The Americans: Pilot Review

It’s 1981 and Phillip and Elizabeth are a suburban couple living outside Washington DC. They have 2 kids, brownies in the oven, an embarrassing fondness for line-dancing, a body in the boot of the car and have been Russian sleeper agents for 15 years. But the escalating cold war is making everything more uncertain, more complicated and more dangerous.

I’d been looking forward to this series a lot, it’s had some great press in the US where its first season has already finished and its been picked up for a second. I was a little surprised to see it on the ITV schedules and worried that maybe it wasn’t going to be as complex a show as I’d been led to believe. Once again, my prejudice against ITV was wrong and it turned out to be even better than I’d hoped.

It would have been easy to make this a cheesy Mr and Mrs Smith style action show. Or just as easily it could have been a very dry and over-wrought psychological thriller. Instead it seems to be a charming and entertaining character and history study. There’s depth, but also lightness. There were plenty of laughs to be had from the dialogue and situations but also complex moral dilemmas about patriotism, family and trust.

One of the things I was nervous about for the show was the period setting, it’s too easy for the 80s to be treated as a comedy setting with ridiculous hair, fashion, music and technology. But while everything looks ‘right’ here, it’s not overdone. The most ridiculous things are the various disguises that the spies use, there’s probably half a dozen wigs in the pilot alone. By themselves the wigs would be ridiculous, but Keri Russell (Felicity) and Matthew Rhys (Brothers and Sisters) manage that difficult thing of actors playing someone pretending to be someone else. There are multiple levels of subterfuge going on all the time and yet it’s always followable because you empathise immediately with the two main characters thanks to the excellent performances from the two charismatic leads.

Although it’s apparently inspired by real events, and was created by a former CIA agent , the plot is kind of ridiculous. It also has the potential to turn into a bit of a soap opera with uncertainty around how Phillip and Elizabeth really feel about each other – they have children and have lived together 15 years, but do not appear to have intimacy and don’t even know each other’s real names. But are those feelings now changing? The pilot worked because the characters felt believable, even if the situation didn’t. If you accept that they are in this position, you can just consider the implications – their children are raised American and have no idea about mum and dad, social studies essays are going to get unpleasant.

I was utterly gripped and entertained by the double episode pilot of this series and am really fascinated to see where the next 12 episodes take us. This ranks pretty highly on my list of top pilots of the year and I really hope they can keep the quality up.

The Americans is on ITV on Saturday evenings and is available on ITV player.

Other Reviews
The Guardian – Yeah, and it works, once you’ve figured out what the hell is going on. It’s an enticing idea, and a pacy ride, like a kind of hammier Homeland
(I really have no clue how they could have struggled to follow what was going on)

The Huffington Post – If Argo gave you a yen to see great character actors wear mustard-colored clothing and play beleaguered intelligence types, you should definitely give “The Americans” a sustained try


2 thoughts on “The Americans: Pilot Review

  1. With minor reservations, I liked this a lot. When I say this is a little bit like Homeland-lite, I mean it in a good way. It’s not too emotionally overwrought, and it’s less dependent on the axis around which its two lead characters revolve (although Rhys and Russell are excellent).

    Like you, I was pleased they didn’t go OTT with the 80s pastiche, but it’s just there (as much through the soundtrack as anything visual) as a gentle reminder that we’re in the Cold War era.

    I’m not entirely sure how credible Stan can continue to be without discovering Philip & Elizabeth’s secret – I am an idiot for not noting the comedy in them sharing the same name as the Queen and Prince Philip – although the fact that he’s already suspicious bodes well.

    A really promising start – but what the hell is this doing on ITV? I guess they wanted something because Homeland is on Channel 4 and Person of Interest is on Five, but it’s an uncomfortable fit – and the late Saturday evening scheduling stinks.

  2. Pingback: The Americans: Season 1 | Narrative Devices

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