The Americans debuts tonight on FX at 10 p.m. Eastern, with a 90-minute long first episode.
Todd: What makes The Americans work so very well—and it’s the best drama pilot of this TV season—is the fact that’s it’s at once a very good spy series and a very good series about a marriage, and the two things somehow bounce off of each other in a way that makes the series much more than just a sum of its parts. Somewhere in the development of this series, creator Joe Weisberg must have realized that the questions that drive spycraft—can I trust this person? What’s the worst-case scenario in this situation? Is this someone I can effectively bluff?—are the questions at the heart of every marriage. Or, put another way, the central question of the pilot is whether the couple at the show’s center is really in love or simply sticking together out of convenience (in this case because their Soviet overlords wish for them to infiltrate the American suburbs). Every long-running relationship runs into that quandary more than once; The Americans just adds the occasional fistfight.
The pilot begins with what might be among the 10 best minutes of TV viewers will see all year. A woman—instantly recognizable as Keri Russell, even with a bad blonde wig—seduces a man who’s very close to the newly installed Ronald Reagan administration. To the strains of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” (a song this teaser deconstructs and rebuilds seemingly dozens of times), the audience is propelled three days later, when Russell’s character is infiltrating someone’s apartment, while two other men watch for another man—presumably the apartment’s occupant—on the street. Things fall apart, as would be expected in this sort of show, but what’s thrilling is how Weisberg and pilot director Gavin O’Connor simply trust the audience to keep up, to gradually understand that these people aren’t “the good guys” of the Cold War, as most Americans would understand those good guys to be. Information is filled in. The story comes together in bits and pieces. And all along, the propulsion builds.
Nothing in the pilot quite matches those opening 10 minutes—and there are occasional rough spots, where the show works a little too hard to fill viewers in on what’s happening or introduces an emotional conflict seemingly out of nowhere (or includes a bizarre dancing interlude)—but The Americans projects a kind of quiet confidence all the same. Russell is playing Elizabeth Jennings, a Virginia housewife who’s actually a Soviet spy, ruthlessly dedicated to the cause of the motherland, even though she’s lived in the United States for 15 years now. Her husband, Phillip, is played by Matthew Rhys, and the pilot immediately flips the script on what you’d expect from these characters. Elizabeth is the one intensely devoted to the cause. Phillip is the one who’s having thoughts of defection, of interest in the comforts of the American life. Naturally, because this is a television show, the show also spends time with an FBI counter-intelligence agent played by Noah Emmerich (turning in another great performance in a career full of them), whose most important goal is to flush out spies like the Jennings. And off of that template, the show is built.
The Americans has a lot of scenes that would normally be annoying, like the standard scene where somebody who shouldn’t see something almost does, until the protagonist hides it from them in the nick of time, or the scene where the characters explain their points-of-view to each other, even though they’d both likely know much of this already. Yet I was never once annoyed by the pilot, where I might have expected to be by other shows. Much of that stems from the aforementioned confidence, but just as much stems from the way that the show intelligently grounds almost all of its larger conflicts and spy stories in smaller, more emotional stories of a domestic life—complete with children—that’s slowly turned sour (if it was ever sweet to begin with). Phillip and Elizabeth love each other, somewhere underneath all the other emotions, but that’s not the primary feeling either has for the other at this point in their relationship.
The moment that crystallizes all of this comes late in the episode, when Phillip finds out that someone did something very bad to his wife in her past. Throughout, the pilot has been playing the couple as though it’s on the verge of a break-up or a breakdown, but Weisberg and O’Connor do something very smart in this moment. Even though she and he have been at odds throughout the episode, even though the two of them have seemed an ill-matched pair, Phillip makes clear just whose side he’s on to his wife’s former tormenter. It’s a powerful moment, both thanks to Rhys’ unsettling performance and the way the sequence grounds the show in an essential truth of any marriage: The person you hate most may be your spouse, but damned if you’re going to let anybody else fuck with them.
I found the connection between spycraft and marriage tales very neat, Genevieve, but I could also see where somebody would find it too tidy. What did you think of that, and what do you think of the show’s spy stories, which do very little hand-holding? And while we’re at it, Russell in mom jeans: Yea or nay?
Genevieve: Surprisingly, I vote yea on the mom jeans, mainly because they’re representative of one of my favorite aspects of The Americans, which is its early-’80s setting. That’s not an era we see a lot of in period dramas, and it’s executed faithfully here, from the clothing to the cars to, especially, the music, which is great in the pilot. In addition to the aforementioned “Tusk,” there’s a very memorable sequence toward the end that’s set to the strains of “In The Air Tonight,” a choice that would seem incredibly on the nose if it didn’t work so damn well.
But back to that opening 10 minutes. I’m in agreement with you, Todd, that The Americans is an excellent drama pilot, one of the most enticing I’ve seen in a while, but man, I am not a fan of how Russell’s character is introduced as a be-wigged seductress. Without getting too far into specifics, there’s just something so very “Look at me, I’m an edgy cable drama!” about her first couple of scenes. While they work well enough in regards to the character and her emotional conflicts—the spy vs. mom stuff, plus the very bad thing in her past you mentioned—that doesn’t become fully apparent until later. As the overture to this series, though, it feels a little overdone, bordering on cheesy, and, for me, anyway, sets a bit of a hurdle the show has to overcome. Which it does almost immediately, thanks mainly to Russell, who redeems the encounter with a simple look by herself in the car afterwards, and by the time the show goes back to the titillation well in the aforementioned “In The Air Tonight” sequence—hey, this is FX, it’s gonna happen—it’s earned it and then some. (In fact, it’s such a fraught scene that calling it “titillating” is a bit of a stretch. But it kinda is.)
