FX's 1980s Cold War spy drama 'The Americans' was not only the best new program of 2013, it was one of the best dramas of 2013 period. The series, starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as a pair of Soviet spies living as a prototypical American family blends the assiduous tradecraft of John le Carré with an absurdly poignant and affecting domestic drama that could rival anything from the mind of Jason Katims.
Rhys and Russell play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a thirtysomething couple raising their two children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. during the early days of the Reagan administration. Their days are spent running their travel agency – which is one of many clever, but not too overt throwbacks to the period – while their nights are spent engaging in the sort of high stakes espionage most would associate with George Smiley and the rest of "the Circus." The twist here, however, is that the spycraft happening around the Jenningses outwardly placid lives is being done for the betterment of the Soviet Union.
In other words, the Jenningses are here in the U.S. to help destabilize the government and assure the Russians emerge victorious from the protracted conflict known as the Cold War. To make matters worse, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich, who is stellar as always), an FBI counter intelligence agent, has just moved in down the street with his wife Sandra (Susan Misner) and teenaged son Matthew (Danny Flaherty), and his nose for rooting out suspicious activity has him sensing something's off with the Jenningses early on.
Most of the plot is worked out in the phenomenal pilot episode, which begins with an ill-fated snatch-and-grab of Soviet turncoat Nikolai Timoshev that's set to the rhythmic beats of Fleetwood Mac's 'Tusk.' There's so much of the show embedded in that opening sequence, from the cold, businesslike toughness of Elizabeth, to the overly Americanized ramblings of Philip, to the spot-on use of music to perfectly encapsulate and enhance the period specific tableaus of the series that one would hardly blame 'The Americans' for dropping the ball once episode 2 rolled around.
But the thing is: the series didn't drop the ball; it kept right on rolling from start to surprisingly poignant finish with a number of storylines that began to demonstrate just how well this series knew the spy stuff – the wigs, the tape recorders, the bugged offices of Casper Weinberger, and, of course, the brutal and effective hand-to-hand combat – but the show also proved itself adroit at performing the far more difficult, and more affectingly resonant drama of an orchestrated family learning to be real, and in doing so, becoming far more real than any other family on television.
Russell and Rhys are fantastic in their roles, mainly because 'The Americans' asked its primary cast to become characters audiences were not used to seeing from them. Gone is the forest of curly locks hiding the uncertain face from Russell's 'Felicity' days, and in their place came a strong, stoic woman torn between the Soviet Union she knows and loves and the family she created to defend that country's principles. For Elizabeth, the cause comes first, and Russell's performance here is a deeply layered one in which maternal instincts kick in only to conflict with the task at hand. In an early scene, Elizabeth wakes Paige to pierce her ears, looking down at a drop of blood on the bed sheets, as if to finally acknowledge the lie she's perpetuated has resulted in a living, breathing person, who only knows her as the lame mom suddenly concerned her daughter is growing up too fast.
Rhys, on the other hand, comes off as more of a surprise; perhaps because American audiences will likely be less acquainted with the Welsh actor than they are with Russell – though many will remember him from Julie Taymor's 'Titus' and the 2006-2011 TV series 'Brothers & Sisters.' Philip is very much the heart of the family; his magnetic personality is gregarious and pleasant without being unctuous or too desperate. People are drawn to him – Stan Beeman, for one, as well as a handful of women he casually sleeps with as a means to an end – but he's also loved intensely by his children, and when his fake marriage to Elizabeth begins to fall apart in a very real way, Paige and Henry are quick to side with their suddenly absentee father.
Because of its set-up – having Soviets at the center of the plot – 'The Americans' flips convention on its ear; but the series follows through on that in surprisingly shrewd, yet functional ways. Early on, the show makes a habit of avoiding clichés and gender traps and issues with precocious children to tell a story that is more about family than spycraft. Keeping Philip from becoming the sort of brooding, sociopathic anti-hero that's so common on television these days is the first important move made by series creator Joe Weisberg when he was developing the Jenningses. Instead, that laconic, cold, distant and troubled personality that drives so many dramas is given to Elizabeth. And yet it is no mere affectation intended to make her seem deep for the purpose of creating spousal conflict; Elizabeth's emotional journey represents the very idea of foreign invaders stepping right through the door of American domesticity and enjoying a certain kind of choice that feels like a betrayal. For Elizabeth, that journey means coming out the other side with a greater sense of who she is and what she wants of this life that was chosen for her. And in doing so, her story becomes the key player of the entire season.
