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

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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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