In 1987 ABC network produced a miniseries called Amerika about the US ten years after it had fallen under supposed Soviet colonization. With a cast including Kris Kristofferson, Robert Urich and even Wendy Hughes and Sam Neill, it was a series that escaped me (it can be seen on YouTube).
Hollywood has long had a fascination with America being infiltrated, if not by the Soviets (The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming) then frequently by aliens (The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Independence Day). Since 2001 the ‘enemy’ has shifted from behind the iron curtain to the Middle East (Homeland, 24).
It’s not surprising therefore that the Soviet spies of The Americans exist under Ronald Reagan’s reign, pre-dating 9/11 and justifying national paranoia a lot more easily.
Outwardly Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) are parents of just another Washington family with 2 kids, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). Together they run a travel agency. But the truth is both are undercover KGB agents sent to the US 15 years prior. Under the facade of American suburbia they are able to carry out covert activities without attracting attention.
Philip and Elizabeth pass themselves off so well, that not even their own children know their secret. So far, both have also managed to keep details of their Russian pasts secret from one another, as directed by the KGB. Through flashbacks we see the two paired together by the Soviets like an arranged marriage, including the awkward handling of intimacy by a mistrustful Elizabeth, forced to live a domestic relationship with Philip.
In the extended Pilot episode (it runs about 90 minutes with ads), the couple nabs a Soviet defector with the intent of sending him back to Russia. Nikolai Timoshev (David Vadim) is kept prisoner in the boot of their car in the garage, just metres away from their own children happily going about their daily affairs inside the family house.
Meanwhile new neighbour Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) works for the FBI (no relation to Stan from American Dad ), raising suspicions by Philip that he could be onto them.
“I have to make sure I don’t do any spying around here,” Philip jokes.
“Especially not for the Russians,” Stan replies.
“Oh, they’re the worst, right?”
“They certainly are, Philip.”
There’s no shortage of conspiracy theories in this pre-Perestroika drama.
Yet after 15 years of living under American democracy, Philip tries to talk Elizabeth into defecting to the US. She’s not so sure.
Matthew Rhys was so convincing in Brothers and Sisters as the gay son Kevin Walker that it took me a little time to get used to seeing him as a heterosexual “all-American” husband, sometimes even required to turn action hero. Rhys is neither gay nor American-born, so it’s worth reminding oneself what the job of acting actually entails. Keri Russell, best known for Felicity, shows maturity in this chameleon role.
Produced for FX networks, The Americans is definitely a slow-burn, character-driven series although it comes with a retro-80s soundtrack (Tusk, Harden My Heart, In the Air Tonight). That may prove to be a big ask on network television, especially with ad breaks.
While the Pilot doesn’t have the same kind of turning points that made Homeland so compelling, this is certainly an emticing seat-warmer until it returns to our screens.
The Americans airs 8:30pm Monday on TEN.