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Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Americans: True and Deep

The Americans, with Keri Russell as one half of the Soviet sleeper spy couple so deeply undercover in Washington they're more American than most of us, debuted on fx last night.  It was superb.

First, about Keri Russell, there are two interrelated things about her past as an actress that make her appearance in The Americans especially interesting.  She is best known for her breakthrough Felicity roll a while ago,  one of J. J. Abrams' early series about a college student.  And Abrams' next series was Alias, which featured Jennifer Garner not Russell as graduate student turned spy, but which had a major continuing storyline about a Soviet agent under cover in the United States - Sydney Bristow's (Jennifer Garner's) mother, Irina/Laura.   I like these sort of complex prior histories to television series.

In Alias, the Soviet spy (played by Lena Olin) was married to an American spy (played by Victor Garbor) - all powerfully acted, by the way.  In The Americans, both Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) and her husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys) are Soviet spies, and their acting is top-notch.  In fact, just about everything in this series seems to be, so far.  Plot twists, unexpected bursts of action, frank sexually vivid (not quite explicit) language combine with the acting to made the premiere never a dull moment.

Russell, especially, has a way of getting just the right pitch in her voice.  When her husband, wanting to show her a little affection and getting rebuffed, protests that he's her husband, Elizabeth responds "is that right?" with just the right slight cutting sarcastic edge.  This is because their marriage is their job as spies, not a true aspect of their lives.  But, as William James the American psychologist noted more than a century ago, when you go through the actions of something, often enough, you begin to grow real feelings for those actions, too.

Elizabeth and Matthew have been at this for more than a decade.   They have two children, a daughter age 13 and a son a little younger.  So of course they have some real feelings.  It's just that, at the beginning of the show, Matthew is more in touch with them than is Elizabeth.  But that changes at the end, in a sequence of events which show that, as much as Matthew has become a truly happy suburban American father, he's still tough as nails underneath.

The one part of the premiere episode that jangled a bit is the FBI guy who moves next store.  This can't be coincidence - which Elizabeth and Matthew seem to realize - but so far the show is playing it as coincidence one-hundred percent.  I expect we'll find out before too long what's really going on with the neighbor.

There's also great 1981 scenery, with talk about Reagan as a lunatic from the Soviet perspective, Walter Cronkite on television, and all sorts evocative 1981 music.  At this point, The Americans is looking to easily be one of the best new shows on television, with only The Following as any real competition.

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