January 31, 2013



THE AMERICANS:  Wednesday 10PM on FX – DVR Alert

The renaissance of pop culture spies–good and bad, ours and theirs, real-life and fictional–continues with FX’s new series THE AMERICANS.  Joe Weisberg’s drama is set in 1981, at the start at the Reagan administration, when Cold War rhetoric ramped up for one last frightening gasp before world history turned a corner and the Soviet Union began its decline.  It was also, probably not coincidentally, the last great period of espionage thrillers, just a year after the publication of “The Bourne Identity” and before John LeCarre’s “Smiley’s People.”

Our protagonists–“hero” is a word that has little relevance in the cable drama world–are Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell).  Except those aren’t really their names; they don’t even know each other’s real names.  They’re actually deep cover Russian spies, hidden in plain sight in the Washington DC suburbs for almost 20 years.  They live seemingly ordinary married lives, with children who have no idea who their parents really are, but when ordered, they kidnap defectors, obtain classified information from low-level government officials, and, when necessary, kill.

In the pilot, written by Weisberg and directed by Gavin O’Connor, their mission is to grab a defector (who’s been paid a tidy $3M by the US authorities for the information he’s given them)  and hand him back over to the Soviets, who will doubtless execute him.  But things go wrong, and the Jennings have to take him into their quiet home, hiding him bound and gagged in the trunk of their 1977 Oldmobile.  As we discover in flashbacks, Elizabeth has a history with this particular Russian, and it’s an ugly one.  With the FBI and CIA hunting the man down, things come to a flashpoint between Elizabeth and Philip about what kind of life they should be leading–and that’s before the arrival of FBI agent Beeman (Noah Emmerich) who, seemingly randomly, has just moved in across the street.

One of the many canny aspects of The Americans is that Elizabeth–America’s sweetheart Felicity–is the hardliner of the couple, more ideological, calculating and prone to violence, while Philip is the emotional one, tempted by the bounty of America and willing to consider changing sides.  Keri Russell, who would have seemed an unlikely choice for a part like this, had a brief but impressive ass-kicking role in Mission Impossible 3 (directed by her Felicity mentor JJ Abrams), and she turns out to be more than capable of playing a hard-edged enemy agent (albeit one who’s starting to have her own doubts).  Rhys becomes the softer audience surrogate.  We root for him, but we can also tell he’s the one more likely to get the family into danger.

The second layer of The Americans is the story of the marriage between Philip and Elizabeth, one that was mandated by government order rather than romance, but which has become, over the years, thickly layered with trust and genuine feelings.  The two may not know each other’s pre-US pasts, but they know their own mutual past, and that complicates the sometimes ruthless decisions they’re expected to make.  (The stress of living undercover will also be explored through Beeman, who is just back from spending 3 years living as a member of a white supremacist group as part of another investigation.)

Despite leading off with an action sequence and featuring a couple of deadly fights later on, The Americans is a surprisingly low-key piece for FX, which usually prefers its dramas more in-your-face.  It’s more a character study than adventure, more Homeland than Justified.  The period detail, too, is far more restrained than recent cable shows have reveled in–it’s there, in the mom jeans that Russell wears and the iconic Phil Collins music on the soundtrack, but the pilot doesn’t point fingers to its own production design.

The pilot suggests that The Americans will test the boundaries between pay and basic cable, in the way that earlier series have pushed the boundaries of the network world.  Slower paced (at least in the super-sized pilot) and more subtle than Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy, the show will find out whether an ad-supported network can sustain enough of an audience to make a serialized, nuanced, low-tech spy drama like this work.  Quality doesn’t seem like it will be a problem.

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."