TV Review: Great Concept, Strong Ensemble Carry FX’s ‘The Americans’

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CHICAGOFX has carved an impressive critical and commercial niche with hits like “Sons of Anarchy,” “The Americans,” “American Horror Story,” and “Louie” and they’re trying to add another success to their arsenal with tonight’s premiere of the highly-anticipated “The Americans,” starring Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, and Noah Emmerich. The show isn’t as creatively vibrant from the start as some of the best cable shows of recent years but there are numerous reasons to believe that it will get there soon. With incredible attention to period detail, strong performances, and a killer concept that has echoes of both “Breaking Bad” and “Homeland,” “The Americans” will almost surely be another hit for one of the most important networks on cable TV. Television Rating: 4.0/5.0
Television Rating: 4.0/5.0

Created by Joe Weisberg (“Falling Skies”) and Graham Yost (“The Americans”), “The Americans” is a spy thriller that transports viewers back to the early ’80s, as tensions between the U.S.S.R. and the United States were at a fever pitch that you young readers probably can’t even imagine. There were spies everywhere and honest concern that the increasing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by both super powers would lead to World War III. Paranoia and genuine fear seeped into suburbia and that’s the backdrop for “The Americans,” a show about how even your neighbors could hide deadly, international secrets with global repercussions.

The Americans
The Americans
Photo credit: FX

“The Americans” opens with a dolled-up Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) having a sexual interlude with an important government employee. She doesn’t act or look like your average housewife. In the next scene, Elizabeth, her husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys of “Brothers & Sisters”), and a third spy are chasing down a target, a Russian who was planning to defect to the U.S. government and give up major Russian secrets. The Jennings stop him and throw him in the trunk but someone spots their car and the third member of their group ends up in the hospital. Their cover might be blown.

The Americans
The Americans
Photo credit: FX

And what a cover. The Jennings were born in Russia and trained as spies but look like your average ’80s mother and father. They have two kids, perfect American accents, big hair, and goofy fashion. And yet they are killing machines. Elizabeth seems not only the tougher but the more loyal of the two. Phillip is considering defecting and giving up the spy life, especially when he hears how much the government was offering the traitor in his trunk.

Things get much worse for the Jennings when a notorious spy-hunting government employee named Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) moves in across the street. With the good guy growing suspicious of his sneaky neighbors and the sense that absolute chaos could be going on behind any picket fence, “The Americans” takes on tones of “Breaking Bad,” the best drama of the last decade.

The writing here is not quite up to the standard of the best of cable. I’m particularly disappointed in the borderline misogynistic characterization of Russell’s character, one who is seen in sexual context in not only her first scene but multiple times afterwards. And when the writers get a chance to make her strength truly come to the fore, they blow it. Russell makes such smart decisions, playing Elizabeth as a cool, calculated, unwavering killing machine that her character becomes nearly one who has multiple personality disorder. She is an average mom during the day and willing to gut a man at night. I want a bit more shading to both halves of Elizabeth but think that will come.

The Americans
The Americans
Photo credit: FX

Much more successful in the premiere is the characterization of Phillip and how completely Rhys nails the part. After his role on “Brothers,” I was surprised to hear he was cast as the lead in a spy show but he never once feels false. In fact, he’s excellent in the way he balances his commitment to duty with a desire to leave it all behind. Emmerich is also fantastic and could end up being the one to watch. He’s been a great character actor for years. I’d be ecstatic if “The Americans” got him the attention he’s long-deserved.

I’ll admit that when I first watched “The Americans,” I was more hesitant than I am now. It feels long (they extended the premiere to over 90 minutes with commercials and I think that was a mistake) and it has a few tonal issues. But rarely has a new program displayed the kind of potential in this likely hit. A great cast, detail-oriented producers, and an amazing concept — I can’t wait to see where “The Americans” goes from here.

“The Americans” stars Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Maximiliano Hernandez, and Margo Martindale. It premieres on Wednesday, January 30, 2012 at 9pm CST on FX. content director Brian Tallerico

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