The world is such a flaming hot mess today that you might think the Cold War era of FX’s “The Americans” — a new drama about a pair of deep cover KGB operatives living in Washington, D.C. at the dawn of the Reagan presidency — would feel almost quaint and reassuring. But what makes the series (it debuts tomorrow night at 10) so impressive is the way it treats the 1980s as its present, not its past.
We may know that the world didn’t end in a hail of atomic mushroom clouds, but for the characters in the show — both the actual Americans and the Soviet agents pretending to be — that threat is very real, and very omnipresent. Each side believes, devoutly, that the other is — to borrow a phrase from the series’ opening scene — “working to destroy our way of life.” The Soviets are terrified of Ronald Reagan, whom they believe to be a mad man, while the show’s American counter-espionage operatives treat their work as something resembling a holy calling. And though the show occasionally touches on the vast technological differences between then and now — it’s a big deal in one episode, for instance, that a KGB asset gets to wear a tiny special camera in her bra, when today she’d just take pictures with her phone and no one would think anything of it — for the most part, it treats the spy craft as very serious, dangerous business.
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, all-American couple raising two kids in the D.C. suburbs. Only it’s all a lie, except for the kids, who have no idea that their parents are Soviet spies, whose names are not Elizabeth and Phillip, and who may act married but have jobs that obligate them to sleep with other people to obtain information. (Not coincidentally, each of the first two episodes opens with a scene of one of them having sex with an asset, with the other either listening in or being briefed on it after.)
The duo have been in America for 16 years when the series begins, a point at which the lie can start to feel like the truth. When you share a bed with someone every night, raise children with them, go to the mall together, etc., it’s hard not to start believing in it. In an early scene, we see Phillip trying on a pair of boots at a department store, wistfully trying out a few country line-dancing moves, wanting very much to be a cowboy and not a cold warrior.
“You’re my wife,” he tells Elizabeth out of frustration when she spurns one of his advances.
“Is that right?” she replies, full of disdain for how her partner has been corrupted by the decadent West.
These are excellent roles for both leads, who get to flash far more steel than they did in the TV roles for which they’re best known (“Felicity” for Russell, “Brothers & Sisters” for Rhys). They give a pair of physical, committed performances — Rhys is particularly strong in the fight scenes, which are quick and brutal and feel very much of the era — and effortlessly shift between a variety of guises.
The series was created by Joe Weisberg, a CIA agent turned screenwriter, who first teamed with “Americans” producer Graham Yost (who also runs FX’s “Justified”) on TNT’ “Falling Skies.” Weisberg, Yost and pilot director Gavin O’Connor — who knows a thing about depicting both this period and American-Soviet tensions from his work on the film “Miracle” — have taken a no-nonsense approach to the storytelling. There are period touches like clothes (Elizabeth favors high-waisted jeans), hair (Phillip has a perm) and music (an early action scene is scored, brilliantly, to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”), but never in a way where they call attention to themselves. This is just life for a pair of quasi-married KGB spies in 1981, and it’s messy and bloody and far more complicated than either of them expected when they signed up for the gig decades earlier.
O’Connor also brings with him “Miracle” co-star Noah Emmerich, who plays Stan Beeman, an FBI agent assigned to the counter-espionage unit who has the very good (or possibly bad) luck to move in across the street from the Jennings family. It’s probably more of a contrivance than was necessary for the characters to cross paths when they’re allegedly off the clock, but Emmerich shines playing a man who sees more than he lets on, and who has more in common with his new neighbors than either of them realize.
It’s been more than a decade since FX started making original dramas. Some have been great (“The Shield”), some have been brilliant but flawed (“Rescue Me”) and some simply not to my taste (“American Horror Story”), but all have been interesting in one way or another. Based on the admittedly small sample size of two episodes, “The Americans” feels like it could very comfortably slot in with the upper tier of FX dramas. That’s about as good as it gets.