FX has explored the American soul, and especially the dark side of it, in shows like The Shield and Justified. But a series premiering at 10 p.m. Wednesday on the network looks at the Russian soul as well.
The series is called, with deliberate irony, The Americans; the main characters are Russian spies in Washington, D.C., in the early ’80s. Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys, Brothers and Sisters) and his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell, Felicity) have long been undercover, ferreting out secrets but also maintaining a seemingly serene suburban life while raising their 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son (Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati).
The children have no idea what their parents do; they are caught up in the ways of American life. Phillip, for that matter, is feeling ever more drawn into the comforts of ordinary living, while — as the series begins, at least — Elizabeth is still a true believer in her native country and its politics.
But whatever ideas the Jennings may hold, their day-to-day operations are getting more difficult. Ronald Reagan is newly in the White House, and committed to bringing down the Soviet Union; that puts a lot of government resources on the trail of people like the Jennings. Closer to home, the family has a new neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who is also an FBI agent — and a curious sort.
Over the two episodes I have seen, a lot of different stories are juggled, from the basics of espionage to family dynamics to flashbacks to the Jennings’ spying origins to geopolitics and real-life historical flourishes. Not only is Reagan name-dropped, the second episode includes a plot about Caspar Weinberger, then Reagan’s secretary of defense. There are bursts of action, the occasional gadget and a lot of whispering. It is meant to create more than a little tension, but does not consistently work; the first episode is a bit slow, while the second offers a nonsensical bit of bonding between Phillip and Stan.
On the other hand, some of the family story is nicely done, especially when Elizabeth has to face how her children are growing up — where does she draw the line between her old beliefs and being a modern American mother? Russell is very good in those moments. And Rhys gets to show some different moves, too, operating as a deliberately bland guy to most of the world but carrying the currents of ruthlessness and violence necessary to his craft.
But the show keeps disappointing, not quite willing to push its stories and characters to the extremes the plotlines would suggest. Series creator Joe Weisberg worked for the CIA, so he seems to have some sense of the spy game, and there are a lot of steady TV production veterans involved. But The Americans still feels unfinished, as if the balance of the spy stories and the family life has not been fixed. That may get fixed in time. I just don’t know how long I will wait to see that.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.