There’s something missing in The Americans that I can’t quite put my finger on. The concept is certainly compelling, and the pilot set up so much on both the KGB and FBI sides of the story. The series is written by a former CIA officer, and the show is nuanced to a fault and is backed up by great casting. But there is still something lacking in the execution of the material. I wasn’t blown away by the pilot, though it did deliver a lot for the series to cover, and this second episode, “The Clock,” felt like it was a mid-season coaster rather than an early season episode that would really revved up viewers (particularly as a new show). The Americans is not an easy series, but it may have great pay off. Is it grabbing us enough, though? Hit the jump for more.
It’s difficult, when I’ve been lamenting how dumbed-down a show like The Following is, to turn around say that The Americans goes too far in the other direction, as far as what it expects from us. I’m not particularly well-versed in 1980s Cold War politics — I like spy thrillers, I like the gadgets and the nuances of the operations (more on that in a bit), but having the episode end on the payoff of the mention of a “ballistic missile shield” fell flat for me. “Ok?” I thought. “To Wikipedia!” Turns out, the information allowed to Russians to know that Britain and America wanted to build an umbrella in the sky. Hmm. Still not zinged.
It seems like a baseline knowledge is required to understand the strategic maneuvers happening within the series, and I’ll admit I don’t have it. I’m doubting many viewers do. While I am fine with us having to figure out or learn along the way the political fallout from various occurrences on the show (something Boardwalk Empire does by dropping historical hints but not focusing on them, though it still leaves a lot of people wondering who all of those old white men are and what are they talking about), having drama hinge on it may not be a great way to kick things off. A friend of mine thought, before the show aired, that The Americans took place in an alternative universe. In a way that would have maybe helped raised the stakes. The Russians knowing or not knowing about defense secrets is kind of irrelevant — we know, at least so far in 2013, how that story ends.
What’s far more compelling about The Americans is not what it has in common with Boardwalk Empire, but how it mirrors two of Breaking Bad‘s best devices. First there’s the macro idea of suburbia hiding something very dark — a school teacher making meth, say, or a normal-seeming couple who happen to be KGB spies. How they deal with that — hide it, work around it — is interesting to follow. On the micro level, both shows introduce an antagonist who, in reality, should be the protagonist (leading to an ethical dilemma): in Breaking Bad, Walter White must hide his illegal operations at all costs from his DEA bother-in-law who is always (unknowingly) close on his heels, while in The Americans has introduced FBI Agent Stan Beeman as the (rightfully) nosey neighbor the Jennings are being set up to befriend and deceive (and he them).
On the personal side, things also gel well. One of Elizabeth’s primary fears in the pilot episode revolved around the Americanization of her children, particularly Paige. While Paige goes to the mall (is there anything more American than that?) and buys bras without her mother, Elizabeth brings her close again by compromising on piercing her ears, and the moment the two share as Elizabeth pierces them for her at home was sweet.
In the pilot, Elizabeth was set up as being seemingly harder and more committed to the cause than Phillip, although things shifted in an interesting way in “The Clock.” Phillip is shown to be pretty hardcore when he needs to be, but his actions weigh on him heavily. For the first time though, Elizabeth — even after her “death before dishonor” speech — seemed to really consider and acknowledge how deeply and how much her family means to her.
The other great element of The Americans is some of the spy stuff itself. Homemade poisons with secret, timed antidotes! Threats! Fights! Religion! Betrayal! Trust! The entire Viola operation was interesting to see set up, but it wasn’t particularly interesting to watch unfold. Was there any doubt she would eventually replace the clock? It wasn’t even (seemingly) that difficult for her to do, and no one noticed it was gone. Is that a point about how we are too comfortable in our surroundings to notice such a rouse, or just a narrative convenience? Either way, it lacked tension or, honestly, much interest.
As many positives as The Americans has, it does remind me a great deal of Boardwalk Empire, another tricky series to get really involved in. There are a lot of new characters thrown at us without a lot of context or explanation, which can make it hard to really understand, honestly, the stakes of any given scene.
Obviously The Americans is a worthy series — conceptually, it’s fantastic. But there’s a spark to it that just doesn’t seem to be there quite yet. Onward …
Episode Rating: B
Musings and Miscellanea:
- — The color contacts, the wigs, the clothes, the backstories, the gadgets … all super fun stuff.
- — So far The Americans likes to kick off each episode with so steamy, sexy stuff. No complaints!
- — That seduction as part of the operation is interesting, especially for someone like Phillip who so desperately wants to be loved and adored.
- — “He’s one of three minorities, they can’t fire him. He can do anything!” – Stan
- — Thirteen-year-old girls buy bras without their moms? I thought that was a foundational mother-daughter activity.
- — Really liked Stan this week; he’s establishing himself as both competent and a badass.
- — At the end of the day, it’s a pretty safe bet that nobody wants to end up in a Siberian prison.