We form such a relationship with TV characters that often it’s hard accept it when actors who have been on long-running TV series return to TV playing not only new characters but characters who are the complete opposite of anything they’ve ever played before.
It would have been easy to pass off FX’s new series The Americans as “Oh my God. Felicity and Kevin Walker are playing Russian spies!” What I liked most about the drama is that Keri Russell, who launched her career as the title character of the WB hit Felicity, and Matthew Rhys, who played Kevin Walker for five seasons on Brothers & Sisters, are so utterly believable as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, KGB spies posing as American citizens living in the suburbs of Washington D.C.
Rhys was particularly impressive. Who would have thought that nice guy Kevin Walker could play such a badass and simultaneously be so sensitive? My favorite scene of the entire premiere is when Phillip listens to the tape of his wife having sex with another man. He knows she’s done this in order to obtain classified information. But you could feel the pain he was in and how he has fallen in love with this woman. The look on Rhys’ face conveyed, much more than dialogue ever could, years of emotion and heartache.
When I review a pilot of a TV series, I really think in terms of the potential the opening episode offers. Have the writers and producers set up a premise that provides them with many directions and storylines to pursue? Because an excellent pilot doesn’t always make for an excellent series.
The Americans is rife with possibilities. Philip and Elizabeth seem to be devoted parents, but every minute of every day they are lying to their children. Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is an FBI agent who has moved in next door. Stan is suspicious but doubts his own suspicions. Philip and Elizabeth don’t know if he was placed there to spy on them or if the whole thing is a horrible coincidence. Viewers aren’t so sure either.
Philip clearly loves Elizabeth, but she doesn’t seem to reciprocate those feelings. She is a woman who has learned to use sex as a means to an end. And, most importantly, Philip is seriously considering defecting as a way to save himself and his family. Turning themselves in would allow them to live “the life we’ve been living but just really living it,” he tells Elizabeth. Elizabeth wants no part of that. All of that is enough tension for many, many seasons.
But what was most telling about the premiere was the scene that found Stan wanting to borrow jumper cables to charge his car. Many other series would have had Philip scrambling to come up with ways to avoid letting Stan into his garage—the garage where Philip was holding the hostage he knows the FBI is actively looking for and where Stan would also be able to see that he owned a ’77 Oldsmobile. But Philip waltzed right in there and opened up the trunk of his car. That’s when I really got the sense that this show would be something different.
Other thoughts on the season premiere of The Americans:
• I loved the ‘80s high-waisted jeans Elizabeth sported and Phillip’s fro-tastic hairstyle.
• Yes, that was Richard Thomas, John-Boy Walton himself, as a fellow FBI agent.
• Even though we could all see it coming, I loved the scene of Phillip beating up the man who hit on his daughter.
• It’s probably a good thing that both Russell and Rhys are not going to have to speak in Russian that often. Their Russian accents were questionable.