narrative’s future. At any rate, that self-assurance should give the audience some sense of comfort and encourage them to come back for more. Considering how entertaining this pilot episode is, most viewers won’t need much coaxing.

Keri Russell in The Americans Pilot The Americans Series Premiere Review

Various Items:

  • The pilot was directed by Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) and counts Justified creator Graham Yost among its executive producers. That’s not bad by any standard.
  • There was no more enjoyable depiction of Phillip’s love for the United States than his dancing in front of a mirror in a pair of cowboy boots while at the mall with his daughter.
  • Between Fleetwood Mac and the very brave use of Phil Collins’ seminal ’80s hit ‘In the Air Tonight,’ The Americans seems to have a pretty good understanding of when and where to place their musical elements.

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The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘The Clock’ @10pm on FX.

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  1. sounds good, this kind of show is right up my alley, I will be sure to check it out

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  2. * Season ONE finale of the Walking Dead.

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  3. I hstrd it!!!!!!!!

  4. I hated it!!!!!

  5. I was genuinely shocked how good this pilot was. FX’s terrible ad campaign made this show look so one-dimensional and lame. The episode was awesome. Hopefully people give it the shot it deserves. Good review as well. Cheers

    • I agree 100% floored at how good it was. Horrible ad campaign too.

  6. This was a good start…
    I wasn’t sure what to make of certain plot points but eventually everything came around in a satisfying way.
    Sure, we’ve only seen one episode so I’m not going to declare that I’ll be watching from here on out but so far so good IMO.

  7. So.. when & where Evelyn Salt will jump right in? Oh wait a minute. I’m sorry, she is definitely still in education camp somewhere deep in Soviet heartland.

  8. I like the premise except for that it’s in the 80s. I understand that’s probably because of the the atmosphere at that time but I also think it’s to make things more plausible since technology is not as pervasive as it is now… kickin’ it old school.

    I think this would work better in a modern setting, something like Cold War sleeper cell agents who thought they were done and just had a family and now find themselves reactivated by Russia and trying to figure out what they should do (there was an episode of Elementary that had a Russian sleeper cell family and the mom was killed by their handler because she wanted to tell the kids the truth).

    It’s weird because you are rooting for these people who basically are your enemies.

    I do like the fight scenes… the bbq one had a nice touch at the end.

  9. So are we supposed to root for or sympathize with the main characters? I mean, the Soviets Union was responsible for millions of deaths.

    And I’m not being ‘jinoistic’. I know the U.S, has it’s sins as well. I wouldn’t root for characters that are slave owners in the south trying to defeat the 13th amendment. I wouldn’t root for main characters who are tasked with forceably removing the Native Americans from their homes.

    If the producers of this show want us to openly root for KGB agents to succeed in undermining the U.S., well I’m just not into that.

    • RickJM, Respectfully, I think you are over-simplifying it. Things are often presented to us as good ideology vs bad; the bad guys vs. those on the good side. But I think when we look deeper, we find that there are frequently good people in the midst of our “enemies”–such as some of the people portrayed in movies like Schindler’s List and Valkerie, who are, without a doubt, trying to the right and moral thing/ Likewise, we don’t have to look very far to far amongst us to find the corrupt and unethical living right by our side.

      Give it a chance….stories like this make us realize things are way more complicated and nuances then United States = Good and Soviet Union = Bad

  10. I really like the show. Elizabeth is tough. She is very cold and she is very dedicated to her country. She finally thraws when she killed the man who raped her during her training. I will keep watching.

    • ** Spoilers **

      It wasn’t her who killed the traitor… but that’s also why she lost her frigidity for the one who did.

  11. This sounds great. You mean to tell me it’s not just another American-blaming, right-wing-bashing bag of garbage from Hollywood? That’s certainly new.

  12. Man, I went in thinking that this show was gonna be something along the lines of “Hunted” or something, but my goodness there was so much depth and sharpness (laced with some truly exceptional action sequences), that I was totally surprised! Never expected FX to put out something like this; keep ‘em coming!

  13. I”m glad to see so many positive comments. I hope those were skeptical will soon give it another chance. I truly love it so far, and that’s coming from someone who really doesn’t find much she likes on TV. I’m excited to have another show to watch while I wait on season 3 of GoT.

  14. Why does kerri russel look the same in the flashbacks from 20 years ago?

  15. The thing that I thought was silly about this show was the fact that the characters spoke with no accents as “Americans,” but suddenly had these heavy Russian accents when speaking English with their comrades. They should have just had them speak Russian (with subtitles), because that killed the suspension of disbelief for me. People don’t turn an accent on and off like that….unless they are actors :)

  16. Started off GREAT

    Then, as in WAAAAAY too many recent shows, the writers got lazy and turned it into a soap opera.

    Now is it all touchy-feely, whining about this and that, and emoting for the camera.

    No doubt, the artsy crowd will defend it as “character development”……… BS

    The characters are already developed.

    Off you butts, and stop wasting quality actors on triteness.

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