FX already has one spy series (Archer), but these days they are trying their hand at a much more serious, live-action version with The Americans, in which Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell star as KGB agents planted within a suburban American community, carrying out orders as directed. The Americans draws almost all of its initial suspense and intrigue from physical sequences—of both fighting and sexual kinds—which makes it an unevenly paced pilot event, dragging in many areas and making the viewing experience feel much longer than it actually was. The Americans is sure to be a slow burn, and we’re all for that kind of methodic storytelling with a clear path to the character drama set up from the start, but this is one pilot that just didn’t draw us in.
As a psychological study, The Americans is interesting. Rhys’ character is considering life outside of his “spy” work—considering running with his family so they can be a real family after all. The dichotomy between his more open-mindedness and his “wife’s” stiff, guarded mission blinders is only touched upon the pilot, but its subtlety now implies much bigger points to be made down the line. The dichotomy between his more open-mindedness now and his own mission blinders from back in the day also pose an interesting, though internal and therefore reliant on Rhys as an actor, conflict to explore, as well. The good news is that Rhys is committed one hundred and fifty percent to this role the same way his character is committed to his cover. He so easily becomes this guy, that no matter what ridiculous wig or mustache they throw on him (and believe us, there are plenty of those!), and he relates every emotion effortlessly to the audience. You feel his conflict, his struggle, his pain, and his paranoia. But Rhys is so good, it makes the things around him that don’t work that much more obvious.
Since the pilot of The Americans jumps into this fake couple’s relationship two kids deep in their cover marriage, the use of flashbacks to show their former lives are a nice way to help you understand where they are coming from, why they would give up so much of themselves for this cause they believe in, and how they may be different today than the day they signed up for this kind of life. However, the flashbacks are supposed to be set in the ‘60s, about fifteen years before “present day,” and therefore, both Russell and Rhys should look more like fresh-faced (late) teenagers than the hardened spies they have turned into. Due to lack of SFX and the period hair and wardrobe of the time, though, they often look older in the flashbacks than they do in “present day,” which is extremely distracting.
As touched on earlier, many of their disguises across the board are laughable (starting with the terrible blonde wig Russell wears in the opening scene), which makes us wonder how they have managed to keep such a low profile all of these years. At times the KGB accents border on Borat realism, as well. Unfortunately, most of The Americans pilot leans towards needing to suspend one’s disbelief in much greater ways than should be expected from something so grounded in a reality we have come to know over the past few years. Very few people are exactly who they say they are, and playing with that should be The Americans greatest asset. There is a great opportunity there in the FBI agent who “just happens” to move next-door to this family. On the one hand, it seems like ridiculously unbelievable “only on TV!” wacky sitcom fodder that such a thing would occur at all, but there is opportunity to turn it around and play it smart, seeding both possibilities that he was sent to spy on the spies and that it was just chance, and his hunches really are just extraordinary.
The Americans would be extremely strong if it continued down that path of duality with all of its characters. These are complex people whose line of work has further complicated and compromised their personalities. It should be fascinating to watch them struggle. But it will only actually be that way if the show can prove it has a plan and is not just as confused as the characters are. Thus far, The Americans has not inspired that kind of confidence. Additionally, it should be fascinating to watch the this “couple” spawn a second generation of spies in their kids, but so far, that is just a missed opportunity, as they only talk about mundane things—like sports and bra shopping—with their offspring, not subtle undercuttings of government or history.
The Americans pilot left a lot to be desired. It’s definitely worth a second look, but unless it picks up the pace and makes some tough decisions soon, it won’t be worth a third.
The Americans premieres on FX on January 30th 2013 at 10 p.m.
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