February 27, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “The Americans”


THE AMERICANS:  Wednesday 10PM on FX

THE AMERICANS thrives on complications–moral, political, ethical and sexual–and it starts Season 2 with a nifty one.  In the Reagan era, when the show is set, the fundamentalist Afghan mujahideen that deep-cover KGB agent Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) betrays and kills were mortal enemies of the Soviets backed by the CIA, so his acts are villainous.  But 20 years later, those same Afghans would be the Taliban, deadly foes of America, and if an action star in a contemporary Hollywood action movie did exactly the same thing, we’d be expected to cheer.

Which is to say that showrunners Joseph Weisberg (also the series creator) and fellow Executive Producer Joel Fields haven’t missed a step.

That opening also has a near-meta knowing wink at the Americans audience and commentators, because Philip’s killings are partly motivated when one of those spy wigs that miraculously appear in infinite varieties and never fall off no matter how vigorous the action (including the sexual kind)… comes off.  It’s an in-joke, but one that’s sent directly down viewers’ throats, as it prompts him to kill an innocent waiter who saw Philip’s true hair, in even colder blood than usual.  It may well stand as a warning that the series doesn’t intend to make things any easier this season, for its viewers or characters–a promise that’s redeemed by the end of the hour.

The premiere picks up about 2 months after the events of last year’s finale, when Philip’s wife and co-spy Elizabeth (Keri Russell) was shot during an escape from the FBI.  She’s been off recovering, having told her children that she’s visiting her sick aunt–it’s one of many lies she’s told them over the years, but daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) is getting progressively less credulous.  This is presented as a developing plot thread for the season, and no doubt it will be, but the episode gives this, too, a wicked twist, as later on Paige opens the door to her parents’ bedroom, thinking that they’re out, which gives her a chance for some snooping–only to walk in on them in a remarkably explicit moment for basic cable, not at all the kind of discovery she had in mind.  (Earlier, the episode had Elizabeth in a three-way staged to con its subject into cooperating with Philip’s “air force security” agent, a reminder that The Americans is easily FX’s most sexual show since Nip/Tuck, and one of the few on television–let alone American movies, which are virtually asexual these days–to use sex for thematic and not just provocative purposes.  Director Thomas Schlamme, a veteran of Aaron Sorkin’s shows as well as many other A-list projects, must have had to tread very carefully not to hit paycable-level visuals.)

That three-way was a partnership with another deep-cover Russian couple, and the main action of the episode concerned the interaction of the Jennings with these colleagues.  Like Philip and Elizabeth, they had thoroughly American children, and they were even being handled by Claudia (the off-screen Margo Martindale), who had been the Jennings’ handler last season.  That parallel paid off shockingly when Philip and Elizabeth helped out with what was supposed to be a casual brush pass of information, only to discover not only the other couple, but their cheerleader daughter, brutally murdered by parties as-yet unknown.  The fact that families are now at deadly risk represents a significant upping of the ante in the show’s universe.

The premiere was mostly concerned with the Jennings, but some time was spent with their equally morally muddled friend/adversary, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who doesn’t know that his neighbors are the spies he’s hunting, or that the Russian agent he’s running, Nina (Annet Mahendru), is actually a double agent running him.  She, too, has divided loyalties, reflected in her negative response to Meryl Streep’s disgraced character in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, obtained by Stan on an illegal VHS bootleg.  Only Stan’s clueless wife Sandra (Susan Misner), perhaps the sole innocent adult on the series, could appreciate the movie strictly as a romance, which went along with her sad attachment to that era’s motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia.  The dark ironies of the hour reached their logical, almost comic conclusion when Philip ended his day by talking sincerely about his frustrations to his legal but fake wife Martha (Alison Wright), having been sent to her by Elizabeth so that he could find out if the FBI knew about the murder of the other Soviet agents.  (Mahendru, Misner and Wright are now series regulars, so their characters will be a frequent part of the continuing story.)

Now that Homeland has somewhat lost its way, The Americans has unquestioned ownership of the serious, intelligent spy quadrant in TV drama, and its premiere suggests that it’s in complete control of its multiple layers of plot and theme.  The cast remains superb, with Russell and Rhys switching so expertly from ruthless espionage to troubled spouses and parents that there sometimes seem to be at least two of each of them.  Its production design is unerringly convincing, and this episode gave us an irresistible artifact of its era:  the mechanized mail delivery unit used at the DC FBI office.

Last season’s ratings didn’t match the show’s acclaim, as a strong debut with a 1.2 in 18-49s fell by half by the season finale.  The Americans also didn’t score with Emmy voters, buried under the sheer number of notable dramas and stars these days.  It’s the kind of show that networks hope will benefit from viewing on other platforms during the off-season, and it merits that kind of boost, a rare hour that combines rigorous intelligence with visceral excitement.


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."