FX, Wednesdays 10/9 Central
Jan 30, 2013
Keri Russell first garnered attention (and an Emmy win) for her doe-eyed portrayal of an intelligent-albeit-impulsive college student in J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves' Felicity. Russell's girl-next-door character morphed into a secure and grounded young woman by the series' end. It's encouraging to see Russell turn that squeaky clean image on its ear with FX's thrilling new series, The Americans.
Russell now portrays a sexy KGB sleeper agent named Elizabeth Jennings. Her shadowy masquerade as a dutiful housewife is set in Washington D.C. shortly after Ronald Reagan is elected. An arranged marriage to fellow agent Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and their two children is strained at best and her superiors are breathing down her neck to apprehend defectors and spy on White House officials. In addition to all that, Elizabeth is slowly healing from some mysterious wounds from her days as a young agent. (Each episode flashes back to the mid-'60s to show her training and awkward initial meetings with Phillip.) The plotting and character development may be too slow for some viewers' tastes, but every scene is exploited for lofty dramatic tension and nostalgic novelty by writer/creator Joe Weisberg (Falling Skies) in these first two episodes.
On a macroscopic level, The Americans' 1981 setting is absolutely nailed down; its costumers, set designers, and fact checkers should at least be nominated come awards season. On a smaller scale, the threads of the overall plot began to fray. New neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), is an FBI agent running the counterintelligence operation designed to catch illegal aliens like the Jennings pair, but during the first episode that mission is not wholly apparent. The vastly superior second episode ramps up the ecstasy of the overarching cat-and-mouse chase. The show's moral qualms and unsettling resolutions are a bit clunky at times, but some overly scripted material about what it means to be an American can be excused as ambitious misfires.
The genuine draws here are the performances from Russell and Rhys as they try to work within the suffocating constraints of a false marriage and nationality. Both are trained since youth to be perfect killers, seducers, and liars, yet some of the most intriguing moments don't stem from the well-choreographed fisticuffs or uncanny subterfuge. Their oftentimes comedic and ordinary interactions with their children and FBI agent neighbor work as well. The kids are oblivious, but probably not for too much longer.
The drama stems from the hushed doubts uttered by both leads while in the shadows of suburbia. After two decades of posing as an American, Philip is starting to find himself attracted by the Western world. Elizabeth doesn't exactly consent with her husband's reservations about the Motherland, but her years of performing as wife and mother are beginning to take their toll. The evolution (or devolution) of her character is what will draw most viewers back to FX's latest show.
It's encouraging to see a longstanding cable network like FX continue to diversify their brand with a show such as The Americans. Some viewers may see it as a somewhat clumsy cash-in for the popularity of other modern TV spy thrillers (Covert Affairs, Homeland), but The Americans possess the correct focus and long game to stand apart from its contemporaries. (www.fxnetworks.com/theamericans)
Author rating: 7.5/10
Average reader rating: 8/10