FX is bringing viewers back to the Cold War with their new original series The Americans, which is the channel's attempt at an espionage thriller. It's an ambitious attempt that should draw in spy buffs, but this freshman series has a few steps more to go before it completes its mission of winning over audiences.
When it comes to their original drama series, FX never does anything lightly, and The Americans is no exception. It does its best to ground us in the period, opening in 1981 and moving forward from there, as we're introduced to Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell), who are KGB spies posing as an average suburban family in Washington, D.C., with their two kids. Watching the series does feel like moving backward in time, though enough background is dropped throughout for anyone who isn't up on their history.
The program should also sway anyone who still thinks of Keri Russell as the title character from Felicity. In the pilot alone, Elizabeth seduces a Department of Justice official and is unafraid to get physical with a target she and her husband have kidnapped and stuffed in the back of their car. Though there are moments when she and Rhys go almost too far in the cold and calculating department, to the point of being near robotic, Russell is intriguing in a part that's far different from what she's known for.
There are plot points here that hint at intriguing questions: is Philip truly comfortable with Elizabeth or with their mission? If the show explores the emotional and moral dilemmas of its characters that it suggests early on, this could be a great character piece, as well as an entertaining thriller.
The series isn't flawless, though: within its first two episodes, it fails to truly establish anyone outside of its two protagonists, leaving the contingent of FBI agents and assorted other US government employees feeling like caricatures. Noah Emmerich is miscast in the role of Stan Beeman, the FBI Counterintelligence agent who just happens to move into the Jennings' neighborhood; he's long been a great supporting actor, but the role just begs for someone who stands out more, especially when all the other characters around Beeman are so flat.
It creates an interesting dilemma for the audience: the characters we're supposed to become invested in, in fact the only characters we get any real sense of, are the ones acting against our government. Will the average viewer want to be rooting for these two to get away with their crimes? Homeland has managed to sustain this concept for two seasons in the person of Nicholas Brody, but that show also has Damian Lewis to its name.
Therein lies the major dilemma for The Americans. Unlike other FX original series, there's no one here that really captivates the audience, like Timothy Olyphant does for Justified and Glenn Close did in Damages. The network's best series have always been anchored by a strong lead performance, and while Russell and her compatriots are fine enough, they're not exceptional. They've got plenty of room to grow, and they'll need to if this show is going to succeed in the long term.
There's enough in the initial two episodes that should satisfy audiences who enjoy this genre, or are intrigued by the novelties of a show in a different time period and from an opposing point of view. The Americans certainly has a few starting points from which to mature into another success story for FX. But it will take some work before this gets mentioned in the same breath as Justified or Sons of Anarchy.
The Americans premieres tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on FX.