You’ve got to admire the bravery of a show that plunges you in to a low-lit cocktail bar in the middle of Cold War Washington to the blaring tones of a Rindy Ross saxophone solo with its opening shot. Indeed, much of The Americans relentless pilot episode, which goes on to see central couple Elizabeth and Phillip commit murder in their own home, wear an inexhaustible amount of awful wigs and make love to Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight, screams for attention from the viewer; as if allowing the audience to stop and catch their breath would also encourage them to switch off. It’s an undoubtedly slick and stylish start though, that sets a precedent for the series to follow; one that’s bolstered by an engaging premise and a brilliant pair of central performances, but weakened by a wildly misjudged tempo.
Elizabeth and Phillip may be the eponymous Yanks, but that’s merely their cover. In fact, they are both Russian KGB agents who have been posing as a happily wedded couple in Washington for the last 15 years. Despite a lengthy marriage and 2 American born children, there’s still an innate mistrust bubbling beneath the surface of Elizabeth and Phillip’s relationship and they have only recently begun to develop true feelings for each other. How inconvenient it is then, that as their homeland teeters on the brink of war with the States, an FBI agent tasked with hunting KGB sleeper cells has just moved in to the house across the street.
It’s a show that immediately seduces you, drawing you in to a world built on secrets and lies; subtlety wrong-footing you in to thinking it’s merely another espionage thriller. In fact the genius of The Americans is that it plays out as both a thriller and a drama; spending as much time focusing on Elizabeth and Phillip’s marital relationship, as it does shadowing them as they try to sabotage America’s efforts in an undeclared war of words.
Assured performances from both Keri Russell and Mathew Rhys gives spark to the simmering relationship between Elizabeth and Phillip; many marriages have their difficulties, but few as complicated as this. Both performers build their characters with meticulous care, gradually exposing a relationship hampered by a deep mistrust for each other. Yet they work together throughout, both for the good of their family and their homeland.
Noah Emmerich’s Stan Beeman (the aforementioned FBI agent) should by all accounts be the hero of the piece, but the further we’re brought in to Elizabeth and Phillip’s world, the more support we have for them. Making comparisons between The Americans and Homeland is apt; blurring the lines between good and bad creates an engrossing and unpredictable milieu that allows the show to be built on both excitement and intellect.
It’s just such a shame the growing levels of excitement are not maintained as the show develops, with The Americans suffering a major mid-season slump between episodes 3 & 8. Gaping plotholes, an endless tableau of poor disguises and a baffling cover story fail to match up to the promise of the premise. While the character studies remain interesting, they consistently become lost behind a plot that at times slows to a snail’s pace.
Of course, there are still moments of brilliance to be found amongst the mess, particularly in the well-orchestrated 6th episode ‘Trust Me’. But that’s all they are… moments. And when a show commands your attention for 13 episodes, moments are not enough.
Season 1 of The Americans is out on DVD now.