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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Americans: Season One

December 2nd, 2015
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I’ve been reading praise for The Americans for several years now, so I’m glad to have finally found the time to dive in myself with their first thirteen-episode season.  The Americans stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a husband-and-wife pair who own a travel agency and who live with their two kids in the suburbs of Washington, DC in the early eighties.  Except that Elizabeth and Philip aren’t actually the average American suburbanites they pretend to be.  They are Russian moles, deep-cover secret agents who have been living a lie for twenty years.

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The Americans is every bit as good as I’d heard it would be.  The series is a great nail-biter of a suspense tale while also being a wonderful character study of these two fascinating people, spies who have been living a lie for most of their adult lives.

Having just finished a long project of watching Breaking Bad from start-to-finish (click here for my review of Breaking Bad’s final season), I was taken aback when the pilot episode of The Americans seemed to set up a premise remarkably similar to that of Breaking Bad.  When FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his family move in right across the street from the Jennings, I felt like I was right back to watching Walter White’s cat-and-mouse game with DEA agent Hank Schrader.  Luckily, after the pilot that sense of familiarity faded as The Americans took its story in different directions.

I’ve never watched Felicity, Keri Russell’s breakout TV show, though I’ve enjoyed her work here and there (in films like Mission: Impossible III and Waitress and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).  But I’ve never seen her as fiercely inhabit a character as she does here with Elizabeth.  She is dynamite in the show, beautiful and complex.  It’s as much fun watching Elizabeth kick ass as it is to watch her struggle with her conflicted feelings towards her undercover “husband” Philip and her occasional beau Gregory (Derek Luke, written out of the series far too soon for my tastes) and fence verbally with her KGB handler Claudia (Margo Martindale, absolutely wonderful).

I wasn’t familiar with Matthew Rhys prior to watching this show, but he’s terrific, every bit Keri Russell’s equal.  I love watching these two characters together.  The best scenes of the show are when these Elizabeth and Philip are together — either working together or bitterly tearing each other down — which is why The Americans works as well as it does.  I am fascinated by the relationship between these two characters.  In this first season, the show dives deeply into the complex relationship between Elizabeth and Philip.  We quickly learn that, although these two have lived together for years as husband-and-wife, and produced two children, it seems that only now are they starting to perhaps fall in love.  Of course, just as that is happening in the early episodes, events conspire to pull them apart.  This winds up being the main emotional through-line of this first season.  For the most part it’s great, and I quickly invested in these two characters and their relationship, which hooked me deeply as a viewer into the show.  It also represents the only weakness that I could identify to this show’s first season, in that I felt there was too much ping-ponging back-and forth from episode to episode.  In one episode Philip is in love with Elizabeth but she hates his guts, then in the very next episode Elizabeth is in love with Philip but he hates her guts, and back and forth and back and forth.  Rather than feeling like there was a smooth development to this relationship over the course of several episodes, it seemed like way too much emotional back-and-forth to me.  (This might have worked a little better if one was watching these episodes weekly when they originally aired, as opposed to watching the entire season in under two weeks on blu-ray as I did.)

The idea of making two Soviet spies — the “bad guys” — the heroes of one’s TV show is a fascinatingly bold notion.  I was impressed by the way that this first season never let us forget that Elizabeth and Philip, our heroes, are doing everything they can to undermine the United States of America.  There’s a moment in an early episode in which Elizabeth murders an innocent cop in his car that really made me stand up and take notice.  This isn’t a show that is going to pull its punches, or try to gloss over the actions its lead characters would take in an effort to make them “likable.”

(Speaking of the show’s not pulling it’s punches, I was also surprised and impressed by the death of a major character towards the end of the season.  I’d expected that character to be in the show for the long-haul!  I was impressed by the boldness of writing him out, even though I’ll miss that great character.)

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are terrific, but I was also really taken by Noah Emmerich’s performance as FBI agent Stan Beeman.  In many ways Stan is the third lead of the show.  He’s initially introduced as an obstacle for Philip and Elizabeth, but I was pleased at how quickly the show developed him as a complicated and sympathetic (though he does some despicable things) main character, whose story drives nearly as much of this first season as does Elizabeth and Philip’s.  Noah Emmerich gives a rich performance here.  (And I am fascinated by the twitches that he gives Stan.  Is that what Mr. Emmerich is really like, or is that all part of the performance?  I am intrigued!)

The show is extremely well-made, capturing the period setting brilliantly — in the outfits, the cars, the sets, everything — without seeming staid or dodgy.  The Americans is a period piece but it never feels like a period piece.  It feels very current, very much of the now.  It captures the era brilliantly without shoving it in your face.  This is quite an accomplishment.

I love how the show takes the audience deep into the world of spies-versus-spies as the Americans and the Soviets fence with one another behind the scenes of the average American’s every-day life.  I have no idea how accurate any of this stuff really is, but it certainly feels accurate to me, or at least plausible.  I’m now extremely interested in doing some reading to learn more about this era!

I am glad to now be on-board with The Americans, and I can’t wait to move on to season two.  (Though before I do, I’ll be watching Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and Marvel’s Jessica Jones, two new Netflix shows I cannot wait to dive into.  I will be back soon with my thoughts on both!

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