‘The Americans’ Review: Cold War, Slow Burn

'The Americans' Review: Cold War, Slow Burn

Didn't Chekhov say something about a gun?

FX's Cold War spy drama “The Americans” often feels as slow as actual spy craft; I guess we always knew the espionage game is more “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” than “GoldenEye.” Not a lot of leaping of buildings, but plenty of meetings, analysis, and attempts to crack codes.

To that list of tedious tasks “The Americans” can add laundry and getting the kids to school.

The 1980s-set series, which begins its second season Wednesday night, focuses hard on the home lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, Soviet spies posing as Washington, D.C. suburbanites.

Also read: ‘The Americans': 5 Things to Know About the Return of FX's Spy Drama

Why on earth would these people have had kids? The show might be more believable if they didn't, but the stakes would be nowhere near as high. There's no drama on “The Americans” about who will ultimately win, so the show makes us care about the pawns: Not just Elizabeth and Philip (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), but also their cheating FBI neighbor, Stan (Noah Emmerich), his double-agent paramour Nina (Annet Mahendru) and Stan's neglected wife Sandra (Susan Misner).

But we may worry most about the Jennings kids (Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati). Children are masterful keepers of secrets, and part of the fun of “The Americans” is that the parents have far richer secret lives than even their teenager, Paige. If you watch “Homeland,” you may be apprehensive about a spy show turning its attention to the teenage girl.  But it works on “The Americans.” Paige has inherited her parents’ ability to snoop. Her little brother Henry is clueless, like all little brothers, but adorably so.

Also read: ‘The Americans’ Season 1 Premiere Review: A Cold War Drama That's Getting Warm

If Season 1 was about the Philip and Elizabeth's marriage, Season 2 is about their children. In the premiere, Philip and Elizabeth meet up with another undercover couple, and things go badly. They begin to wonder if they can shield their children at all — as if they weren't already stretched thin.

Besides being full-time parents and spies, the Jennings also run a travel agency, one of the amusing anachronisms of the show. One of the joys of “The Americans” is how well it captures the early 80s – not the pastel part of the decade, but the grim 70s hangover years. They even eat depressing food, like French bread pizza and Salisbury steak. Stan watches Meryl Streep in “The French Lieutenant's Woman.” In the second episode, Philip finds a brand-new AT-AT in the closet.

But the Jennings aren't just occupied by work and future collectibles. Philip also has another distraction: A second wife, Martha (Allison Wright), who decides this season that she needs to buy a gun.

Also read: ‘The Americans’ Ups Annet Mahendru, Alison Wright to Series Regulars

Didn't a great Russian writer say something about a gun?

Chekhov's principle that every element of a story needs a purpose seems to be very much at work. Yes, the first episodes can drag a bit, but they're setting up something.

Last season, “The Americans” started a little slow, too – but then it built up to a fantastic run of episodes, culminating in a mesmerizing sequence set to Peter Gabriel's “Games Without Frontiers.” This season has a Peter Gabriel montage by the third episode, which has to mean something.

  • pattie capet

    this is such a great show; i hope people will get on board

  • Lisa Schaefer

    love this show. I dont think the first season was slow at all. I love how they started the first scenes to “Tusk”.

  • D

    Leaping “off” buildings, not of. That would be a whole different scenario watching buildings leap. Pet peeve – writers should take time with their grammar as much as content as the rest of us take our cues from you. Great revue, love the show. Can't wait to see how they rescue Elizabeth. Real spies love this show based on an actual event, and used as a premise in the 1980's book, “Charm School.”

  • Sean Murdock

    Great teaser for the new season, Tim. Very much looking forward to this — Season One was much better than I thought it could be, very nearly raising itself to “AMC” levels of greatness. As to why two Soviet spies would have kids in this country — I haven't seen Season 1 since it aired, but I think they were ordered to, it was part of their cover. Also, kudos for pointing out the pinpoint period details — usually, if a show goes “'80s” they go right for the Miami Vice outfits and legwarmers, but this show takes place in the “post-70s” Eighties — really, an era of its own. (I know, I grew up in it…)

    • Win8-TrackBlows

      True. Not so much “Desperately Seeking Susan” as “Kramer vs. Kramer”.

  • majormarj

    Lord, really! When you have time, rush off & read Charm School!! It is as tense & brilliant as The Americans. GOOD TIMES!

  • Win8-TrackBlows

    Good show, but I find the anachronisms distracting at times. First, there's Elizabeth's/Nadyezhda's fashions. Outside the home, they seem to conform to 1981, but inside she's often wearing the midriff-hugging, clingy tops that came into style starting in the late '90s/early 2000's. Same with Phillip's earth tones and a lot of others, now that I think of it. It's like when the suits come off we're back in the 21st century.

    Then there's the language. “It's chill”?? White kids saying “chill out” was still a novelty, never mind using it as an adjective. Ditto with “do me a solid” or using “I” as a direct object or “I'm fine with that” – things that would either make someone 33 years ago scratch their head or laugh at someone butchering the English language, or would at best seem ironic.

    The script sometimes reads like millennials transposing the war on terror onto the Cold War, completely uninterested in what America in 1981 was like – the rejection of the counterculture and conservative backlash that was the Reagan “revolution”, the rise of the Moral Majority, the white, male fear of rising equality between the sexes and the races. The war on the poor and the gains of the civil rights era was just ramping up under the cloak of patriotism and religion. Richard Thomas actually does a good job of portraying the officialdom of the day – newly aggressive after the embarrassment of the Carter years, morally righteous and anxious to stick it to the Ruskies.

    The kids are much more believable as products of their time, both in dress and attitude.

    Also, the idea that some young, loser pedophile carrying around quality imported beer in his car, back when Molson was considered quality brew, is just laughable.