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“The Americans” Is Another Cable Winner

The premise of the new intensely involving FX series “The Americans” (10 tonight, basic cable) might have looked even more unique if it hadn’t been for the success of “Homeland.”

The Showtime series already has answered the question of whether Americans can embrace a series about a domestic terrorist.

Many Americans love it even if they don’t love the terrorist played by Damian Lewis.

So I’m not as worried as some critics in Hollywood were a few weeks ago about whether it will be easy to root for the Russian spies living the American suburban dream while trying to get U.S. government secrets during the Reagain Administration in the 1980s

Of course, WNYers are now rooting for a Russian – the Buffalo Sabres’ Mikhail Grigorenko, who scored his first goal Tuesday night though it took legendary play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret a while to realize it and even longer to finish his call. It may have been the worst goal call of the Hall of Famer’s career and was so bad that WGR probably should avoid replaying it too often.

But I digress. Back to “The Americans.”


Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys

During a press conference in Pasadena, Calif., the question of a rooting interest came up. Like most American TV viewers, I’m just rooting for a series that gets me involved and keeps me interested.

And “The Americans” – which was created by a former member of the CIA, Joe Weisberg — succeeds on both levels.

In the California interview, Weisberg conceded that setting the series during the Cold War more than 30 years ago makes the premise an easier sell today.

“I think, if you tried to tell a story like this, you know, about al Qaeda now, it would be completely impossible,” sais Weisberg. “Nobody would be prepared to hear it. And I think it would have been the same way about the Soviets or the KGB even ten years after the Cold War. I mean, they had and still have a lot of nuclear weapons pointed towards us and felt during the Cold War like they maybe were ready to kill all of us. So nobody wanted to try to relate to the enemy, but I think enough time has passed now that people are willing to look into their hearts and see them as people we can understand.”

Keri Russell (“Felicity”) and Matthew Rhys (who played the gay brother on “Brothers & Sisters”), play Russian KGB agents, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, living in suburban Virginia with their two children.

On the outside, they look like the perfect American couple. The products of an arranged marriage, the Jennings keep their domestic battles out of view of their children, 13-year-old Paige (Holly Taylor) and 10-year-old Henry (Keidrich Sellati).

The Jennings have different points of views about their mission. Elizabeth is more committed to the cause, while Philip considers what life would be like as real Americans. He enjoys American life – trips to the mall included — more than his wife who believes “there is a weakness in these American) people.  I can feel it.” He also seems to love his wife more than she loves him. She won’t even pour him a cup of coffee in the morning.

Meanwhile, a new All-American family has moved into the neighborhood, and wouldn’t you know it the husband, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is a decorated FBI agent who is so suspicious of anybody and everybody that it annoys his wife.

Graham Yost, one of the show’s executive producers, indicated in California that the different values of the 1980s superpowers will be explored throughout the series.

“It’s easy to talk about rooting for the Soviets or rooting for the Americans in terms of that big sense of two countries who are out to destroy each other at the time, but there really were, as you point out, these two very competing value systems, and there’s no question that repressive socialism failed in the Soviet Union,” said Yost. “It failed in the Cold War, and it’s also failed around the world. But unbridled consumption hasn’t necessarily led to great satisfaction on the part of hordes and hordes of people. And part of what we’ve been struggling with is how do we express that dramatically through these characters?”

Tonight’s extended 66-minute premiere does a terrific job in setting up the suspense of how the Jennings attempt to get away with their international missions and deal with their own domestic dramas. Through flashbacks, viewers also see how they were paired by the KGB and how they are wired differently.

As in “Homeland,” the tension of whether they are going to get caught is very well-done even though it actually would be a good thing for Americans if they were caught.

Also as in “Homeland,” there are some very implausible moments and scenes in “The Americans.” Russell must weigh all of 90 pounds, but somehow Elizabeth can hold her own battling very strong men and she has quite a violent streak. There also is a scene involving a neighbor’s need to borrow jumper cables that is way out there.

Next week’s second episode, “The Clock,” also leaves one wondering why someone blackmailed into aiding the Jennings in a wire-tap mission wouldn’t blow them in afterwards.

But “Homeland” viewers don’t seem to be bothered when things don’t make all that much sense so I’m sure “The Americans” can survive, too.

However, there is one possible problem down the road. The writers would be wise to avoid making the FBI agent look too stupid as the Jennings work their spy magic.

We Americans can close our eyes to many things, but many of us don’t want to think about the possibility that those people who are out to save us can be easily out-smarted by those out to destroy us.

Rating: 3 and a half stars out of 4


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2 responses to "“The Americans” Is Another Cable Winner"

  1. Ray says:

    Alan – how could you not have discussed American Horror Story?! Currently (in my opinion) one of the best shows on television!! Incredible acting (Jessica Lange in particular), story line, and the story changes each season. Let’s give that FX show some due credit.

  2. Rich says:

    RJ also misidentified Marcus Foligno at first when he scored in the Washington game. Rick tried to cover his mistake by saying that Ennis knocked the puck loose to
    Foligno who clearly picked up the puck by himself while Ennis was over in the corner. So much for accurate play by play. He compounded what was a simple misidentification by making something up to cover his error. I’m not saying announcing is easy, but don’t lie to the listeners.

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