“The Americans” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “Pilot”

It’s hard to review the series premieres of New Golden Age prestige cable dramas because, like most series premieres, they play to the cheap seats. It’s all about hooks and making an impact and keeping butts in seats for subsequent episodes, right? So you begin your series about undercover superspies with Felicity sucking some dude’s dick. You use central-casting KGB and CIA heavies spouting patriotic Cold War boilerplate that hindsight gives us the ability to see right through. You do a lot of stuff where the cute all-American kids eat breakfast and like ten feet away there’s a defector tied up in the trunk with a gimp gag in his mouth. You play it broad, and you hope two things when you do so: 1) That “broad” will get the audiences you want to come back, and 2) That the critics you also want on your side will remember that series no less august than The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and Mad Men (and more recently Girls) started with their broadest episodes, too. Enough landmark series started this way that you almost forget it could be done differently.

But it can, and that’s The Americans‘ problem. The most obvious example is Homeland, which will one day be remembered as the punchline in some inside-baseball “You know what beat the Mad Men season with the Mystery Date/Signal 30/Far Away Places/At the Codfish Ball/Lady Lazarus run of back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back masterpieces for Best Drama?” TV-critic joke, started with a drum-taut yet intriguingly elliptical episode dealing with many of the same subjects but completely devoid of “You’d betray the Motherland?!”-style evil-Soviet dialogue. Oh it got there eventually alright, but it took a season and a half. Twin Peaks‘ pilot was probably the weirdest thing ever to air on network television up till that point but its weirdness, like all of David Lynch’s best stuff and unlike any of his imitators, was rigorously observed, and rooted in empathy for human suffering and a desire to probe what drives us to cause it. (The empty desk in the classroom is the structuring absence of the whole series, really.) Lost‘s opening 10 minutes were among the most thrilling opening-10-minutes of anything committed to film by anyone that decade, but they drew much of their strength from the un-thrilling emotion of panic. Even in the violent black comedies that were the pilots for The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, there were character moments (Tony staring at the painting, Walter talking into the camera) and images (the ducks and the pants, both flying away) that iced anything The Americans did in its premiere despite having, quite unnecessarily, twice as long to do it in.

So I’m left wondering what it is I’m going to get. Will it tighten up and calm down, or is this as good as it gets?

A few things make me worry it’s the latter, and make me worry a lot more than even the broadness does. Top of the list: It’s just way too early to have our undercover anti-heroes Phillip and Elizabeth dance right up to the edge of defecting. Way, way too early. By sticking that right in the premiere — by having Phillip actually start doing it, only to change his mind in order to white-knight for his wife when he finds out the captured defector he’d planned to exchange for a life in witness protection had once raped her — you’ve shown us that at any moment, the characters are capable of solving their story’s equation. This sleeper-agent life is untenable if they want to preserve their lives and their children’s happiness in the face of an increasingly implacable Reaganite enemy? Simple: Turn yourselves in, collect literally millions of dollars, move on and live the life you’re more or less happy living already.

So it falls on Elizabeth to erect an artificial obstacle to the obvious, story-ending solution. Writer-creator Joe Weisberg assigns Keri Russell the thankless task of preventing Phillips eminently reasonable and moral decision to defect by swearing her fealty to Mother Russia and, in the immortal words of Alvy Singer, “screaming about Socialism.” Just as it was unfair of Homeland to make poor Dana Brody a mouthpiece for skepticism regarding the danger of her father’s situation, danger we in the audience knew to be very real, so too is it too much for The Americans to ask of Elizabeth to justify the entire show’s existence with jingoistic horseshit on behalf of a system we know is just years away from collapse anyway

Unfortunately, unlike her fellow ’90s-network-TV refugees cum Great Drama leads Bryan Cranston and Claire Danes, it’s not immediately clear that Russell’s bringing much to the table beyond simply having been cast against type. She’s a stunning human being — that hair, unf; feel guilty she has to straighten it but not that guilty — and the show uses that physicality to make her both convincingly sexy and convincingly powerful and dangerous as a physical combatant, but her shaky Russian accent and emotionally depthless delivery of Russian-villain speeches make the performance and the character feel as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. I believe that this Elizabeth could do what she does for as long as she’s done it, but I’m left guessing as to why — particularly when you see what the Soviet system did to her in such astonishingly graphic terms.

