For a child of the 80’s when the threat of nuclear war was still very real and it was a time of uncertainty for those who feared the USA and the USSR were destined to collide in a mushroom cloud of mutually assured destruction, even though it’s all over now; I had waited with bated breath for the premiere of FX’s The Americans to get a gritty look at Russian sleeper agents who were in our country at the height of the Cold War. With creator and former government spook Joseph Weisberg of Damages and Falling Skies at the helm I was ready for some serious drama and espionage of the highest order from a man who used to live in a very grey world of shadows. The show wastes no time by opening with a foot chase in 1981 Washington, D.C. where you think that you are watching U.S. Federal Agents take down a Russian defector. It is a tight scene nailing everything that makes good TV become water cooler fodder the next day. The scene is orchestrated perfectly and I was all-in from that point on because all I wanted to know was “Who’s Who?”
Girl next door Keri Russell showed that she had the chops for action in 2006’s M:I 3 and she is perfectly cast as KGB sleeper agent Elizabeth Jennings. Whatever Russell is drinking, we can all use some because she has not aged a day. When I saw that she was the mother of two on the show, all I saw was the fresh faced college frosh on Felicity. In The Americans she is married to Phillip Jennings, played with subtle guile by Matthew Rhys of Brothers & Sisters. They are both highly trained secret agents for the other side, but are living the American Dream with a house in the burbs and the two kids to boot. What is wonderful is that the way they speak to each other in private is as cold-blooded politicos waiting to be activated by the Motherland. However when they are around the kids, they are a regular June and Ward Cleaver, American as apple pie.
The recent inauguration of President Ronald Reagan has all the three letter agencies nervous, specifically the FBI. With the new President’s agenda of Russia as enemy Number One, the young couple is becoming increasingly paranoid that they will be exposed for who they really are. Serendipitously the Jennings get a new neighbor that just happens to be an FBI agent, and his family, played by the underrated character actor Noah Emmerich from The Truman Show. Yes it is a little convenient that FBI agent Stan just happens to move in across the street, but I’m willing to check my reality radar at the door for now. Right away there is an unspoken tension between the cagey FBI vet who just seems suspicious of the Jennings’ perfect, cookie-cutter life. After three years undercover with a hate group he is anxious to sink his teeth into some real patriotic causes with the Feds.
Normally I am not a fan of shows that jump around for the sole purpose of backstory but they make it work in this extended pilot episode. There are some great scenes of Elizabeth and Phillip’s early years in Mother Russia where they are apparently enthusiastically recruited into “the program.” Whether they are happy about it does not really matter, they are committed to the cause. Although “married” in Russia in a faux American home it is really the equivalent of an arranged marriage. At Phillip’s first sexual advance towards Elizabeth she is reticent, telling him she is not ready. It is a strange line they have to walk; they don’t just have to be spies they have to be actors. Great actors.
When we return to the present it is clear that although both are highly skilled and trained with crazy Ninja skills on top of their “spy-ness,” they are not a happy couple. Phillip obviously longs for Elizabeth and after a very close call with the defector from the opening and their new Federal neighbor, he is ready to call the spy game quits. But Elizabeth is brutally honest in their exchange and betraying the Motherland is not even up for discussion at this point. There are some subplots with the kids but it is early yet and we do not know if the kids are adopted. We do know that these kids have no idea what their parents do. They couldn’t find Russia on a map let alone think that their parents are Russian spies. The whole thing reminds me of that River Phoenix and Sidney Poitier flick Little Nikita.
What I liked so much about the show is that these characters are now people who speak English better than Russian. They have become as wholesome as Vitamin D milk and the Cold War is a house of cards on a sheet of paper. If you pull that paper out too slow, the house collapses. You can see that the struggle of almost two decades of drive-thru fast food and frozen dinners is far more appealing than returning to a country they barely know anymore. It is an odd setup to see a man in love with his wife, who is not really his wife, and whose loyalties above all else are to her country and the KGB. It is nice to see Russell playing against type as a real hard-ass spy. She reaches new heights as an actress and this is from someone who thought she was destined for a lifetime of rom-com’s. Rhys also sheds his Welsh roots and acts like Joe Six-Pack talking cars, going for morning jogs and taking his kids for ice cream. One nice, big, deadly Communist family.
The production design team really nailed that early 80’s Levi’s look where the 70’s were still in the air and the world was adjusting to big changes like Cable TV. The bulky cars of an era where bigger meant better and kids still played outside after school is re-enacted out with a great deal of thought. And I was shocked and wowed at how cool the action scenes were; right out of a Bourne movie. Impressive to say the least for a pilot. Set your DVR’s Den of Geekers, The Americans is one to watch.