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The Americans – Episode 1.01 – "Pilot"

                                                                                   courtesy of fxnetworks.com

Over the course of the second season of American Horror Story: Asylum, FX showed cryptic 10-second commercials that heavily featured the hammer and sickle that symbolizes the Communist movement.  These brief teasers, which used the hammer and sickle in place of the “c” in The Americans, were certainly enough to pique my interest.  I soon found out that the show would star Keri Russell of Felicity fame and Matthew Rhys, whose work on Brothers & Sisters was by far the most overlooked.  The FX network has developed a pedigree over the years for hard-hitting, grisly drama (The Shield, Justified, Sons of Anarchy) so my expectations for The Americans were high.  The resulting pilot episode is unquestionably a show of great merit despite the number of coincidences we’re asked to forgive in its super-sized running time.


     The “Pilot” opens with a 10-minute sequence set to a rearranged version of Fleetwood Mac’s underrated classic “Tusk”, and it has to be one of the most exciting openings to a series in a long time.  We are introduced to Elizabeth (Russell) and Phillip (Rhys), a pair of spies who undergo an operation to dispose of a Soviet defector, which inevitably goes wrong.  Left with the defector in the trunk of their car, it is later revealed that the couple is married with kids, living in a suburb in Virginia.  The episode takes a while to reveal that they are KGB spies, one of many choices the writers make to not hold the audience’s hand.  Flashbacks fill in some gaps about how the pair began their 20-year stint in America as spies, but they emphasize character moments over clunky exposition. Speaking of character moments, the scenes that focus exclusively on the “marriage” of Elizabeth and Phillip are the episode’s strongest.  Phillip desires to lead a more authentic life yet Elizabeth remains steadfast to the mission they’ve been given.  It is clear that they work well as a partnership, but the episode is at its strongest when it deals with the emotional connection that comes with that partnership.
 
     An FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) happens to move in next door to the couple, and I suppose it’s a good thing that they don’t reveal whether or not this is a coincidence.  It is the type of plot device that creates easy conflict for the show, so as long as they don’t milk it for too long, such as the pair just escaping getting caught at the end of each episode, then it won’t go into Dexter territory.  One plus of the show is its choice of music (the aforementioned “Tusk”, Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and others) but this seems to be one of the only devices by director Gavin O’Connor to show that it takes place in the ’80s.  There’s footage of Walter Cronkite here and a typewriter there, but everything else indicates that this show could have easily taken place in modern times.  As a whole, this is one of the best pilots of the 2012-2013 season and I’m intrigued to see where it’s going.  It’s nice to have a spy thriller back on the airwaves.
 
Grade: B+
MVP: Matthew Rhys
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