“The Americans,” the FX network’s recent entry into the espionage genre, presents both a daring risk for FX and a challenge to the viewer: Can you like and care about the fate of two protagonists who are spies for our deadly enemy and willing to do seemingly anything, no matter how vile, to further that enemy’s cause?
The series is set in 1981, soon after President Reagan’s inauguration, and centers around the lives and work of Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), who live the all-American life: they own their own business, have a nice home in a great D.C. neighborhood, and are the parents to two nice children. And they seem like really good people.
And almost all of it is a lie. “Elizabeth” and “Phillip” are deep undercover Soviet spies working for the KGB. Their business is a front for their real work, their children have no idea who their parents really are, and they commit evil acts for a homeland ruled by a monstrous political system. Their work is so secret, they don’t even know each other’s real names and backgrounds. And yet the viewer (or, at least, me) finds himself liking Phillip and Elizabeth and rooting for them, worrying that their cover might be blown.
This is because both are genuinely good people: Phillip plays hockey with his son and takes him to games, while Elizabeth worries that her daughter is maturing too fast. And yet, when “on the job,” they are willing to seduce, blackmail, poison, and even kill for “Mother Russia.”
So far, two episodes have aired. The pilot concerns efforts to capture a Soviet defector and return him to the USSR for execution, and the risk posed by a new FBI counterintelligence agent and his family moving in just across the street. The second is built around their efforts to plant a bug on extremely short notice in the home of Defense Secretary Weinberger. These two episodes provide an amazing amount of well-conceived character development: we learn of a trauma in Elizabeth’s background that threatens her working and personal relationship with Phillip, while Phillip is revealed to be coming to like American life and is at least open to the idea of defecting, worried in part about the effect their continued undercover work will have on their children – particularly if they’re caught.
This show is not for children nor, I think, for teens. This is not a “dramedy;” while there are humorous moments, the story is deadly serious and R-rated. There is some nudity, the sex is moderately graphic, and the language explicit. And the moral confusion of good people who feel duty-bound to do awful things may be something young minds aren’t ready for.
That said, the first two episodes have been great and have me hooked to want more. Produced in part by Graham Yost (of “Justified” fame), I hope the rest of the season keeps up and that Elizabeth and Phillip continue on their mission for a good long time.
RELATED: Ron Radosh, an expert on the history of American communism and Soviet espionage in America, has his own review.