So how long did it take you to buy into the premise of The Americans, the new FX show that premiered on Wednesday night? I’m honestly not sure I still accept — that is, can watch without an occasional snort of disbelief — Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as suburban parents/KGB agents, and I’ve seen more than one episode of the thing. But, for sure, I want to keep watching, because this series will either turn into something very special, or descend into the sort of muted, dignified camp that characterizes some would-be classy cable fare.
Russell and Rhys portray Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, Russians who’ve successfully embedded themselves as sleeper agents in a suburb of Washington, D.C. It’s 1981, President Ronald Reagan has declared the USSR an “evil empire,” and one of the Jennings’ two kids needs a training bra and wants her ears pierced. As Reagan’s reelection campaign would soon say, it’s morning in America.
The premiere opened with Elizabeth, in a blonde wig, performing a sex act on an unsuspecting Department of Justice agent. By which I mean, he knew what she was doing — un-zzzzip! — but he didn’t know he was also under her, ah, surveillance. No wonder Philip exhibited a frequent expression of vague wistfulness, the one that Rhys occasionally broke out on Brothers and Sisters, but to lesser effect than here. This scene was a pungent way of quickly informing us that (a) what Elizabeth and Philip have is an arranged marriage and thus one that can withstand in-the-line-of-duty hanky-panky, and (b) Keri Russell is very committed to erasing all memories of Felicity from our minds.
I was glad to see Russell, in a recent interview, note how “strange” this marriage is, because the first few episodes of The Americans work — strain — hard to make us believe this is a union that plays convincingly to outsiders, even though Elizabeth and Philip, when out in public or chatting with the new neighbor, an FBI agent played exceedingly well by Noah Emmerich (more about that in a second), seem as stiffly “normal” as the aliens in ABC’s The Neighbors are before anyone knows they’re aliens. But maybe that’s just suburbia circa the ’80s, a time and place that is rapidly gaining the same scuffed luster as the John-Updike-Couples-era 1960s. (I’d bring up Mad Men but then we’d have to debate whether The Americans is up to the same period verisimilitude.)
Series creator-writer Joe Weisberg worked for the CIA, so I’ll go with him on the spycraft details, and I know there has been media coverage in recent years of Russian sleeper agents having hidden in plain American sight for decades, so the premise is, to some extent, unassailable. There is also an instantly appealing tension in having the woman in this couple be the hard-ass professional, loyal to her Russkie roots (of Americans, Elizabeth snapped, “There’s a weakness in the people, I can feel it,” reminding me not for the first time of Natasha in Rocky & Bullwinkle), while hubby would be a bit happier if they could all just relax and dig this crazy American consumerism (big cars! air conditioning! food!). Plus, one of the executive producers is Justified‘s Graham Yost, who’s made sure Margo Martindale will join the show in the third episode for at least one story arc, so I know The Americans is going to be both briskly paced and well-cast.
But when executive producer Joel Fields recently told a group of TV critics that “the marriage is an allegory for international relations,” I felt some trepidation: Good popular art rarely springs from any creator going into a situation hoping to make it a metaphor for some larger issue — that kind of thing has to emerge organically, lest it sound like the key-strokes of TV critics (over-)reaching for profundity. The series has to avoid telegraphing its climaxes: You just knew that Philip would eventually circle back beat the daylights out of that ham-hock Humbert Humbert who was ogling the Jennings’ 13 year-old daughter, didn’t you?
Give The Americans its due, though. It had Elizabeth acknowledge how unlikely it is that the FBI agent would move into their cul de sac by uttering a nicely unconvincing, “It’s probably a coincidence,” and the show is not so high-falutin’ about its allegories that it doesn’t take care to shape and launch excellent suspense scenes, such as the very nice moment at the end of the premiere, when FBI Guy sneaks into the Jennings’ garage to snoop for evidence of wrongdoing and we see Philip ready to dispatch him if he had.
FX is taking an admirable risk with The Americans. A period drama about KGB moles scored to Quarterflash’s biggest hit (as we kids used to hear its title: “Hard On My Art”), Juice Newton, and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” (though the song [and Phil] will always scream “Miami Vice!“): My guess is that it will be a critical smash but perhaps not be a huge ratings hit. But you gotta love the network for taking a flier on a concept like this. Plus, who doesn’t want to see a whole lot more of Richard Thomas on TV, especially when he’s played a tight-arsed agency bureaucrat?