I knew I would enjoy FX’s new drama, “The Americans,” after the first teaser played on my television. Picture moving slowly down a suburban sidewalk with the summertime sounds of kids playing and dogs barking in the background. The quaint home that passes across the TV screen has a bold, red hammer and sickle covering its facade. The neighboring suburbanites are oblivious to the communist symbol as they are washing their cars — a clear foreshadowing for what the season has in store.
Taking place in 1981 in Washington, D.C., “The Americans” focuses on the family of Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings and their two kids. Unbeknownst to their children and everyone else around them, Phillip and Elizabeth are Soviet spies who are currently in a decades-long covert operation that places undercover agents in the U.S. to learn more about government happenings. They’re not really married, and those aren’t really their two kids.
Phillip and Elizabeth’s secret operation becomes more challenging after an FBI agent coincidentally moves in across the street.
Though it’s only two episodes deep, the show has kept in the viewers’ minds that they know more than most of the characters in the show. In a subtle scene during the second episode, Elizabeth is taken aback that her 13-year-old daughter, Paige, is wearing a bra. “Things are different than when you grew up,” Paige said. “People are, like, freer.”
While Paige takes her mother’s response of “We’ll see about that” at face value, the viewer at home knows the double meaning behind it. In another defining moment, son Henry talks about all the things he learned in school that day, about men landing on the moon; Elizabeth somewhat chauvinistically remarks that getting to the moon isn’t the end-all — just getting to space is an accomplishment.
The driving force of this series is the tension that is always apparent for the viewer while the characters are left unaware. Even the color of their house blinds raises suspicion. Sitting atop a white suburban home are crimson red window blinds. While they would look perfectly normal on the house of any other American, they look highly suspicious when you know the inhabitants are Soviet spies.
Keri Russell, who plays Elizabeth, brings a necessary realism to the role, essential for proper emotional reactions. While she repeatedly pledges her allegiance to the motherland, she continues to raise her two children and feels sincere compassion toward them. Elizabeth has to constantly fight those two sides of her self, and Russell does a tremendous job of portraying this struggle.
Matthew Rhys, who plays Phillip, brings an imperative calmness to the role of a spy. Phillip seems extremely personable; this is exemplified by his ability to disguise himself as a CIA agent who hopes to obtain information from a lowly, pencil-pushing FBI agent. His interactions with Stan Beeman, the FBI agent living across the street, are full with an oddly tense feeling, like they both know the truth but understand there are steps to this dance. The best scene of the show thus far was at the end of the first episode, when Beeman broke into the Jennings’ garage — under the same hunch that had made him so successful in his career — only to find nothing. As he quietly exited the garage, Phillip can be seen hiding in the corner, pistol cocked.
Noah Emmerich’s portrayal of Beeman has been fantastic, carrying an even-keeled attitude with one of constant alertness you’d expect in an FBI agent.
“Emmerich is an impossibly casual actor, able to charm you with a genial looseness that masks the chilly precision behind his eyes,” said Grantland’s Andy Greenwald. “This makes him a perfect fit for an intentionally chameleonic character.”
Although it’s incredibly early in its premier, “The Americans” has a clear shot to join “Sons of Anarchy” and “Justified” as another one of FX’s HBO-quality dramas that a college student’s budget can afford. It’s a must-watch show for any Cold War fanatics like myself — my birth date coincides with the removal of the Berlin Wall — and any purists of great television.