Halfway through its tightly wound first episode (premiering Wednesday night), I had a twisted little thought: We should at some point get to see these nice Soviet spooks in Pleasantville watch American TV in 1981. There, somewhere between “Hart to Hart” and, say, “The Brady Brides,” we’d get an eerie sense of just how much television has changed. For the better, mainly.
What would Americans of 1981 have thought about “The Americans?” We’d have recognized the giant Oldsmobiles and the expertly curated Top 40 pop tunes (“Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash, in one scene, and a very tense use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” in an opening chase sequence), but we sure wouldn’t have known what else to do with it. To yesterday’s TV watcher, “The Americans” would have seemed too depressing, too vague, too tense, too violent — to say nothing of the oral sex act depicted in the first five minutes, which would probably have launched an FCC investigation lasting months. And, more significant, there would be the issue of making protagonists of Boris and Natasha.
“The Americans” takes full advantage of three decades of TV evolution and the modern default setting we all share: It’s complicated. We now prefer our good guys to be the bad guys, and we enjoy sending them on a long, downward spiral.
A finely matured Keri Russell, now well past her “Felicity” era, stars as Elizabeth, a KGB recruit who has spent nearly 20 years stateside, tending to and perfecting her cover in an arranged marriage with her fellow spy, Philip (Matthew Rhys, from ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters”). The two have been forbidden from talking about their past lives or even speaking Russian, and the depth of their deception has included making a nuclear family. Their awkward 13-year-old daughter (Holly Taylor) and astronomy-obsessed 10-year-old son (Keidrich Sellati) have no clue about Mom and Dad, and Elizabeth increasingly worries about what will happen to her children when she and Philip are caught.
Like “Breaking Bad,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Homeland” and a host of other excellent dramas where the overall mood is one of impending doom and recompense for the tragically flawed main characters, “The Americans” centralizes its tension around the idea that it’s only a matter of time before the Jenningses are found out and arrested. Just as brother-in-law Hank Schrader has slowly closed in on the truth about “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White, the Jenningses’ new neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), has been brought onto the FBI’s counterintelligence unit, which is under pressure from the newly installed Reagan administration to ferret out Soviet spies.