Third-episode verdict: The Americans (FX/FX Canada/ITV)

The BarrometerA Barrometer rating of 1

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

Time to report back on the first three episodes of The Americans, FX’s slice of 80s nostalgia that asks us to root for some undercover KGB agents in their never-ending fight against those crazy Americans. And I have to say that after a really good first episode, the show has only got better.

The problems with the first episode were that there was too little for Keri Russell to do, and there was no drive in the series to give any urgency to our heroes’ situation, not even the moving in of an FBI agent next door. To be honest, there was also a certain whitewashing of the KGB’s methods, too.

Episodes two and three have largely overcome these problems with the introduction of Star Wars. No, not Star Wars but the strategic defence initiative, Ronald Reagan’s attempt to neutralise the threat of Soviet nuclear missiles. Okay, with the show set in 1981, it’s a couple of years too early, but it does give the show an interesting plot drive: our agents are now trying to stop a genuine threat to the Soviet Union, albeit a hollow one, it’ll subsequently turn out.

Russell now gets things to do, even though the bulk of the action (and indeed everything else) is handled by Matthew Rhys and handled better at that, and we have the beginnings of a love story, in a sense, with Russell’s character apparently starting to fall in love with the man she married over a decade earlier. We also get more of her side of things and how she feels, having learnt already how Rhys’ character feels.

Meanwhile, the methods deployed by Rhys and Russell have started to get nastier, with Russell deploying the old ‘poison umbrella’ trick against innocents, Rhys beating the crap out of pretty much anything that moves, using women he’s charmed whenever he can, and the KGB off faking suicides left, right and centre. Our heroes are perhaps less brutal than other agents, but it’s clear they’re prepared to do what’s necessary when they have to. We also get some genuine Russian speakers speaking Russian, which is a nice touch that adds to the show’s surprisingly decent verisimilitude, even if Russell’s make-up team are refusing to give her a hairstyle or make-up from any earlier than 2010.

We also have the work of the FBI counter-intelligence agents to peruse during all of this, which makes for an interesting experience. On the one hand, you want to root for them, which normally wouldn’t be too hard. They’re clever, have good instincts and prepared to do what it takes to defend the US. But at the same time, you don’t want them to catch Rhys and Russell, and it’s fun watching how the writers manage to square the two conflicting desires. There is perhaps a bit of miscasting with the main FBI agent, who’s just not likeable enough compared to Rhys or Russell, so it’s not really as much of a dilemma for the viewer as it could be, but the producers are playing this side of things well: when the FBI agents bend the law, they actually seem like the bad guys compared to the KGB good guys.

With plenty of decent fights, tension, dense plotting, the cold war seen sympathetically from the Soviet point of view, largely likeable characters, as well as a sterling performance from Matthew Rhys, The Americans is a great show that will be going on my recommended list. However, I have literally no idea what time slot ITV might stick it in, since it’s probably way too bleak and nasty for 9pm and 10pm or later would be a waste. So catch it when you can.

Now here’s the Barrometer to give you its ratings. Bet you weren’t expecting that, but then I’m modelling this review after Zero Dark Thirty.

Barrometer rating: 1
Rob’s prediction: Should get at least a second season


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.