FX is taking it back a few years (or decades) with their new series The Americans, a drama that follows two KGB spies posing as Americans in Washington DC. The pilot episode introduces us to Matthew Rhys and Keri Russells' characters, The Jennings, and over all, the drama gets off to an intriguing and exciting start, offering a glimpse of the potential this series has as we get to know two people working together at a very risky game of pretend.
Created by former CIA-officer-turned-writer Joe Weisberg, The Americans is set in the early 80s, not long after Ronald Reagan has taken office, as the Cold War is escalating. Keri Russell (Felicity) and Matthew Rhys (Brothers & Sisters) play Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two people who seem like your typical middle class married couple, with two kids, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) approaching their teen years. But in reality, Elizabeth and Philip are Russian spies working for the KGB and doing their best to keep their arranged marriage and true motives from everyone, including their own children, who have no idea who their parents really are.
The series premiere opens with Elizabeth seducing a man to get information from him, and going as far as she needs to go with the charade to get what she needs. This is followed by a chase involving Philip as he runs down a fellow spy who has defected. Keeping the guy tied up in their garage, Elizabeth and Philip go about their daily lives, trying to figure out how to deal with the situation. To add to their stress, their new neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich of The Truman Show and Super 8) just so happens to be an FBI agent, with a trained eye for things (and people) that are out of the ordinary. Beeman sniffing around adds a layer of tension to the already stressful situation as they try to figure out how to deal with the defected spy in their garage.
The thriller side adds to the suspense and momentum of the pilot, but where the series premiere really shines is in the relationship between Russell and Rhys' characters. Elizabeth and Philip may be partners in work and in marriage, but they don't completely see eye to eye in their priorities Between conversations at home and flashbacks of the start of their working/marital relationship, it becomes evident that Elizabeth is particularly focused on her work and her loyalty to her country, while Philip may put his family and his wife above both. That creates some conflict between the two characters, especially as it relates to the defector in the trunk in their garage, who says the FBI would give them a boatload of money to defect. Is going native an option for them? Would either consider it? The question is raised in the first episode. Business and personal are definitely mixed for these characters, which makes for some very interesting drama.
With the introduction out of the way and the character relationships established, the second episode gives us a better indication of the structure of the show, both at the Jennings house and with Beeman. I'll refrain from going into further specifics on that so as not to spoil the premiere. The 80s setting is used well, with a few references and songs worked in to remind us of the times, not to mention the cars, wardrobe and technology used. The setting is relevant to the story, so those things need to be there, but the series does well not to push the 80s in our faces any more than it needs to. It seems necessary to mention that, given how easily and often the 80s seem to be parodied in film and television.
Based on the first two episodes, The Americans has a lot of potential. What's more, it's nothing like anything else on FX right now, which makes it a perfect fit to fill the space left by American Horror Story - another unique drama for the cable channel. The series also appears to be a great opportunity for Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys to show off their range. Between their secret lives, their roles as spouses and parents and the conflict both are experiencing as they pretend to be Americans and do their duty to their own country, putting their lives and freedom in jeopardy in the process, there's opportunity for some amazing performances and the two actors don't disappoint in the first couple of episodes.
As for the story itself, I'm approaching the show a bit more cautiously, as I want to wait and see how well the series balances all of its elements as the first season progresses. There's the setting, the Jennings' home life, their missions, the KGB side of the story and the FBI side, all of which plays a part in the story and the Jennings' lives. That adds to the complexity of the plot, which should be a good thing if it's handled well, or the story could become hard to follow if it gets overly complicated. That's not a problem in the first two episodes, but it's a concern I have looking at the direction of the series. With that said, I definitely intend to keep watching and feel optimistic that time invested in the series will pay off as the story moves forward. The Americans is looking like a compelling new drama to join FX's line-up of original series.
The Americans premieres Wednesday, January 30 at 10:00 p.m. ET on FX.