The Americans Series Premiere Review: “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 01)

The show’s timeline is still a good eight years out from the fall of the Berlin Wall, so being a spy, let alone a communist in Washington, presents myriad risks to the Jennings. Their relationship itself is rife with conflict, as their devotion to the mission isn’t quite so single-minded as Boris and Natasha, and their line of work is often far messier than the sterile paperwork of a le Carré novel. As the FBI is still heavily male-dominated, it usually falls on Elizabeth to extract information from sources in as direct a manner as you’d expect, but Phillip is also capable of using his wiles to his advantage. The show is overtly sexual, and goes about being so with lots of flair, but the sex itself adds a fascinating dimension to the person/profession-al dynamic between Elizabeth and Phillip.

The most obvious thing to compare it to would be Showtime’s Homeland, another series that focuses on a relationship developing within the pressure cooker of national security crises. So far removed from the Cold War, The Americans has no difficulty getting us to sympathize with two characters who’s ostensible goal is to destroy the U.S., or used to be, anyway. The show smartly centers the first episode on Elizabeth and Paul figuring out what to do with the defector they have bound and gagged in their garage, as the premium the FBI is paying for turned-KGB agents is tempting for one half of the couple. While some of the Comrades we’re introduced to are just as sinister as the era’s political propaganda would suggest, the Jennings themselves are already so identifiably human, that finding out how their allegiances will change as their cover draws greater attention, looks like it will make for a pair of rich character studies.

That being said, it’s where the show is heading on a plot level that has me a bit concerned. The arrival of an FBI agent in the neighbourhood (Noah Emmerich) is coincidence enough, but the episode finds time to accelerate his relationship with the Jennings faster than you might expect. As fellow TV commentator Ryan McGee noted in a recent article, there’s a temptation of late, especially on cable, for writers to accelerate a show’s storytelling to cut out filler and repetition. While that’s a nice sentiment, it doesn’t always jibe with the way TV is made these days, where every network wants a hit for as long as possible. Fans were impressed that Homeland kept its twisty premise strong through one and a half seasons, but going into its third, the hand wringing over the show’s long-term viability is more palpable than ever.

As pilots are designed to put a show’s best foot forward, I’m relieved to hear that episode two of The Americans is as good, if not better, but I still can’t help but be a bit wary of getting too invested too quickly. What does season two of The Americans look like, or season three, or season six for that matter? The premise and characters already have so many interlocking elements that stringing them out in an entertaining, and believable fashion will prove more difficult as time goes on. Luckily, writing the show isn’t my job, watching it is, and I’d be doing it a great disservice to end this review on a downer note. Bottom line: The Americans premiere is exciting, funny, and the right kind of sexy, an intriguing godsend for a barren pilot season that desperately needed one. Make time for it.

-Figures: the one compelling dramatic lead on TV who’s into the NHL, and he’s a godless commie.

-It sounds like Rob made it out of the hospital in Arlington. No doubt Phillip and Elizabeth will want to find him, but how it is they communicate with command will need further elucidation in the future. A phone call seems awfully forward.

– Elizabeth’s late scene with the Russian general nicely contrasts with the FBI meeting that follows. Even the Soviet spy handlers are capable of seeming remorseful over what it is they have to do, just as the FBI can appear every bit as dogmatic as the KGB.

-The fight scenes are really spectacular. In particular, Elizabeth’s fight with her old captain in the garage didn’t go for the easy out of having the Jennings team up; it’s extremely important that she not only took him down by herself, but also that she didn’t want Phillip to get involved.

-The extra-long episode could have saved time by ditching the minor subplot of Phillip having a BBBQ (the extra B is for “brawling”) with the giant creeper from the mall. Then again, I did love the three-shot of Paige, Phillip, and Pedo guy. Gavin O’Connor was behind the camera this episode, and directed 2011’s very enjoyable Warrior, as well as the more thematically relevant Miracle.

-Despite the coincidence of his appearance, agent Stan and his family look like they’ll be interesting parts of the cast, particularity once they start mingling with the Jennings. Stan’s history as a deep cover agent with a white power group should offer him plenty of insight into the world of sleeper cell-dom.

-Russell and Rhys are fantastic, but Elizabeth is already the more interesting of the two. The moment she drops the tire iron and lets Phillip finish off their guest was an expert bit of power transfer between characters that requires no dialogue.

-There’s a time, and a place for “In the Air” by Phil Collins. As it turns out, a celebration banging after dumping the rapidly dissolving corpse of a double agent is one of them. Looking forward to hearing the ‘80s musical gems the show has in store.