The Americans

This drama about two undercover KGB agents is a slow-burn but worth a look until Homeland returns.

2013-05-25_1708In 1987 ABC network produced a miniseries called Amerika about the US ten years after it had fallen under supposed Soviet colonization. With a cast including Kris Kristofferson, Robert Urich and even Wendy Hughes and Sam Neill, it was a series that escaped me (it can be seen on YouTube).

Hollywood has long had a fascination with America being infiltrated, if not by the Soviets (The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming) then frequently by aliens (The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Independence Day). Since 2001 the ‘enemy’ has shifted from behind the iron curtain to the Middle East (Homeland, 24).

It’s not surprising therefore that the Soviet spies of The Americans exist under Ronald Reagan’s reign, pre-dating 9/11 and justifying national paranoia a lot more easily.

Outwardly Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) are parents of just another Washington family with 2 kids, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). Together they run a travel agency. But the truth is both are undercover KGB agents sent to the US 15 years prior. Under the facade of American suburbia they are able to carry out covert activities without attracting attention.

Philip and Elizabeth pass themselves off so well, that not even their own children know their secret. So far, both have also managed to keep details of their Russian pasts secret from one another, as directed by the KGB. Through flashbacks we see the two paired together by the Soviets like an arranged marriage, including the awkward handling of intimacy by a mistrustful Elizabeth, forced to live a domestic relationship with Philip.

In the extended Pilot episode (it runs about 90 minutes with ads), the couple nabs a Soviet defector with the intent of sending him back to Russia. Nikolai Timoshev (David Vadim) is kept prisoner in the boot of their car in the garage, just metres away from their own children happily going about their daily affairs inside the family house.

Meanwhile new neighbour Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) works for the FBI (no relation to Stan from American Dad ), raising suspicions by Philip that he could be onto them.

“I have to make sure I don’t do any spying around here,” Philip jokes.

“Especially not for the Russians,” Stan replies.

“Oh, they’re the worst, right?”

“They certainly are, Philip.”

There’s no shortage of conspiracy theories in this pre-Perestroika drama.

Yet after 15 years of living under American democracy, Philip tries to talk Elizabeth into defecting to the US. She’s not so sure.

Matthew Rhys was so convincing in Brothers and Sisters as the gay son Kevin Walker that it took me a little time to get used to seeing him as a heterosexual “all-American” husband, sometimes even required to turn action hero. Rhys is neither gay nor American-born, so it’s worth reminding oneself what the job of acting actually entails. Keri Russell, best known for Felicity, shows maturity in this chameleon role.

Produced for FX networks, The Americans is definitely a slow-burn, character-driven series although it comes with a retro-80s soundtrack (Tusk, Harden My Heart, In the Air Tonight). That may prove to be a big ask on network television, especially with ad breaks.

While the Pilot doesn’t have the same kind of turning points that made Homeland so compelling, this is certainly an emticing seat-warmer until it returns to our screens.

The Americans airs 8:30pm Monday on TEN.

19 Responses

  1. Was flicking channels and came across the beginning of the “Encore Presentation” of the Pilot. Two minutes in and Channel Ten had already got their scissors out to clumsily cut a rather non-graphic sex scene. (It is, after all, on US basic cable). Still treating their (dwindling) viewers with contempt.

  2. Biggest mistake on this program by ten is that they will play this at 930 pm – I assume after the very low figures it got on it’s debut, the ratings wont be any better, as Ten has already screwed with the timeslot if Im correct …. meaning ten is likely to have lost on this investment as nobody will watch this at that time ……

  3. @Belinda Thanks for that, I don’t follow the F1 so just figured it would be on again like the last 2 times (every 2 weeks it being on).

    Is a shame Graham Norton is delayed longer, I would take any new time for it at this stage, back to Saturday 8:30pm or even at 8:30pm on Friday after The Living Room (can always record both those days and watch later), pushing the Movie to 9:30pm wouldn’t hurt either of those days.

  4. @Cam, the following week F1 is in Canada, so the race will be on in the early hours of the morning. Still annoying that we are missing out on Graham Norton this week and getting further behind. Especially with the Will Smith thing all over social media and news websites, I was hoping Ten might bump that episode up to this week.

  5. So if the Americans is on a repeat 10pm Sunday, that means no Graham Norton or Hawaii Five-O (which only has 2 episodes left to show), plus next Sunday will be the F1, so again we won’t see those.

  6. This was OK, but did anyone notice that its structure was a shameless ripoff of ‘Breaking Bad’? Not that this is a bad thing – if you are going to base your show on another show, BB is the one to use!

  7. Thouroughly enjoyed that pilot episode, for one thing the chase scene using Tusk by Fleetwood Mac was wonderful, hope the standard keeps up to that (not sure what the US people were talking about regarding sex scenes, maybe that comes later on).

  8. Damn, don’t have room for another show right now but all the reviews tell me I should reconsider …. at least only 13 eps is manageable.

    If this slot works for Ten, they might consider putting the new season of Homeland there so we’re not having to wait 6 days to watch it. We could have it hours after the U.S broadcast

  9. In terms of ratings, period shows always have a fairly poor track record on free to air and given that this is a basic cable US show, I’d guess that it’d also do have done poorly ratings wise, in the US, if it was a free to air show.

  10. Given the creator/head writer Joseph Weisberg worked for the CIA in the 90’s and that he has said this is based off the Anna Chapman case of 2010 where they discovered Russian Sleeper agents had been in the US for decades (with families etc), I am willing to give this a go,

    I have also only seen glowing reviews of it’s season (completed) in the US, so given other shows like The Following copped a caning on IMDb and etc., that also fills me with hope for this.

    Though I did read that some were taken back by some of the sex scenes, that were a little over the top and not needed to progress stories, so wondering how this will go in an 8:30pm time-slot. Of course those scenes might be tame compared to what we see on TV here and only be a US reaction to more than what they’re used to.

  11. Thanks for the review, David. I only watched the first couple of seasons of Bro&Sis but I liked Rhys in that and a couple of others things I’ve seen him in. Haven’t seen Russell in much but what I have seen was passable.

    From what I’ve seen of the show, I don’t think it will be great but it should prob be able to hold my interest at least for the first few eps. Time will tell whether the writing does it justice and manages to avoid the usual spy clichés.

    However, it really feels more like a Sunday show to me altho’ Elementary obviously has that spot for the next couple of months. Still Ten need to do something other than just have one decent night a week. If they actually start this at 8:30, I’ll watch it instead of Revenge.

  12. V good series, and at least 160,000 times better than Homeland Season 2 (if that #%^*# teen daughter flounced off one more time cause of a bad text she got from her boyfriend or whatever the hell it was…)

  13. Really looking forward to this, looks really good in the ads. I used to love Felicity, so will be interesting to see Keri Russell in a completely different role.

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