The Americans 10:00pm Eastern Time, FX
It takes a lot these days to truly blow me away from a pilot. I’m typically the sort of person who believes that the first episode displays what a given show can become, but often is not executed to a degree where that promise is actualized. However, the first episode of The Americans last night managed to completely blow me away.
The show loosely follows both the un-american activities and family life of two sleeper agents in America: Elizabeth (Kerri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys). Their “jobs” are a sham, their marriage was dictated by their Soviet overlords, and they exist to handle missions for the KGB while living comfortably in suburban Virginia. However, they must balance this while entirely withholding the truth from their neighbors, including a recently relocated FBI agent named Stan Beemer (played by Noah Emmerich) and even their own children.
What I truly enjoy about this show is that it reminds me a lot of Mad Men in that it’s a fairly subtle period piece that truly enjoys exploring the notion of identity. This tension is particularly palpable in the scenes where Philip and Elizabeth are discussing what to do with General Timoshev, a Russian defector whom they kidnapped from his apartment in Washington. Elizabeth remains steadfast in her resolve to serve the motherland, but also would like to off him because of some improprieties he took with her back in training, while Peter seriously considers his offer of defecting under the guise that they have been living this “American” life for half of their lives and that with young children they should consider taking the money and living a more stable life.
Another small positive for the Americans was the amount of detail they put into making the show look and feel like the early 1980’s, whether it be the cheesy wigs used for spycraft (that gave me flashbacks to the music video for “Sabotage”), the use of music (the show makes incredible use of both Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”), down to even the automobiles (my dad owned a boxy ’77 Cutless Supreme when I was a kid that looked not too far off from the sedan that proves to play a fairly central role in the plot).
The show, while positioned as a serious drama also likes to inject little funny moments into the show to break the tension, be it a seemingly pasted on scene (last night’s showing was an extended version of the pilot) where Philip just starts randomly dancing in the mall, while taking his daughter shopping, or the way that the FBI claims that President Reagan is trying to break them down with 7am meetings.
Where there was action in the pilot (most notably the first ten minutes, where Philip, Elizabeth, and one of their comrades kidnap General Timoshev) the action was tight, well executed and tense, especially once you come to the realization (and it took me a couple of minutes to get to this point) that these are not immigration officers checking on a random Russian, but rather the wholesale kidnapping of a Russian ex-pat.
One aspect that initially grated on me until it clicked, was that most of the action was shot in the dark (to the point where it was almost difficult to see). However, once I came to the (delayed) realization that the entirety of the spy aspects of the show occurred at night and most of the family drama during the day, it made it slightly easier for me to take. The other minor issue I had with the pilot was that it felt bloated at points (as much as I loved the scene where Philip maims the sleazebag who was making moves on his thirteen year old daughter, it felt pasted on and I can’t imagine that the scene made the 44-minute cut)
The Final Verdict: The Americans is a gripping thrill-ride of a show that grabs on to your attention and never lets go. While this version of the pilot felt a little bloated at points (it ran 90 minutes instead of the usual 60), it had the vibe of both a blockbuster action thriller and a subtle period piece all rolled up into one. This show is easily finding it’s way into my regular viewing, and it should really make it’s way into yours. Give it a shot, you won’t be disappointed.