Television Review: ‘The Americans,’ FX Series About Russian Spies

January 29th, 2013

They could be any suburban family.

The 10-year-old loves rockets and worships Thomas P. Stafford, the astronaut who, among other things, orbited the Moon in 1969 and in 1975 was the American commander of the Apollo-Soyuz flight, the first joint United States-Soviet space mission.

Over pancakes, the father teasingly asks his son if the astronaut ever actually landed on the Moon, and the boy falters, trying to defend his hero. His mother steps in. “The Moon isn’t everything,” she tells her son brightly. “Just getting into space is a remarkable accomplishment.”

And there is nothing out of the ordinary about that exchange, except that the parents are both K.G.B. spies, posing as Americans in the Washington suburbs. Their lighthearted, carefully veiled disagreement about their child’s hobby reflects deeper divides in their marriage and their loyalty to the Kremlin.

“The Americans,” a new series that begins on Wednesday on FX, is also a remarkable accomplishment: It’s a subtle, complex portrait of a relationship etched into an engaging espionage thriller set in 1981, when Reagan was newly elected, and cars were big, and so was the cold war. The marriage of Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) was arranged by the K.G.B. in the 1960s. Their ties and tensions are professional but also personal, and so intertwined that it’s impossible for either fully to read, or trust, the other.

Philip, more relaxed and playful, likes football and American success stories, including Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the Moon. Elizabeth is more tightly wound and unswervingly patriotic, and she roots for the astronaut most favored by Moscow. (Russians then and now remember General Stafford warmly because of his role in the first joint space project; in 2011 Russia’s president, presented a medal to General Stafford.)

Those small differences loom large when the couple learn that a high-level K.G.B. officer has defected, threatening to reveal the identities of undercover agents. Philip, fearing that their cover could soon be blown, considers making a deal with the F.B.I.; Elizabeth is appalled at the very suggestion of treason, though the two children, who have no idea that their parents have a secret life working for the enemy, are her Achilles’ heel.

There are plenty of subsidiary worries, in particular their friendly new next-door neighbor, a tall, genial F.B.I. agent freshly assigned to counterintelligence. “It’s probably a coincidence,” Elizabeth says to Philip. “F.B.I. agents have to live somewhere.”

A period drama set in the early 1980s is tough — not enough time has passed to make the clothes and set design “Mad Men” chic, and big hair and shoulder pads look plain silly. The creators of “The Americans” don’t try to perm Ms. Russell’s hair or puff up her costumes. Instead they rely on music to turn back the clock, archly using songs from the era, including a chase scene set to the Fleetwood Mac song “Tusk.”

Even the homework is dated. The 13-year-old daughter is assigned to write a paper on how the Russians cheat on arms control.

In the age of “Homeland” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” it’s a little hard to recall how powerful the cold war mind-set was, and how imminent the possibility of a nuclear first strike seemed in those days. Plenty of Americans smirked in 2010 when the F.B.I. uncovered a cell of Russian sleeper agents who had been living a lie in places like Yonkers and Montclair, N.J., for years. As it turned out, those moles didn’t dig very deep and never once sneaked classified information back to their bosses. They were returned to Russia in exchange for American prisoners.

But there was a time when the fear of Soviet agents, K.G.B. “illegals,” as they are known, was quite intense and made its way into movies like “Telefon,” a 1977 Charles Bronson thriller about sleeper agents in the United States who were brainwashed by Moscow and could be activated only by a phone call and a code phrase from a Robert Frost poem.

Back then the Soviet Union took Reagan very seriously, and in “The Americans” the K.G.B. puts pressure on Philip and Elizabeth to take risks to uncover the new administration’s secret plans.

“The American people have elected a madman as their president,” a top Soviet spy says. He is also worried about another threat, this one from within. “These times bring out the worst in our people,” he tells Elizabeth. “I’m fighting now against comrades in our own organization who are starting to act like they did in our darkest days.”

The Jennings may have enemies at home, and they certainly are in constant danger abroad, where even a K.G.B. safe house could be anything but. Their fight for survival takes place deep in the shadows and far from view.

Their neighbors have no idea. When the F.B.I. agent next door looks out his window, his wife tells him to relax. “You are officially now surrounded by the most normal, boring people in the world,” she says.

Once again it turns out that it’s the normal, boring people who lead the most exciting lives.

The Americans

FX, Wednesday nights at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.

Produced by Fox Television Studios and FX Productions. Created by Joe Weisberg; Mr. Weisberg, Joel Fields, Graham Yost, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank and Gavin O’Connor (pilot only), executive producers; Joshua Brand, consulting producer; Adam Arkin, Mitch Engel and Richard Heus (pilot only), producers.

WITH: Keri Russell (Elizabeth Jennings), Matthew Rhys (Philip Jennings), Noah Emmerich (Agent Stan Beeman), Maximiliano Hernández (Agent Chris Amador), Holly Taylor (Paige Jennings) and Keidrich Sellati (Henry Jennings).

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