I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Americans S01E01: "Pilot"

The year is 1981. Two Russian spies have been posing as an American couple for a decade and a half complete with a house and two kids at the center of American policy, Washington DC. The Cold War seems everything but cold with the election of Ronald Regan and the difficulties his spy-hunting stance bring for these KGB operatives. Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings speak perfect English, and if rumors are correct they haven't spoken a word of Russian since they met. They also hunt down former Soviets who have turned into informants for American money while also making certain that their daughter has the clothing she needs and their son gets to hockey practice on time.

In the first episode, The Americans delivers some of the best story telling I've encountered since watching The Godfather for the first time. A scene will create a question in the viewer - like, "Why was Elizabeth romancing that Department of Defense guy in the beginning?" - and right when it seems like that scene might have just been a throw-away scene about sacrifice and the spy life it is tied perfectly into the story. Every scene is necessary and plays an important role in the development of the narrative. After the one hour ten minute long pilot has completed I found myself amazed that I not only knew who the five main characters - Phillip, Elizabeth, Paige and Henry Jennings, and Agent Stan Beeman - were, what motivated them and a rough idea of the trajectory of their story arcs, but I also understood a lot about the American and Russian governments and their aims during the time period.

The acting is surprisingly strong. Keri Russell has been a favorite actress of mine for years now. I was never as much of a fan of her during the Felicity days, but when she started taking more adult roles she really showed that she is incredibly professional and very dedicated to the art of acting. But Russell is not the only one who delivers. There is not a single awkward actor in this series, at least not as of episode one. Furthermore, and I think this might be the key to the future success of The Americans, the creative team is brave. Already in the pilot, they tackle some seriously difficult issues of sexuality, from Elizabeth's sexual intelligence sortie and its implications for her relationship with Phillip to a KGB commander who is sanctioned to rape his underlings as part of their training to a brute who believes it is OK to take advantage of under-aged girls to the most difficult topic of all: the balance of duty to country and love of ones family.

Furthermore, if you want to win me over, there are two things you need to do: have a good story and make it a period piece in the 1980s. I was really impressed by the music and how well it was mixed into each scene. I'm not talking cheap, pop tunes that anyone would hear on some BMG "I Love the 80s" disc, although there was a little cheese to the fact that the song "In the Air Tonight" played during an integral sex scene. And who doesn't love a family who cares about hockey. While the Jennings family are proclaimed Washington Capitals fans, I can only imagine the drama that might have unfolded just a year earlier when the American Olympic team had their "Miracle on Ice" which pitted them against the seemingly invincible Russian team in the semi-final game. I'm going to admit that if we don't get a flashback to that game, I'm likely to be a little disappointed.

While the spy family concept has been done to death in such depictions as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the Undercovers, and True Lies, The Americans stands out because of its incredible delivery. I have to admit that The Americans isn't likely to be my favorite new show in a year where House of Cards hits the scene, but then again, The Americans doesn't have the budget of House of Cards, so the accomplishment that this show marks means a little bit more. Ultimately any doubt I have about the series is overshadowed by hope and intrigue, and I highly recommend this show to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear, but also to those with disabilities because of closed captions and whatever blind people use to enjoy visual art.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

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