The Americans, Ep. 1.01, “Pilot”: FX’s new drama mines cold-war conflict for domestic tension

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The Americans

The Americans, Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
Written by Joe Weisberg
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX

Take a moment and think back to the last time you saw a good – not merely passable – new drama pilot. If your answer is Last Resort or Awake, then allow me to add a caveat. When was the last time you saw a good drama pilot for a series that wasn’t obviously doomed to cancellation? The answer is probably Showtime’s Homeland, which debuted on October 2nd, 2011. It’s appropriate, then, that FX’s The Americans should be the next (potential) appointment-TV drama, since, superficially at least, it shares a whole lot of DNA. Dig even a little bit deeper, however, and it’s evident that Joe Weisberg’s series has a different set of dramatic priorities.
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Principally set in 1981 D.C., The Americans stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as “Elizabeth” and “Philip Jennings,” deep-cover KGB agents whose commitment level is such that they have raised two oblivious children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). When we first see Elizabeth, she’s actually wearing another disguise on top of the one she dons every day, seducing a DoJ goon with the aid of a blonde wig and oral encouragement. A little later, Philip, with the aid of a doomed cohort, sets off to kidnap a would-be KGB defector who’s agreed to aid the FBI. This, it would seem, is just another day at the office.
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If the notion of undercover Russian spies posing as an all-American married couple with kids in two doesn’t seem like a juicy enough premise, Weisberg has stacked the deck by also introducing us to Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI counterintelligence agent who, after spending years undercover in order to take down a white supremacist group, happens to be hyper-paranoid. He’s also just happened to move in right across the street from the Jennings’ house. It’s a hell of a coincidence to ask the audience to accept right off the bat (and no explanation other than it being a coincidence really makes any sense), but the added layer of tension makes the unlikelihood seem like an acceptable tradeoff, not to mention the dramatic irony.
Given that this is a pilot, some of the dialogue strains to establish character and setting, particularly in the inaugural visit to FBI headquarters, but these intrusions are kept to a reasonable minimum in favor of relatively subtle cues and clues. One particularly nice touch comes in an early scene, when Elizabeth mocks one of Henry’s teachers for his harelip, only to have Henry taken a little aback by his mother’s lack of compassion. Elizabeth and Philip’s received values from their respective upbringings didn’t stop them from passing on American values to their kids in the name of the motherland, and the friction that could arise from the cognitive dissonance could be an excellent foundation for great drama. (Based on this first hour, Paige is by far the more interesting Jennings child, but she does have an age-based advantage.)
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The pilot also deftly employs not one, but two likely-expensive pieces of period music: Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” which bookends the episode, and Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.” Both are ideally deployed, though the latter unfortunately calls attention to the obvious green-screening that seems likely to be deployed in the driving sequences, a la Justified (with which is shares a producer, Graham Yost). In both cases, the songs reinforce mood, setting, and pace, without underlining the beats of the scenes too obviously. It’d be nice to get pop-art moments like these more often, but it’s unlikely that FX has purses that deep.
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Almost the entirety of the series will rest on Rhys and Russell’s shoulders, and based on the pilot, they’ll do splendidly. While their situation is far from orthodox, Weisberg has stated that he sees The Americans as a show about marriage, and that the Jennings face the same issues as any other married couple. It’s a rich, intriguing angle to play up, and Rhys and Russell are adept enough to dig into the material in a rewarding fashion. Where Homeland is primarily concerned with the cost of modern warfare, The Americans‘ conflict is more internal. Which nation should the Jennings honor: the one they swore to serve, or the one their children call home? And how long can they survive trying to appease both concerns? With the allegiances already made clear, rather than being made the subject of some wider mystery, the possibilities are considerable.
Simon Howell

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