About that: Having skimmed some reviews of the show my main takeaway was that it was some sexy-smart spygame stuff, largely on the strength of Russell’s take-charge sexuality. Again, she’s a radiant presence on screen, and her forthright expression of her sexual desires and expertise on that tape recording her husband plays back in particular is totally hot stuff. But is that even really her? Doesn’t Phillip smile despite it all because he’s impressed by how she put on a big show and played the guy? And does it cancel out the rote, seen-it-a-million-times eros’n'thanatos vaudeville routine of Elizabeth and Phillip fucking in their car after disposing of a body? And most importantly, does it square with her sudden and brutal on-screen rape by a higher-up in her KGB training program? Obviously people who have been raped can and do subsequently lead full and enthusiastic and zesty sex lives all the time. But I can’t say that watching these two hours, my takeaway was “Wow, hubba hubba!”

No, if I’m to return to The Americans it’ll be for other things. For starters, it has a sense of humor about itself, a trait almost totally absent from Homeland from day one; this episode is like if Homeland had started out with that marvelously mordant sequence in the woods from Season Two instead of it being a one-off flash of Sopranosism. And unlike that other show, this one appears willing and able to recognize that undetectable superspies with limitless penetration into American life require a suspension of disbelief; that this is totally fine; that you can in fact play with that suspension and wring terrific thriller sequences out of it but only if you acknowledge it exists, otherwise we’ll just go “c’mon, you’ve gotta be kidding me.” I could use a show that treats War on Terror-style paranoia as something of an absurdist farce instead of pretending its manipulations are on the up and up at all times.

I’m also impressed with the quiet work of Matthew Rhys as Phillip. I enjoy the easy confidence with which he slips into other identities — the jocular neighbor, the kind but concerned intelligence officer duping the secretary into giving up secrets, the rough-and-tumble contractor who beats a pedophile up after one of those “secret agent and pedophile” department-store meet-cutes that I’m sure happened to Aldrich Ames all the time — because it’s always clear the confidence is entirely outwardly directed, but inside he’s not quite sure why he’s doing what he’s doing. (Elizabeth is sure, and that’s the problem, because she’s sure about stuff that’s not worth being sure about.) He looks and carries himself like he could be the tougher older brother of a Zach Braff character; his FBI-agent neighbor’s “nice guy, but slightly off” assessment is dead-on.

I’m fond of that neighbor, played by ubiquitous supporting actor Noah Emmerich, as well. Maybe more fond than I have any right to be given how well trod this “well-meaning law-enforcement agent who’s almost got it but not quite” territory is at this point. Coasting on the goodwill generated by everyone from Hank Schrader to Carrie Mathison to Dale Cooper is only going to get Stan Beeman so far, but particularly in those moments where he’s forced to recall an obviously trying stint undercover with a white-power group, he balances expertise and weakness in a way that took all three of those characters some time to arrive at. Again, I think it’s probably too soon to have moved his suspicion of Phillip as far along as the show did, and I’m not sure how they’ll be able to play this thread out for another season, but I’m willing to watch them try. That thread’s what’ll pull me to the next ep. Who needs all those hooks?

4 Responses to “The Americans” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “Pilot”

  1. Trams says:

    I don’t know what you mean by this: “Lost‘s opening 10 minutes were among the most thrilling opening-10-minutes of anything committed to film by anyone that decade, but they drew much of their strength from the un-thrilling emotion of panic.”

    But I would like to know what you mean.

    • What I meant was that the opening sequence of Lost is about people scrambling around crying and screaming and trying not to die in the wreckage of the plane they just crashed on. So that’s not a cool set of action-movie-type emotions they’re playing with, but really raw panic and terror.

  2. Ayo says:

    I agree with you that “The Americans: Pilot” was:

    1) too long
    2) too much
    3) too soon

    The Breaking Bad pilot had the sense to set up the major dominoes without beginning to knock them over yet.

    I was very put off by the rape. It’s just too damaging, too extreme to then look at happy-go-lucky Philip trying on shoes in the mirror, happy as a clam. The shoes scene was very cute though. This show was all over the map, basically.