Friday, April 19, 2013

Fact, fiction fuse in Cold War tale

(Published April 19, PDI-Entertainment)
By Oliver M. Pulumbarit
Often discomfiting, the Cold War drama “The Americans” is about two KGB agents posing as ordinary American spouses in the early 1980s.

Starring Keri Russell (“Felicity”) and Matthew Rhys (“Brothers and Sisters”) as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, “The Americans” mingles fact and fiction, creating compelling scenarios set during the Reagan administration. The spy partners, however, get into unforeseen and unplanned situations, adjusting their operations accordingly to protect their sinister secrets.

The show created by Joe Weisberg (“Damages”) tackles the unconventional rapport between two well-trained and cold-blooded agents who are raising two children unaware of their origins and motivations.

The dynamic gets especially complicated when an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) moves in next door. The workaholic agent initially suspects something amiss with the neighbors, but dismisses his hunch when he sees no proof of their duplicity.

“The Americans” consistently keeps its pace and ambiance suspenseful. We’re introduced to a seemingly typical couple that blends in as travel agents, expertly hiding their ruthlessness and loyalty to the USSR. But interestingly enough, their relationship with their children is rife with genuine affection, even when the clueless kids are growing up as Americans.

The contradiction extends to Elizabeth and Philip’s fake marriage. Posing as husband and wife for many years doesn’t necessarily give them an actual emotional bond, but in the first three episodes, they start developing—and are finally showing—true feelings for each other.

Those contradictions make “The Americans” an interesting conundrum, although their precarious situation often justifiably perplexes. The spies, despite many likable qualities, often resort to violent or other despicable measures when dealing with innocents. It’s impossible to root for them whenever they cut down unwary threats to their schemes and operations.

Russell, previously famous for the late-1990s “Felicity” role, has long established herself capable of playing characters other than the titular college character. In the JJ Abrams-directed “Mission: Impossible III,” she briefly appeared as a gun-toting but ultimately ill-fated agent. “The Americans” allows her to kick butt again, as well as flex her acting chops. As a KGB spy, she efficiently masquerades, seduces, and does whatever it takes to accomplish her various, seemingly unending goals.

Comparisons to “Homeland” are inevitable, as “The Americans” also harnesses the climate of paranoia imaginatively. But the two are different entities, despite some similar relationship dynamics. And this show essentially binds nostalgia for the era to the disturbing “revelations” of undetected terror, offering a disturbing version of a time when the world seemingly survived tensions unscathed.
(“The Americans” airs Saturdays, 8 p.m. on Jack City.) 

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