Thu
Mar 14 2013 9:30am

The Americans: The New Cool Kid on the Block

It’s not often that a brand new TV show is renewed only four shows into its first season, but that has just happened to the new FX spy thriller, The Americans, and I can understand why. This is the freshest show I have seen in a long time.

The premise is complicated. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell star as Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, KGB sleeper spies who live in suburban Washington, D.C., during the Reagan era. They own and run a travel agency and raise an ordinary family to complete their cover (shades of Alias). 

Things become complicated when Phillip and Elizabeth start to value their family more than their missions. Then an FBI agent who is more interested in other people’s families than his own moves in next door. And despite her grandmotherly tone and appearance, the KGB handler assigned to Phillip and Elizabeth makes it clear that she considers them to be expendable in the name of a mission. Any mission.

The Americans reminds me of The Sopranos in that I find myself alternately rooting for and worrying about characters that I shouldn’t. Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings are both cold-blooded killers who are actively working against the interests of the United States. They do really, really bad things—commit murder, torture people, hold hostages—and then go home to their kids and make dinner, practice playing hockey, and eat ice cream. Elizabeth gets upset because their 13-year-old daughter went to the mall and bought a red bra.  

Their marital problems include grappling with the fact they both routinely have sex with other people in the name of the job, have differing levels of commitment to their missions and the KGB, and that they came to their marriage purposely without sharing any details of their pre-KGB life with one another. It’s a surreal existence.

Throughout each episode I’m thinking I really don’t want Elizabeth and Phillip to get caught. What will happen to their kids if they do? And if they quit, the KGB will go after them. It’s truly a no win situation. This dichotomy is one of the things that makes The Americans so interesting.

Another is the dynamics at the FBI counterintelligence group newly created to fight foreign agents on U.S. soil. These FBI agents include Stan Beeman, played by Noah Emmerich, who moves in next door to Phillip and Elizabeth; and Agent Gaad, played by Richard Thomas (a long way from John-Boy Walton) They seem competent enough, but they are not super sympathetic. At least not yet. They just seem like a bunch of guys doing their jobs. I have yet to see one-tenth of the passion and commitment that Elizabeth Jennings shows for her cause. Perhaps this can be developed in future episodes.

Written by an ex-CIA agent, Joe Weisberg, who wrote the novels, 10th Grade and An Ordinary Spy, the plots are not the rehashed Cold War elements we’ve seen again and again. Part of that is the period in which the series is set—right after Ronald Reagan’s election, toward the end of the Cold War. But part of it is the verisimilitude that the writing team brings to the scripts.

I have enjoyed each episode so far and truly don’t know what will come next. It’s a great show and I hope it stays great for a long, long time.

The Americans airs Wednesday nights on FX. You can catch up on all the episodes to date for free at the FX website.

Have you watched The Americans? What do you think?


Deborah Lacy likes speakeasies, yellow heirloom tomatoes, and crime fiction. She blogs at Mystery Playground. You can find her on Twitter @quippy.

Read all posts by Deborah Lacy for Criminal Element.

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8 comments
Heather Waters (redline_)
1. redline_
This show is my new favorite. REALLY compelling, as you say. Like you said, you worry about these two people even as they're working against your country (though I root for Stan too, and the FBI...just not when it's them vs. the Jenningses...it gets confusing!).

But anyway, yeah, I'm fascinated by this show and am so glad to see others feel the same--great post. We've cross-posted it at HeroesandHeartbreakers.com.
Deborah Lacy
2. DeborahLacy
@redline_ - The writing on this show is just fabulous. The new handler is truly evil in so many ways.

I want to start rooting for Stan. I really do. Maybe I will start soon.

Thank you for your comment and for cross posting it on HeroesandHeartbreakers.com.
Lance Charnes
3. LanceC
I've been watching and like what I've seen so far. It's nice to see a depiction of old-school spycraft on a prime-time show.

One thing I'm waiting for is a stronger presence for '80s pop culture. Other than the gawdawful American sedans, the occasion Reagan photo and the even more occasional period music track, I don't see or hear a lot of obvious 1980s references or style cues.

For instance, I'd love to see how Our Heroes react to an episode of Dallas (one of the highest-rated TV shows in 1981) or Dynasty (premiered in January 1981). Where's the theatre arcade featuring Fort Apache, the Bronx or Eyewitness? Have we seen a street kid with a huge boom box on his shoulder? Shouldn't we be hearing more country & western music, since the Urban Cowboy fad was still in full cry and it was popular among the Reaganistas? (Props to Philip for buying cowboy boots, and to Stan's wife for mentioning line dancing, but still.)

Also, the producers haven't yet embraced early 1980s fashion. Except for the occasional nasty print, Elizabeth's clothes wouldn't look too out of place in a modern-day suburban mall. Where are the women wearing boxy suits with big bows and shoulder pads? Where's the big hair? The glitzy Dallas-inspired evening wear? At least the wigs Philip and Elizabeth wear are suitably icky for the period.

The Americans doesn't need to be as period-obsessive as, say, Mad Men. But I'd still like to see a show set in the 1980s look like the 1980s.
Deborah Lacy
4. DeborahLacy
@lanceC - I agree that more 80s pop cluture references and some wardrobe would add to the show if it were done correctly. I think they do have to be careful because it could get comical or costumey. I am so happy with this show so far, that I think 80s done right would be gravy. 80s done wrong could tank it.
Donna Dale
5. awoaca
The chemistry between Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys is remarkable, and makes the show so watchable. After the first episode on the FX website, I subscribed to the season on Amazon. The downplayed cultural references enhance the contemporary urgence of the ambience, and the universal nature of the themes.
Deborah Lacy
6. DeborahLacy
@Awoaca - That's an interesting point. Thank you for your comment.
Terrie Farley Moran
7. Terrie
Suspense everywhere--between Philip and Elizabeth, between the spies and their handlers, between the FBI agents and their bosses, and lately big romantic suspense conection between Stan and his "mole." I wouldn't miss an episode.
Karen Terry
8. bblol65
That is one of the better shows on tv. I watch every wednesday. You don't want to like Philip and Elizabeth, but can't help but like them. Elizabeth can be cold, but was trying to warm up until an incident that happened this wednesday changed all that. I really like this show and I hope it stays on for a long time.
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