Episode 1: Pilot
By: Carlos Uribe
The Americans is about a married couple with two kids in the 1980s...who just happen to be Russian spies.
The most interesting part about The Americans is who the show is asking the audience to root for. It is one thing to ask people to root for spies but a completely different manner to ask them to root for spies that are seeking to destroy the United States. It is asking that people sympathize with America's former rival. The show isn't just trying to do it but it ultimately becomes essential for it's long-term survival. A show survives because people want to see the protagonists overcome their odds and win. It doesn't mean that they'll get what they want but the desire has to be there. If they're not invested in the plot then it will become meaningless to them. If the viewer wants the spies to get caught and for the show to end then chances are they won't stick around for every episode. The pilot is tasked with asking people to take the side of a prominent former rival. It's a task that can only be accomplished if the characters are well-defined and have attributes that make them sympathetic. This doesn't mean that they shouldn't be flawed but there has to be a reason to latch ourselves to the protagonists. Breaking Bad got people to root for Walter White because he started out as a good character that people could relate to. Mad Men gets people excited because it's able to break down the walls of their characters for small periods of time that allows them to get in. Granted, that's a show about advertising agencies and not Russian spies. Dexter got people to follow the show because the serial killer only targeted other serial killers. He may have been a sociopath but at least he became a vigilante to satisfy his twisted desires. These are shows that worked because they manage to find a way to get the viewer to follow deeply flawed characters. The Americans is at a disadvantage because they start out as spies (unlike Breaking Bad) and they're working against us (unlike Dexter) but the show does let us into their emotions. It also does a lot of interesting things that get the viewer to be interested in the lives of these characters.
The first is that it's really a show about a (fake) marriage. The creator managed to effectively create a balance between Elizabeth and Phillip where their pretend marriage is related to spycraft. The same issues that can come up in a marriage (trust) are present in their work and personal relationship. They don't know anything before their fake marriage was set up so that they wouldn't make any mistakes when discussing each other's backgrounds. The two have based their entire knowledge based on their cover which means their very foundation for their “marriage” was built on a lie. Exploring how the converging trust issues that comes with being a spy filter into their marriage was a genius idea. The marriage between the two helps to not only make them compelling characters but it also allows the show to contribute a fresh idea to the spy genre. That idea being that marriage and being a spy are similar bring up similar questions in trust. The second interesting thing is that the show gives them kids. I wasn't on board on the show until I found out that they're raising two American kids. That adds a layer of complication as it gives the characters a reason to question their undivided loyalty to their country. It might not be enough to crack Elizabeth's patriotism in the motherland yet but it's certainly appearing in Phillip. Having family come into play is always a powerful factor in television and it helps to cement the whole trust issue of marriage. Why? Families rely on trust which certainly plays into the idea that spies can't trust each other or that this married couple doesn't really know the other. The kids don't really know who their parents are. Adding a family also helps to elevate the stakes. All of a sudden we don't want anyone finding out who they are because of the kids.
The third has to do with who they are. Phillip is a character who has begun to question his loyalty to his country. There's even a point in the episode where he almost defects. It's a question that comes up not just because of his family but because he seems to have actually been assimilated by American culture. When he brings up the question of what exactly is wrong with the United States, the character is able to make it clear that he's conflicted about being a spy. This makes him more likeable because it makes his actions against this country easier to digest. Elizabeth is different in that she remains steadfastly loyal to her country. This might change due to her family but she has resisted Americanization. So how does the show get us to like this zealot? It reveals a flashback where she gets raped while training. This tragic event makes her more human and thus we're able to sympathize with her. It helps that the two characters are fully developed by the pilot so that we really do know who these people are. They are flawed and their fake marriage is complicated but it is churning out some really compelling drama in the pilot.
The side characters themselves are mixed in how developed they are. The two kids don't really get much of a personality as they're merely presented as normal American children. This actually plays in favor of the pilot as that's what helps the family stake hold value for the viewer but the show is going to need to flesh them out to keep the stake alive. Having an idyllic childhood is one thing but ensuring that these are actual human beings is another. There is also the FBI agents that are seeking to hunt down Russian spies within American borders but only one of them really stands out. It's no coincidence that he happens to be the new neighbor of the protagonists but Noah Emmerich does a good job bringing him alive. Having him be a former undercover agent into a white supremacy cult was a good idea in that it manages to establish his credibility with the audience. It also helps to justify why he senses that there is something wrong with Phillip that will probably help drive a lot of the tension as the show continues.
The Americans delivers a sleek pilot that sets up a spy show unlike any other. It's protagonists are Russian, it's exploring the theme of trust not only in spycraft but also in marriage, and it's shot beautifully. It does have some problems with pacing as sometimes the show was moving too slow to really hold my interest but there were other times when I was holding my breath. The ending managed to get me excited about the next episode. Overall, the idea of a married couple secretly being Russian spies is interesting but made compelling by the presence of their kids.