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Comparisons are dangerous, especially in the ever-evolving, week-to-week world of truly great television series. But here goes: I enjoyed the first two episodes of FX’s spy series The Americans as much as I did the entirety of season two of Homeland. (Remember, the beginning of Homeland‘s season two was perfectly pulse-pounding before a deep creative spiral began.) There is something about Americans — which also explores spies and terrorism on U.S. soil — that invests me with the same type of hope I had at the beginning of Showtime’s gem. What separates the two is a vastly different approach to pacing.
Americans stars Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings and Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, two KGB spies posing as Americans and living in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C. Ronald Reagan has been elected president and is calling the USSR “the evil empire.” The Soviets are playing the long con: For years they trained the pair to be “Philip” and “Elizabeth,” disparate patriots who wanted to serve their country against the threat of America. They were put into an arranged marriage and sent to the U.S., where they had two children. Although there are multiple flashbacks, particularly in the pilot, we meet the spies when daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) is 13 and son Henry (Keidrich Sellati) is 10.
While with Homeland, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) comes back from being held by al-Qaida and the is-he-or-isn’t-he spy/terrorist conceit gets played out quickly, Americans has a sophisticated storytelling advantage in that the Jennings family has been hiding below the surface for ages. The couple poses as travel agents, and the kids have no idea their parents are spies — they don’t even know they’re Russian. But now things are getting rapidly more stressful for Mom and Dad.
The pilot opens with Elizabeth, Philip and another KGB agent trying to kidnap a former KGB agent who has turned for U.S. government cash. The kidnapping is partly botched, and immediately suspicions on both sides prick up. A Soviet agent at the KGB safe house dourly explains the new changes coming. “The American people have elected a mad man as their president,” he says. “He makes no secret of his desire to destroy us. Our war is not so cold anymore.”
With KGB agents on U.S. soil beginning to flip sides willingly for money, Rhys is utterly convincing as a spy who has let doubts pour in and come to love America. Why not stay? Why not flip? Wouldn’t that make their lives better and less stressful and guarantee safety for their kids? But Elizabeth is hard-core and despises him for even thinking of turning.
Meanwhile, at the FBI, word comes down that the spy snatch has infuriated Reagan. A high-ranking Cabinet member explains tersely: “President Reagan is outraged that the KGB thinks it can kidnap someone with impunity on American soil. The president has signed top-secret Executive Order 2579 authorizing Federal Bureau of Investigation counterintelligence officers to take all necessary steps to neutralize all Soviet Directorate S sleeper-cell agents in the continental U.S.”
In the room, of course, is FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) — a new neighbor of Directorate S sleeper-cell agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings.
Rhys and Russell are superb, giving eye-popping performances in which they convince as both sublimely ordinary parents and dangerous spies. It’s thrilling to watch them navigate the nuanced pace, and the show’s placement during the early 1980s makes for a fresh period piece (Russell doesn’t have to play Cyndi Lauper, but she does have to don some serious high-waisted jeans).
Americans is not in some feverish race to make every episode feel like a cliffhanger. (That was great during season one of Homeland but led to the trouble with season two.) Instead, series creator/writer/executive producer Joe Weisberg, who worked for the CIA before turning to writing, allows the show to breathe. He is assisted by the steady hand of Graham Yost (Justified, The Pacific, Band of Brothers) as executive producer and Joel Fields (Ugly Betty, Rizzoli & Isles) as exec producer/writer.
Homeland turned out to be determined to get all the spy stuff out of the way so a love story could bloom. On Americans, the love story has a wealth of incredible emotional layers, but the emphasis always is on the spying.
It’s too early to really judge Americans against Homeland, but if the latter is getting away from what hooked you in the first place, then you might find what you’re missing on Americans. Here’s to more episodes, more espionage and respect for colluding against the enemy instead of merely canoodling with them.
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