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The State of 'The Americans'

By Chris Baggiano,
Impressions of the first two episodes of FX's new series

As the new recapper for FX’s The Americans, I thought it would be best to share my overall impressions of the new show instead of going back and doing individual recaps for the first two episodes. There will be a recap for the third episode of the show, “Gregory,” and all subsequent episodes from here on out. If you are on the fence about whether or not to continue to watch or are unsure about the new 1980s spy drama then hopefully this will give you a more informed opinion to decide your future watching habits.

The Americans is, far and away, the best new show of the 2012-2013 TV season thus far. The premise about following two KGB spies in 1980s America challenges the audience and makes the show interesting enough on its own but the storytelling and acting should continue to keep the audience coming back. The Americans is a very well crafted show that immediately places many aspects of the typical viewing experience on their head. Viewers from the USA especially will immediately have their foundations shaken, as the protagonists of the show have always been perceived as “the bad guys.”

The show focuses around Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip (Matthew Rhys), two KGB spies that have formed a family in America. Elizabeth is more of the alpha in the relationship. In “Pilot” it is made clear that Elizabeth is the more patriotic of the two and, in fact, has voiced some doubts about Phillip’s commitment to the cause. Phillip is stuck between the two countries. He clearly was patriotic at one point but having lived in the USA for so long and finding that much of the Soviet propaganda against the USA to be false has given him second thoughts. This makes for an interesting dynamic between the two. The performances of Russell and Rhys are good, with Rhys being the stand out. The audience can see the conflicting sentiments on his face and his yearning for Elizabeth to feel more romantically connected to him. He also is very believable in action scenes and can be menacing if need be. The two of them have some awkward chemistry that works perfectly for the show.

The creators of The Americans made some very wise choices with the family dynamic of the show. Elizabeth and Phillip were chosen by the KGB in the early 1960s to be a couple in the USA. Their awkward first meeting shown in the first episode paints a good painting of their current relationship 20 years later. Even though they have been married for 15 years and have grown closer they still have yet to fall in love, or at least never fell in love the traditional way with courtship and swooning and all that good stuff. While it is clear they both care about each other they show has thrown a focus on the fact that their marriage came from an order more than from a romantic connection. Their job requires them to sleep around to gain information or assets and this also throws a wrench in the works.

They also have two children, Paige who is 13 and Henry who seems to be around 10, which only adds to the familial drama. Having the two kids just entering into puberty and having a higher ability for intelligence will heighten the need for Phillip and Elizabeth to seem like a normal couple. Their ages also will allow for the more typical family drama storyline, like in “Pilot” where Paige is hit on by a skeezy 20-something (which resulted in Phillip using one of his disguises and kicking the crap out of him). Fortunately the decision to cast Holly Taylor as Paige and Keidrich Sellati as Henry was a good one as Taylor has been fairly impressive thus far and Sellati, while not given much, has not been a glaring weakness (unlike another son in a fairly new espionage show on Showtime). One last layer to the whole family aspect is the parents, clearly very patriotic Soviets, having a hard time dealing with their children being raised as Americans. This hasn’t become a huge sticking point yet but there have been some nice details, like Henry playing ice hockey, that are nice reminders.
No show would be complete with out an antagonist and new neighbor and FBI counterintelligence agent Stan (Noah Emmerich) is the perfect choice. Emmerich is solid as the former undercover turned counterintelligence agent. He is overly inquisitive but comes off as a decent guy, despite some of the smarmier things he does like breaking into the Jennings’s garage in “Pilot” or shaking down the stereo storeowner in “The Clock.” Having a show that requires the audience to empathize with characters that carry such heavy stereotypes as Soviet spies means the FBI have to portrayed somewhat negatively and the aforementioned examples do a good job of doing so without going too heavy. In fact the show tries as hard as they can to not side with the KGB or the FBI, giving a fairly balanced viewpoint. Yes, Stan and the FBI do some less than desirable things in the first two episodes but so do the KGB and Elizabeth and Phillip. Elizabeth must poison the boy of the housemaid to the Secretary of State in order for her to plant a bug in his study. Likewise the KGB forces Elizabeth and Phillip to complete a mission in three days that would usually take half a year of prep work to complete.

The show’s incredible balance is perhaps the most impressive thing of all. Not only do they give proper balance to both sides of the Cold War without slanting the audience’s opinion one way or the other but it is incredible how they balance each facet of the story. Neither “Pilot” nor “The Clock” feel too bogged down by one single aspect of the story. The family drama is weaved nicely with the relationship dram that mixes with the espionage aspects. Aside from the opening sequence of “Pilot,” which features a solid six or so minute pure action scene, every scene and aspect of the multiple stories are well balanced. There isn’t too much time devoted to any one specific story line at one time that helps move the narrative forward, even through some of the parts that some may find less interesting.

The balance also helps with the slow leak of Elizabeth’s and Phillip’s backstory. These are two very interesting characters and, especially in Elizabeth’s case with her being raped by her captain during training, finding out their motivations behind their strong desire to be spies for the KGB will hopefully be very exciting.

The balance also shows up in the era this show takes place. Many recent shows have been set in very specific eras in the past, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However many of those shows use the era and their “historical accuracy” and costuming/set design as the main reason to watch the show (think the failed Pan-Am and Playboy Club as well as the new 19th century BBC period dramas such as Copper). The Americans is very different in that regard. Instead of beating the audience over the head with the time period of the subtle use of the time period is refreshing. Instead of basing their entire show around it The Americans use it as a mere border. It feels like the 1980s and there are some reminders, especially with the songs that are played in either montages or through the radio, but it isn’t over the top.

The Americans is a very good show that shows a lot of promise. As long as they continue along the path they have set up within the first episodes and aren’t pressured to add more action or more romance, the show should only continue to get better. The acting is overall pretty good and the balanced approach allows the viewers to come to their own conclusions and allegiances. In many ways this feels like a truer and “realer” show than another espionage show that airs on Showtime that features a lot of ultra-realism(the first and only Homeland reference), to which The Americans will probably be constantly compared. The Americans is a very believable, very well told and acted story that should be given a chance.

image: FX

 
 

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