Despite all the time spent focusing on the spycraft, subterfuge, and secret messages of two deep-cover spies hiding in the plain-sight suburbs of Washington, D.C. in 1981, The Americans is surprisingly straightforward. Russian agents Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) find themselves struggling to maintain their identities and loyalties after living undercover in the U.S. for 20 years, especially as they’re asked to take on increasingly riskier missions, like bugging the Secretary of Defense’s home, as the Cold War heats up. Their new neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), is an F.B.I. agent running the counterintelligence operation designed to catch them. Each episode has a mission, a moral qualm, and a resolution, and some overly scripted material about what it means to be an American.
The Americans is also more than a little vague. After the first couple of episodes, we know nothing of what motivates these spies, save that Philip constantly questions his loyalty to the motherland (America doesn’t seem all that bad after all this time, not when the series jokily has the couple marveling at the abundance of air conditioning), while Elizabeth would sooner kill herself than be coerced into turning on her country. You’d be hard-pressed to tell they’ve spent two decades posing as a married couple in America, and had two children together, given that Elizabeth has apparently spent most of their marriage being cold as ice, pulling knives on her husband at the slightest sexual advance. The couple’s relationship is far more interesting when, after one botched mission, they finally start to show some warmth toward each other, like when Philip blows his chance at defecting for the sake of protecting Elizabeth’s honor, or when she covers for him when reporting to their superiors. Rhys and Russell also excel at showing the psychological wear and tear of their profession.
While the episodes bounce around nicely between displays of espionage and family time (Philip singing the National Anthem with his 10-year-old son as the boy’s school celebrates another successful shuttle mission, Elizabeth learning to adapt to liberal American culture by going bra shopping with her 13-year-old daughter), these scenes feel redundant, playing off a singular conceit: After playing American for so long, will these spies flip? There doesn’t appear to be any room for growth, beyond the inevitable climax when their children find out what they do: Everything to that point, by necessity, has to be the same-old same-old, albeit with entertaining hand-to-hand combat sequences thrown in for good measure.
Perhaps there’s a larger mission in the works for the series. Given the quiet, at times silent, communication between Rhys and Russell, The Americans may need only focus on their characters’ day-to-day inner struggles, turning the espionage into the mere incidentals. Whereas the Cold War is presented in serious tones, The Americans feels light, and it’ll take every ounce of writer/creator Joe Weisberg’s strength to keep this from seeming like a watered-down Homeland, or, worse, a film idea stretched across 13 hours.