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.