A seduction scene set to Quarterflash, followed by a chase scene set to Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk," and we're off to the races. Yes, The Americans begins in 1981, the beginning of the Reagan era, and if the musical queues are a little obvious, the show is not.
We're introduced to Elizabeth (Keri Russell) as she seduces a government official, whom she goads into revealing information about Timashev, a high ranking KGB defector (David Vadim) that her and her husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys) later kidnap, with the intention of sending him back to the USSR. Their timing is off though, and they end up having to keep the guy hidden in the trunk of their car while they wait for new orders. This is kind of a problem, because Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings are deep-cover Soviet agents in an arranged marriage, posing as an ordinary suburban DC couple, living with their oblivious kids, 10-year-old Henry (Keidrich Sellati) and 13-year-old Paige (Holly Taylor).
The Last Person You Want to See
Complicating matters further, Elizabeth knows Timashev from her training days decades earlier. He was her commander, and, we see in flashback, took advantage of his position to sexually assault her. "Remember me?" she asks coldly before slamming the trunk on him. Phillip doesn't know about their history, and when Timashev tells him he could get millions by turning him over to the Americans and defecting himself, he considers it. Part of what's so compelling about the pilot is that it's not just about good guys and bad guys and foot chases and well-choreographed fighting. It's about a very human couple thrown together under stressful circumstances, trying to find a way to cope.
The Spy Next Door to the Spies Next Door
The stress level really goes up when affable Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his family move in right across the street. Stan, they learn, is an FBI agent working in the Counterintelligence unit, hunting Russian spies. Stan has recently transferred after working undercover as a white supremacist for three years. When Stan gets a look at Phillip's car, which matches the description of the one Timashev was taken in, his suspicion kicks in. Elizabeth and Phillip have to resolve their conflict and find a way to deal with Timashev quickly. This is a clever show, and the scenes of new neighbors pleasantly getting together have a suspenseful charge.
I Married a Communist
In the end, the whole ordeal with Timashev brings Elizabeth and Phillip closer together, but it also upsets their superiors, and arouses the suspicion of Stan and seemingly the ire of the entire Reagan administration. There's an interesting side story with Phillip donning a disguise to attack a creepy musclehead who propositioned Paige at the mall. That scene at the mall, intimations of pedophilia aside, is also cleverly done, subtly showing Phillip's growing fondness for the American lifestyle. Elizabeth is a hardcore patriot (Watch Felicity kick a traitor's head through a wall!), but Phillip has his doubts, and the couple's motivations are relatable enough that we're interested in seeing how their marriage is affected by their ideological differences.
Is it plausible? Well, the acting is strong and the writing is clever enough that you'll want to keep watching. It was an outstanding start, setting up the premise and characters with efficiency and wit, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment.
"You know, most people, they get into their warm beds at night. They have no idea what really goes on out there, the sheer number of people working to destroy our way of life."
--A government agent tells Elizabeth how important his job is while unknowingly revealing key secrets to a Soviet spy.
"You know how guys like him kill people? They plan for weeks and they always come from behind. Fighting face-to-face is a different story."
--Phillip explains why he's not concerned about taking down Timashev.
"Somebody's been reading too many spy novels. Talking figment of the imagination."
--Fellow FBI agent Chris (Maximiliano Hernandez) expresses his skepticism about Timashev's stories to Stan.
"Have you looked in our trunk?"
--Elizabeth responds to Phillip's suggestion that the Russians won't catch them if they defect.
"You're officially now surrounded by the most normal, boring people in the world, so enjoy it."
--Stan's wife Sandra (Susan Misner) makes fun of his suspicions about Phillip.