By now, we’re used to seeing the main character as the villain on television: the mob boss, the dirty cop, the meth-cook mastermind. Simply by sitting on the throne of “protagonist” they become somebody we root for.
Yet, The Americans (10 pm Wednesdays on FX) experiments with that formula by pushing it one step further. The horrible things the protagonists on The Americans do aren’t in service of America, or preventing crime, or protecting their family or even lining their own pockets: They do it for the Soviet Union.
Elizabeth (Keri Russell, Felicity) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys, Brothers & Sisters) seem to be a generic 1980s suburban couple with a thriving marriage and children. In reality, they’re longtime Soviet sleeper agents. Their idyllic lifestyle gets a little more complicated when a counterintelligence agent happens to move next door.
The Americans excels on the scene-by-scene level, featuring cleverly constructed, thrilling, devastating and agonizing moments that, unfortunately, are confusingly organized. Prestige cable shows seem to conflate viewers struggling to follow the plot with great writing, but here it drags down the pilot episode.
Television, of course, has a long tradition of telling spy stories, from the intentionally ridiculous (Chuck, I Spy) to the unintentionally ridiculous (Alias). For the most part, The Americans, heavy with dark shadows, moody music and the static of ambient sounds, aims to be serious. The first two episodes deal with very serious issues — rape, blackmail, treason and torture.
But to a younger person like me, a kindergartner when the Soviet Union fell, the one-time superpower seems more like the province of Yakov Smirnoff jokes and campy Red Alert videogames, not a genuine threat to national security. So when Elizabeth speaks of love for “the motherland,” unironically, it’s hilarious in all the wrong ways.
You can see The Americans struggling with its identity: does it stay loyal to Sopranos-style “quality television,” or defect, becoming fun Prison Break-style pulp?
I recommend the latter. There are enough great dramas out there, and not enough purely enjoyable ones.