FX’s “The Americans” has the potential to be the best new show of 2013. Yes, it’s only January and probably too early to name the best new television of the year, but “The Americans” is brimming with so much potential in its first two episodes that it’s impossible to not get excited about this series.
Created by former C.I.A officer turned television writer Joe Weisberg, at its core “The Americans” is about two KGB spies pretending to be husband and wife — Keri Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings and Matthew Rhys’ Phillip Jennings — living the “American Dream” in the 1980s. Elizabeth and Phillip are trying to avoid getting caught while extracting secrets from the highest levels of the U.S. government during the Cold War. The U.S. government has learned there are KGB spies living in the States and is taking every measure to find them. (It’s a bit of a contrivance that an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) coincidently moves in next door to the Jennings, but Emmerich is a good character actor and his interaction with Elizabeth and mainly Phillip works well.)
This setup is enough to create a taut story and some great action, but “The Americans” goes a step further by setting up some powerful character dynamics between its leads. The marriage between Elizabeth and Phillip is essentially a Cold War of its own. Neither wants mutually assured destruction, but they clearly don’t see eye-to-eye. These two did not fall in love before becoming spies. They were forced together because of their top-notch skills, similar age and good looks. Both have a past from before their marriage that factor heavily in their current relationship. (These are presented through flashbacks, and “The Americans” uses the sequences as well as “Lost” did.) Making matters even more difficult is they have two kids.
Both Elizabeth and Phillip are dedicated to Mother Russia and their duties as spies, but Phillip is beginning to have doubts as the Cold War heats up with President Reagan taking more aggressive tactics. In the pilot, he begins to contemplate the future of his family — whom he clearly loves — if he and Elizabeth are captured by the U.S. government. After living undercover for 16 years, Phillip has become accustomed to his American lifestyle with two kids and beautiful wife. It may be too much to lose for a country he hasn’t live in for a long time.
Elizabeth on the other hand is a hard-liner whose dedication to her country and duty is unwavering. She also loves her kids, but the KGB comes first. And while Phillip has grown a strong affection for Elizabeth over the time they’ve spent together, she doesn’t share the same feelings. It’s a captivating construction and presents a fascinating look at how our loyalties could be created more by circumstance than ethos.
Russell and Rhys strengthen their well-written characters with top-notch performances. Russell nails the icy, hard-as-nails KGB agent in the pilot. The second episode has a plot that lets Rhys display a number of skills — from cold-blooded mofo to conflicted soul — and he could become a breakout star in this role. They also excel when they are called upon for the traditional action sequences. Russell has a hand-to-hand battle in the pilot that will make you say, “Wow, Felicity can kick some ass.”
While the construction of “The Americans” as a premise and its execution are excellent, the aesthetic created within the series is also impressive. The wardrobes, Elizabeth’s high-waist pants, Phillip’s hairstyle, and the sets admirably reconstruct life in the ’80s without going over the top. As someone who grew up in the era, it was a lot of fun having old memories come rushing back whenever I recognized a piece of technology, automobile, piece of clothing or experience from my past.
My favorite aspect of “The Americans” recapturing the ’80s is the homages. Seeing the old-school speedometer on a land-boat rev-up is reminiscent of “Goodfellas.” Phillip dancing to Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” in cowboy boots is a cheeky jab at “Urban Cowboy.” There’s a sequence toward the end of “The Americans” pilot set to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” that’s clearly a reference to “Miami Vice’s” seminal use of the song in its pilot.
Obviously, “The Americans” will inevitably draw comparisons to “Homeland” because both shows have a lot in common. Both series are thrillers set in the intelligence community. “The Americans” is carried by a flawed heroine and “Homeland” is built on the bi-polar Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). Elizabeth’s complicated relationship with her husband/fellow KGB agent is also similar to Carrie’s thorny affair with potential terrorist/war hero Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis).
While “The Americans” and “Homeland” have similarities, these are wholly different shows. First and foremost, I’m more excited for the upcoming freshman season of “The Americans” than I ever was for “Homeland.” I had skepticism throughout the first season of “Homeland,” worrying that the whole narrative would fall apart because that season relied so heavily on mystery and confusion. The finale quelled my hesitation about “Homeland” by being a well-written endgame built more on character than plot machinations. It was time to crown another great drama to the television landscape.
Unfortunately, the doubts I had about the Showtime show’s risk-taking narrative involving crazy twists came to a head in Season 2. That season started strong, only to require too much suspension of disbelief in the conclusion. It may have irreparably damaged my opinion of the show.
I have no hesitations about going all-in with “The Americans” because it’s taking a different approach with its narrative, while still carrying some powerful tension like “Homeland.” “The Americans” isn’t going for the “oh s---” moments that “Homeland” relies so heavily on. This is a series more grounded in its characters than its plot. Still, the first two episodes setup what should be a compelling narrative, and with an entire Cold War to explore, “The Americans” won’t be lacking material for strong storylines in the future.
10 p.m. Wednesdays on FX