“The Americans” is an intriguing and provocative concept — positing the idea of Soviet spies living in plain sight, during the early days of the Reagan administration. The execution, alas, initially isn’t worthy of the premise, becoming fairly standard spy stuff, and relying heavily on awkward flashbacks to fill in the backstory. While the first two episodes (including an extended premiere) contain enough promise to merit continued surveillance, what emerges is more notable for its ’80s soundtrack and duck-and-cover-drill paranoia than its cat-and-mouse games or Cold War rekindling.
While the obvious comparison would be “No Way Out,” the movie starring Kevin Costner, there’s perhaps as much of a debt to “The Riches,” a short-lived FX series that also dealt with imposters trying to make a go of surviving suburbia.
“Americans” introduces Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, another Englishman shedding his accent), a couple happily living in the D.C. suburbs with their two kids, ages 13 and 10. Only the pair harbors an improbable secret, having been thrown into an arranged marriage and planted in the U.S. as moles, spending evenings ferreting out defectors and gathering intel for the Motherland.
The ruse is so elaborate that the couple is forbidden to speak Russian even in private moments, just to be safe. As in “No Way Out,” the sleepers are also written off as an espionage myth, something Soviet defectors tell interrogators in an effort to impress them.
As the story begins, the Jennings’ operation is complicated in a macro sense by the zeal of the newly installed Reagan administration, eager to expose commie spies in our midst, and on a micro level by a nosy FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) who just happens to move in across the street.
Created by Joe Weisberg, there’s certainly a lot happening in these first couple of hours, including flashbacks of nearly 20 years — to the early ’60s — showing how the KGB chose and groomed Elizabeth and Philip for this assignment. Not only need they worry about exposure, but their commitments to the cause and feelings toward each other aren’t entirely in sync, creating friction and a measure of empathy within the relationship.
There’s certainly tension (and a good deal of violence) in the opening hours, as well as the uncomfortable framework of making America’s enemies the ostensible protagonists. The set-up asks viewers to identify with the spies, without, presumably, rooting for them.
Still, Russell feels a tad miscast (call the role less than felicitous), and Rhys — who brought menace to his starring role in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” — comes across as neutered by comparison, despite the brutal efficiency he exhibits when pressed into action. The flashbacks, moreover, are unconvincing, since the pair look 30-ish then and now.
“The Americans” has atmosphere (where else will you hear Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” or Phil Collins songs used to such good effect?), but the most lingering question hovers at its fringes — namely, what happens in less than a decade when the Berlin Wall comes tumbling down.
For FX, surviving enough seasons to address that dilemma would certainly be a welcome problem. But so far, despite the intriguing premise, the show’s Boris and Natasha have yet to fulfill the appointment-viewing part of their mission.