February 7, 2013

THE SKED PILOT + 1 REVIEW: “The Americans”


THE AMERICANS:  Wednesday 10PM on FX

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and the production of episodes for the regular season: a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads. The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting, and even story. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.’

Previously… on THE AMERICANS:  In 1981, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) are ordinary suburbanites who own a small travel agency and live outside Washington DC with their two children.  Except they’re really deep-cover Soviet spies, whose lives and ideologies have gotten complicated after more than a decade living in the US with their innocent and very American children.  And apart from their inner doubts, there’s a new threat:  Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the nice guy who just moved in across the street, is an inquisitive FBI agent.

Episode 2:  After last week’s more personally dramatic storyline, where the spy they held captive (and eventually killed) was a man who had raped Elizabeth back in Russia, the first regular series episode (written by series creator Joseph Weisberg and directed by Adam Arkin) settled down to the more day-to-day espionage duties carried out by the Jennings.  This one does have a special urgency:  with the British Foreign Minister visiting Washington, the KGB has ordered that a bug be placed in the house of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger before he arrives, giving the Jennings days to pull off an operation that would normally take months.  With a variation of the poison umbrella tip that real Bulgarian agents used to kill dissident Georgi Markov in 1978, they infect the son of the Weinbergers’ maid with a slow-acting toxin, and withhold the antidote until she plants a bugged clock in the Secretary’s home office.  Meanwhile, Beeman successfully blackmails a secretary at the Russian Embassy into working for the FBI when he discovers that she’s been sending black-market stereos and currency back home in the diplomatic pouch, thus creating a new threat to the Jennings.

The Americans is daringly morally ambiguous.  We know that the Jennings’ poisoning of the maid’s innocent son is terrible (and Philip comes close to killing him even more violently at one point), and that even beyond that, they’re bad guys plotting to steal military secrets of the United States.  Yet we’ve seen them be tender with their children and harried by their handlers, and on some level, we root for them to succeed in their mission.  This is helped, of course, by the fact that we know in the bigger picture, the Soviet Union began its collapse within a decade and nothing the Jennings and their like did was able to change history, but still–unlike Vince Mackey, who was corrupt but still basically out to catch criminals, or Tony Soprano, who mostly wreaked havoc on other gangsters, or even Dexter Morgan, who preys on other murderers, the Jennings are committed to destroying this country, no matter who gets hurt along the way.

The show very skillfully makes use of the mundane details of spying circa 1981.  Both the Jennings and Beeman are at the mercy of low-tech analog electronics, and the one action scene in the episode is a convincingly small-scale hand-to-hand fight between Philip and the maid’s brother.  (Although Philip’s “disguise” when he’s meeting with the maid, which basically makes him look like the live-action version of Bob from Bob’s Burgers, is so pathetic one wonders why he even bothers.)  Bit by bit, we’re also getting a picture of the complications of the Jennings’ relationship:  this week, we learned that like Elizabeth, Philip has extramarital sex (in this case, with the wife of a Defense Department official who thinks he’s a Swedish diplomat) to further his spying, with both spouses having to accept this very particular twist on “open marriage.”

Even though its all-American tone is very different from the British model, The Americans is shaping up to be as close as television has come to capturing the feel of a John LeCarre novel since the classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy miniseries.  Sparked by excellent, multi-faceted performances by Russell and Rhys, the story is both tense and ambivalent, mindful of the treachery in marriage as well as in a surveillance operation.  The show got off to a solid start in last week’s ratings, and if viewers are willing to enjoy its relatively low-key thrills and dig into the drama, it remains a very promising addition to the midseason schedule.


PILOT + 1:  Da, Still Worth Watching


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."