Imagine it’s the early 1980s. Ronald Regan is newly-elected President, cassette tapes, Phil Collins, and Return of the Jedi are all the rage… And everyone’s wearing those puffy coats they used to wear that made them look like they just jumped ship.
Back to the Future jokes aside, it’s a scary time. Kids these days don’t remember the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but I remember the constant threat of the “Russians.” They were always the bad guys in every action movie, and they were always on the news with scary parades of giant missiles, not like these North Korea guys… The Russians were actually scary.
There aren’t any cell phones, or internet, or laptops or iPads… But there are color TVs and microwaves, and these new things called personal computers… Oh, and the constant threat of thermonuclear annihilation.
Now imagine you’re a regular guy, with a wife, a house, two kids, a travel agency to run. You go to PTA meetings, you mingle with neighbors, you go to the movies and follow Carson… The American dream, right?
Then you get a phone call, and there’s a code, and you’re off to meet your handler in the middle of the night… Why? Because you, and your wife, are actually deep-cover KGB agents. You have been since you were 17. Recruited to become super-spies, to lose the accent, to blend completely. You met your wife for the first time just a few weeks before you left Moscow. You are a KGB cell, and you are here to spy, to kill, and to destabilize if necessary. Oh, and honey? Can you pick up some .45 caliber slugs, some C4, and some butter on your way home?
This is the premise of FX’s hit thriller The Americans, which airs Wednesday night at 10, and this is my vote for best new show. Starring Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as the Jennings, the normal couple next door that just happens to be KGB.
Created by ex-CIA agent Joe Weisberg, the series has been a hit for Fox’s cable channel, FX, following a string of successful shows like Archer and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia… Shows that have redefined television as far as I’m concerned. Cable’s after-10pm time slot is the coveted “We can show and say almost anything” spot thanks to South Park, and in the last few years channels like FX and AMC have used they leeway to push the envelope. This is FX’s first high-concept action show, and it sometimes strays into fantastic-land, but Fox knows what they’re doing. No one brings action to TV like Fox, anyone remember Jack Bauer? Thankfully The Americans doesn’t stray into over-the-top cliche suspense, it relies on something much more intricate.
What makes The Americans work so well? The characters. Rhys and Russel are amazing as Nadezhda and Mischa, aka Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings. At the heart of the show is the marriage between the two agents. They’ve been pretending to be married for over 15 years, they take the kids to school, they make the dinners, check the homework, do the dance, all the things we do everyday… But the brilliance is the fact that they walk the line between truly just “going through the motions” and real human connections. They’ve been pretending to be happily married for so long, how do their own personal feelings fit in there? The rest of the cast, thankfully, isn’t just window dressing either, this is an extremely talented team. Co-star Noah Emmerich, one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood, is compulsively watchable as the emotionally scarred FBI agent that moves in next door. It provides opportunities for so many layers of suspense as the season progresses, especially after an incident with Emmerich’s partner.
We find out early on that both husband and wife use sex as a tool in their espionage belt, and the show is at its best when both of them return home at the end of the day, going to bed like the Cleavers at night. It’s a better version of Mr. & Mrs. Smith. These people have to wear so many masks, they’ve lost their real identities in the process. One of my personal favorite characters in the show is Phillip’s alter-ego Clark, a character he plays in order to get information from the FBI office. When they’re alone and the mission is over and the kids are in bed, who are they? Do they love each other? Can they turn a fake marriage into a real one? After 15 years of living with someone, fighting with someone, spying with someone, wouldn’t a natural emotional connection emerge? Can that survive in the harsh world of cold-war espionage? Phillip is more Americanized, Elizabeth is slightly unstable, and someone is always watching… Can you take the kids to school this morning? I was stabbed in the leg during a mission last night.
Plus the build up to these two having a knock-down, drag-out, ass-kicking fight is just killing me. I know it’s going to happen, you know it’s going to happen, they know it’s going to happen. Oh man I can’t wait to see it.
It’s also refreshing that there is something decent to watch during the week. Usually all of the good TV is on Sunday nights, while the rest of the week is spend waiting for Sunday night. We need more of these mid-week thrillers to keep break up the monotony of the prime-time landscape. There’s no shaky-camera, no over-the-top action… The dialogue is sharp, the plot multi-layered, the characters are believable, and best of all- it leaves you wanting more. If the credits roll and I’m holding my breath for next week’s trailer, I know its a good show.
If you haven’t seen The Americans, you need to. If it looks cheesy and pulpy, then your expectations are the problem, not this show. This show isn’t perfect, but it’s as good as it gets for mid-week escapism. In a post-Lost world where TV executives have to go head-to-head with adult-drama behemoths like Mad Men, Game of Thrones, it’s hard to find a good show that isn’t a weekend-ender. The Americans has my vote for best new show this year. Suck it Revolution.