FX’s latest 10:00 PM drama, “The Americans,” earns its “Language-Sexual Situations-Violence” disclaimer before the opening credits have rolled. Don’t let that lead you to a sense that this is going to be a guilty pleasure. This period soap opera about Soviet sleeper agents during the early Reagan era takes itself more seriously than that.
The audience is cued into the espionage stuff first. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys (“Brothers & Sisters”) play Soviet sleep agents in Washington, DC during the Reagan era. We first meet Keri Russell, tarted up in a blonde wig and dressed to impress in an upscale bar, picking up a schmuck who works for the Justice Department, and then kidnapping a Soviet defector with Rhys.
After the opening credits, we meet Russell and Rhys again as Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, a likeable suburban couple with two very American children, played very well by newcomers Keidrich Sellati and Holly Taylor. And there’s just a hint of resentment in Elizabeth’s eyes when her son shows his excitement over Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford visiting his school.
“The moon isn’t everything,” she lectures. “Just getting into space is an accomplishment.”
This could be the stuff of dark comedy, but judging by the pilot, scripted by former CIA officer Joe Weisberg and directed by Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior”), this show doesn’t have a sense of humor. The Cold War is treated with deadly seriousness here. “The Americans” is focused on the drama, and seems all but oblivious to the irony implicit in some of its situations.
There is tension in the Jennings’ sham marriage, partly because Phillip likes America much more than Elizabeth, and partly because he has genuine feelings for her as well. To Elizabeth, her marriage to Phillip is a KGB operation, and the fact that she’s had two children with him is part of the job. Bear in mind she’s using her body as a tool of the trade in the prologue. Phillip, however, is clearly pained when he covertly listens to an audiotape of that encounter.
The fact that Phillip and Elizabeth make love spontaneously after disposing of a body is only unintentionally funny, partly because O’Connor accompanies the scene with Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” O’Connor uses eighties music a couple of times, notably Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” somewhat awkwardly.
Don’t expect the soundtrack to “Rock of Ages,” however. Viewers hoping for big hair, Spandex and padded shoulders will be disappointed. There is absolutely no sense of nostalgia in this show, which dates itself primarily with political references. And make no mistake: fear of the Soviet bogeyman and nuclear Armageddon was very real in 1981. Never mind that most Soviet sleeper agents apparently seldom conveyed any intelligence more vital than baseball scores. We didn’t know that then.
Characters on both sides are forewarned by their superiors that the Cold War is heating up. The hour and a half pilot is somewhat over-crammed with supporting characters, setting up a rich mother lode of situations for future episodes, including, almost regrettably, Noah Emmerich as an FBI agent who moves in across the street. Despite the kneejerk reaction of “Of course he does,” Emmerich’s character is interesting, with some apparent experience in deep cover assignments himself.
Richard Rutowski’s cinematography is moody to a fault, and both he and O’Connor inexplicably seem to be determined to make “The Americans” look like a David Fincher movie. They needn’t have. This show ought to be able to stand on its own.