Wednesday, March 27, 2013

THE AMERICANS: My review

It’s amazing how much shit you’ll overlook if you just like a show. Case in point is me and THE AMERICANS. The premise is a tad far fetched. Two Russian spies in 1980 who speak perfect English raise an unsuspecting family in suburban Washington D.C. while performing intricate dangerous espionage missions. Meanwhile, the FBI agent assigned to hunt Commie spooks happens to move in right across the street.

I’m sure there were Russian spies back then. My guess is they primarily worked sources for information. They weren’t Boris & Natasha. Every week this pair gets some MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE assignment then spends the next hour killing people, donning disguises, installing bugging devices in cabinet members homes, transmitting and receiving coded messages on Radio Shack whizbang equipment, and sleeping with sources. All the while they’re getting their kids off to school and having the usual squabbles married couples who have been assigned to each other by the KGB have.

And this is only the first season. By year three they should be hijacking the space shuttle and banging Nancy Reagan.

But I love the show.

It’s goofy fun. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets Moose and Squirrel must die.

The number one reason I watch is because of Matthew Rhys. As the husband, Phillip he lights up the screen. Always interesting, often surprising, and despite the dering-do, always real and nuanced. He can fool you into thinking this is not a cartoon despite wearing a ridiculous wig. Al Pacino wasn’t able to do that last Sunday on HBO.

Noah Emmerich as the FBI borscht hunter is also excellent. He’s one of those character actors you’ve seen in a million things and never gave him much thought. But here he shines, adding sensitivity and dimension to what could easily be a cliché role.

Keri Russell is gorgeous to look at, especially when she dons sleek leather cat burglar togs. Think Honey East. But if I’m being honest, I don’t love her character. She hasn’t smiled once since episode two and she’s got kind of a Soviet flag stuck up her ass. I’d love her to get the following coded instructions from Moscow: Lighten up and show more cleavage.

I see what they’re trying to do – a spin on a marital relationship – where he’s the emotional one and she’s the cold one, and that’s fine but she could be just a little bit warmer. Instead of always calling her husband Phillip, how about honey once in awhile? Or even darlink? There was an episode recently where Phillip was tempted by his old girlfriend Irina (the yummy Marina Squerciati) and had the chance to run away with her. Usually that storyline is just schmuckbait. No one is rooting for the hero to go off with the other women. Especially when the wife at home is Keri Russell. But I admit, I was thinking about it.

The marital fights are starting to get a little tedious. He wants to make it work then he’s mad. She wants to make it work then she’s mad. Go see Dr. Drew or figure it out. Their stance on extra-marital sex is interesting. It’s okay to sleep with other people in exchange for information but not colleagues. This feels more Clinton era than Reagan.

An added bonus is Margo Martindale as Granny. She’s their superior and her role as a villain was made pretty clear in her first episode when she took someone’s child and killed the parent. This is as opposed to her first episode on JUSTIFIED when she took someone’s child and killed the parent. But evil Margo is sublime Margo. Best line of the entire series was when Keri said she wanted to kill her and Margo replied frostily, “Well, better luck next time.” Yeah.  That's the Megs from Harlan County we know and love!

Richard Thomas plays the calculating FBI director, but who are we kidding? It’s John-Boy in a J. C. Penney's suit.

From the constant disclaimers you’d think each episode had more sex than LAST TANGO IN PARIS but in fact there’s only brief nudity and worse, it’s not Kerri Russell who gets naked. Still, they probably go to limit of what’s allowed on FX.

There are nagging little questions like how does Matthew’s wigs stay on even when he’s being tortured? Why doesn’t John-Boy say goodnight to everybody? Don’t the kids get suspicious when Mom packs herring in their lunch boxes? Is Marina Squerciati a stage name? Is the Russian Tea Room still as good now that it’s no longer under original management? And just who the hell are we supposed to root for – the Ruskie spies or our FBI?

Still, none of that matters. THE AMERICANS is a hoot. I look forward to Matt & Kerri’s further adventures together, although if I had my way – Matt would dump her for the former girlfriend Irina, Kerri would hook up with Yakov Smirnoff, and Margo Martindale would marry Alexander Haig.

"Na zda-ró-vye!"

22 comments:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I've been meaning to watch this, mostly for Martindale and Rhys.

The way you tell it, the show sounds like THE SOPRANOS (crime/spy parents, family in the suburbs) crossed with NINOTCHKA (cold Russian stickler for rules) crossed with - damn, I can't remember its name - that 1980s play about the couple whose house was used as a spy station to watch their across-the-street neighbors, who were suspected of being Russian spies. PACK OF LIES, that's it - I saw it in London's West End as a play, but it was made into a movie in 1987 with Ellen Burstyn, Teri Garr, and Alan Bates (now, there's a weird mix).

wg

Ane said...

Not everyone calls each other "darling" and "honey" as much as english-speakers seem to. In my language those kind of nicknames are not very common. It's nearly always first names when speaking to each other. Just wanted to let you know.

Charles Warn said...

Yeah this is one I have up until now managed to avoid despite my captivation with their promos. Thanks Ken for filling up my on demand time. You make it sound too campy to avoid any longer. Really like the actors so I am in for now.

DBA said...

They showed way more sex on Nip/Tuck, and that was on FX. So I don't think this show is at FX's limit yet. Maybe they plan to be in the future and are using the same warning for the whole series?

Mark said...

