If you've been around long enough to remember the 1980s, you know it wasn't just about Madonna, parachute pants and big hair.
In 1981, just after Ronald Reagan became president and called the Soviet Union the "evil empire," tensions between the two countries were at an all-time high. The Cold War was freezing, with mutual paranoia fueling an arms race and unleashing spies on both sides.
"The Americans" (9 p.m. CT Jan. 30, FX; 3 stars out of 4), the exciting but frustrating spy thriller from former CIA employee and writer-executive producer Joe Weisberg, skillfully captures the anxiety of the age.
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell star as Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, a happily married American couple living in a Washington, D.C., suburb. As the show begins, they are running a travel agency and raising 13-year-old daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) and son Henry (Keidrich Sellati), 10.
They're also KGB-trained Soviet spies who conduct dangerous espionage missions, such as kidnapping a Soviet defector in the series premiere, an assignment that leads to an FBI hunt for the 1977 Oldsmobile they are driving.
Rhys and Russell are wonderful, equally convincing as rather dull parents and dangerous spies, albeit in different places as far as where their loyalities lie.
Elizabeth is more committed to their mission. "Are you joking? Is this a joke?" she asks a disillusioned Phillip when he suggests they defect for a big CIA payoff. Yet Elizabeth feels the strain of putting country before family, too. She can't stand the idea of her children growing up in the culture she despises, but there isn't much she can do about it. Unlike Phillip, she doesn't fully embrace their arranged marriage, but she fears what will happen to the family if one of them is caught.
Their complicated relationship plays out just as tensely as any of their missions. "The Americans" is a fascinating look at what they're willing to do for each other and their country.
It also stumbles into conventional Hollywood storytelling.
It's a happy coincidence for the U.S. government--and the script writers, I guess--when the FBI's hot new counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman (smartly played Noah Emmerich) moves in next door to the Jennings family. When Stan asks Phillip for jumper cables, Phillip leads him into the garage and opens the trunk of his Olds, in which the kidnapped KGB officer is bound and gagged.
Now if I were the kidnap victim in the trunk, I'd try my damndest to signal Stan. But that doesn't happen. Maybe he sleeps as soundly as the Jennings kids, who never notice their parents leaving at night or hear the commotion from the garage when the KGB agent tries to escape.
I also laughed when suspicious Stan offered Phillip some caviar--you know, Russian caviar. What, if he likes fish eggs he's a Soviet spy? Lucky for Phillip, he thinks they're too salty.
Lucky for us, too, because despite such slips, I can't wait to find out how long Phillip and Elizabeth can maintain their lie.
DVR ALERT: "The Americans" premiere last 97 minutes, so make sure to give your recording some extra time.
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