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.