That scene, between Russell and Rhys, is when The Americans pilot really gelled for me, mainly because it illustrates how complicated the series’ central relationship is. These two have been playing husband and wife for close to half their lives at this point; their fake lives are their lives, and the way the boundaries between what’s real and what’s a put-on blur and shift in concert with their spy-world derring-do is very interesting. I suspect it will become even more so as their two kids, played very capably by Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati, become more pronounced entities. We see a hint of that in this episode, where Rhys struggles to maintain his suburban-dad façade in the face of a threat to his daughter; his frustration at not being able to unleash his inner badass is palpable, and while the resolution is pretty predictable—and slightly reminiscent of the Breaking Bad pilot—it’s also pretty satisfying. And badass, for that matter. Like you, I don’t think the parallels between the Jennings’ home and spy lives are too neat—yet—but it’s easy to see how it could go that way as the Cold War tensions continue to escalate.
I’ll be interested to see how serialized the actual spy exploits become as the series progresses; it seems like a modern spy drama would almost have to be heavily serialized—thanks in part to the specter of Homeland that looms over The Americans—but the Jennings’ first mission is all but wrapped up by the end of the pilot, and the second episode’s main spy-related narrative is also mostly contained. The bigger ongoing questions have to do with Emmerich’s character—who I agree is great here—and the evolution of the Jennings’ marriage, which seems to make some very significant strides in the concluding moments of the pilot. As of right now, their relationship, both in its current form and in the beginning stages we see via flashback, is much more interesting than their overarching mission, which at this point seems to have more value as a thematic counterpoint than a narrative engine. It’s a delicate task The Americans has set for itself, not just balancing large- and small-scale dramas, but completely intertwining them; if it continues to pull it off, it’ll be exhilarating to watch it unfold week to week.
Todd: You may have a point on the tawdriness of the opening scene, Genevieve. I think it kicks things into gear nicely, by showing the depths these characters are willing to descend to and by introducing a bit of early conflict into what could seem like a perfect relationship, if Weisberg were not willing to immediately start messing with it. But it's such a short scene that I found myself forgetting it as soon as the next bit kicked into action.
I actually rather liked the second episode—and its relatively low-tech spy mission—slightly more than I liked the pilot, which is always a good sign when approaching a new drama. But I agree with you that it’s a good sign that the show is taking its time setting up serialized storylines. Some of that may be a reaction to how Homeland got eaten by its serialized story in its second season—whether you liked or hated that choice—but it’s also probably the influence of Justified showrunner Graham Yost, who’s working as an executive producer on this show and mostly seems to be there to make sure Weisberg sticks to the straight and narrow. Justified started out with a bunch of stand-alone episodes, and it was pilloried for it at the time, but that stands out as the right choice at this point in time. We can only hope The Americans intersects with some sort of larger storyline eventually, but for now, it works much better to slowly flesh out everything around these two people.
Reviewing the early going of a show like this is always tricky, of course. The characters are just starting to settle in. The storytelling hasn’t yet completely worked itself out. And there are always emotional turns and character moments that feel a touch abrupt—if we were doing a post-air review, I’d have some quibbles about some of the conveniences in the plot. But it’s also rare to get a show that’s as confident as this one in the early going, a show that seems to really know what it wants to do and has some sort of plan to get there. And like all great or would-be great shows, it has a compelling question at its center, one that applies equally to the spy game and to a long-running relationship: What lie are you going to tell, and whom are you going to tell it to?
- Welcome to our reviews of The Americans. We wanted to take a slightly different tack with this show, so Genevieve and I will be reviewing every episode together, in the same format as this piece, though we’ll be trading off who leads off each week. We hope you like it, and we hope the conversation is enlightening. (TV)
- This show won me over the second it used “Tusk.” As you can see here, it’s one of my favorite songs ever recorded. (TV)
- So far, Rhys is really drawing the short end of the stick when it comes to the wigs on this show. (GK)
- That dancing interlude was indeed a little bizarre, but I’m inclined to say it works, simply as an exhibition of that character’s assimilation into U.S. culture. Plus, it’s just kind of charming. (GK)
- I didn’t catch the actress playing Emmerich’s character’s wife, but she’s great fun, too, particularly when she gives him shit about his paranoia. That’s the great Michael Gaston as Emmerich’s boss. (TV)
- Another advantage afforded by The Americans’ time setting: The spy exploits are delightfully low-tech, all wigs and wall safes and giant cassette recorders. I have a feeling that’ll have continued benefits down the line, as the lack of technological magic makes everything seem a little more suspenseful and on-the-fly. (GK)
- This will make more sense to you after you’ve seen the episode, but I think I can say it without spoiling anything: I’m surprised how much suspense the show is able to get out of a simple garage. (TV)