New FX series “The Americans” hits every beat it goes for effortlessly

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Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play a pair of Soviet agents masquerading as your average American family in FX’s new series, “The Americans.” Photo courtesy of FX.

Every time FX debuts a new series, it is worth taking notice. It’s rare for one of these series to be anything but male-driven and action-packed, but “The Americans” is a departure for FX in more ways than that. It is a period piece set in the ‘80s, the first the network has attempted, to my knowledge, and also one of its first domestic dramas. However, “The Americans” isn’t nearly as simple as it appears on the surface, and proves to be a marvelously entertaining new Wednesday nightcap.

The show’s 1980s setting finds America in the throes of the Cold War, and fear of the Russians is at an all-time high. Those worries are not entirely unfounded, seeing as Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (Keri Russell & Matthew Rhys) are a pair of Soviet agents deep undercover as an average American family, complete with a gorgeous suburban house and an adorable pair of children.

Show creator Joe Weisberg is an ex-CIA operative, and he slathers “The Americans” in the paranoia of the 1980s. The show’s pilot airing Wednesday night does an excellent job reflecting its era, both with a snappy, exciting opening sequence and with several central tensions. Noah Emmerich plays the Jennings’ new neighbor, an FBI agent conveniently spearheading the hunt for covert Soviets on American soil, and many of his scenes are equally squirmy and compelling as he slowly becomes more and more suspicious of his neighbors.

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys both have extensive television experience on “Felicity” and “Brothers and Sisters,” respectively, but “The Americans” is an entirely different, more subtle ball game for both actors. They are more than up to the challenge. The pilot finds Phillip torn between the good of his family and the good of his country, while Elizabeth remains steadfast in her loyalty to the motherland, making for endlessly evocative tension between “husband and wife.” 

It would be easy for Phillip and Elizabeth to be unsympathetic, what with being a terrorist sleeper cell and all. But history dictates that their journey can’t possibly end well, and that hindsight combines with the affable charm and tangible inner conflict both actors bring to make them interesting characters that are easy to root for. Their bizarre version of the nuclear American family is fascinating to behold, and the series is smart about their relationship, portraying Elizabeth and Phillip as a normal married couple who still quietly murmur worries about their children at the end of the day — it’s just in the context of their children finding out their parents are undercover Communists.

The series’ pilot was directed by Gavin O’Connor, who also helmed the 2011 emotional powerhouse “Warrior,” and he stages sequences set in both the field and the bedroom with a powerful hunch for action and heart. However, it’s impossible not to wonder about the series’ prospects for longevity. With a premise like this, and the stakes hiked up so high from the very first episode, one has to wonder how long the Jennings can really stay undercover. It doesn’t help that the pilot overplays its hand a few times, particularly in the final scene, but the show hits every beat it goes for effortlessly.

Then again, if “The Americans” goes the way of many of FX’s Wednesday night shows (R.I.P. “Terriers”), it could die out in one immensely satisfying season. However, the show is so confidently delivered, staged with such entertaining and nail-biting tension, and written with such intelligence and skill that it’s a ride well worth taking, no matter where the finish line ends up.