Ken - usually in sync with your thoughts, but you seemed to have woken up on the snarky side of the bed today. You make this show seem campy, when it really isn't. Sorry if the wrong boobs or butts are flashed for your taste.

Very good show... not up to the level of Braking Bad, but it also does a great job in letting you root or sympathize with the "bad guy".

Brandon said...

Who is Honey East? Who is John Boy and what does saying goodnight to everyone mean?

benson said...

Way off topic....Ken, get you tape and resume together. Fox says this is Tim McCarver's last season.

Michael said...

Brandon,

Honey East is a variation of Honey West which was a TV show in mid-60's about sexy female P.I.

John Boy was a character Richard Thomas played in the 70's on The Waltons. From wikipedia: In the signature scene that closes almost every episode, the family house is enveloped in darkness, save for one, two or three lights in the upstairs bedroom windows. Through voice-overs, two or more characters make some brief comments related to that episode's events, and then bid each other goodnight.

Ed said...

I LOVE this show!

The creator is actually ex-CIA- Joe Weisberg. His bio says he worked in the Directorate of Operations in the 1990's. As much of a stretch some plotlines must are, you still have to wonder what nuggets of true stories may be imbedded.

There have been some great moments of subtle humor in there when Kerri Russell's character down-plays the moon landing to her kids and a moment in the pilot when the husband and wife team looked uncomfortable during the national anthem.

Too bad it takes place a year after Lake Placid. It would have been fun seeing the kid (who is a hockey fan) cheer hard for Team USA to beat the USSR in '80. We need a flashback episode to Feb. 22, 1980!

Anonymous said...

I kind of have a love-dislike relationship with this show.

I enjoy much of it. But I want to like it more.

I'm with Ken on Noah Emmerich's character. I think he's far more compelling than the two Jennings, as is Nina, his pet Russian turncoat.

What I find endlessly hilarious is the fact that at no point is it even addressed what the kids are up to (and who is watching them) when Phillip and Elizabeth are out of the house seemingly every night together for hours and hours at a time on their zany missions.

Maybe they're spiking their juice boxes with ambien, but it's absurd. And absurdly consistent.

And by the way, the missions they are sent on (and, by extension, a good chunk of the show's premise) are patently ridiculous an an extreme misuse of resources. You don't spend twenty years building an elaborate cover story to be sent out at night on these dangerous kinds of operations. Preposterous on its face.


-peter

Cap'n Bob said...

Forgive me, but it's "derring-do." As for the show: I've never heard of it. Maybe if they sold off abandoned storage lockers it would be on my radar.

Terry said...

Well, I watched the first couple episodes of this show, and it held my attention. I didn't find it campy--I thought it was a downer. I'm not really a stickler for "logic" in TV shows and I almost never figure out mysteries (not that I'm trying), but even I could not understand how the lack of Russian accents and who does take care of those kids when the folks are away? Mostly, I found the tone kind of depressing. I LOVE Justified, though! And Vikings has been a nice change of pace--just a new world of really dirty looking people. I even stuck with Dallas long enough for it to get surprisingly good--or not bad--and that is truly campy in my book.

chuckcd said...

I have enjoyed this series as well.

XJill said...

I'm waiting for the summer to watch all the S1 eps, I have a lot of friends who love it but no time to catch up right now.

Breadbaker said...

The BBC had a wonderful show called Sleeper where the two Soviet moles in Britain were accidentally reactivated after the Cold War was over. One was working class and wanted to comply; the other had turned into a wealthy Conservative. It was hilarious.

Anonymous said...

It's the 80s! They're latchkey kids.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the review, it it spot on.
The show is not about spies really... The spy plot is just silly by all means
But, I am look forward to see the next episode anyway. Double agents, anyone?

Jersey Pete said...

I agree with the praise for Matthew Rhys & Noah Emmerich. Rhys gets a lot of mileage out of a look or expression, while it's great to see Jim Carrey's best friend from the Truman Show get a big recurring role he Dan sink his teeth into.

Sure, some of the plot holes are obvious, but it's not a documentary! Sit back, suspend belief & enjoy....!!;

Roy Phillips said...

Terry: Phillip and Elizabeth speak in perfect English to maintain their cover. As for the show, I like it (I was even an bg extra in the third episode).

Mac said...

There's an article on Vulture website about all the wigs worn on this show, which I'm sure you'll agree is what the internet is for.

jbryant said...

Love this show (and agree with those who don't really see much camp value in it, no matter how farfetched some aspects are).

I gotta stand up for Keri Russell though. I almost avoided the series because as much as I've always loved Russell, I wasn't sure that "badass" was in her wheelhouse. Well, it is. I think she's phenomenal in this. She pulls off all the role-playing stuff with the same aplomb as Rhys (who I agree is great), and is very convincing in the fight scenes (such as her epic beatdown of "Granny"). Also, a couple of recent episodes softened her character a bit (though it looks it may have been a short-term development).

The show is often smashingly well directed, too, with action and suspense set-pieces to rival the best of 70s cinema. It really is a highlight of the season, and I hope it's remembered at Emmy time.

Uncertain Woman said...

I agree with jbryant. Keri kicks ass! Her character was raped as a trainee and sent away in an arranged marriage, so she's developed a bit of a protective shell. And just when she starts to soften, Phillip turns on her, so she retreats again. I think her character is quite interesting. But, yes, he's delicious to watch.