The Americans: a review



Wow. I just finished watching the first 2 seasons of this cold war drama. I had bought the first season when it was released on DVD, strictly based on the positive buzz that I was hearing and  just in time to PVR the second season as it aired.

This show is set in the 80’s and is based on a real sleeper cell of Russian spies based in the USA, dubbed the Illegals Program. As a gen-Xer, I found this to be a remarkable trip down a nostalgic path. This show stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as a married couple, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, who live in the greater Washington D.C. area and pose as owners of a travel agency. No one would suspect they are really illegals. To complicate their lives, their newest neighbour, Stan (Noah Emmerich) is an FBI counter-intelligence agent. This is pure drama, with very little humour but it makes up for it with richly drawn main characters and deeply relatable struggles in their personal and professional lives.

Throughout the 2 seasons (13 episodes each) I followed parallels between Philip and Elizabeth’s assignments and Stan’s investigations. These plots were intricately woven with subplots involving their fragile personal lives.  As a Canadian, I felt no discomfort at sympathizing with the Jennings’s. I found their emotional struggles and compartmentalized lives fascinating. I enjoyed watching as they balanced marriage and parenting with soul-crushing professional set-backs. To make things worse, they have very few emotional supports. This is not your typical arranged marriage.

Boy, spy shows have come a long way from the days of Alias (I was a huge fan). Sydney Bristow rarely had to compromise herself the way the Jennings do. Both Philip and Elizabeth are repeatedly involved in honey-traps and neither shy away from dealing with innocents who just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. How refreshingly realistic.

Keri Russell (I was never a Felicity fan) is fantastic as Elizabeth Jennings; cold and steely, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. You can see her shift gears and soften when dealing with her children, as if she must do it consciously. Matthew Rhys is excellent as Philip who is clearly the more emotionally demonstrative of the pair. I appreciate his numerous mission specific aliases (I especially like it when he plays the role of Clark) and the talent it requires on Matthew Rhys’ part to pull it off. Special mention goes out to Noah Emmerich as Stan, a man who has just returned from a deep under cover FBI assignment. He seems to flail about as he tries to assimilate into the “real world”.

This show is well written. It allows itself to unfold with great tension and respects me as the viewer enough to let me figure things out. I was spared long expository speeches. The plots move at a quick pace and inject real historical events here and there. The soundtrack is amazing with well chosen hits from the period. I especially enjoyed the use of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk in the pilot and Golden Earring’s Twilight Zone in the Season 2 finale. The supporting cast is stellar, featuring Richard Thomas, Margo Martindale and Lee Tergesen.

If you like the idea of a family drama dovetailing with a spy caper, this show is worth a look. I am really looking forward to the next season.


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