FX’s newest drama, THE AMERICANS, premieres this Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET. It is a period piece set during the Cold War. Ronald Reagan is president, and the Russians would do nearly anything to destroy their greatest enemy. For Russian spies who have been living in the United States for the better part of two decades, it becomes hard to maintain loyalty to their country, appreciating the finer things in America, like air conditioning. After having children and keeping things a secret, it might be tempting to give up one’s homeland for a nice cash pay out.
Or is it? The question of loyalties and allegiance are at the heart of THE AMERICANS, and it’s never a simple answer. Sort of like Homeland, but without quite as much mystery.
The two main characters, Phillip (Matthew Rhys, Brothers & Sisters) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell, Felicity), are Russians who were placed together in their job, forced to fake a romantic connection. Their union isn’t born of love, but part of the question posed right out of the gate is, is there love between them? There seems to be, from at least one side.
How hard would it be to live together, raising children, and not fall in love? Yes, there are plenty of unhappy marriages around the world, people who choose to be together, but can’t make it work. Yet, there are also a plethora of examples of arranged marriages that have turned out quite nicely. In Phillip and Elizabeth’s case, they are alone with a secret, isolated in a strange land, for a very long time, which means their bond extends beyond just the offspring.
Even the kids (Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati) are kept in the dark. This is done out of necessity, of course. It’s hard enough for adults to live a double life and keep their mouths shut; no one can expect the same out of children. But this makes for a very uneasy family unit, as the kids are taught to be patriotic Americans, and the parents can do nothing to correct these views without risking exposure. In such a place and time as when THE AMERICANS is set, the Russians are viewed as the enemy. That means the Jennings children learn in school to be against the very things their parents are devoting their lives to. Obviously, this creates some friction.
But as interesting as the family issues are to ponder and discuss, they are merely one aspect of the show. Phillip and Elizabeth are active agents. In the first episode, they take down an enemy of their native state, and have to keep him hidden while they decide what to do. This makes for some nail biting action sequences and tense scenes as they try to keep the hostage unseen.
What complicates things even more is that Elizabeth has a history with the particular scum bag with which they tussle. This plays into her decisions and actions, just as the fact that Phillip is in the dark plays to his. Even within this married couple that have shared almost everything, there are still secrets, and trust is not absolute, at least for one of the two parties.
I really enjoyed watching the interplay between Rhys and Russell. There are so many layers to their characters, and a great many factors must be taken into account in concocting every facial nuance. These vary, too, by time period, as there are a few flashbacks. The two stars are pros. They really keep viewers on their toes, while also showing a believable and sympathetic couple of individuals. Should THE AMERICANS ever turn into a war between them, I honestly have no clue who I would root for. Better that they stay together.
Yet, there is always that threat of a division. They don’t go into the assignment on equal footing, and limited by the amount of the past they are allowed to bring up, they can’t ever be their true selves. It’s a rotten way to live, and thus far, Phillip and Elizabeth have kept to their orders. The story told in the series starts at a crossroads, and which path each of them choose will determine whether they forge a stronger bond, or fall apart completely.
Then, there is the added outside threat of the feds who would very much like to catch them. One agent named Stan (Noah Emmerich, White Collar, The Truman Show) moves in next door to them, completely oblivious to who they are at first. Unluckily for the Russians, his instincts are sharp, and it isn’t long before he gets a tingling of suspicion. This is a story definitely not fated to play out for many years, and the status quo between Stan and the Jennings will not last long.
I am also interested to see what other actors will bring to the table. The official website counts the fantastic Margo Martindale (Justified) as a main player, although she is not to be found in the first episode. We get a glimpse of Richard Thomas (The Waltons) in this installment, and I hope he sticks around awhile.
What is puzzling to me about this pilot is, all of what I have just described sounds really, really cool. Yet, I grew somewhat bored over the course of the hour plus. It’s not a bad show, by any means, but it’s a slow moving one, at least, so far. Other series have pulled off sluggish pacing and managed to keep things interesting, but for some reason, the draw is lacking a bit here. It will be interesting to see if this is just because so much time is needed to set the story up in the first episode, or if there are larger problems that make themselves known over the course of the season.
CHIEF TELEVISION CRITIC | Creator of and writer for It's All Been Done Radio Hour live show and podcast. A voracious reader wanting to tell stories of his own, Jerome began writing around the age of 8 and hasn’t stopped, both original works and television reviews. Lives in central Ohio. Favorite current shows include The Walking Dead, Jessica Jones, Flaked, Outlander, and Archer.