Television: The Americans, "Pilot"

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, undercover KGB agents living in the D.C. area in 1981. Grittier and more grown-up than, say, Alias (and also told from the point of view of "the bad guys" if one assumes the Russians must be), the pilot is both tense and deliberate in setting up the series. And yet perhaps a tad too deliberate—at times it did seem to drag as we waited (along with the protagonists) for something to happen. Maybe that was intentional; maybe the viewer is meant to feel the long, slow strangle.

Here's the gist: Elizabeth is the one with the total buy-in to the Russian side. Phillip thinks it might serve them better to defect to the U.S. and make some extra money so their kids can live the good life. He begins to panic and press his case a bit more when a mission goes wrong, leaving them saddled with someone they were supposed to ship home on a boat and an FBI counterintelligence agent moves in next door. Elizabeth vetoes the suggestion.

In short, it's clear Phillip is softer and Elizabeth is the hard core one. Oh, but also the guy they got stuck with raped her once, so she has that bone to pick too.

Still, even with that as an excuse, it's nearly impossible to find Russell's portrayal of Elizabeth sympathetic. And again, maybe we aren't supposed to. She's Russian, after all. When she has her moment of pseudo-redemption and lets the man live, Phillip kills him anyway. And you still like Phillip more than you do Elizabeth. You can feel that he really has come to care for her, regardless of their having been thrown together by their work; it's less clear that she has any real feeling for him (even though she defends Phillip to their boss). It's almost like one-way chemistry.

Elizabeth finds the American people weak and complacent; Phillip thinks Americans' lives are better—and that their lives are better for living in America.

On the plus side, the music for the show is very good. Besides the 80s pop tunes, the incidental music is done well, too. And Noah Emmerich as the FBI agent neighbor is truly creepy. It's easy to believe he's a significant threat to the Jennings.

I'll watch another episode to see if it picks up pace at all. The acting is good, but I'm having trouble caring about the characters, or even paying complete attention . . . It remains to be seen if the show can up the stakes in such a way as to rectify these problems.

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