There's lots to like about an ex-CIA agent's KGB series on FX
Everything that's right and wrong about FX's "The Americans" can be summed up in its musical choices.
Fleetwood Mac's jittery 1979 anthem "Tusk" represents what's good about the new series, which premieres Wednesday and follows a KGB couple living in Reagan's America. The song is paranoid, mysterious, scary and just weird – everything "The Americans" is at its best.
But then there's the odd choice of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," a 1981 hit that accompanies an out-of-nowhere sex scene. Yes: The show tries to wring passion from a song that's already been worked over by "Miami Vice" and even played for laughs in "The Hangover." It's too obvious, like the lesser parts of "The Americans."
But the series, created by ex-CIA agent Joe Weisberg and starring a very capable Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, has more good than bad. It also has plenty of potential, thanks to one of the best concepts in recent memory.
Russell and Rhys play two Russian agents living as Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, two Washington suburbanites. Phillip, a bit of a mercenary, would probably defect to the U.S. if his wife would go along. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is still loyal to the U.S.S.R. – even though she has good reason not to be.
As they raise their children as unsuspecting Americans, they remember their own upbringings behind the Iron Curtain – which was particularly rough for Elizabeth. Still, she doesn't want her kids to grow up as profligate as she believes Americans to be.
The premiere's best line comes from the couple's teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), as she defends her clothes.
"Things are different than they were when you grew up," she tells her mom, unaware that Elizabeth began training for the KGB when she was her age. "People are… freer."
The family tension — especially between Phillip and Elizabeth — is the most captivating part of the show. It's hard to imagine a trickier bit of spycraft than concealing your nationality from your children. Or persuading your wife to switch sides in the Cold War.
The homefront drama picks up when an FBI agent (an excellent Noah Emmerich) moves into the neighborhood. He's smart enough to be suspicious of his seemingly all-American neighbors.
All of this means the show is packed with intrigue — even before the Jennings leave home. Somehow, the show gets less convincing when they do.
Both the first and second episodes contain ticking-clock elements that feel like artificial attempts to ratchet up the tension. In the first episode, they capture a turncoat who's been bribed into helping the U.S. government – and have to hold him captive in the trunk of their Oldsmobile.
In the second episode, Phillip finds a way to blackmail Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's maid that feels like a kitschy contrivance for a lesser Bond movie.
"The Americans" is too smart for these kinds of police-procedural-style plot maneuvers, which feel designed to keep us tuned in through the next commercial rather than hooked for good. There's just no need for the narrative tricks when I'd tune in just to watch Phillip talk about the Miracle on Ice with his FBI neighbor, trying not to betray his fondness for the Russian team.
But "The Americans" isn't confident in its viewers to let too many small moments develop. Besides the ticking-clock devices, it also tries to hook us with plenty of not-entirely-necessary sex scenes, including the one that features that played-out Phil Collins song.
Unlike its Soviet protagonists, the show can afford to relax: Even without bribes, it's fundamentally sound enough to keep us from defecting.
"The Americans" premieres Wednesday at 10/9c on FX.