No doubt helped along by the success of Homeland, which scored big with viewers who apparently don't mind problematic writing, FX got their own espionage thriller in The Americans, the first season of which was recently released on home video.
Created by former CIA officer Joe Weisberg, the story focuses on two undercover KGB agents living in Washington D.C. during the Cold War in 1981. In the states since the mid-'60s, they are Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), a married couple that runs a travel agency. They have two young kids, who don't know their parents' true identity. As we meet them in the "Pilot," they are dealing with their emotions for each other, which seems like something they would have already dealt with by now, but it allows the writers to create conflict.
Also creating conflict is FBI Counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who along with his family moves in across the street from the Jennings. The families become friendly and appear to be the only ones on the block considering how often they interact, although the Jennings use Stan for intel when they are able.
While Homeland waited a few episodes before becoming unbelievable, The Americans reach the point before the "Pilot" ends. Stan finds the Jennings suspicious, though it's not clear why other than what the writers wanted. Yes, they give a reason that a car like the Jennings was seen near where a Soviet defector was abducted, and in fact they were responsible, but it seemed too early for Stan to break into their garage in the middle of the night. On top of that, Phillip was waiting for him in the dark, but luckily Stan couldn't tell Elizabeth had cleaned the trunk.
The Jennings use a lot of disguises and sex during their missions. The latter naturally complicates their home life. Stan's home life becomes complicated by sex as well when he starts fooling around with Nina (Annet Mahendru), a Soviet embassy worker he turns into a FBI mole. Leveling the playing field, a disguised Phillip has an evolving relationship with Martha Hanson (Alison Wright), a secretary for Supervising Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas).
The series does a very good job of incorporating real-world events, like the build up of the SDI program in Episode 3, "Gregory," and President Reagan getting shot in Episode 4, "In Control." Though fictionalized, it offers insight into was happening between the two superpowers. Both sides seem fairly portrayed and come across more similar than those in charge either realized or were willing to admit. Rather than work together, they were at fierce odds, and needless casualties progress as the episodes do.
When the series deals with realistic, John le Carre-type espionage, it works well. When the antics reach James Bond levels, it's hard to take serious. In Episode 5, "COMINT," Elizabeth poses as an employee of a buyer for ta new type of encryption the FBI is using in devices to track the KGB. She goes back to the man's room to seduce him and he eventually whips her savagely with his belt, as if that's the way to build a business relationship the first time you sleep with someone. Even more unbelievable is the scene in a garage where the Jennings' car and an FBI car are up on lifts. She climbs out of their trunk and into the FBI car's truck, as if no one could see what she's doing. The car takes her to FBI HQ where there appears to be no surveillance cameras and she easily exits right past security.
In the following episode, "Trust Me," the Soviets realize they have a mole in their midst after the FBI knew they knew about the encryption. While on assignment, Phillip is captured and interrogated by the FBI. Elizabeth later joins him in confinement. Unfortunately, the writers showed their hand right from the start, so it was obvious from the get-go what was going on.
Episode 9, "Safe House," the Jennings' relationship isn't working out. Phillip moves out as they contemplate "divorce," which doesn't seem like something their superiors back in Moscow would allow. In a scene that was hard to believe, a few FBI agents talk about killing KGB members in retaliation for a deadly bombing that killed their co-workers. What makes this unusual is they are doing it at a party at Stan's home where civilians are. One of the men, Agent Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernández), is unintentionally taken prisoner by the Jennings. For some reason, they don't blindfold him, thinking their wigs are as good as Clark Kent's glasses to keep from being recognized, even though Amador just saw them at Stan's party and should be good with faces considering he is an FBI agent.
The season ended with excitement. New intel from a character not seen since early on helps the FBI get closer to what they discover is a pair of KGB agents, man and woman, working together.
Extras on Disc 1 and 2 are just deleted scenes. Disc 3 also has deleted scenes as well as a commentary by Joseph Weisberg, Joel Fields, and Noah Emmerich on "The Colonel; a gag reel; and three featurettes about the making of the series: "Executive Order 2570: Exposing The Americans," "Perfecting the Art of Espionage," and "Ingenuity over Technology.” Could have been one piece altogether and needs a Play-All option.
The Americans is an enjoyable drama that isn't undercut by the occasional heavy hand of the writers, who chose thrills over realism too often, but it's a successful balance for the majority of the season. They also deserve a lot of credit for creating realistic characters, brought to life well by the cast, and challenging themselves and the audience by having Soviet agents be who the audience cares about the most.