"The Americans" Review: I've Seen Your Face Before, My Friend, But I Don't Know If You Know Who I Am

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"The Americans" Review: I've Seen Your Face Before, My Friend, But I Don't Know If You Know Who I Am

By Sarah Carlson | TV Reviews | February 6, 2013 | Comments ()


The appeal of "The Americans," FX's new drama, may be even sexier than Showtime's "Homeland." There is plenty of cat-and-mouse games and surveillance under way, but this is 1981 we're dealing with, not 2013. This is the Cold War, not the War on Terror. This is a story of the good-looking Soviet Union spies next door that can kill you with their bare hands, not the U.S. Marine turned terrorist turned U.S. Congressman/still kinda a terrorist. The threat feels, well, less-threatening, and for my generation at least, it is one we only know of from stories like these, fiction and not.

In a way, this makes the hunt less scary (I'm more inclined to worry about Taliban supporters than possible KGB sleeper cells), yet thanks to a pilot that delivered plenty of action along with existential crises, "The Americans" is just as enticing as "Homeland" and carries with it a touch of "Mad Men"-style pacing. This also means it can easily run into "Homeland's" problem of determining how long a chase should last, and when or even if the terms viewers have come to accept should be flipped. Here's hoping it stays the course.

The premise of "The Americans" is a nice switch, at least: the terrorists -- because that is what they are, even if they wouldn't have been called that back in the early Reagan days -- Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) have lived as Americans for nearly 20 years, a pair of travel agents raising a family in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C., and speaking better English than their neighbors. They also are KGB agents, recruited separately in the early 1960s and brought together to start a life as a married couple in America. Elizabeth is the colder of the two, more fixated on her love of "the motherland" and her sworn duty to serve it than on the life she has built with Phillip, no matter that it is based on a lie.

Time is a funny thing, and so is routine and tradition. When you play the role of a suburban housewife for 15 years or so, don't you eventually become an actual suburban housewife? Even if you are engaging in espionage, from seducing a loose-lipped Department of Justice agents to kidnapping former KGB officers turned U.S. informants, the kids have to get their homework done and go to bed on time. And don't forget to take a welcome plate of brownies to the new neighbors. (More on them in a minute.)

Phillip is less of a stalwart for the long-term operation. He loves their children, 13-year-old Paige (Holly Taylor) and 10-year-old Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and America isn't so bad after all ("electricity always works, food's pretty great, the closet space ..."). He also loves Elizabeth, even if she is unclear on her feelings toward her husband - - or "husband," as she views him. When a kidnapping mission of theirs quickly goes awry in the pilot, Phillip considers the possibility of starting over with the family and leaving the KGB behind. Elizabeth thinks he's crazy: "I would go to jail; I would die; I would lose everything before I betray my country!" It is apparent she has her doubts too, though; she's just keeping her cards closer to her chest.

On top of the botched kidnapping plan, what throws the Jennings for a loop is their new neighbors, the Beemans, headed by Stan (Noah Emmerich), an FBI counterintelligence agent. Viewers meet him first at the office learning that an informant (that would be the kidnapped one) is missing. Elizabeth chooses to believe the arrival of the Beemans is coincidence, a fact that is hard for Phillip as well as viewers to swallow. (It's also a very "Homeland" thing to do.) However, thanks to a solid script, a steady pace -- the pilot was almost an hour and a half -- and excellent leads in Rhys, Russell and Emmerich, the plot feels less like a gimmick and more like a necessary development to set up the inevitable showdown. That, and this tidbit, delivered to Beeman and his fellow agents: Thanks to the kidnapping, President Reagan has signed top-secret Executive Order 2579 authorizing Federal Bureau of Investigation counterintelligence officers "to take all necessary steps to neutralize all Soviet Directorate S sleeper-cell agents in the continental U.S." You now have permission to kill your neighbors.

Emmerich's resume is extensive, from film (The Truman Show, Little Children) to TV ("The Walking Dead," "White Collar") and he always delivers an impressive performance. He is perfect as the FBI agent coming off a three-year undercover stint among white supremacists in Arkansas. He's an observer, a quick detector of out-of-the-norm behavior and activities, and he'll be a perfect foil for the Jennings. Russell ("Felicity," Waitress) is strong and moving as Elizabeth, a woman still trying to come to grips with her life and her choices. Rhys, mostly known for his role on ABC's "Brothers & Sisters"), is perhaps the most surprising success here, a moving depiction of a tormented family man who is good at what he does (which includes donning disguises and sweet talking FBI employees out of confidential information) but also wouldn't object to leaving it all behind. All three actors are excellent at conveying so much emotion with a single look, and the mood they help set in "The Americans" pilot indicate they, along with creator/writer/executive producer Joe Weisberg and executive producers Graham Yost ("Justified") and Joel Fields, are willing to allow the series time to develop.

A few elements fall short: The use of period-specific music is nice but too on-the-nose, from "Harden My Heart" by Quarterflash playing while Elizabeth pumps the aforementioned DOJ agent for information, to "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins, which provides the soundtrack for an intense scene between Elizabeth and Phillip, who may have the most interesting marriage on TV. (His violent reaction to learning Elizabeth was once raped is powerful, as is Elizabeth's reaction to his reaction.) Likewise, the writers should know that characters do not need to literally look at their reflection to be able to reflect on their life. Still, "The Americans" carries plenty of promise, not to mention a dilemma for viewers finding themselves rooting for the KGB. But that's the big question: Is it ever easy to be completely on one side of conflict?

