The Cold War may have ended over 20 years ago, but FX has brought it to current TV with “The Americans” — but this offering is from the perspective of the Russians.
Keri Russell (“Felicity”) and Matthew Rhys (“Brothers & Sisters”) star as married Russian spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. On the outside, they’re just a regular American family — two kids, Chevrolet in the garage, sports practice, trips to the mall. But behind closed doors (and on secret missions), they’re spying for the Russian government.
That’s interesting enough on its own, but throw in an FBI agent living across the street in the form of Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and marital strife over loyalty to the Motherland, and FX has the makings of another stellar drama on its hands.
Set up as the protagonists, with an arranged marriage for the purpose of spying, the Jenningses are enjoyable to watch carry out their missions to obtain classified information and relay it back to their comrades in Russian, especially with the added tension of a Fed breathing down their necks. Beeman’s spidey sense is on high alert with Philip and Elizabeth from day one.
Which just adds another issue in the arranged marriage and where the show really finds its dramatic footing — while Elizabeth is a diehard loyalist (with some mean hand-to-hand combat skills), Philip is starting to wane a bit. Maybe America isn’t so bad. Maybe they can just be a normal family. Maybe the marriage is no longer as “arranged” as it started out.
For all the excitement of the missions and the tension with the FBI neighbor, what really carries the show is the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth. The show uses flashbacks to fill in their lives before they were forced to marry and sent to the U.S. for their spy work. The juxtaposition of their former lives and their “Leave it To Beaver” life is nice, as is the juxtaposition between “Leave it to Beaver” and the spy missions. Russell and Rhys are different than we’ve ever seen them before on TV, but both pull off their roles with aplomb.
It’s an interesting conceit for a show, with shades of “Homeland” and “Covert Affairs” set against stellar ’80s fashions. If it continues into further seasons, it will be fascinating to watch the Russian perspective of how the Cold War changes over the course of the 1980s, with President Reagan going from calling the U.S.S.R. the “evil empire” to the relations thawing out as the Berlin Wall collapse approaches.
Even if the show doesn’t make it to that point in history, the Jennings family has us hooked so far.
“The American” premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.