Review: The Americans 1×1 (FX/FX Canada/ITV)

The Russians love their children, too. Even the spies

FX - The Americans

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, FX
In Canada: Wednesdays,10pm ET/PT 8pm MT, FX Canada
In the UK: Acquired by ITV

There’s a lot of nostalgia for the 80s at the moment. Okay, so the 60s and 70s have largely been done to death on TV now thanks to Mad Men, That 70s Show et al and the population is ageing, but right now, it’s the 80s that have all the buzz. Maybe it’s those conservatives and their love of Ronald Reagan. Maybe it’s the fashionistas. Certainly, The Carrie Diaries is giving teenagers who weren’t even alive back then a chance to indulge in the decade of crazy fashions, MTV and Ferris Bueller.

What The Carrie Diaries doesn’t give anyone is a good old nostalgic feeling for the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the possible imminent death of everyone on the planet in a nuclear war. It won’t even include the Twin Towers in the Manhattan skyline in case it bums anyone out.

But The Americans, FX’s latest wander down the path of darkness, dares to love the Cold War, when times were simpler and you largely knew where the enemy was: either the Soviet Union or the Soviet embassy down the block – certainly not in a cave somewhere. Well, except for those sleeper agents, of course…

But it goes one step further still and dares to love the Soviets. Because The Americans, set in 1981, follows Keri Russell (last seen on Running Wilde) and Wales’ own Matthew Rhys (a Brothers and Sisters alum, so well versed in the art of faking an American accent) as a pair of Soviet sleeper agents who have spent 15 years in the US pretending to be an everyday couple next door. Trained to blend in with suburbia, they even have two kids, although whether those kids were conceived out of love or a desire to convert the American populace to socialism is a thorny subject.

Yes, after 15 years of living like Americans, our undercover couple – who are still spying, seducing and killing for the Soviets – are starting to wonder if the Yanks are really as bad as all that. Have they been changed? Is their will breaking? Or are they still good comrades? At the very least, they’re hoping that the FBI agent who’s moved in next door doesn’t discover who they are before they’ve decided for themselves…

Here’s a trailer:

About (via Wikipedia)
The Americans is an American television series, created by Joe Weisberg, a former CIA officer turned screenwriter, which premiered on January 30, 2013, on the FX network. It is a 1980s Cold War drama about a group of Soviet KGB officers who have been trained to impersonate American citizens, so that each one can become a sleeper agent, with a cover which may even include an unwitting spouse and family

Is it any good?
It’s pretty good. It has that characteristic lack of heart you find with pretty much any FX show, but it’s a damn sight better than a lot of them.

The show is clever in showing us the Cold War from the Soviets’ side. Ronald Reagan may just be trying to convince the Soviets he’s crazy so he can bankrupt them and force them to come to a rapprochement, but from the Soviet perspective, the US has just elected a crazy man and they’re now on a war footing. It’s a people that are scared, and understandably so, so when they’re spying on US citizens, it doesn’t seem as unjustified as all that. Maybe that’s just the distance time gives us – it would be hard to do a similar al Qaeda-based show right now – but these are well trained professionals, doing their job, trying to sort out right from wrong. And when you’re sitting there, watching our ‘heroes’ sitting through the now-ridiculous anti-Soviet propaganda that High Schools and TV of the time were feeding the population with, it’s hard not to feel sympathetic towards both them and the real Soviets.

The show is also happy to do all those things we love in spy shows: fight scenes, seduction scenes, car chases, lurking in the dark, covert break-ins and more. The fight scenes are excellent, if a little too slick; the seduction scenes, which require Russell to wear an improbable wig, are less so; but the whole thing is extremely tense.

Actually, a lot of the tension comes from whether our ‘heroes’ will give themselves away. Matthew Rhys’ character may be a spy, but he is a father and when that hulk of a guy comes on to his 13-year-old daughter, the audience wants him to use his awesome fighting skills to take him down, even if he’d end up blowing his cover.

Rhys is by far the more plausible and versatile actor, flipping between disguise, character and accent with alacrity, although bizarrely, the accent he’s settled on for his default does sound slightly hollow. Russell, playing a more brittle character anyway, has less to do, and is less capable at it – her Russian accent is particularly dreadful – but does reasonably well playing a cold, emotionless devotee of communism.

Other than the onward march of history, though, what the show lacks is a driver. Although the show gives us dilemmas – the guy next door who thinks there’s something fishy about his new neighbours and the relative lack of commitment Rhys’s character to the mission has compared with his wife whom he loves, even if she doesn’t love him (at least, not yet) – and missions, we don’t have a real hook, something for our heroes to be doing other than not getting discovered unless they want to be. So it’s not quite as captivating as perhaps it could be.

Nevertheless, it’s a good start and hopefully in the next couple of episodes, the show will give us a better draw and allow Russell to loosen up a bit or at least get more engaging. At the moment, The Americans is an interesting and moody period piece, albeit one in which not quite everyone is as convincingly 80s as perhaps they should be, as well as an interesting character piece, so worth a look in for an episode or two at least. But it’s not quite a full on recommend from me – yet.