TV Review: The Americans

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The Cid
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TV Review: The Americans

Post by The Cid » Wed Feb 06, 2013 5:09 pm

Certain things are an easy sell with me. Put a preview of a show on during Justified, include Russian spies in the Cold War, have Truman Burbank's best friend trying to chase them down, and lay The Who's "Eminence Front" over the whole thing, and I'm setting my DVR. "Hey, the network that made The Shield, Rescue Me, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Justified is making an eighties-based spy drama? I'm in."

(Of course, this line of thinking failed when it was "The network that makes Mad Men and Breaking Bad is going to make a hard-boiled western," or "The guy who made The Wire is going to make a show about post-Katrina New Orleans." Maybe I should stop being so reliant on TV track records.)

FX has been pushing this show for a while now, and being that they started it up around the same time as new seasons of Archer and Justified began airing, it would seem that they're trying to make this one of their front and center showcases.

The concept is certainly addictive. Phillip and Elizabeth live what seems on the surface to be an ordinary American life. They live outside of D.C., they have two kids, attend school functions, greet neighbors with brownies and drive their son to hockey practice. This is essentially elaborate cover for their work as spies under Directorate S, a Soviet program for deep-cover spies. Officers in this program do not speak a word of Russian and they are not to know their partner's real name (so they only know each other as "Phillip" and "Elizabeth" when the show begins). They gather information, take out traitors, and hide in plain sight.

The show is set in the early eighties. The couple has been in America since the early sixties. Both of their children were born in the United States and have no Earthly idea of what their parents do. Over time, Phillip seems to have come to identify with his alleged enemies, particularly as he recognizes that his children are completely American and, should the mission continue to be successful, always will be. Elizabeth, however, is focused on the mission and extremely loyal to her country.

What I like most about the show is that the pilot seems to move at a Breaking Bad pace of "we're not going to use stupidity to stall the plot." I don't like when drama shows use stupidity as a plot device (see: Dexter, at least four seasons of which would not be possible if the other cops on that show weren't utterly inept at everything they do. Also, everything Christopher on The Sopranos does. Everything.) The Americans does not. An FBI agent played by Noah Emmerich (Truman's friend!) who works in counter-intelligence moves across the street from Phillip and Elizabeth, and throughout the pilot he demonstrates that he is not going to miss much. Some shows would have waited several seasons to bring in a guy like that.

Another strong aspect of the show is that it messes with a traditional couples dynamic on television. Elizabeth is the task-oriented badass fighter while Phillip is more worried about his family and the safety of other people. If just for the sake of defying predictability, I'm glad for the changeup.

My one complaint is that the plot is occasionally played for laughs during family scenes. These scenes always remind me of Family Guy's "The Communists." Now I'm sure sometimes this will get a laugh, and sometimes this will be clever, but it's also rather obvious humor for what otherwise seems to be a unique show. I hope they don't go back to this well too many times, because it could really wear on the viewer.

Overall, it's hard to say no to the plot and the pilot, so I'll continue with it.
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Martin Blank
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Re: TV Review: The Americans

Post by Martin Blank » Wed Feb 06, 2013 6:25 pm

I'm intrigued by this. Is the marriage arranged, or did they actually have feelings for each other before being married?

Historically-placed dramas can completely fail if the events of the time make the show predictable. For small-time aspects like this, though, it can keep things interesting if they don't get too caught up in the major events. For example, if they start off with the kind of espionage work you describe but then get caught up in, say, something to do with Central America or Afghanistan, the events start dictating the plot. The other risk is going off the rails into an area of unbelievable stories just to keep things exciting.
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The Cid
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Re: TV Review: The Americans

Post by The Cid » Wed Feb 06, 2013 8:04 pm

Martin Blank wrote:Is the marriage arranged
Yes, but it was arranged a long time before we join the story, so they do know one another rather well and seem, at least in the pilot, to care somewhat about one another. It seems to be an important plot point that the operatives do not know a thing about one another's lives in Russia, only their cover identities.
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Re: TV Review: The Americans

Post by The Cid » Tue Apr 02, 2013 5:05 pm

Martin Blank wrote:For example, if they start off with the kind of espionage work you describe but then get caught up in, say, something to do with Central America or Afghanistan, the events start dictating the plot.
It seems like they're stuck with this because they chose a specific time and subject. It's the early eighties, they're Cold War spies living in DC. What we know of that time period is bound to come up from time to time. To their credit, they're taking an approach similar to how Mad Men treats the sixties. Real events will make their way into the plot, but those events only ever serve to set the stage for plots that have little if anything to do with those events. (For example, the attempt on President Reagan's life comes up, but only in how it complicates the day-to-day activities of the characters on the show who still must complete those activities regardless.)

I really feel like this show has taken flight in its first season. They're doing everything right. The two leads (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) do a good job of playing up the real-or-fake nature of their marriage, and how even they struggle to tell what is and isn't genuine. Noah Emmerich plays an interesting and relentless FBI counter-terrorism agent (and the spies' neighbor) who is always on the job, even when he isn't on the clock. Side characters (including Margo Martindale, who played an extremely memorable role as Mags Bennett on Justified, and is now playing the main characters' mysterious and threatening supervisor) keep the acting consistently well-done, and the show is structured well enough to help a convoluted plot make sense. (Juggling the main characters' jobs, their secret lives, their relationship with the neighbor who provides a distinct threat, the fact that they have children, and whatever the show has the FBI doing that week is quite a task, but they do it well enough that the viewer doesn't get lost.)
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Hirschof wrote:I'm waiting for day you people start thinking with portals.

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