FX’s decision to create an early 80’s Cold War spy thriller built around the concept of two married Russian spies posing as Americans in the Washington DC area seemed to be a potentially dubious decision. Would anyone watch? Is it relevant? Would anyone buy Felicity as a hardened spy?
So far, the answer to all three questions is ‘yes.’
Taking place in 1981, the series does a fine job of period detail without overdoing it. The shorts are shorter, the haircuts a little shaggier, and all of the phones are attached to a cord. Even the music choices perfectly capture that time period between disco and new wave (Quarterflash’s Harden My Heart plays in episode one, causing me to geek out a little). All of that is well and good. However, two choices in particular make this a show worth an addiction.
The first is the very intelligent move by the show runners to lean heavily on basic thriller elements and less on the politics of the time. Sure, history is addressed and the quarrel between the US and the USSR is plainly detailed, but the show does not forget to entertain. There are close calls and narrow escapes galore. Sudden flashes of violence are set up by paranoia and intrigue. Even the decision to have a FBI agent move in next door to our Russian Spies (a plot contrivance if ever there was one), pays dividends thanks in great part to the no BS performance of Noah Emmerich as the G-Man next door. Emmerich’s agent feels that something is just a bit off with his new neighbors and the efforts by both men to get to know each other are steeped in suspicion as opposed to camaraderie.
The second and most crucial choice has to be the casting of Keri Russell. My perception of Russell as an appealing–if a bit lightweight–actress has been completely turned on its head. Her well-known cheerfulness and optimism are replaced here by a severe countenance borne of a painful introduction into the KGB that resulted in a marriage she did not choose for a country she does not love but feels an almost abusive sense of loyalty to.
This is where the tension of the show truly lies, between the small eyes and slight furrow above Russell’s elfin nose. Her husband (well-played by Welsh actor, Matthew Rhys) loves her–despite the arranged nature of their partnership, where she both respects and resents him. All of her anger toward Mother Russia is targeted at a spouse she didn’t choose, whose loyalties to the hammer and sickle are wavering, as he begins to fear for the well-being of his wife and the two children they bore to complete the portrait of domestic routine, satisfying benign veil they hide behind.
The Americans is smart, tough, and genuinely involving. It also manages the neat trick of having you root for lead characters whom in any other real life venue you would want brought to justice and quickly. It does so by making them human, even when their actions are morally flexible if not worse.
The Americans airs Wednesdays on FX at 10PM EST.