Blast from the ’80s past in new FX thriller ‘The Americans’
BY LORI RACKL TV Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org January 29, 2013 1:28PM
‘THE AMERICANS’ ★★★½
Series premiere 9 to 10:37 p.m. Wednesday on FX
Updated: January 29, 2013 8:39PM
Take a cable TV show about spies, national security and paranoia and add a complicated male-female relationship.
This description not only fits Showtime’s hit “Homeland”; it also applies to the best new midseason show, “The Americans,” on FX.
Despite some uncanny similarities between the two series — both feature female spies played by actresses who made names for themselves starring in coming-of-age dramas in the ’90s — “The Americans” isn’t a “Homeland” ripoff. It’s a fresh, compelling story about a couple of KGB operatives pretending to live the American dream as a married couple with kids in suburban Washington, D.C. The show wins more points for originality for its time period: It’s set in 1981, in the frosty political climes of the Cold War.
“If you tried to tell a story like this about al-Qaida now, it would be completely impossible,” said the show’s creator, Joe Weisberg, who worked for the CIA in the early ’90s. “It would have been the same way about the Soviets or the KGB even 10 years after the Cold War. Nobody wanted to try to relate to the enemy. But enough time has passed that people are willing to look into their hearts and see them as people we can understand.”
Keri Russell (“Felicity”) and Matthew Rhys (“Brothers & Sisters”) star as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, Soviet spies in an arranged marriage who moved to the States 15 years ago. (Elizabeth’s fabricated backstory has her growing up in Chicago.) The Jennings ostensibly run a successful travel agency, but their real job is to do the Motherland’s bidding, which entails sex, kidnapping, killing and donning a lot of disguises.
Complicating matters are the Jennings’ nosy new neighbor, FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich, “The Walking Dead”), and the couple’s two children, Paige, 13, and Henry, 10, who remain in the dark about their parents’ cloak-and-dagger ways.
Paige and Henry pose an interesting conundrum: These Soviet spies have to raise their offspring in enemy territory. They have to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at their kids’ school functions and expose them to the supposed evils of unbridled capitalism, shopping malls and a pervasive hatred for that nuke-crazy nation full of Commies.
Philip has an increasingly difficult time reconciling his double life. He’s starting to warm to the American way, much to chagrin of his emotionally cold, uber-patriotic wife.
“America’s not so bad. The electricity works all the time, food’s pretty great, closet space,” Philip tells Elizabeth in the pilot, trying to persuade her to switch sides and play for the other team.
“They have very differing ideas about politics, and that makes for an incredibly conflicted relationship,” said Rhys, a Welsh actor who’s riveting in the role of doting dad and tough-guy sleeper agent.
“One week it’s a spy thriller and the next week it’s a show about our marriage,” Rhys said. “That’s what I love about it.”
That, and the ’80s wardrobe and the chance to drive cars so big you start moving the steering wheel “a good week before you want to actually make the turn,” Rhys said. “But the high-waisted jeans are what drew me to the project. I hope it goes for a few seasons so we can get to shoulder pads.”
The early ’80s remain largely untapped in today’s television landscape. “The Americans” is a reminder of how fertile and fun that era can be, providing a welcome blast of nostalgia for Jordache, Juice Newton and a simpler time when spies’ only tools might be their wits and a public pay phone.
“There have been times when the prop department brings out this espionage equipment that we’re using and I sort of think, ‘I thought this was 1980, not 1940,’ ” Rhys said.
“It was more about human ingenuity than satellite cameras and computers,” he added, “and that makes for more exciting television.”