It is hard to imagine that a show could be well-written and emotionally complex enough to make you root for a pair of embedded Soviet spies to succeed in their clandestine operations meant to undermine the US Government. FX Networks new show The Americans manages that delicate balancing act by presenting characters that are multi-faceted and inherently relatable.
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are terrific as pair of KGB operatives who were trained to assume the identities of an average American couple and live as husband and wife in the US, while spying for the Russian government during the Cold War. As Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, they have lived in the Washington D.C. area for 15 years and now have two children who are oblivious to whom their parents really are. Keri Russell is receiving a lot of well-deserved praise for her flinty, hard-edged and calculating take on Elizabeth. She is the steely-eyed backbone of the couple who refuses to let their focus slip from the main objective. While she is great in this role, I think that Matthew Rhys is the true breakout of The Americans. Rhys’ Phillip has an understated, everyman charm, which allows him to assume multiple facades and slip in and out of the different roles he has to play every day. No matter what guise Phillip finds himself in, he always has the eyes of a shark, constantly scanning and evaluating everyone around him as a potential enemy, lending Phillip an ever-present air of menace, even though he isn’t physically imposing. Phillip, unlike Elizabeth, is starting to waver in his commitment to his Soviet bosses. His priority is now the family that started out as a cover, but has become the true center of his world.
Rounding out the cast, and adding yet another level to the storytelling is Noah Emmerich as a counter-espionage FBI agent who just moved in to the Jennings’ neighborhood. Emmerich has been routinely under-appreciated in part after part, but as Stan Beeman, he is an efficient and shrewd investigator who smells a rat in his sleepy suburban community. His interactions with Phillip absolutely crackle with a taut and wary intensity.
The Americans is set at the start of the Reagan era in 1981. Having the ‘80s as a setting could make it very easy for the show to veer into cheesy costumes and silly pop culture references, but creator Joseph Weisberg keeps those elements firmly in the background and only uses it to show how much more difficult espionage was back in that time. Every mission that Phillip and Elizabeth are given are all the more tense and dangerous because of how up close and personal everything has to be. The level of tension that permeates this show makes you pay careful attention to every detail. The first two episodes have been excellent, but it remains to be seen if The Americans can use this momentum to become a show that is truly special. I am betting it can.