Spies, Television

TV: The Americans (Season 1)

August 11, 2014

It took me a long time to finish season one of The Americans, FX’s period spy drama about Russian sleeper agents in the 1980s. For a series that has my name written all over it, I’ve had a hard time getting fully invested in this one.

The Americans of the title are Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip (Matthew Rhys), the Jennings, an unassuming suburban couple who are secretly deep-cover agents for the Soviet Union. They’ve been living the lie so long, even their young children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) aren’t aware of their true nature. The Jennings live a conventional American life on the surface, but secretly they’re furthering the aims of their Soviet masters, carrying out operations in a variety of guises. All the while they’re trying to stay one step ahead of the FBI – including their next-door neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich).

With its understated spycraft, convincing period detail, and fine performances, The Americans has all the outward assets, and really the writing is quite good, too. Russell and Rhys are capable anchoring presences for the series, and both are chameleonic, transforming themselves with clever disguises to suit the mission. (The role-playing here is basically the opposite of Alias; whereas Sydney Bristow’s costumes made her stand out like a sore thumb, the Jennings’ make them nondescript and inconspicuous.) Emmerich’s Stan Beeman is a highly credible and formidable adversary, and Margo Martindale has an unusual turn as the Jennings’ ruthless Soviet handler. Meanwhile, just enough historical detail is dashed into the proceedings to contribute to its rich, convincing ambience.

Despite all this, something wasn’t connecting for me, and it took the entire season to put my finger on it: this is not, first and foremost, a spy series. The Americans is a period family drama with a marriage focus. The Jennings’ “marriage” is a troubled one, and it has decidedly unique challenges – but the missions complicating their life, which often involve manipulating and seducing sources, actually stand in for conventional marital strife. I think I would have read the show differently if I’d seen that angle from the beginning. But I kept trying to invest myself fully in the espionage hugger-mugger, which – while hardly ineffective – is ultimately secondary. Meanwhile the show’s most interesting storylines involve infidelity, which is tangled up almost inextricably with the work. Elizabeth has an ongoing affair with her first recruited asset, Gregory (Derek Luke). One of Phillip’s ongoing obligations involves seducing and conning an FBI employee named Martha (Alison Wright). And when Stan turns a young Russian embassy employee named Nina (Annet Mahendru), he falls in love with her. It’s all professional spy business, and yet the personal cost reflects back on the characters’ “real” relationships. It’s more interesting to me now in retrospect than it was in the moment; I think I was viewing the show wrong, expecting something slightly different than the show was delivering.

The Americans does enough right that I’ll probably keep going with it, but going into season two I’ll be watching with new eyes.

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