The Americans Series Premiere Review: Cold War Threat of a Nuclear Family

By Tim Surette

Jan 31, 2013

The Americans S01E01: "Pilot"

For your listening pleasure, Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" (click the middle of the black bar)


Before we, the grand old stars-and-stripes-waving America, started evaporating goat herders in the Middle East with the latest in drone technology or peering over our shoulderpads at the technological advances and manpower of the waking dragon that is China, we had another enemy. I'm talking, of course, about Nikolai Volkoff. Or at least what he represented in the '80s, anyway. Under the leadership of acting president and resident actor Ronald Reagan, America used to HATE Russia and Russia hated us right back. The Cold War was established and everyone's paranoid eye was on the sky in case Boris blasted a hail of nukes at us.

This is the backdrop of FX's new thrilling drama The Americans, but it's just window dressing for what the show is really selling, which is one fucked-up family. Though promos made sure we knew The Americans would follow two Russian spies posing as an American couple (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings) that does spy things behind enemy lines, it's the family politics that stand out over the White House/Kremlin ones.

The basics of The Americans are going to invite comparisons to Showtime's Homeland, which are both easy and appropriate to make. But The Americans is Homeland as told from Brody's point-of-view, where Jessica is also a spy instead of a stick in the mud. In tonight's pilot episode, we learned that Phillip and Elizabeth were married in a KGB office and then given one-way tickets to the U.S., where they would pose as suburban Americans and never talk about their prior lives. The less they knew about each other, the more convincing their cover would be. These rules are essential to understanding exactly how much The Americans has to offer, which is plenty. The Americans is a busy, dense piece of television that jumps from one aspect to another like Baryshnikov doing "Swan Lake (Skrillex remix)," and there's enough story to fill an entire network's worth of shows.

First there's The Americans: Wantin' to be 'Merican!, about a conflicted Russian spy named Phillip who questions whether America is such a bad place after all. He recites the Pledge of Allegiance accent-free, he likes that America has hockey, he even goes shopping for the most American of American footwear, the cowboy boot. Maybe he's reached a point of assimilation, but aside from producing a pedophile here and there, America didn't end up being the hell hole his bosses told him it would be. Phillip is also a family man who realizes his job puts his children in danger, and when a chance to defect with a three-million-dollar payday comes knocking, it sounds like a great idea.

Then there's The Americans: BJs for Gorbachev, about a heartless android disguised as a Russian spy disguised as an American woman named Elizabeth. She's so fiercely patriotic to Russia that she'll go two knuckles deep into horny American intelligence officers for a lead. Even as she lives two lives, it's duty first with her. Having fun while getting ice cream can wait.

Not to mention The Americans: I Now Pronounce You Husband and Spy, about a couple that routinely confuses marital bliss for patriotic duty and vice versa. Phillip's totally into the sham marriage, but Elizabeth sees it as a bit of a nuisance. Are they supposed to have sex like a regular couple? Should Phillip be jealous when he hears a tape recording of some mark having his wife for dinner? Should Elizabeth take a chance at an opportunity for a better life for her family, or has she given up on any semblance of a normal life? Can two people living a lie actually be in love?

And that's not all: Don't forget The Americans: Oh Yeah, We Have Kids Too, about a mother and father raising their kids in a web of lies. Or The Americans: My Nosy Neighbor Is Trying to Get Me Deported, about an FBI agent who lives across the street from spies. Or The Americans: Don't Forget We Also Do Spy Things because Phillip and Elizabeth will be getting orders from the KGB!

It's the collision of those first few shows that will keep viewers coming back, but it's the last show that brought them in, and they shouldn't be disappointed that it takes second place because it's a damn nice consolation prize. What makes the spy action work better than that of other spy shows is that it's set at just the perfect era. In the '80s, cell phones were the size of telephone books and going undercover meant throwing on a bad hairpiece and putting some silly putty on the bridge of your nose. Technology was secondary to cunning, smarts, and teamwork. There will be no hacking wi-fi-enabled pacemakers in The Americans, no waiting for files to decrypt or upload, no phone-cloning, no computer viruses, and no incriminating information or leads culled from fake social media sites. In other words, no unbelievable loopholes for the writers to sneak through. In the old days, spying was more intimate and dangerous, and that was evident during the pilot's awesome nine-minute intro scene to the tune of the extended dance remix of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk."

