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?