When I heard Keri Russell would be playing a fierce KGB agent in FX’s “The Americans,’’ I had the same reaction I had when I heard Claire Danes would be a bipolar FBI agent in “Homeland’’: It won’t work. Both actresses broke through in youth melodramas on TV, Russell in “Felicity’’ and Danes in “My So-Called Life,’’ and neither seemed to have the dark notes needed to be convincing as aggressive nationalists. They struck me as fine romantic-drama leads, but too thin as performers to evoke global consciousness and the gonzo commitment to do absolutely anything, even sexually, for their country.
In both cases, I was dead wrong. Danes has given the performance of a lifetime in “Homeland,’’ and Russell is remarkable in the first-rate “The Americans,’’ in which she and Matthew Rhys play fictional sleeper KGB agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings in 1981. She brings out both Elizabeth’s backbone and her dizzying spiral of identity issues. Russell effectively makes Elizabeth into a ruthless zealot, an old-world moralist, and a fretful mother to the two children she and Philip had after relocating from Russia to the States. If you look just behind her suburban-mom eyes, you can sense her unwavering contempt for America and its freedoms.
One of the show’s many twists is that, unlike Elizabeth, Philip has softened in his commitment to the cause over the years. He has fallen in love with the role of playful dad to Henry, 10, and Paige, 13, neither of whom know their parents are spies. And he has begun to tire of the stressful missions, when their Soviet handlers order them to, say, kidnap a defector, a tense subplot in the premiere. With President Reagan in office, the Cold War is escalating and Philip is having to participate in more spy activity. He’s very good at what he does, but he’s also ready to leave it behind.
Rhys, perhaps best known for his years as Kevin on “Brothers & Sisters,’’ has a more fun-loving, high-spirited energy than Russell. But he also makes it clear that, while Philip is straying into American values and burning out as a spy, he’s also falling more in love with his wife; their marriage was arranged by the KGB in the 1960s, a story that is told in flashbacks.
There’s something really entertaining and thought-provoking about watching people caught up in double lives. That has been the appeal of shows such as “Dexter,’’ “Homeland,’’ and “Breaking Bad,’’ as their lead characters harbor huge secrets while whistling their way through ordinary daily existences. Will they get caught? The first season or two of “Mad Men’’ was particularly provocative because we knew Don Draper was running from his youth as Dick Whitman. “The Americans’’ falls squarely within this genre of divided selves, in which characters have fluid identities we can’t always nail down. Perhaps the theme is popular now because social media has enabled all of us to front, to reveal selected and sometimes invented selves to the public? Our fascination with the supposed catfishing of Manti Te’o is a case in point.
After previewing two episodes of “The Americans,’’ I’m not sure who the Jenningses really are, or where their deepest loyalties will ultimately lie. And I don’t think they are sure, either, not even Elizabeth, who worries about how betrayed her children would feel if they learned the truth. This all adds an engaging, shifting psychological undercurrent to the more action-based and juicy espionage material, in which the articulate, well-dressed couple can be surprisingly thuggish.
“The Americans’’ is loaded with the kind of coincidences and close escapes that would sink a show that had been less carefully put together. Along with the Jennings family, series creator Joe Weisberg follows a new FBI counterintelligence division created to focus on foreign agents on US soil, agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) in particular. Soon we learn that Beeman and his wife are buying the house next door to the Jenningses outside Washington, D.C. The resulting situation toggles between suspense and humor, as Weisberg teases us with the proximity of the cat and the mice. On “Breaking Bad,’’ creator Vince Gilligan has made the same kind of bold move by making Walt’s brother-in-law a DEA agent. When agent Beeman is nosing around the Jennings garage, where a defector is imprisoned in their car’s trunk, “The Americans’’ is thrilling.
I won’t say “The Americans’’ is nearly as fine as “Breaking Bad,’’ but then “Breaking Bad’’ wasn’t as good as “Breaking Bad’’ when it began. By episode 2, though, after the crammed (and super-sized) premiere, Weisberg reveals a sure sense of detail that bodes well for the future of the series. He zeroes in on particular images, such as when Elizabeth pierces her daughter’s ear, and we see the blood drop, that heighten dramatic intensity. They bring us directly into the moment of this promising show.