The Americans: The Complete First Season
Five Stars (out of five)
2013. Not Rated. Action/adventure violence, sex scenes, and mild cursing. Widescreen. Running time: the full first season. Released by 20th Century Fox Home Video. Equipped with English subtitles and closed captions. Extras include commentaries on the final episode, deleted scenes, a gag reel, and behind the scenes features. This was reviewed on DVD from February 12 to February 17, 2014.

Setting up these new-fangled VCRs is harder than it looks! Growing up in the 1970s, I was a child of the Cold War, which was a ongoing confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union that was largely played out behind the scenes, between spies. I was always fascinated as a kid with Soviet spies who lived among us here in America, enjoying the good life and freedoms that we have--yet they were still sworn to bring down this society. I often wondered what made them tick. We very rarely saw the Cold War spy conflict play out from the point of view of the other side in our entertainment. But thanks to cable TVís endless love of antiheroes, the FX channel now offers us a tantalizing peek.

Communist brownies, anyone? Taking place in 1981, The Americans focuses on Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, a well to do couple who run a travel agency in Washington D.C. They have two children, and a nice house in the suburbs. But they also have a secret; theyíre really two highly trained KGB operatives who are under deep cover in the United States, working to subvert our way of life in any way possible. The series gets off to a rousing start in the pilot as we see the Jennings stalking a Russian colonel who had defected to the West in a gripping nighttime chase scene, all set to Fleetwood Macís "Tusk". But what really sets The Americans apart--aside from the lead charactersí allegiance--is the fact that not everything always goes as planned.

I always have been, and always shall be, a member of the Communist party. Keri Russell superbly plays against her "good girl" vibe from Felicity as Elizabeth--who, despite living in the West for the past twenty years, is still a staunch communist who is prepared to do whatever it takes to get the job done. And that includes killing whoever stands in her way (or whoever sheís ordered to assassinate by her KGB bosses in Moscow). The casual confidence she exudes while calmly putting a bullet in a manís head is enough to scare viewers away from her; yet the sincere love she feels for her children (who have no idea what mom and dad are really up to), along with Russellís carefully textured performance, creates interest in the character.

What do you think, hon? I want constructive criticism, so be honest! In contrast, Phillip, who is also extremely well-played by Matthew Rhys, is far more thoughtful--to the point where he often questions the orders (as well as the motives behind them) that come from Moscow. When it gets down to brass tacks, Phillip will kill just as effortlessly as Elizabeth, yet his wary view of his KGB masters (and the fact that he considered defecting to the West himself), gives the viewer hope that he might sway Elizabeth off her dark path. When an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) moves in next door to these spies, one would initially think the series has taken on a tawdry sitcom feel. Thankfully, executive producer Joe Weisberg, himself a former CIA officer, isnít interested in taking the easy road.

If the KGB wasn't so cheap, I'd be using suspension wires! While thereís some James Bond spy razzle-dazzle here and there, the overall view of the spy business is a very down to earth one, portrayed as harshly realistic as possible. The series shows it to be a dirty game, and playing it pollutes the souls of those on both sides. I was riveted to this nefarious journey that Elizabeth and Phillip were on, because the series is very well-written, well-acted, and just plain gripping. I binged-watched episode after episode on the DVD set, always wanting to know what happens next. The fact that theyíve also taken pains to stay true to the era makes this even better. As the Sopranos showed, antiheroes can be fascinating, and The Americans have now given us two more in an ongoing, enthralling caper. --SF

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