Caspar Weinberger’s maid is about to betray her country, and “The Americans” will have you begging her to hurry up and plant that bug in the defense secretary’s study before his British counterpart gets into town.
The childhood trauma of under-desk air-raid drills notwithstanding, the Soviets have served American culture as safe go-to villains for decades, enemies safely buried in the past, twirling their mustaches en route to a satisfying defeat.
“The Americans,” FX’s smart espionage drama, puts the enemy in Guess jeans and an Oldsmobile with Juice Newton on the eight-track.
Starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys (“Brothers & Sisters”) as a deep-undercover, accent-free Boris and Natasha, the show rewinds the clock to the Cold War and turns the black-and-white America-first mentality of the early ‘80s inside out. The show is an unapologetically fun litmus test for any retroactive treasonous leanings.
Directive S, the show’s fictional superspy program, melded two young Russians into deadly agents with flawless English skills and then gave them new identities as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. They’re sent off to establish lives in America and await further instructions.
As the show begins, Ronald Reagan has just taken office and the Jennings family, now a pair of travel agents with two kids, is blending in on the suburban edge of Washington, D.C. When the Cold War heats up for the last time, the Kremlin begins to make some unreasonable requests.
As played by Russell, Elizabeth is still a true believer in her mission. She hasn’t been seduced by our air conditioning and fully stocked grocery stores. She hasn’t even fully embraced her arranged marriage.
“You’re my wife,” Phillip says to her when she rebuffs him with a kitchen knife. “Is that right?” she responds.
Phillip loves his sorta-wife — you can tell by the way he crushes another man’s larynx on her behalf — but he’s not so sure about the USSR anymore. Disillusioned and afraid that one of them might be compromised, he admits his weakness to Elizabeth before rushing off to a meeting that might be an ambush. “If they are there — if it’s me — they’ll be at the house in an hour.”
Despite his doubts, Phillip holds his own when it comes to the game, donning wigs and dentures and exploiting bored Beltway wives and secretaries.
Elizabeth’s methods are tried and true: Blond wig, martini bar, ego-stroking, pillow talk. “The Americans” doesn’t get two minutes into existence before she gets down to business with one particularly stupid mark, and the explicit scenes don’t stop there.
Even with such tempting agents, rooting for the KGB full time is a tough sell. Luckily, there’s someone to root for at the FBI, too.
The new guy in counter-intelligence, Stan Beeman, just spent years undercover with white supremacists, so he knows a little something about a life of deception.
Noah Emmerich plays Stan as equal parts buddy and bully, bringing to mind “Breaking Bad’s” DEA agent Hank Schrader. Emmerich, like Dean Norris, has found the perfect balance between brilliant and blowhard.
Someday Agent Beeman is going to figure out that the big fish has been under his nose all along. We just hope it’s not too fast, because it’s a pleasure to watch him work.
The fact that he moves in next door to the Jenningses is quite the coincidence. The show hangs a lampshade on it by letting the Russians hyperventilate about their new neighbor’s job during a welcoming brownie drop-off.
“The Americans” strains credulity in other ways. Those Jennings kids are some heavy sleepers, never wandering downstairs to check out the banging noises in the garage. They also never forget their backpacks because if they ever went back for them, they’d walk in on Mom and Dad discussing body disposal as though they’re buying tickets to a Journey concert.
“The Americans” does take the chance to scream “1981!” on its soundtrack, with Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” used particularly effectively.
But Russell’s high-waisted mom jeans are the only thing that distinguishes her look from one she could have sported in 1978, 1995 or 2003. None of the men look stupid in their clothes, and the haircuts aren’t mockable, either.
The loose interpretation of the period feels like a missed opportunity. If these Russians were living among us, they weren’t too good to wear parachute pants.
WHERE TO WATCH
“The Americans” premieres with a 90-minute episode at 10 p.m. EST Wednesday on FX.
Sara Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org
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