Monday, November 21, 2016

The First Five of "The Americans"

In the age of television anti-heroes, what better subject for a cable drama than one of the American media's favorite go-to bad guys, Communist spies? "The Americans" imagines a version of the 1980s where there really were deep cover Soviets living in the U.S. under assumed identities, fighting the Cold War on enemy turf. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys) look like an average American married couple, with two children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). However, they're actually KGB agents, carrying out dangerous missions on behalf of Soviet intelligence. The series was created by Joe Weisberg, a former CIA official.

The early episodes get the ball rolling on several ongoing storylines. Elizabeth and Philip have never been romantically involved despite having children together, but that starts to change after a particularly dramatic mission together. They begin to open up to each other about their previously closed-off personal lives and histories. Then there's Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent working in counterintelligence, who moves into the Jennings' neighborhood with his family. Stan and his partner Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernández) are frequently working against the efforts of the Jennings, though they don't know it. Stan also becomes involved with Nina (Annet Mahendru), a secretary at the Soviet embassy who he coerces into becoming an informer.

Watching the Jennings carry out espionage missions and keep up false identities is certainly fun to watch, but what I've really been enjoying about "The Americans" is the way it recontextualizes history from the Soviet point of view. Elizabeth and Philip are portrayed quite sympathetically, and the fervent anti-communism of the Americans can be unsettling. The show's episode on the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan is a highlight, with the CIA paranoid about the possibility of a Soviet connection, while the Soviets are paranoid that the CIA will try to pin the blame on them. I like that the show doesn't seem to lean one way or another on the politics at this point, though we all know who is going to win in the end.

Now, the Soviets never really used deep cover operatives like this, and frankly the lives that Philip and Elizabeth are a little ridiculous in construction. However, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are very good at selling their complicated, tumultuous, and often contradictory relationship. Elizabeth is the true believer, the one who is more emotionally invested in their work for the KGB. Keri Russell is fantastic at showing how she thinks and operates, and she's been the standout of the cast so far. Philip's loyalties are less certain, but when push comes to shove, he's equally willing to do horrible things. Matthew Rhys hasn't quite won me over to the same extent as Russell yet, but he's getting there. I also really appreciate how complex Stan Beeman is, full of doubts and flaws. Noah Emmerich is showing the potential to be great.

My issues with the show mostly have to do with the writing. "The Americans" is fond of action and violence to the extent that you could mistake its more bombastic sequences for something out of "Alias." The consequences, however, are usually much more dire for anyone caught in the crossfire. The Jennings may be fun to root for, but the game they're playing is a brutal one, and being absolutely heartless monsters is often a part of their job description. So far this has been great for individual episodes, but the show hasn't really addressed their moral slipperyness on a character level yet, and that hasn't been sitting well with me. I realize that we're still in the early going here, but this is a big piece of the picture that is going to need to be addressed.

Frankly, I prefer the slower, calmer moments where "The Americans" occasionally achieves a tone closer to "Mad Men." There's a very clear sense of history happening, and larger forces affecting the characters, which helps to set the show apart from similar spy-themed media. "The Americans" works fine as a standard action thriller, but I hope that it does become more thoughtful over time, and lets its characters engage with thornier issues at it approaches the conclusion of the Cold War. Maybe I'm asking the show to be something it isn't, but the possibilities intrigue me. So, my position on the show is undecided for now, but I do want to watch more.

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