TV Review: “The Americans” – All’s Fair

Written by Jessica Koroll March 01, 2013

kitchen_aTransporting viewers into the midst of the Cold War and a time of unflinching Reaganism, “The Americans” takes the ideals and fears that defined the era and merges them to create a really compelling portrayal of the nationalistic feelings and loyalties that drove the conflict. As viewers become more acquainted with KGB officers Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) who live undercover as a typical American family, it quickly becomes clear that, while this is definitely a show that revels in political intrigue and elaborate plans, there’s an equal amount of time spent attempting to uncover the motivations and similarities driving both sides. The result is a thoughtful premise that makes up for what it lacks in suspense.

“Why is everyone so punctual in this business?”

By far, the series’ most successful aspect is its emphasis on character development. Anti-heroes and double lives are nothing new but the obvious level of care put into developing our pair of Russian spies sets them apart as ones that you want to keep watching. The production team exhibits the valuable ability to know when certain details should be said and when it’s best to simply shut up and give control over to their set of talented actors. Throughout the first few episodes there are several scenes that could have so easily been ruined by extended speeches or obvious dialogue. Instead, by allowing Rhys and Russell moments to act silently, the scenes where their personal conflicts merge with the overarching political ones become so much more genuine and the show, as a whole, so much stronger than it otherwise would have been.

Phillip’s and Elizabeth’s life together is slowly unveiled as we see them meeting for the first time in Russia, learning to cope with culture shock, and the sense of betrayal that arises when Phillip begins to show sympathy for the Americans. They also must deal with more unique problems, such as Elizabeth’s fears that her oblivious children are becoming too Americanized and the FBI agent who moved in next door. At its core, the show is about the feelings that drive these characters forward as they balance natural feelings of family devotion with their ideals as sleeper agents. Even as they actively try to take down the American government and, at the end up episode three, unknowingly send a young mother to her death, the depth that Rhys and Russell bring to their roles make it incredibly easy to forget that they’re the enemies.

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“I would die. I would lose everything before I would betray my country.”

And yet, that certainly doesn’t mean the acting is perfect. There seems to be an ongoing issue of the actors being completely incapable of giving off a believable sense of inconspicuousness. You put any of these people in a room with someone from the opposing side and the whole thing turns into awkward smiles and painfully obvious information fishing. Frankly, when FBI Agent Stan Beeman’s (Noah Emmerich) wife accuses him of being paranoid for suspecting that their neighbours may be Russian spies, I can’t help but think, “how could you not come to that conclusion!?” It’s surprising and a shame given the consistent strength of the cast during most other scenes. 

And therein lies the series’ weakest point. While the well executed fight scenes and constant attacks within each state makes it easy to get invested in the action, there’s a noticeable lack of suspense threading through the more important scenes. Although the events are clearly of upmost importance to the characters involved, it’s difficult to fully appreciate those fears from a 21st century standpoint. When there’s fears that Ronald Reagan might be dead and war could be declared on Russia because of it, it’s exciting to watch but you already know that nothing is going to really come of it. Unless they suddenly decide to veer off from known history, the scenes will continue to carry more historical value as the audience is allowed a more comprehensive look into the mindset of the period.

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With only a few episodes under its belt so far, “The Americans” has succeeded in developing a historical drama that remains entertaining and true to its setting. At this rate, it’ll be interesting to see how the plot continues to develop.

 My Rating: 8/10

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About Jessica Koroll

An English student with a taste for the surreal and love for all things science fiction, her thoughts generally linger on Star Trek, lit theory, and recent tv episodes. I'm also @korolline_

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