The Americans.One of the best written and well-acted shows on television, The Americans is a tense period drama built around an early 80’s-era pair of covert Russian spies living and working as an authentic American family in suburban DC. Living in the upper middle class suburb of Falls Church, Virginia with their two young children are Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, two expertly-trained, disciplined and deadly KGB agents that look like a typical family, fulfilling all the suburban normalcies of science projects, mall trips and hockey practice.The story begins for us in 1981, as President Reagan is beginning his crusade to intimidate the Soviets with his American swagger, and traverses the heights of Cold War panic – a time fraught with fear of the coming Communist invaders. From the Iran-Contra affair to dealings with the Mujahadeen, we watch the prelude to our current conflicts contextualized amid the brooding tension that lives in the undercurrent of this show, perfectly mirroring our nation’s Cold War state of mind.In the pilot episode the Jennings find out an FBI counter-intelligence agent (played with reserved strength by Noah Emmerich) and his family are moving in across the street. This scenario could easily play as hokey or far-fetched, but the subtlety of the performances offset by the insane action sequences and snapshots of the Jennings home life make for truly compelling television. Add to that the pitch-perfect early 80s soundtrack and you have a rich, immersive show that is comparable in quality to any paid cable prestige drama.Keri Russell, once most famous for a haircut, plays wife and mother Elizabeth Jennings with steely resolve (her performance in itself makes the show worth watching). Her petite frame and delicate features could work against her in this role, but she is truly believable as a ruthless KGB agent who is prepared to carry out her mission no matter the cost. The Jennings will stop at nothing to develop assets, gather information or prevent its dissemination. Elizabeth’s complete contempt for capitalism and religion is clearly stronger than that of her husband Philip, played by Matthew Rhys. Philip is a loving and supportive father and husband who seems to be very comfortable with the trappings of American capitalism. (The occasional grim flashbacks show the world they left behind for America and the stark reality of the Cold War-era Soviet Union). Elizabeth and Philip have a shared loyalty to their homeland and, of course, a secret that binds them together in a far different way than just being spouses and parents. These two never forget their purpose in the U.S. and their ease of transition from murdering a man in their garage to a family dinner on a school night illustrates their true double identities.We learn theirs was an arranged KGB “marriage;” two strangers matched by their handlers and trained to live so naturally as to go completely undetected. Having children and living as a family were part of their directive and their cover. The couple’s dynamic never reads as false and it details the complexity of marriage in a way that is truly human and relatable, even under these unusual circumstances. At the core of this spy thriller is a domestic drama. This couples faces what all couples face: questions about values, child-rearing and the ways in which people change over time, often independently of one another. In the Jennings’ case they juggle multiple lives, covers and assets, all while maintaining their family life and functional business. The frequent sex scenes (often in disguises), explosive violence and nail-biting car chases are just part of a package that, at its heart, is a story about marriage and family. Despite this being a decidedly dark show, some truly upsetting things are carried out by the Jennings, it remains a very quiet, intimate and sometimes even funny drama.In the pilot, we also meet Nina Sergeevna, an employee of the Rezidentura, an embassy that serves as the base of Soviet espionage activities in the US. Nina is quite an intriguing character who is set for an incredibly windy story arc in the seasons to come. Her job at the Rezidentura offers a glimpse into the other forces at work under less covert circumstances.The Americans offers a fascinating glimpse into the KGB’s top-secret “Directorate S” program which placed Russian-born sleeper agents under deep cover in the United States, having careers and families all while carrying out dangerous covert ops in their spare time. These agents were forbidden to speak any Russian, discuss their former lives, real names or childhoods, even with each other. The “Illegals” program was suspended in 2010 (what?!), and is a truly fascinating true life spy game.The fact that The Americans was been created by a former CIA officer (every episode must get approval from the CIA before production) helps to legitimize all the elements of spy craft such as dead drops, communication protocols and developing assets that really ring true. The pilot leaves us with questions that make this drama so damn addictive:
- Is the counter-intelligence agent neighbor a coincidence or is the FBI closing in on the Jennings?
- Will the kids learn who and what their parents (and by extension they) are?
- Can Philip and Elizabeth balance their double lives without turning against one another?
I won’t give anything away here, but trust me the show only gets better. The talented writers continue to surprise me as the story moves forward and these fine actors really inhabit their roles.So, why aren’t you watching The Americans!?!Season 4 of The Americans premiered on FX Wed March 15th and is streaming on FXNOW. If you blow off work (and believe in yourself) for the next few days, you can binge-watch Seasons One, Two and Three for free on Amazon Prime in time to catch up and watch with me!Alia Azhar Teetshorn only loves two things: everyone and television. She would be a terrible secret agent due to her paralyzing fear of being tickled and aforementioned love of watching television. She is still basking in the “I told you so(s)” of Battlestar Galactica’s eventual critical success.