THE AMERICANS Recap: “Pilot”

     January 30, 2013


The Americans capitalizes on two great American loves: spy thrillers, and stickin’ it to our old Cold War foe, the former Soviet Union.  It’s not all as simple as that, though, since the protagonists are, indeed, Russian, and they are here to fight against all things Americans.  But The Americans combines elements from two of the best shows currently on TV, Breaking Bad (with the hidden darkness of seemingly vanilla suburbanites with close encounters with federal agents) and Homeland (embedded terrorist sleeper agents) yet comes up with a few twists of its own.  The show came out with a strong pilot that sets up much to come — hit the jump for more on the premiere and why “the moon is nothing, getting into space is the real accomplishment!”

the-americansIt’s a relief that TV shows are starting to explore other time periods besides the Victorian Era and the 1960s.  Like any good period piece, The Americans doesn’t shove the fact that it takes place in 1981 (with flashbacks to the 1960s) in your face.  It’s ambient and immersive, with none of the “oh my God they’re smoking while pregnant!” winks of modern hindsight.  And things started off with, if not a bang, a good blow.

The premise is seemingly straight forward: Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) are in an arranged marriage and working for the KGB on secret missions carried out from the DC suburbs.  They have two kids, 13-year-old Paige (Holly Taylor) and 10-year-old Henry (Keidrich Sellati) who help give them the appearance of a typical American family, and who of course know nothing about their parents’ former lives.  The kids also anchor the Jennings to America and to the reality that it’s not just their lives on the line.

While the kids are growing up going to malls, singing the national anthem and idolizing American astronauts, Phillip also begins to soften to his surroundings, while Elizabeth stands firm.  “I can teach them to be socialists!” she tells him, but you know even she knows that won’t really be true.  When her son brings up how amazing going to the moon is, she nudgingly suggests that maybe the moon is not really the big deal, but getting into space is (Russia 4EVAH!)

The pilot started off slow and a little basic, boilerplate spy stuff.  But it really picked up and gained an extraordinary amount of momentum as it went along, weaving in both some of Phillip and Elizabeth’s backstories and conflicted feelings about their missions, who they were, and who they are now.  It also set up a complicated relationship between Phillip and Elizabeth and their feelings for one another (or as it seems, Phillip’s feelings for her and her attempting to find some for him).

The antagonist (who, again, is a federal agent we are rooting against when really, as Americans, we should be championing him) is FBI specialist Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), whose family happens to move in next to the Jennings.  Both are wary of the other — how much does Stan know (or suspect)?  And what does that mean for the Jennings’ future?

There were a few nice sidebars — like how Phillip stood down to Creepy Pedophile Erroll at the mall in front of his daughter, but returned later in a disguise to do some damage — that kept things fresh and showed a more expanded world than just Phillip and Elizabeth vs Stan.  It was a nice too to see the dynamic change between them as Phillip, who was ready to set Timoshev free (really, Phillip?  Really?) and ended up killing him for hurting Elizabeth, an act she thanked him for by giving him a little hanky panky as well as opening up about herself.

Phillip may already be beguiled by “bright” America, but it will take awhile before Elizabeth sees it as anything other than “weak.”  And while they don’t speak the mother tongue anymore openly and say all of their articles and contraction properly, there are a few Russian habits that cannot be broken — vodka before bed, for one.

For a pilot, The Americans gave us a lot, but I am curious to see what else they bring in next week to really start expanding the scope of things.  But a great start to what looks to be a very worthwhile series.  Stay tuned …

Episode Rating: B+  (to give it room to grow)

Musings and Miscellanea:

— I don’t think Keri Russell has aged since Felicity.  Seriously.  And she still has great hair!

— It’s nice to be able to kill your rapist, but even better when the person you love does it for you in your name.

— Looks like a little romance could be blooming between the Paige and Stan’s son.  Romeo and Juliet!

— I like any show that starts off with Fleetwood Mac.  “Tusk” is such a great song.

— “I heard he got into a bar fight with the entire Japanese Olympic Judo team.” “Which year though? 1964-70 were pussies.”