The obvious parallel for The Americans, FX's new series about Soviet sleeper agents up to no good in 1980s USA, is Homeland. Minor differences aside (unlike Brody, the Jennings have no POW background) both shows focus on seemingly everyday folk tasked with attacking the United States from the inside and the toll that takes on both them and their families.
But unlike Showtime's perennial Golden Globe favorite, The Americans deals with a conflict we've already won. The Cold War effectively ended when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, so we already know the Jennings and their Soviet superiors don't succeed in bringing down the U.S. So the real questions are: what kind of damage will they end up doing, and what will the fallout (no pun intended) be for their kids?
Wednesday's pilot was promising, even if the spycraft left a lot to be desired. I guess FX is hoping the sex and violence will make up for any nitpicking.
And we're off: 1981! Quarterflash! Smoking in bars! We're in Washington, DC, and an obviously (to us) be-wigged Keri Russell is seducing some loudmouth from the Justice Department. Wow, haven't seen a BJ on TV in a while. From "Felicity," no less.
Does that make it "Feliciatio?"
Across town, a recent defector to the United States runs from two undercover KGB agents to the strains of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" (man, they're going to lean pretty heavily on K Billy's Super Sounds of the '80s, aren't they?). "Not Felicity" picks up the agents (one of whom has been wounded) and the now apprehended defector, switches plates, and rushes to their drop site. They arrive just in time to see a freighter sailing off. Guess they [puts on sunglasses] missed the boat.
That's how we meet "the Jennings," a pleasant suburban family who just happen to be highly trained Soviet operatives. Husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys) goes to work (making message drops), wife Elizabeth (Russell) stays home with Temisov, the captured defector now residing in the trunk of the family Olds, and the kids go to school. Idyllic, really.
Real time events take place between flashbacks to their training. Turns out "Elizabeth," in 1960, was raped by -- oh shit -- Temisov. No wonder she's so eager to kill him and be done with it. Meanwhile Phillip, disguised as a government auditor, interviews a secretary in the FBI's Counterintelligence Bureau about the disappearance of the defector. Predictably, the Feds are going bananas.
The show wastes no time establishing Phillip as dangerously enamored with the American lifestyle. He jokingly(?) suggests to Elizabeth they take the $3 million they could get for defecting (plus another three Temisov promises them if they return him to the U.S.) and tries on some cowboy boots while scooting along to Juice Newton. If they play "Bette Davis Eyes" I'll shit myself.
And in what I can only describe as a ridiculous coincidence, the new neighbor is an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) who works in Counterintelligence. Phillip is freaked out. Again. And wants to give themselves up. Again. If I were Elizabeth, I'd be worried about all the defection talk, kind of like a husband constantly "speaking hypothetically" about having sex with some hot girl at the office. The argument turns to the kids, whom Elizabeth still thinks they can turn into socialists. Phillip's reply: "This place doesn't turn out socialists."
How do you explain Obama, Phillip? HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN OBAMA?
Agent Beeman also worked undercover -- with white supremacists -- so he knows how they think, maaaan. He gives a rundown to Agent Gadd (Richard "John Boy" Thomas) about where he thinks Temisov might be ("in a house"). Beeman then goes home and tells his wife he gets a weird vibe from Phillip, but she mocks him enough that he drops it. Crisis averted!
Phillip, obviously intoxicated by game shows and easily obtainable convenience store pornography, decides to turn Temisov in, but Elizabeth has other ideas. Temisov is ... pretty strong for a guy who's been in a trunk for a week, but she gets the better of him, and Phillip has a change of heart after learning Temisov raped her, crushing the defector's throat. Finally, a tender couple's moment.
We come full circle as Phillip and Elizabeth drive Temisov to what is presumably his final resting place to the strains of "In the Air Tonight." If that sounds familiar, it might be because of this:
And speaking personally, I'd have driven a little further away from where I just dumped an acid-drenched corpse before having hot Commie car sex, but Elizabeth's new friskiness convinces Phillip not to defect. For now.
Elizabeth meets with a General Zhukov in a safe house and learns their KGB masters are none too happy about the death of one of their own (the other sleeper died in the hospital) and Temisov. We also learn Elizabeth has reported Phillip's "irregularities" before, but she backs off. Zhukov hints at troubles back home and insists she continue her efforts against the "madman" the Americans have elected President (hint: it's Reagan).
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Sure enough, ole Ronnie is displeased by the kidnapping of Temisov and signs an executive order authorizing all-out war against KGB sleeper agents.
In the final flashback, we see the happy couple arriving in Northern Virginia in '65, thrilling to the wonders of air conditioning. The last 1981 scene shows Agent Beaman searching the Jennings' Oldsmobile in the garage, while Phillip lurks just out of sight, pistol in hand. The car is clean, of course, so perhaps they're trying to defuse the Beeman situation by throwing him off the scent early.
The Americans shows promise. It's not altogether unexpected that the relationship between Phillip and Elizabeth has evolved into something approximating actual affection, even if it plays out in weird ways (Phillip listening to Elizabeth's sex tape with the DoJ guy). Phillip remains the weak link, unwisely deciding to beat the shit out the guy who came on to this 13-year old daughter. Disguise or not, it ain't a smart move, even if the entire audience probably enjoyed it. More interesting is Russell, who makes a believable transition from rom-com favorite to steely-yet-wounded covert operative.
One thing though: the Jennings need to pick a different liquor. Anyone drinking straight vodka in 1981 might as well have been singing "The Internationale."