Last year FX debuted The Americans, a drama set during the height of the cold war in the 80’s. The protagonists are a pair of KGB agents posing as Americans living in Washington D.C.. The two spies live as a married couple running a tourism agency, and even spawned a few children to boot (the kids are unaware of their parent’s spy background).
The pilot episode delivered a lot of thrills: there was fight choreography reminiscent of the Bourne movies; lots of retro 80’s music; um, sexy adult situations; and just an all-round solid plot that set the table for the show, even if it had a few contrivances (the new next door neighbor is a counter-intelligence agent for the FBI). I was hooked.
Since the pilot the show has been reduced to a bland TV-version of Scorsese’s The Departed, where there’s infiltration on both sides, the lead characters are juggling double-lives (sometimes triple lives), all under the constant threat of being found out. That might sound intriguing enough to keep you on the edge of your seat, but ultimately it doesn’t work. And that’s because the biggest failing of this show is its characters.
Simply put there is no one likable or relatable on the show. TV audiences will root for the occasional bad guy, as was the case with Tony Soprano and Walter White, but on The Americans there is no one remotely close to holding a torch to either of those characters.
In the pilot episode I had some hope for Phillip Jennings (played by Matthew Rhys), the husband and father KGB agent who seemed to take a liking to the American dream. He had a sense of humor, was protective of his teenage daughter, and he liked hockey. He came across as a very likable character, and his inner conflict (he wanted to defect in the pilot) seemed like it would be a good ongoing thread for the show.
His wife Elizabeth Jennings (played by Keri Russell) started the show cold and efficient. My hope for her character over the long run was to gain some humanity as opposed to always being distant and ruthless. She’s had a tough upbringing, and that’s about all there is to relate to for the audience.
Their FBI agent neighbor Stan Beeman (played by Noah Emmerich) also began the show competently, displaying smarts and a keen eye. He wasn’t the cowboy Hank Schraeder was in Breaking Bad, but he looked to be a formidable foe for Boris and Natasha.
Since the pilot episode, ALL the characters have been reduced to being miserable jerks with motivations that can be summed up as I’m doing this for my country. For me, that means I’m not invested in the characters or their aspirations. In fact I am reminded of 2003’s Battlestar Galactica, which featured two factions of miserable jerks doing jerk things to each other, while using infiltration and paranoia to fuel the conflict. However BSG had ‘survival of the species’ as its central theme, so the ride was bearable. Also robots and spaceships helped.
The Americans now uses 80’s music sparingly, action is minimal, sexytime is meh, and the 80’s anachronisms now feels forced onto the viewer. The acting, dialogue, and plots are well executed, but they are undermined by characters that are just obligated to playing the spy game in the most miserable way possible, and not really growing as characters.
This show had so much potential, but it appears to have peaked during its very first episode last year. The pilot is supposed to be the good “first impression” for viewers, but now it will always be my lasting impression, barring a turnaround by the show.
Season 2 of The Americans is currently airing Wednesdays on FX.