The Americans hearkens back to an era of political thrillers that have long since died out in favor of more action and less paranoia-laced cloak and dagger antics. That it works as a period piece set during the height of the Cold War only makes each episode of its first season that much sweeter as it has to jump through fewer technological hoops and can instead just focus on the skill of the Russian sleeper agents (played here by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) at fooling everyone around them, including their neighbor (Noah Emmerich), an FBI Agent slowly growing wise to the presence of spies living among the average Americans. The Americans takes great pains to create high dramatic stakes even as it never goes after anything as lofty as presidential assassinations or a major terrorism plot. It’s all about infiltration and data gathering, an agenda that sounds boring compared to those found in 24 or Homeland, but which provides the basis for a riveting first season of near misses and intrigue.
Assigned to a deep cover operation in 1980s America, two Russian spies create a life for themselves as Elizabeth (Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Rhys), complete with a home in the suburbs and two kids (Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati) who have no idea who their parents really are. Then again, on some level even Elizabeth and Phillip have begun doubt their own identities as they’ve spent so much time as average Americans that the rationale for why they retain loyalty to Russia begins to show cracks. Those cracks start to affect their operations and, indeed, we see that disillusionment with their sham of a marriage has led them both astray of their key objective in one form or another, with her having an affair with one of their homegrown sleeper agents and him doubting the methodology of how they get their information. The question of the season becomes whether or not the two of them can repair the breach of trust between themselves and recommit to their mission before their discovered by their FBI neighbor (Emmerich).
The Americans balances the spy vs. spy aspect of the series and the inner turmoil of Elizabeth and Phillip as they simultaneously keep their mission on track even as their conviction to the goal wavers off and on between the two of them. It provides us with plenty of glimpses into their past which reveal crucial tidbits as to what makes them act in ways that would otherwise seem counterintuitive or self-sabotaging, and consequently the characters and their relationship with one another grow remarkably with each episode. If The Americans deserves credit for doing any one thing right, it’s the character development. That the writing manages to get us to cheer for enemy agents working against our own country (assuming you’re an American – or anyone whose country has historically been on the opposing side of Russia since the Cold War), shows just how effective the writing and performances are at winning over the audience.
Equally contributive to the strength of the narrative is the truncated length of the season with The Americans opting for a 13-episode run that ends up feeling like a sprint once the drama hits its stride and only grows more intense with each episode. By the season’s end, we’ve been thrown enough curve balls to keep us on our feet but nothing so far out of left field that any one twist is too jarring to keep us from keeping up. By the time Margo Martindale is introduced as their new handler, the show has hit its peak and, with her help, operates at optimum efficiency all the way to the finish line.
This is some of the best drama FX has ever had, and in its first season it’s a solid rival to the more established Justified.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
Deleted scenes, an audio commentary on a single episode, a gag reel, and featurettes on the film’s production and its focus on espionage in a less technology-dependent era are the extras packed onto the disc.
"The Americans: Season 1" is on sale February 11, 2014 and is not rated. Drama. Directed by Daniel Sackheim. Written by Joseph Weisberg, Mike Batistick, Joel Fields. Starring Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Holly Taylor, Keidrich Sellati.