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'The Americans': Was the series premiere worth watching?

'The Americans' follows two KGB agents posing as a married couple in suburban America in the 1980s. 'The Americans' stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys.

By Kevin YeomanScreen Rant / January 31, 2013

'The Americans' stars Keri Russell (l.) and Matthew Rhys (r.).

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

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There was an excellent scene in season 2 of Homeland where the characters played by Mandy Patinkin and F. Murray Abraham reminisced briefly about what the intelligence game was like during the Cold War. There was a wistful glint in their eyes as they almost fondly remembered their adversaries and the art of brinkmanship that both the United States and the Soviets engaged in time and again.

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In essence, the pair romanticized a period filled with a different kind of paranoia and anxiety than exists today. In FX’s newest drama The Americans, the basic premise takes the audience back to the Cold War with a storyline focusing on two KGB spies who are posing as an average American married couple with kids in early-1980s Washington, D.C. And although this particular milieu is dripping with the same kind of us versus them gamesmanship that Patinkin and Abraham’s characters were remembering, this superlative and exciting pilot is far from a simple trip down memory lane.

Like any good pilot, the episode diligently sets up the series’ framework – which is comprised of several elements that make cable television so popular and successful right now. First and foremost, The Americans has the benefit of being a period drama (still a plus by most networks’ standards), but this series, unlike many period drams, is driven by more than simply having the right attire and casually making mention of events happening at the time. Instead, with Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys playing Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, respectively, the plot deftly splits its time between the couple’s increasingly dangerous spy games and their otherwise prosaic existence as a family in the suburbs.

In that sense, The Americans has added elements of other great dramas like The Sopranos (nefarious stuff going on in the suburbs) and Homeland (government paranoia and fear that people aren’t who they seem to be) to its bag of tricks, but there’s also a whiff of AMC-fare like Breaking Bad, too. Still – in the pilot anyway – the series manages to take its conceit and make it successful by offering plenty of surprises and a decent amount of character building in the first episode.

Much of the pilot is devoted to an ex-KGB colonel who has defected to the United States and is now the kidnapping target of Elizabeth and Phillip (along with another deep cover operative named Rob). In a stirring opening sequence, Phillip and Elizabeth get their man, but at the cost of Rob and, to an extent, the successful completion of their mission. After the botched operation, the couple has no choice but to keep the defector stowed away in the trunk of an Oldsmobile in their garage. The situation intensifies when it becomes clear the U.S. government is aware of the kidnapping, and then things get worse after it’s revealed the colonel was responsible for a heinous crime committed against Elizabeth when she was still a teenager in Russia.

All of this is compelling stuff. The pilot manages to wring sufficient tension out of a car sitting in a seemingly innocuous couple’s garage, but where the pilot really excels is in its depiction of Phillip and Elizabeth. For one thing, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are superb in their roles, which is so incredibly important since the real drama ultimately hinges on the actors’ interactions in a staged domestic setting and how that works against the show’s larger backdrop of historical fact (and the sometimes-overwrought spy game elements).

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