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.
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.
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.
- 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.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with 'The Clock' @10pm on FX.
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