Even with its fabulous leads, 'The Americans' still makes tremendous use of its stellar supporting cast, from the aforementioned Noah Emmerich, to the Emmy-winning Margo Martindale, as the Jenningses incongruous handler, Claudia (though Philip and Elizabeth prefer "Grannie"). But it also enjoys terrific performances from Maximilliano Hernández as Stan's partner Chris Amador, Alison Wright as a lovelorn FBI office assistant who is woefully under the impression Philip is a government agent named Clark, and a surprising performance from Annet Mahendru, as Stan's asset Nina, whose double-agent status threatens to go triple come the season's conclusion. Perhaps the most affecting performance from a member of the supporting cast, though, comes from Derek Luke, as Elizabeth's asset Gregory, who plays a central role in two of the series' best episodes: 'Gregory' and 'Only You.'
It all adds up to an intoxicating television series populated with characters dripping with clever contradictions that makes their spying entertaining, and their domestic strife nothing short of electric.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Americans: The Complete First Season' comes from Fox as a 3 50GB disc set containing all 13 episodes. The first disc will auto play several previews for other Fox releases, but they can be skipped to go directly to the top menu. While the set does contain a "season mode" option, it doesn't have the far more convenient "resume" feature, so you have to click your way through the previews before starting up where you left off.
'The Americans: The Complete First Season' boasts a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that is one of the best looking images from a television series in recent memory. The image itself is spotless; there are no signs of grain, artifacts, or any other elements that could detract from the picture quality. There is a very high level of clarity that brings out a crisp, defined edges and a substantial amount of detail from facial features to clothing textures – fabric lines in period-specific suits are present nearly everywhere you look, adding to the overall feel of the program.The series enjoys a subdued color palette that uses a great deal of earth tones and dark grays, but that doesn't mean the image is free from vibrant colors. When necessary, the picture will pop with bright reds and blues that are quite striking, but don't overwhelm or distract from the focus of the scene. Contrast levels are similarly high, producing full-bodied blacks that add an extra dimension to the frequent nighttime excursions of the two spies. There is no evidence of banding present and the image makes great use of terrific shadow delineation to boost darker scenes without sacrificing any detail.
Aside from a few instances of softness in the image or slight shifts in detail, this is one great-looking series.
One of the key elements to a period drama is the use of music. Sometimes it is used to tremendous ends, while other times it becomes a crutch, or a piece of kitsch meant to be a band-aid for a lack of quality in the actual product. Thankfully, 'The Americans' is much more the former, than the latter. With its very nice DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, the series makes full use of its musical cues that include the aforementioned 'Tusk,' an incredibly ballsy choice to use Phil Collins' 'Miami Vice' standard 'In the Air Tonight,' and fantastic cuts from Peter Gabriel and The Cure, which took their episodes to a near-transcendent place when played. For '80s music lovers, the discs will certainly sound fantastic.
But this is a drama at heart, and the mix doesn't forget that. There is great attention to detail in the dialogue, which comes primarily from the center channel speaker, but will occasionally come through the rear channels to enhance a scene through imaging or to add extra depth. There are a few times where the music or sound effects muffle the dialogue just slightly, indicating the balance is off a little bit, but those moments are mercifully few. Rear channels come into play to offer a great echo in warehouse scenes, and LFE is present in hard-hitting punches, car wrecks and explosions.
There could be a little more depth added to the atmosphere in certain places – downtown Philly seems oddly quiet at times – but overall this is a great sounding mix that will impress most listeners.
There was no finer program to premiere in 2013 than FX's 'The Americans.' A potent concoction of spycraft, fisticuffs, and the far more damaging battles fought behind closed doors, the series made tremendous use of its gifted cast, while managing to juggle many storylines without loosing the throughline that made the program so unique to begin with. Fans of John le Carré and other Cold War storytellers will get a definite thrill from watching Philip and Elizabeth Jennings navigate their way through '80s espionage, while those unfamiliar will likely find the action more to their liking. With great picture and sound, and some good extras, this one is worth owning for fans of the series and comes highly recommended for those who haven't had the chance to check it out yet.