Oh, another spy TV show! But you know what? Keri Russell is hot. And so is Matthew Rhys. And when they do stuff together, like put on fancy Russian accents and kill people and live their fake-but-not-really family life, I get that special tingle in my spine.
The Americans is pretty good, guys!
Before I start churning the review gears and possibly begin my over-hype of this show, I need to declare that I first hated the premise the moment I read its synopsis. A duo of Russian spies pose as husband and wife on American soil, feeding their motherland intel and fulfilling their mission objectives.
And I hate spy stuff, because most of the programs I’ve caught within this genre tries to be so many things at once while still being formulaic – main characters always at the top of their game subsequently wronged by their ex-employers, becoming outcasts while still somehow eventually rounding up a band of misfits to prove their innocence and obtain ultimate spy freedom with a new name and a new life.
While this story treads a vein much like this, it’s presented in a rather unusual manner. At first they’re all into their missions, Elizabeth seducing key information from a federal agent, Philip chasing down his target on foot, fighting skillfully with hand and foot, and you mistake it as a spy program going through its motions.
Then the show segues straight into Elizabeth’s history, slowly unfolding her feelings about how she feels about the American family she’s raised, the terrible things she went through during her training as a spy (as a woman!), how she and Philip met, how Philip feels about the family and his identity in general; you suddenly realise that you’ve waded into the deep, dark waters of their drama, and it’s already in your lungs.
It’s mostly thanks to Keri Russell. In the entire span of an hour, I’ve seen Elizabeth be tough, earnest, bitter, lost, skeptical, forgiving, protective, loyal, vulnerable, sexy, and irreparably broken. One minute I think she’s sour and needlessly grouchy, the next I’m wholly sympathetic, ready to take back my prejudging ways. Elizabeth is so flawed, and the story is stronger for it.
What’s also great about The Americans is that though it’s set in the Cold War 80’s, it doesn’t overdo the setting/timeline as much as say, The Carrie Diaries (which I absolutely cannot stand). No need to supplant the show’s music with most obvious 80’s tunes. It’s much more subtle than that, and seeks to use the time period as a means of enabling their characters rather than bog down their development with era-associated distractions like fluorescent fashion or unruly crimped hair.
Though somewhat predictable at some bits, the show makes up for it with plenty of carefully constructed scenes of suspense, trickling down from a simple setup: the new neighbour just so happens to be an FBI counter-intelligence dude who’s looking for the Soviet defector that the Jennings have in their car boot. Very classic way of building excitement, and it’s executed well.
But the best thing about this show is the relationship between Elizabeth and Philip. I really don’t mean to be a shipper, but it’s hard not to ship them, especially when we’re put through seasons (by measure of other shows) worth of relationship development and drama in the first episode alone. I blame it on the way Rhys makes his character look at Russell’s – with pain, unrequited longing, punctuated by a very intense sort of desire to love her the best he can.
In a way, it’s an incredible romance without being sappy or overtly cliched in its delivery, because it’s just riddled with disaster, bad ideas and a constant cloud of uncertainty hanging over their heads. No, of course, it’s totally not romantic to want to commit treason for the woman you love. Will they be able to make it? It doesn’t feel like it, but I cross my fingers that they do. They’re husband and wife, but they’re partners, and every bit better than Brangelina Smith. Plus, that In the Air Tonight vignette. Crazy hot, both in the pants and in the heart. I think I nearly died.
I haven’t seen the second episode yet, but if it’s anything like the pilot, I’m down for more. I enjoy this deep cover stuff more than I thought I ever would. Of course, I find my suspension of belief broken whenever they speak English in well-practiced Russian accents – couldn’t they just have Russian lines with subtitles? – but I can overlook that if they just keep at giving us multi-layered storytelling like they started with during their first episode. FX sure knows how to pick their shows.
If you prefer something with crazy action and bomb diffusion and all that frivolous James Bond stuff, you may find the emphasis on spies-kinda-in-love a bit much, or even the stealthing a bit boring compared to a Bourne movie sequence. But if you don’t mind watching two good-looking people play house and struggle to succeed in hiding in plain sight while their next door neighbour hunts them down, The Americans is perfect for you. It’s no Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but the whole theme of national belonging, identity and questioning where your loyalties really lie is strong with this one. Let’s see if it can continue its streak.