By Alec Stern, For the Daily
Published February 6, 2013
Already home to some of the most critically acclaimed dramas on television, including “Justified” and “Sons of Anarchy,” FX seems to have another hit on its hands with “The Americans.” Set in the backdrop of the later years of the Cold War, “The Americans” is a force to be reckoned with. The pilot episode provides an intriguing emotional departure from most of the other, less original programs out there. Keri Russell (“Felicity”) leads an all-star cast in this powerful and clever espionage thriller that’s, without a doubt, the best dramatic pilot of the year.
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“The Americans” follows two KGB spies living in America during the early years of the Reagan administration. Played by Russell and Matthew Rhys (“Brothers & Sisters”), Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings may seem like your average American family — but behind closed doors, they’re members of an interconnected network of Russian agents working to infiltrate and take down the American government. Noah Emmerich (“Super 8”) plays counterintelligence FBI agent, Stan Beeman, who complicates the Jennings’ cover when he and his family move in across the street.
What makes “The Americans” so compelling isn’t the Cold War setting, but the relationship between Elizabeth and Phillip. In just one episode, their marriage is already one of the most complicated and captivating in all of television, reminiscent of “Breaking Bad” ’s Walter and Skyler White. Throughout the feature-length pilot, Phillip questions his future as a Russian spy, while Elizabeth is as dedicated to the motherland as ever.
Their romantic relationship is problematic as well. It’s clear that the two have a devotion to one another, but Elizabeth’s strong allegiance to the KGB and her complex past prevents complete commitment to her partner. Keri Russell’s nuanced, Emmy-caliber performance is reason enough to tune in for a second episode, while Matthew Rhys’s Phillip will have you rooting for the wrong side.
In addition to the multifaceted relationship between the two spies, the action sequences in “The Americans” are superb. Elizabeth and Phillip make for a formidable team in the nail-biting opening in which they kidnap a U.S. government liaison. The Jennings continue to cause trouble throughout, and the juxtaposition of the two sides of Russell’s character (both badass Russian spy and doting mother of two) gives “The Americans” another layer of exhilarating drama.
Throughout its first season, “The Americans” will have to overcome the inevitable comparisons to Showtime’s beloved “Homeland.” Though the FX drama is set three decades prior to the time of Carrie and Brody, the counterintelligence and behind-enemy-lines aspects will no doubt draw similarities. However, what “The Americans” has going for it is a high level of quality, both in cast and content, that stands on its own.
“The Americans” has everything you want from a dramatic pilot. Sharp writing and sure-handed storytelling make this series the must-watch show of the season. Russell’s portrayal of the enigmatic Elizabeth, alongside strong supporting players Rhys and Emmerich, should have audiences aching for another hour just as this one ends. While FX is a good home for the series, it could just as easily be on Showtime or HBO’s programming lineup. In fact, the pilot episode of “The Americans” is just as good, if not better, than anything “Homeland” did in its second season.
While this may seem like high praise for just one episode, the pilot sets up what should be a mysterious and thrilling journey well worth taking. “The Americans” is so fully realized and sure of its vision that it seems destined to become one of television’s great dramas.