If Showtime's Homeland had been made 30 years ago, chances are it would resemble FX's The Americans. This new spy drama also leans on the recent US cable trend for anti-heroes (Dexter, Breaking Bad), asking us to invest sympathy in the double lives of Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings—an apparently normal couple with two kids, who are actually KGB sleeper agents tasked to help defeat the United States from within. The Jenning's own children aren't aware of their parent's true identity, and behind closed doors Phillip and Elizabeth's marriage isn't even real—although Phillip would like it to be, given half the chance. It's a fascinating set-up for a drama, imbued with period details from 1981 (soon after Ronald Reagan became President and rolled up his sleeves over Cold War issues), but does The Americans have what it takes to become a long-running hit?
The unnecessarily protracted pilot certainly gets more right than wrong, and it helps that creator Joe Weisberg (Falling Skies) is a former CIA officer and author of the 2008 espionage novel An Ordinary Spy. I'm also willing to bet Weisberg has Russian ancestry given his surname, so it just feels perfect that he's bringing this story to TV. He's helped enormously by two excellent performances from Russell and Rhys as the couple at the centre of this unusual suburban drama; with the latter proving particularly memorable and intriguing in the opening episode.
Maybe that's because Phillip's character is the one closest to abandoning their mission and defecting to the US for a $3 million reward that will provide for their family; whereas Elizabeth's a far tougher patriot who keep her hatred of Uncle Sam burning brightly away from prying eyes. I loved the scene where Phillip listened to a tape recording his phony wife made, featuring her having sex with a man she was manipulating for information.
The pilot certainly got down to business quickly, although its 68-minute runtime (without adverts) meant there were period of time when the pace slackened considerably. The episode also seemed to end in a very satisfying place, only to continue for an extra 20 minutes. Still, one concern I had about this show was whether or not the daily lives of two enemy agents pretending to be Americans would be exciting and dramatic enough, but the pilot provided strong evidence it will be.
I'm not sure how realistic the portrayal is of Soviet sleeper agents, but clearly a television show is going to make them very proactive in their desire to destroy the country they've adopted in a lie. Here they had to cope with juggling family life, while wrestling with what to do about a compatriot and would-be defector they're keeping in the trunk of their '77 Oldsmobile. On top of that, they just happen to be living across the street from FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich)—inviting some comparisons to the excellent Arlington Road, albeit told from the enemy's perspective. It's a big coincidence you have to swallow, but I liked how the story dived into the idea that Beeman's already suspicious of the Jennings.
The Americans pilot wasn't as fantastic as I was hoping for, but there's huge potential and it's already scoring highly in terms of conceptual strength and core performances. The retro music's also pretty cool, with an especially brilliant use of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" bookending the narrative. The Cold War setting is also fun and never overbearing in its '80s-ness, but naturally lacks the added sense of topicality Homeland enjoys as a present-day terrorist drama. But while we certainly know where the bigger picture's headed between the USA and USSR, I'm interested in seeing how villainous the Jennings are allowed to become while undercover, and if their bogus marriage grows into something genuinely touching. Maybe their ideology's also going to change and cause conflict with their Soviet superiors, which should play out very dramatically in seasons to come—if the show rates well enough to get us there. A remarkable 3.22 million people tuned into this premiere, so The Americans is certainly off to a promising start.
written by Joe Weisberg / directed by Gavin O'Connor / 30 January 2013 / FX