After that great taste of “Argo” at the movie theaters last fall, setting a spy series in the Washington of 1981 sounds like a splendid idea, if for no other reason than to take advantage of the Cold War’s ability to go cold turkey on the gizmos. Eliminate the smartphones, the somehow-always-available broadband access, the entire walls of touch-screen monitors, the ubiquitous surveillance footage, the satellite-controlled drones and, lo and behold, you have a lot more story to work with.
This is about people leaving coded messages under park benches. This is about pay phones and goofy wigs and safe houses. This is the stuff of “The Americans,” FX’s dark and desperate new thriller about two covert KGB spies, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, who live as a nice married couple in Northern Virginia and own a travel agency (a what?) in Dupont Circle. When they talk about getting wired, they don’t mean switching from Xfinity to FiOS.
Halfway through its tightly wound first episode (premiering Wednesday night), I had a twisted little thought: We should at some point get to see these nice Soviet spooks in Pleasantville watch American TV in 1981. There, somewhere between “Hart to Hart” and, say, “The Brady Brides,” we’d get an eerie sense of just how much television has changed. For the better, mainly.
What would Americans of 1981 have thought about “The Americans?” We’d have recognized the giant Oldsmobiles and the expertly curated Top 40 pop tunes (“Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash, in one scene, and a very tense use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” in an opening chase sequence), but we sure wouldn’t have known what else to do with it. To yesterday’s TV watcher, “The Americans” would have seemed too depressing, too vague, too tense, too violent — to say nothing of the oral sex act depicted in the first five minutes, which would probably have launched an FCC investigation lasting months. And, more significant, there would be the issue of making protagonists of Boris and Natasha.
“The Americans” takes full advantage of three decades of TV evolution and the modern default setting we all share: It’s complicated. We now prefer our good guys to be the bad guys, and we enjoy sending them on a long, downward spiral.
A finely matured Keri Russell, now well past her “Felicity” era, stars as Elizabeth, a KGB recruit who has spent nearly 20 years stateside, tending to and perfecting her cover in an arranged marriage with her fellow spy, Philip (Matthew Rhys, from ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters”). The two have been forbidden from talking about their past lives or even speaking Russian, and the depth of their deception has included making a nuclear family. Their awkward 13-year-old daughter (Holly Taylor) and astronomy-obsessed 10-year-old son (Keidrich Sellati) have no clue about Mom and Dad, and Elizabeth increasingly worries about what will happen to her children when she and Philip are caught.
Like “Breaking Bad,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Homeland” and a host of other excellent dramas where the overall mood is one of impending doom and recompense for the tragically flawed main characters, “The Americans” centralizes its tension around the idea that it’s only a matter of time before the Jenningses are found out and arrested. Just as brother-in-law Hank Schrader has slowly closed in on the truth about “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White, the Jenningses’ new neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), has been brought onto the FBI’s counterintelligence unit, which is under pressure from the newly installed Reagan administration to ferret out Soviet spies.
Agent Beeman’s presence in the Jenningses’ world — matched with Reagan’s get-tough approach to Soviet relations — sets their household on a renewed edge. Having coasted through relative bliss in the ’70s, Elizabeth and Philip are getting more risky assignments from their contacts in the Soviet Embassy. They’ve also got a problem in the trunk of their car: a bound-and-gagged KGB defector with whom Elizabeth has an upsetting history.
Philip, citing “closet space, food, electricity” as but a few baseline reasons to appreciate life in the United States, has started needling Elizabeth about the possibility of switching sides and asking for American protection in exchange for secrets. Elizabeth, still fiercely devoted to her mission, scolds her comrade for his lack of commitment. One of the more interesting aspects to “The Americans” is that we all know how near the Cold War’s end is; Elizabeth and Philip still operate in a world where everything’s at stake.
As a drama, “The Americans” struggles to crack a certain code; the concept is tantalizing, but the follow-through lacks the momentum that gets viewers to commit. Russell initially brings a steely-eyed edge to her role, but after a couple of episodes, it’s almost too cold, too blank. Rhys, on the other hand, runs away with the show as Philip, forging a character who is brutally efficient, hotheaded and yet sympathetically vulnerable. Right away you want to know a whole lot more about him than you want to know about her, which gives the series a slight imbalance even as the two actors complement each other.
And as an exercise in nostalgia, “The Americans” succeeds only partly. Washingtonians hoping to retrieve the drab grit and utter Hinckleyness of the city in 1981 will probably be let down, even though the show seems to take its wide-frame glasses and three-piece suits seriously. The espionage is so yesteryear that it verges on comical (which it often did in reality, too); in the second episode, for example, Elizabeth and Philip launch a convoluted scheme to wiretap Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s home office. This requires, in no particular order, a false mustache, a stolen clock, the administering of a poison to which only one antidote exists and the act of hooking up a bunch of equipment straight out of the glory days of Radio Shack.
It’s worth noting that “The Americans” is another well-made, provocative TV drama that could benefit from having the finite boundaries of being a miniseries rather than launching itself into the ambitious realm of an ongoing series. “Homeland’s” recent narrative wobbliness taught us all a lesson about how quickly a high-concept drama can paint itself into a silly corner. “The Americans” is still a ways off from finding itself in that situation, but it’s easy to see how stale it might get in a matter of episodes.
Yet, under its many layers of attempted nuance, “The Americans” has one unmistakable lure: old-fashioned spies like us. We’re so trained now to look for sleeper cells and take our shoes off at airports that it’s easy to forget about sexy secret agents who might be listening in. I am just paranoid enough to presume they’re still out there in real life, trimming their hedges and waving hello, but I also think we’ve missed them terribly.
(97 minutes) debuts Wednesday
at 10 p.m. on FX.