The Americans–No, They’re Not!

THE AMERICANS -- Pilot -- Episode 1 (Airs Wednesday, January 30, 10:00 pm e/p) -- Pictured: (L-R) Keidrich Sellati as Henry Jennings, Mathew Rhys as Philip Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings -- CR: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

The Americans (FX, Wednesdays, 10/9C) is spy thriller in which the protagonists are Soviet sleeper agents in the eighties at the beginning of the Reagan era. Since we won the Cold War, it’s only slightly subversive to root for these Soviet spies who have been made to marry and raise children while trying to ferret out American secrets and deal with Soviet sleepers who try to defect.

In the pilot, we meet Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell, Mission: Impossible III, Felicity) as she seduces a young FBI agent for classified information – before going home to her family and tucking their kids into bed. Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys, Brothers & Sisters) comes to our attention as the doting father who clearly loves his wife more she loves him and happens to be able to take down any threat he might face – whether through fighting skills, weapons or sex.

Think Mr. & Mrs. Smith – only as soviet sleeper agents.

Philip, it turns out, is more amenable to the American way of life; Elizabeth is the hardliner. When she discovers that a defected agent will be in town, the two are ordered to kidnap him to be shipped home to Mother Russia – a plan that is stalled when the FBI’s top counterintelligence agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerlich) moves in next door. Coincidence? Mmmmm…

Then there’s the unsavory connection between Elizabeth and the defector that adds another dimension to her ferocious support of the motherland’s plans.

There are some hiccoughs – like the duct taped defector in the trunk of the Jennings’ car who makes no noise when the good neighbor Stan asks to borrow jumper cables instead of taking that chance to get taken into custody and upset the Jennings’ apple cart.

      THE AMERICANS -- Pilot -- Episode 1 (Airs Wednesday, January 30, 10:00 pm e/p) -- Pictured: Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings -- CR: FX

There are a few other minor problems with the premiere that are made forgivable by such things as Elizabeth putting a guy’s head through a wall, or Philip outrunning the defector and taking him down.

The use of flashbacks to show how Philip and Elizabeth were paired off – and discover they have so much more to learn before they can begin to consider themselves competent – gives us a place where we can find ourselves relating to them. It’s very slickly set up – though Philip and Elizabeth are completely non-slick (at first, they don’t even recognise an air conditioner.

But the premiere, written by Joe Weisberg and directed by Gavin O’Connor lets us see them grow in competence and begin to get more and more dangerous missions – and not just for them, but for an asset he has turned with tactics not unlike his wife’s.

Before you know it, they are having to plant a bug in the home of high-level government official – and aren’t afraid to use chemical warfare to do it…

Russell has the toughest role here – she had to be a hardline Soviet sleeper agent and general ball buster while, simultaneously being a good wife and a loving mother. From Felicity, we knew she could handle the emotional family arcs and, from Mission: Impossible: III we knew that she could kick ass like a veteran. So, then, the real surprise is Rhys – and he comes through with flying colors.

The Americans could vanish overnight, or – and this is more likely – sway America audiences with its spry storytelling and likable Soviets spies.

Final Grade: A-