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‘The Americans’ Pilot Recap: “Someone’s Been Reading Too Many Spy Novels”

Finally, the 2013 TV season has at least one new show worth watching. FX’s Cold War thriller ‘The Americans’ premiered last week with a pretty great pilot episode and a lot of potential.

The year is 1981. Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys from ‘Brothers & Sisters’ and Keri Russell from ‘Felicity’) are a perfectly average American couple with two kids, a house in the suburbs of our nation’s capital, and an Oldsmobile in the garage. (Marvel at the styling of those stacked headlights!) There’s just one little thing about them that their neighbors don’t know: A former KGB operative is locked in the trunk of that Olds.

Phillip and Elizabeth are deep-cover sleeper agents who were sent to America two decades earlier as part of “Directorate S,” the KGB’s initiative to plant spies all over the United States. They speak perfect English. They lead seemingly dull, average lives that won’t draw undue attention their way. None of their friends or their children know who they really are. Even they don’t know each other’s real names. They’re trained assassins and masters of espionage.

The ‘Pilot’ episode opens with a very suspenseful sequence in which Phil and Elizabeth have to abduct a Russian defector named Timochev, who’s been spilling the beans to the FBI and making himself very wealthy in the process. The plan is to snatch him off the street and load him onto a boat back to the USSR for punishment and (presumably) execution. Unfortunately, things get complicated and they miss the hand-off, thus forcing them to leave him bound and gagged in the trunk of their car as they pretend to go about their normal lives. In flashbacks, we learn that Timochev was the KGB captain who recruited and trained both Phil and Elizabeth.

Having lived as an American for twenty years, Phil has entertained his own thoughts of defection. As staged as his marriage may be, he’s grown to love his wife and family. Since he’s already living this life, why can’t he just make it legitimate? Elizabeth, on the other hand, is a true believer. Her patriotism to Mother Russia is unwavering. The mission comes above all else for her.

Further complicating matters is their new neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich, the CDC doctor on the first season of ‘The Walking Dead’), who just so happens to be an FBI agent working in the counterintelligence department that’s investigating whether Directorate S is real. Beeman has some undercover experience of his own. His last assignment was to infiltrate a White Supremacist group. He can’t quite put a finger on it, but he can smell that there’s something odd about Phil and Elizabeth, and isn’t above snooping in their garage to find out what.

Phil decides to turn Timochev over to the FBI and defect, but Elizabeth confronts him. When he learns that Timochev had raped Elizabeth during training, Phil strangles the man to death, overcome with jealousy and rage. While helping him dispose of the body, Elizabeth realizes how committed to her Phil is, which stirs some feelings of her own.

Although Keri Russell may have once seemed an unlikely choice to play a hardened spy, I think her brief but memorable appearance in ‘Mission: Impossible III‘ earned her significant credibility in the badass department. The acting in the show is pretty great, the writing is sharp and suspenseful, and the pilot episode has fun with a lot of 1980s spycraft such as dead drops, hidden safes and elaborate disguises.

If I have any nit-picks, neither Russell nor Rhys look anywhere near twenty years younger in the flashbacks, and the episode relies a little too heavily on clichéd ’80s music to sell the setting, including a groan-worthy montage and love scene played to Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’. Regardless, these are minor gripes. ‘The Americans’ is the first show of 2013 to lock a Series Recording on my DVR.

6 comments

  1. DrMaustus

    Agreed. Really enjoyed the show.

    The opening abduction scene felt like a long take, even though it clearly wasn’t. It seemed like there weren’t any edits even though it was probably 4 or 5 minutes long. It was very suspenseful and had me on the edge of my seat.

    I love cold war stories and this one really drew me in. My only problems with the episode are minor. I found the garage encroachment scene to be kind of silly, especially the reveal at the end. Are we to believe that the male spy is up all night “waiting” for the FBI agent to come a snoopin’? Also, a pet peeve of mine, why do writers insist on having actors employ a Russian accent when they’re in Russia? If we’re to suspend disbelief, why not just have them speak in “proper English” instead of with an accent? Or have them speak Russian with subtitles. Hunt for Red October did this best, if I recall, by having them speak in Russian and then just switch to English. The bad Russian accent just takes me out of the scene.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I believe in the flashback scenes they’re supposed to be speaking English as part of their training, sort of an immersive language program. They just hadn’t mastered their American accents at that point.

  2. DrMaustus

    You could be right, but their “handler” spoke with a Russian accent if I recall. I suppose you could argue that he was speaking to them in English as best he could as part of their training.

    At any rate, these are small issues. I’m really looking forward to where this show goes — and I can’t say that for any of the new shows this year.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      My rationale for that would be that the handler didn’t need to perfect his accent since he wasn’t a field agent. However, they all needed to speak English 100% of the time so that the two moles would be conditioned to think in that language.

  3. I thought that the first few scenes, especially the abduction, were too far-fetched for me- the two leads (not to mention that other guy) wavered between ridiculously well-trained and incompetent (I cut myself shaving, I guess), but as the show’s pilot went on it got a lot better. I really liked the scene where Philip pretends to be investigating the FBI in order to get information from the receptionist.

    It is tough to watch in HD and see the show try to make Keri Russell look older in one scene and younger in the next, but its livable. I thought the music is overly relied upon, but the production settings, clothing, etc looked great.

    As opposed to most new shows though, I hope that this show can survive long enough to overcome the rough edges.

  4. Glad others are enjoying this. I found the first 10 mins to be a little tonally weird — a little too slick — when they were running from the crime scene, but everything at home, and with the neighbors, was excellent. Can’t wait to see more.

    Did you check out HOUSE OF CARDS yet? I know that’s off topic here, but I found Netflix’s streaming HD to be of higher quality my F/X channel on DirecTV.

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