In the hour-and-a-half pilot episode, we’re introduced to Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), an All-American husband and wife with two kids, living in a quiet Washington D.C. suburb… who happen to be long-term, deep-cover operatives for the KGB’s S Directorate. Originally I’d expected this series to be a totally realistic, deliberately slow-paced spy drama in the vein of the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy miniseries, but as it turns out, it’s more akin to Len Deighton’s (excellent) Bernard Samson novels in tone. It is very realistic, with lots of examples of professional tradecraft… but these agents also see their share of action. Yost describes it as a slightly heightened reality, and that proves to be the perfect mixture for modern American television. It’s grim and gritty, but there’s also a welcome touch of Alias to the proceedings. Phillip and Elizabeth have the training to be kick-ass when duty calls for it. In the first two episodes (provided by the network as a screener), those skills are called for quite a bit. This couple aren’t moles, working government jobs and passing along whatever intel they glean. They’re more utility players. When called upon in the pilot to kidnap a high-profile KGB defector and return him to Moscow for interrogation and execution, they’re prepared to get into knife fights, foot chases and car chases. And when called upon in the second episode to place a bug in the home office of Reagan's defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, they’re prepared to do some real black bag work, and to make use of one of the most notorious weapons in the KGB’s infamous arsenal. They’re also trained in disguise (which, given the era, allows for a succession of entertainingly awful early Eighties hairdos by way of wigs) and seduction. In fact, I was surprised at just how sexually explicit the show managed to be on basic cable.
Meanwhile, the Jennings' lives are made all the more stressful when their new neighbor, Stan Beeman (Fair Game's Noah Emmerich), turns out to be an FBI counterintelligence officer! Is he there to keep tabs on them because they’re under suspicion, or is it really just a coincidence? Rather than drawing out the improbable, Weisberg wisely deals with this possible coincidence head-on, and audiences and characters alike get a pretty definitive answer by the episode’s end. Beeman is a regular character, and through him and his partner, Agent Amador (Maximiliano Hernandez), we get the American perspective as well as the Soviet one. In short order, he’s got an informant inside the Russian embassy and they have one inside the FBI, setting up what should prove an interesting cat-and-mouse game for the duration of the season.
The Americans is off to a great start, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here. In many ways, this is the spy show I’ve long been dreaming of, and so far, I’m not disappointed. It covers so much of the spy spectrum that I think le Carré fans and Alias fans alike will all find something to entertain them.
Stay tuned for an interview with The Americans executive producer Graham Yost discussing his own spy influences later today.