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The Americans Series Premiere

By Carl Stoffers · February 1, 2013

FX’s new drama The Americans stars Keri Russell (of Felicity fame) as Elizabeth Jennings, one half of a pair of Soviet sleeper agents living in early-1980’s America. Elizabeth is a typical suburban wife with the quintessential middle class existence, including a nice house with a white picket fence. It’s all very idyllic, except for the fact that she spends her nights seducing diplomats and kidnapping double agents on behalf of the Soviet government.

It is here where the pilot episode of The Americans begins, with Elizabeth dressed in a ridiculous Marilyn Monroe-esque wig, romancing a State Department employee in a bar. The sweet talking leads to a sex scene that is unnecessarily descriptive, (as are the other graphic scenes of sex and rape in the episode) with Jennings rushing out and pulling off her disguise afterwards. She immediately switches gears, assisting her husband, Phillip (Matthew Rhys), and another operative kidnap a Soviet defector on a dark, rainy street. The chase scene that ensues is tired and predictable, featuring a stabbing and a martial arts showdown in a dark alley between Phillip and the defector. Unfortunately, the writers of The Americans seem to be well versed in spy genre cliches, and they’re not shy about using all of them.

One of the things that does work for The Americans is the conflict and contrast between Elizabeth and Phillip. They have two children, jobs, and must contend with the same problems as any other family, but the fact that they are Soviet agents hovers over their every move. They argue like a typical married couple, except they’re not arguing over the grocery bill—they’re fighting over whether to kill the kidnapped defector in their garage.

The dynamic between Phillip and Elizabeth is complicated by Phillip’s hesitation about their mission. He is willing to defect, while Elizabeth remains ruthlessly loyal to “the Motherland” and their objectives. He also has obvious feelings for her, and is hurt by knowing that she has used sex to obtain information. His devotion to her is on full display when he realizes a dark secret regarding the man they kidnapped. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is as frigid as a Siberian winter towards Phillip. For her, it’s about the job, not feelings. It’s an interesting subplot, and it makes The Americans watchable at times.

The plot thickens (and gets significantly more unbelievable) when an FBI counter-intelligence agent, Stan (Noah Emmerich), and his family just happen to move in next door. It is twists such as this one that make the show tired and stale. It’s as if the writers are trying too hard to live up to the inevitable (and baseless) comparisons to another spy series, Showtime’s Homeland.

The Americans’ writing may be at times predictable and cliché-ridden, but the world the producers have created is convincing. The 1980’s decor, vehicles, the clothing and hairstyles are all spot-on, as is the catchy soundtrack, featuring The Who and Phil Collins, among others. The attention to detail is impressive.

Despite its predictable nature and disappointing reliance on typical, The Americans does have some redeeming qualities. If the writers lean heavily on the Elizabeth-Phillip dynamic in future episodes, the series can be saved. If they take the easy way out and focus on worn out James Bond car chases and karate fights, it will turn into just another failed action show.