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TV Tonight: The Americans

FX's Cold War thriller about a deep-cover Soviet spies in the suburbs is the thriller you'd expect but also an intriguing study of marriage as partnership.

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Craig Blankenhorn/FX

You would think that by now prestige cable dramas would have exhausted every variation on the “…but the protagonist has a secret!” theme. A suburban waste management businessman is actually a mob boss. A chemistry teacher is actually a drug dealer. A successful ad executive actually stole the identity of a dead man. A war hero is actually a terrorist.

At first blush, FX’s The Americans, about two Soviet spies undercover as a Virginia couple in 1981, seems to share elements of each of these antihero shows, along with less celebrated series like The Riches. But maybe the greatest success of the show so far is that, after three increasingly strong episodes, it  has a voice and a (secret) identity of its own.

One thing that distinguishes this Cold War story from its predecessors is that there are two protagonists perpetuating a fiction, against another country, against their neighbors, against their own children–even, to an extent, against each other. So as much as The Americans is the thriller you’d expect–tense, well-paced and laced with well-curated period detail–it’s also an intriguing study of marriage as partnership. Reversing the common order of things, The Americans asks whether marital routine can develop into actual love.

Certainly the relationship of Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) is more complicated than that of the average husband and wife who happen to be co-workers. The two were paired as young KGB agents in the 1960s, taught immaculate English (and hand-to-hand combat) and sent to the U.S. to live as husband and wife. They’ve put down roots, blended in to the suburbs and are raising two very American children. (When their son describes a school project about the moon landing, Elizabeth answers defensively, “You know, the moon isn’t everything. Just getting into space is a remarkable accomplishment.”)

Their cover story is that they run a travel agency. Their actual work involves the occasional night of violence or seducing strategically placed government employees. (In a gesture of egalitarianism, both Philip and Elizabeth get a chance to play Mata Hari here.) The opening minutes of the pilot show us both parts of the job: first, Elizabeth in a blonde wig plying a Justice Department suit for information on new President Reagan (“He just… doesn’t know everything that’s going on”), then, Philip hunting down a Russian defector in a kinetic nighttime chase sequence that finally puts Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” to its proper soundtrack use.

The opening quickly establishes that this is not a frothy spy-couple romp a la NBC‘s short-lived Undercovers. The sex is not teasing or romanticized. (In an unsettling scene, Philip listens to a tape of Elizabeth’s assignation, straining to keep professional detachment.) And it’s not clear-cut, as the two decide what to do with the traitor to the Motherland, who if anyone are the good guys here. Philip and Elizabeth have, to some extent, been made into machines by their training; at one point, they get into an argument and their martial-arts training kicks in reflexively. But they’re not amoral or unconflicted about the things their work sometimes demands of them.

They’re also, in an encouraging sign of sophistication, not equally conflicted. Elizabeth, The Americans suggests, is the more ideologically committed to the Marxist cause, not just politically but personally; it pains her to see her children growing into materialist American teens, her son worshipping astronauts, her daughter reading teen magazines. Philip is loyal, but also wondering whether his country’s interests and his family’s are still the same; he has, perhaps, more fully bought into the play-acting of their marriage. And it’s possible that, if their marriage proves genuine, it might compromise their mission more.

So the Jennings’ problems are that of many a domestic drama–are our kids drifting away from us? are we equally committed to each other?–but spiced up by the occasional knife fight. Add to that troubles with the neighbors, in this case their new friend Stan (Noah Emmerich), an FBI counterintelligence officer who may have suspicions about them.

The first episode uses all this suburban intrigue deftly, finding humor out of the situational irony while making clear The Americans is no farce. Elizabeth and Philip are sympathetic in many ways–but we also soon realize that they are ruthless operatives who will do terrible things, even to innocent people, for their cause. It helps immensely that Russell and Rhys are instantly believable in the roles; Russell slips into the role of action star as surprisingly but easily as did her fellow Felicity alum Jennifer Garner on Alias.

The few problems come in the flashback scenes, in which her Russian accent is distracting and neither Elizabeth nor Philip looks a day younger than they do two decades later; but the second and third episodes dispense with those. And while the pilot is a strong calling card, establishing both character and excitement, it also–at 90 minutes–feels like a movie with multiple false endings in the third act; it might have been better off expanded to two hours, or with some later material excised for the second episode. There are also some issues with the fact that Elizabeth might be starting to fall in love with Philip now, after so many years, and–though I won’t spoil anything here–that she would do so for the reasons that she does.

But overall it’s a promising personal and political thriller that uses its ’80s setting for much more than easy nostalgia. In any story about agents hidden among us, it’s hard not to see overtones of the modern terrorism era–24 and Homeland and moles and all that. But the historical distance of the setting changes the perspective. However Evil an Empire the Soviets were, they’re over; they lost, and we know that, at the beginning of the 80s, they are entering the endgame.

That lends a kind of tragedy to Philip and Elizabeth, who’ve gone all in on a losing cause, one that, for them is not just about country but family. Philip wonders whether their kids are not better off as Americans than as Soviets. (“America isn’t so bad. The electricity works all the time. The food’s pretty great.”) Elizabeth never wants the kids to learn the truth about them, for fear of losing them–yet also hopes against hope that she can quietly instill her ideals in them. (“They could be socialists,” she says. “They’re not going to be socialists,” Philip answers. “This place doesn’t turn out socialists.”)

Beyond the cat-and-mouse international intrigue, which deepens after the pilot, The Americans has an absorbing personal story to tell–one as familiar yet unusual as its aliens-among-us protagonists. It’s a very different American dream the Jennings are pursuing. Yet the fears behind it–have we made the right choices? is our relationship real?–are not so foreign at all.