As far as the actual nuts and bolts of The Americans, it already has a veteran feel. Rhys is absolutely spectacular, letting us see the gears turning in his head while Phillip assesses situations. Russell makes us forget about NYU and boys as the icy Elizabeth (she kicked that dude's head through some drywall!), and Noah Emmerich is more than formidable as Stan Beamon. The direction and production is purposefully understated to harken back to the dark and gritty thrillers of the '80s, giving the series its own feel compared to the rest of TV. And don't get me started on the music! Fleetwood Mac and Phil Collins? Turn it up!

Like many of today's terrorist dramas, The Americans asks the audience to be wary of the threats that may be living right next door to them. But the show also asks the same of its characters, and on an even more invasive level: Be careful of not only of the threat that lives across the street, but also of the threat on the other side of the bed. If The Americans lives up to the potential displayed in its pilot and explores the right roads, it could be one of TV's best. An excellent start to the year's most intriguing new series.



NOTES

– Phillip and Elizabeth's character arcs within the episode were very telling. As soon as Phillip realized that Timinev had raped his wife, his dream of defecting ended and his nightmare full of windpipe-snapping began. DON'T MESS WITH HIS FAMILY! Elizabeth, however, went from sexually absent to bow-chicka-wow-wow after she and her husband dissolved a guy in acid. Is it the job that turns her on, or was it Phillip's defense of her honor when he killed Timinev? Maybe a bit of both? Fickle, that Elizabeth.

– The Americans also has the luxury of telling its story from the middle out. Not only will we follow Phillip and Elizabeth moving forward in time, but there's plenty of backstory to unfold, both in their pre-Jennings lives and their time as a young couple. I mean seriously, this show can go anywhere from here.

– BBQ poker to the balls. That's how they train people to fight in Russia? Not cool, Russia. Not cool.



Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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  • PhxDesertGal Jan 09, 2014

    How does anyone watch these shows on here? Everytime I click ANYWHERE I just get a page that is blank but hear audio with commercials. Nothing else. :(

  • 3Jane Nov 12, 2013

    I was on time for The Americans but late to TV.com, so I missed this review. It's a good one. The international politics do indeed take a back seat to the gender politics.

  • qpsmommo Feb 05, 2013

    Loved this pilot ...only things that bothered me ....FBI guy was so quick to have suspicions..and unless the garage was soundproofed...where the heck were the kids...mine wouldn't have slept through the head in a drywall scene!

  • ndrose Feb 05, 2013

    I couldn't past the ignorance in the first paragraph

  • esthermiller01 May 26, 2014

    Don't be too hard on them, for all we know that is what they are teaching in schools today, without bothering to ask the people that lived through it....

  • Edupinn Feb 03, 2013

    Great pilot! I'm always afraid of watching new shows because usually the ones I like end up being cancelled. The Americans was really interesting, the characters, the plot, sure I'll be watching the next episode! Let's hope it keeps the level =D

  • AnaPeradenic Feb 03, 2013

    since I wasn't expecting much the first episode blew me away!
    I mean, I felt for Felicity! c'mon! :) and she kicks ass! awesome!

    In The Air Tonight was a great soundtrack for their sex in the car, you could feel the struggle in both of them come to a halt when it's about their feelings for each other..
    I'm gonna keep watching for sure!

