‘The Americans’ is an often fascinating portrayal of double lives
Wed, Jan 23, 2013 (5:17 p.m.)
- The Americans
- Wednesdays, 10 p.m., FX
Producers of FX’s new drama The Americans have said that their goal is to get viewers to “root for the KGB,” and one of the show’s accomplishments is that it does just that, without undermining the validity of the U.S. agents who work against the Soviet covert agency. The show’s main characters are two deep-cover Soviet spies, living in a generic Washington, D.C., suburb in 1981 and posing as average Americans. Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) are so fully integrated into American life that even their own two kids have no idea about their parents’ true identities.
As a spy drama, The Americans isn’t always successful; Philip’s and Elizabeth’s missions are sometimes unclear, and the storylines involving the FBI’s efforts to root out Soviet sleeper agents are a little dull. But as a character-driven drama about people living conflicted double lives, the show is fantastic. Rhys and especially Russell capture all of the complex emotions that Philip and Elizabeth experience after living the comfortable American life for more than a decade, trying to hold onto their devotion to the motherland while raising their kids in what they perceive as a foreign, hostile environment (even though the kids just perceive it as home).
It’s a little contrived that their new neighbor (Noah Emmerich) just happens to be an FBI agent working on counterintelligence, but the twist isn’t played for sensationalism, and it provides another point of tension between the zealous, often brutal Elizabeth and the more pragmatic Philip. Russell, still best known for her title role on Felicity, is excellent at playing Elizabeth’s lightning-quick shifts from sunny to malevolent, and Rhys’ more subdued performance provides a solid counterpoint. Two episodes in, the kids remain a little underdeveloped, but the family dynamic has plenty of potential for exploration.
Obviously, Philip and Elizabeth are not going to succeed in overthrowing the United States, but The Americans works in the same way as period dramas like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, by putting fascinating characters up against historical circumstances that can never be changed, only endured.