"The Americans" airs at 10/9C Wednesdays on FX.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Travis Vang

    I love The Americans so far; I think the intrigue and drama of the plot is really well done. It’s interesting to root for a KGB sleeper cell over the FBI, but Phillip and Elizabeth are arguably more likeable than Agent Beeman. I’m just getting caught up with the first couple episodes because I’ve been working at DISH on Wednesday nights, so I haven’t been home to watch the show live. Thankfully I will be able to watch The Americans on my DISH Hopper at my convenience. It allows me to stream my recorded shows and movies or live TV to four rooms at once. I can keep up with The Americans when I want while my family watches their favorite show in the other room, and we don’t argue over what’s on TV.

  • dizzylucy

    I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, I think probably due to the complexity of Phillip's character having bought into their life and Elizabeth not so much.

  • Semilitterate

    With this series (The Americans).Justified, SOA etc, plus all the new (recent, anyway) movies they have I can't think of a better cable channel than FX. It's almost as if they are showing all the things they would on Fox if the FCC and the PTA would let them. "The Following", not so much I am "serial killered" out, thank you, and all the Manson allusions in the world won't make me watch this . Sorry, but no

  • Slash

    Yeah, I got sick of the '80s music, too. But I liked it.

  • L.O.V.E.

    This show doesn't have the same inherent drama as Homeland because we "won" and its ok to enjoy a Kick-ass Kommie Keri.

    But then you get a prescient story line like Executive Order 2579 -- ”You now have permission to kill your neighbors" -- and note the similarities to the recent executive order allowing drones to kill American's abroad and the suspense ramps up very quickly.

  • jollies

    Did I find the intensity of the scene between Elizabeth and Phillip amplified by the use of the Phil Collins song? I've got two ears and a heart, don't I?

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I apparently don't understand the use of "on the nose". To me, it means it's exactly right, such as someone arriving right "on the nose" if they're on time.

    But I'm seeing the music described as "too" on the nose and Darth says the plotting was "a little" on the nose.

    Can someone explain what the new meaning is? Thanks.

  • Pajiba_Pragmatist

    It's a movie/TV term that means you are essentially rubbing/hitting the audience's nose in whatever plot device or information you need to impart.

    Think painfully obvious dialog or when the camera keeps going back to some significant object in the scene.

    When you find yourself saying to the screen "we get it already" or eye-rolling because something unnecessarily obvious, then it's "too on the nose"

  • F'mal DeHyde

    Okay thanks. I'm familiar with glaring "foreshadowing" but since I thought the music was perfect, the expression made no sense to me at all.

  • DarthCorleone

    It was a little on the nose with the plotting, but I enjoyed it and greatly dig the premise. The missus wasn't as into it. I've had "Tusk" stuck on my earworm since watching it. My old college roommate always skipped that one on the Best of Fleetwood Mac album back in the day. I told him it was the best one.

  • ,

    "Tusk"? That's a deal breaker.

    "Tusk" is terrible.

  • Jerce

    Got sucked in by this within the first 10 minutes...Keri Russell is just a joy to watch; and you are right about the rest of the cast, as well. This one stays in my DVR. The Following, on the other hand, remains on double-secret probation after two episodes (oh, James Purefoy, you're about to let me down, arent' you?!) but I'm still hanging in there.

  • diane

    I had high expectations for this, and the pilot exceeded them. I LOVED everything about. Russell is both badass and heartbreaking, and Rhys is excellent. I love how much he loves her. This pairing is already hotter than Homeland because I don't find the male lead repulsive.

  • Guest

    Ooh I am really going to consider tracking this down online as I don't have cable. Will it be out on Hulu? I LOVED Matthew Rhys in Brothers and Sisters and in that movie where he played Dylan Thomas with Sienna Miller and Keira Knightly. He's a great actor and I'm glad he picked a project like this.

  • KatSings

    I think FX's website has the pilot available to watch online.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I don't think Hulu has permission to show FX programs. I ended up buying a season pass on Amazon. Other than that, you'd probably have to wait a year of more for netflix to get it.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I don't understand what you mean by the music being "too on the nose." I was a young adult in 81 and just hearing that music makes the show feel that much more realistic to me. I don't think they could have chosen a better song to have hot sex to than "In the Air Tonight."

    I REALLY enjoyed the show but I found the flashbacks a little hard to swallow when the actors look virtually the same in the present day. Neither one has apparently aged at all in 18 years.

    I'm a new fan of Matthew Rhys, I think he's fantastic in this.

  • Sirilicious

    I liked it too and will keep at it. After the pilot, I feel it is a coincidence the FBI moved next door. I think that makes it possible to stretch the story longer.

  • John W

    The pilot was real good. The use of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk was cool you gotta admit.

    It's going to be interesting comparing the performances of this show with those of Homeland.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Great review. This show really surprised me, I will definitely stick around.

    Plus: Keri Russell in Guess jeans and an oldschool bodysuit? yes please.

  • Jill

    Is there any harder an outfit to have sex in a car in?

  • Jezzer

    A wetsuit.

  • lowercase_ryan

    no, there literally is not.

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