  • bleumystique Feb 03, 2013

    I LOVED this show!! I was really looking forward to it when I heard about it because, it had things I'm into...spies, the 80's, the return of Kerri Russell and her gorgeous hair. I was in. This pilot was spectacular, one of the strongest pilots I've seen in a while, because it didn't suffer from pilotitis. everything was paced well, they gave us just enough, I feel like I know the characters just enough to empathize with them (the enemy at that) but not too much where they aren't still enigmatic. Fantastic.
    -I really loved Elizabeth and Phillip and how they fall on opposite ends of the spectrum, and in a way unexpected for stereotypical of their gender especially during that time. Phillip is all hear and emotion. He no longer knows where the mission ends and his life begins. He got lost in the cover and is seemingly enjoying it. doesn't even know if he dislikes America like he's supposed to, he's the most Americanized and it shows. And him being family oriented is the icing on the cake. I love Phillip. I love Phillip to pieces because of how conflicted he is. It was almost easy to forget that he was in fact a spy...a trained spy, when he's smiling at his son and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and line dancing in cowboy boots at the mall, but the moment that pedophile entered the picture I was patiently waiting for Phillip to kick his ass, and boy he didn't disappoint. I have a character crush. Then you have Elizabeth who is all duty and allegiance to a country that she's been distant from for some time. That distance has made Phillip feel lost...Elizabeth on the other hand after 16 years has still managed to maintain that Russian stoicism and dedication without it ever wavering and i find that equally as fascinating. She doesn't seem into their lief, or their mission, and dare I say she doesn't even seem as into their kids. She wants to protect them with the slightest of maternal instincts but for the most part she's all duty and honor and country. Phillip seems closest and more protective of his kids and his family in general. I find the contrast between their characters very interesting and complementary. Not to mention neither of them feel "wrong" because they are both such sympathetic characters. Elizabeth's emotional detachment and coldness could be easily explained by her sexual abuse and you can't not understand her as a result.
    -I love in an hour and half how we seen so many stages of this marriage of theirs that is as fascinating as the characters themselves. Phillip seen it as a real marriage from the beginning and Elizabeth did in fact see it as a nuisance. Clearly they only had sex to have kids...but in watching this man who is her partner become so enraged at what happened to her years ago, that he gave up on his previous position of turning the general over and killed him with his bare hands, and proceed to dispose of the body with her...it was disturbing but also gripping, and kind of beautiful watching that shift in their relationship. clearly for the first time for both parties it actually looked like real love.
    -Did agents always come out so easily and say they were agents working with Counter-Intelligence and what not and talking about spies with people they barely knew? It seemed like someone running around and telling everyone they knew that they worked for the C.I.A something that you clearly shouldn't do. But okay. It definitely will be interesting watching him investigate them and them trying to stay under the radar. I too love that it's set in the 80's because it's good old fashion investigating and spy work minus the technology used as a crutch to explain away things, make them easier for the writers, and get from plot A to plot B.

  • DavidJackson8 Feb 02, 2013

    Considering this was the new show I was anticipating most, I wonder why it took me a few days to finally watch it.

    Anyway, this was a pretty great pilot. It had a nice balance of introducing the characters, showing some sexiness (which is seemingly required by cable dramas now), and laying the groundwork for the few main plots. I'm typically not a fan of period shows, but this may be the ONE that I'm really able to enjoy.

    The only downside of the show for me is that in quite a few scenes, Matthew Rhys reminded me of Zach Braff. I kept being taken out of the moment, wondering why the hell JD was a Russian spy.

  • vmarslover Feb 05, 2013

    i thought the exact same thing about Zach Braff/Matthew Rhys

  • emmairis Feb 01, 2013

    I wasn't this blown-away by a pilot since... Homeland's. I'm not comparing them, or maybe I am, but only quality-wise.

  • Sw33tEscape Feb 01, 2013

    "a heartless android disguised as a Russian spy disguised as an American woman named Elizabeth"
    - Kind of harsh here.

    It's a very common fact (they did a study and everything) that people are more loyal to a group when they have physically and mentally suffered to be in it. The reason makes a whole lot of sense too: if you went through hell to become a part of something and then just quite halfway through/turned traitor, then it's like your suffering was for nothing.

    It's obvious that Elizabeth has been through hell. Her literal blood, sweat, and tears were shed for her country in ways that Phillip's has not (e.g. the rape, the children she had for their cover, who knows that else), so it makes complete sense why she is more loyal to the mission no matter what. Otherwise it would be like everything she has been through was for nothing.

  • katikool Feb 01, 2013

    That's EXACTLY how I was understanding Elizabeth! Aside from the whole love-of-country thing (which Philip got over pretty quickly), she suffered through so much just to become a KGB spy that if she flips sides now all of that sh*t she went through was for nothing. So of course she's going to be more loyal than Phil who, as far as we know, didn't pay as dearly to become a KGB operative. She has more invested in this than he does.

    Also, how romantic was it when Phil killed his wife's rapist in front of her? Sooo romantic! I'm excited to see what they do for the Valentine's Day episode now.

  • AssandroJourn Feb 01, 2013

    may be her loyality makes more sense coz she's russian do you consider that? Why wouldn't she? Can't she be patriotic? Or homesick? It's not like in USSR men have been raping women all the time. It's her motherland first of all, not KGB.

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