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For a channel with a lineup of so many dramas like FX, the one commonality between all of them is that each and every one of them is unique. With Nip/Tuck, you had a tale of how corrupting vanity can be through the lives of plastic surgeons. With Sons of Anarchy, you had a retelling of Macbeth conveyed through a shady biker gang. And the list goes on from Dirt that was about tabloid journalists, to American Horror Story that condenses the horror genre as a whole into pervasive dramas. FX has a habit of being creative, and doesn’t seem to want to stop anytime soon.
Or rather, that’s what I used to undeniably think until I saw the premiere of their latest piece of televised drama, The Americans. From top to bottom, this pilot episode of a family full of inconspicuous Russian spies felt like the very antithesis of FX’s talent of going outside the box. Why? Because there was little of anything to make it stand out of the countless other story tropes of the seemingly-normal-American-family-who-isn’t-what-they-seem. If anything, FX already did their take on that with The Riches, which had a much more unique take involving a family of gypsies trying to live the lives of a wealthy family that was deceased. We already live in a world where movies like The Incredibles and Mr. and Mrs. Smith are still looming over our heads, leaving myself trying to figure out if Cold War Russian spies really can provide that spark to the “not-so-normal” American family trope.
But obviously, originality alone can’t be a gateway to success. So does The Americans climb out the wall of redundancy and make this common feeling spy lore come alive with a superb chemistry of writing and acting? Well…let’s just say that the series needs to build a lot more momentum than what this premiere had.
After a confusingly erratic spy chase opener, we meet our Russian spy couple, Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), who have been playing house for twenty years. The dynamic between the two is definitely interesting. To Elizabeth, the past twenty years have been nothing more to her than a test of loyalty to Mother Russia. As we watch her behind closed doors, her two children are nothing more than accessories to the act, and her relationship with Phillip is mostly also for show. Mr. Jennings, however, couldn’t be more dissonant from his cold and apathetic faux-wife. From the way he acts as both spy and American dad, he actually loves his kids and developed feelings for Elizabeth. We are even treated to a scene where he looks in complete disgust when he finds taped evidence that Mrs. Jennings has whored her way into getting confidential info.
In other words, Phillip is the only one out of the two who comes across as an actual human being and I just really dislike Elizabeth for not being that. The few awkward flashbacks didn’t show layers to her persona at all, and only stay in my mind for having the most lazy makeup jobs ever to make Rhys and Russell look twenty years younger. I’m not asking for a Frankenstein CG Fountain of Youth job like in Tron Legacy here, just the appropriate subtleness found in the season two finale of American Horror Story.
And as far as other series introductions go, there definitely should’ve been a more well thought out introduction of the FBI agents. From what the pilot has shown, all the no-name agents think like they just came out of Detectives 101 class, with one responding to the possibility of a hidden Russian spy family as, “C’mon…you’ve read too many spy novels.” And as if the idea of the Jennings suddenly having an FBI agent as a neighbor wasn’t already a cliché story conflict idea, he’s also super suspicious and thinks the Jennings are up to something because Phillip got a slight cut on his face. Seriously.
The Americans didn’t really start off on the right foot for me. And you don’t need to hear the monologue John Travolta makes in Pulp Fiction about TV pilots to know how important that first step truly is. But still, that isn’t to say that I hated it at all. All the negatives aside, the acting was fine across the board and the writing was excellent for what it was. However, I feel like it’s even worse that The Americans didn’t leave such an impact as I don’t feel any passionate amount of praise or hatred for it. I’ll certainly remain optimistic for at least a few more episodes, but for now, this show has a lot to prove if it plans to not be that one-season trip that Lights Out and Terriers ended up being.