The Americans: The Complete First Season (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD) may sound gimmicky—Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play deep-cover Soviet agents living as typical American suburban parents in Reagan’s America of the early 1980s—but like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and Mad Men before it, the FX original series uses the era and the tension between appearance and reality to create a character study and a cultural portrait, in this case a fascinating domestic drama inside an espionage thriller.
Essentially assigned to an arranged marriage in the name of Mother Russia, Elizabeth and Phillip have a long-term professional partnership under the guise of a loving relationship and all those years in America has given them ideas that perhaps they would like to pursue their own happiness. In contrast to their issues, their new neighbor is an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) on the trail of a Russian spy network, an all-American guy so tangled up in his job that he’s losing touch with his wife and family. Sure, he has no idea that this suburban couple is his target, but that’s the least of the show’s ironies, and Emmerich is fascinatingly flawed as the dedicated patriot failing his own family.
Russell is both ruthless and vulnerable as Elizabeth, ferocious on the job and protective as a mother, and Rhys is warmer as the partner who likes living in the USA. If her commitment is to a Soviet ideal and a faraway home, his is to wife and family, which gets complicated when their job calls for seducing a target. Personal desires aside, their biggest conflict is their dream for their kids. While Elizabeth and Phillip may be dedicated to spying on America for their Russian homeland, they want to give their American-born children a future that only the United States can offer. The contradiction isn’t lost on them even as they steal secrets and blackmail American agents. The contradiction isn’t lost us that we actually root for the Russkies to prevail. The show’s attention to eighties spycraft technology and the details of espionage gives it the genre charge but the roiling emotional drama of love, resentment, suspicion, jealousy, trust, and conflicting commitment gives it the spark.
Margo Martindale earned an Emmy nomination for playing their handler, a ruthless piece of work behind a pose of homespun maternalism (another take on her backwoods mafia matriarch of Justified) and Richard Thomas is Emmerich’s boss.
13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, plus commentary on the season finale “The Colonel” by creator Joseph Weisberg, writer / producer Joel Fields and actor Noah Emmerich, three featurettes (“Executive Order 2579: Exposing the Americans,” “Perfecting the Art of Espionage” and “Ingenuity Over Technology”) and deleted scenes among the supplements.