Preview: 'Americans' takes on big themes via spy's eyes
Posted January 29, 2013
How well do you really know your neighbors on your seemingly safe suburban street?
That question, posed in one form or another, has provided the creative spark for many a great story, from the iconic horror of The Stepford Wives to the comic-tinged mystery behind the first and best season of Desperate Housewives. And now, FX gives this most quintessentially American of themes an Un-American Activities twist in one of the best new shows of a largely uninspired midseason: The Americans (* * * out of four, FX, Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT)
The twist? The heroes in this '80s-set drama are Soviet spies - a marriage-of-espionage-convenience couple played by Brothers and Sisters' star Matthew Rhys and Felicity's Keri Russell. As you may remember, when J.J. Abrams created Alias as a follow-up to Felicity, it was dubbed "Felicity the Spy,'' so you can think of Russell's transformation here as completing the cultural circle.
However you think of it, the show represents a sizable risk. The characters, of course, risk exposure and capture, which would ruin their lives and that of their unsuspecting, very American children. For the show, the risk is even more obvious: You're asking an American audience to side with Soviet spies who are not above murdering Americans for the Motherland.
It's a fascinating concept, enriched by some of the season's more interesting themes, not the least of which is the show's exploration of what constitutes a "real" marriage. In the two episodes made available for preview, unfortunately, the show is tackling tougher issues than it is initially equipped to handle. But those issues are intriguing enough, and the show and its two appealing stars strong enough, to make The Americans worth watching in hopes it will find its footing.
Created by Joe Weisberg, joined by Justified's Graham Yost as a co-producer, Americans casts Rhys and Russell as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, known to their children and neighbors as suburban D.C. travel agents. In truth, they work for the KGB, who gave them fake identities, sent them to America in the early '60s, and encouraged them to complete the family picture by having children: a 13-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son.
For nearly two decades, their spy work has been relatively undemanding. But Reagan has put the fear of extinction into the Soviet Union and more demands are being placed on them, demands that threaten to open a rift between the more Americanized Philip and a still-loyal Elizabeth. To make matters worse, an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) tasked with ferreting out sleeper cells has just moved in next door.
And so begins a tense game of spy vs. spy: capturing a turncoat, planting bugs, drugging civilians, all set to '80s music and played with often amusingly clunky '80s technology. But this is not a comedy; the threat is real, as is their willingness to do whatever it takes, no matter how unsympathetic, to complete their mission.
Yet even if you are sympathetic, the show has problems that go beyond its use of sex as a way to stamp the project as "cable approved." Emmerich's agent is too convenient and too suspicious to be believed, and his KGB counterparts are a bit dull, though the upcoming addition of Justified's Emmy winner Margo Martindale as Phillip and Elizabeth's new handler promises to alleviate that problem.
Worse, while Rhys and Russell carry the domestic side of the story beautifully (with Russell having a particularly nice moment next week with the daughter), they're not, as yet, completely convincing as spies. In their defense, they're hurt in the premiere by a clumsy set of flashbacks that make you think the Soviets must have perfected an anti-aging drug that has now been lost.
If that really was the cost of all that spying, Americans will be enraged.
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