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Let's lay it out there quick--The Americans is not a Mad Men-style period piece, all slow burn and tense looks amidst a house-of-cards false identity plot and precise attention to detail. It's also not Homeland, which is full of intelligence/counterintelligence maneuvering wrapped around a subtle romance. This new spy drama has drawn comparisons to both those programs, and it's like comparing apples to kumquats; The Americans, in its premiere this week, has all the subtlety of a brick to the face, but it's still an engaging, high-stakes story with likable characters and a well-thought-out series of plot points that makes you want to know what happens next.
A premiere has a lot of ground to cover, and this one succeeds admirably; we're introduced to the cold war spy elements quickly, as Phillip and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) acquire information on a KGB defector (via sex, on her part) and then kidnap the target (after a brief knife fight), throwing him in the trunk of their car--but they miss the drop-off of their man due to dumping a stabbed comrade in the hospital, which leaves them with an angry KGB guy in their trunk. And here's where we get the other side of the story--they're living idyllic suburban lives in Northern Virginia, with two kids, doing the bidding of the KGB.
Both Russell and Rhys get to flex a lot of acting muscle here; they've come a long way from Felicity and Brothers & Sisters. I think the most interesting thing about the relationship set up between the two here is that she's the good soldier and he is desperate to fully acclimate to American culture and perhaps defect. He even says as much to her; they can return their captive to the government, change sides, collect a tidy sum of money, and disappear into Americana. There's a brilliant scene where Phillip takes his daughter shopping at a mall and tries on a pair of cowboy boots; in one action, we see him embarrass his thirteen-year-old kid, display how deep the "dorky dad" persona he's developed really goes, and watch him pine for a specific part of American culture. The internal conflict here is going to be between his desire to actually become the lie they're living and her drive to remain true to their mission. A lot can be done with this, and I hope the show lasts long enough to really set up a house of cards that can come tumbling down in interesting, destructive ways.
The best moments of this episode, funnily enough, are paced around great period songs; the opening chase scene is built around Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk," and Phillip and Elizabeth have a post-killing confrontation and sex scene to Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." Maybe, in print, those both sound a little cheesy, but they set the tone nicely; this isn't quite the "high art" show you'd find on AMC or Showtime or HBO; there's still a little bit of potboiler, Clive Cussler-style spy drama here, and it was a fun reminder of that. Plus, both scenes unfolded naturally and revealed a lot about the characters.
And here's where we get to the problems with the show so far: Their captor is revealed to have been Elizabeth's trainer prior to his defection, and bested her in a combat exercise when she was in her teens--which led to him raping her. Right off the bat, there's questions of sexual abuse and dominance and how this influences both her actions and her relationship with Phillip. This worries me; it comes across as a cheap move. I'd always prefer to see a strong female character who doesn't have sexual abuse in her past as part of the chip on her shoulder. When Phillip discovers this, he's the one to kill the guy, in a "defending her honor" move; their relationship is rocky at best (she seems tense with him throughout the episode and brandishes a knife at one point), but this action leads to her a) letting down her guard for him, b) having sex in their car, and c) defending him to their superiors, despite the security risk it presents. I wish the writers had made a different choice here.
Second is Noah Emmerich's "FBI agent next door," who initially presents as a new and friendly neighbor and coincidental complication to our heroes' lives. At the end of the episode, he's seen snooping around their garage, looking for signs of a hidden man in their trunk. He comes up empty handed, and we see him leave, with Phillip watching him, gun drawn. While it sets up a nice bit of continual drama, I wish they'd left this on slow burn instead of cramming it into the pilot. Does he know? Is he here for them? I like having these questions; I just wish we'd spent more time getting to know our leads in a manner other than sexual politics and violence.
All in all, I'm looking forward to next week; there's plenty of juicy drama and relationship potential here. Plus, I have to give it up for any show that gives us a knife fight to "Tusk" in the first five minutes.