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The Americans follows Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), one half of a KGB-arranged marriage whose relationship with her husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys) becomes increasingly tested by the Cold War’s escalation.
The Americans follows Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), one half of a KGB-arranged marriage whose relationship with her husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys) becomes increasingly tested by the Cold War’s escalation.

John Doyle

The Americans: Why you should watch this adults-only Cold War thriller Add to ...

Kids today. One imagines that certain nuances of the recent past are lost on them. Such as the mood of the Cold War, the notoriety of the KGB, the arrival of glasnost in the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

That’s a fair assertion, I think. You have to have lived through at least part of it to grasp the texture and tenor of it all. That means that The Americans (FX Canada, 10 p.m.), a new and fine drama, is meant for adults. And by that I mean it’s not just that the opening scene involves a woman seducing a man in a bar, and having sex with him in a hotel room.

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The Americans is anchored in an intriguing concept. It’s the early 1980s. Ronald Reagan has just been elected president of the United States. In Washington of the time we meet Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), a couple-with-kids living in the suburbs. They seem nice, unremarkable people. They own a travel agency and are solidly middle-class.

They are, in fact, KGB spies. Part of a sleeper cell planted in the U.S. years before, their real mission is to gather intelligence, help and groom other agents, and deliver info back to their KGB bosses. The election of Reagan has complicated their situation. Cold War tension has heightened. A Soviet Union official declares to one of them, “the American people have elected a madman as their president, and he makes no secret of his desire to destroy us.”

From the start, The Americans is working on multiple levels. First, Elizabeth and Phillip are ostensibly the heroes, figures of sympathy for the viewer. Second, the early eighties atmosphere is compelling – so near yet so far from us. The music seems recent and yet there are no cellphones or laptops. Third, we are witnessing an arranged marriage – the couple were united by KGB bosses, not by love or empathy. It’s a union under severe strain as it emerges that Elizabeth is the hardliner, a KGB lifer, and Phillip is mildly fed up with their mission. Fourth, they may have aroused the suspicion of a new neighbour and are desperate not to be exposed.

Thus we get a thriller that’s also about a marriage on the brink of rupture. The marriage is also the Cold War distilled – Elizabeth will cling to communism forever, but the pleasures of the West gnaw at Phillip’s resolve. And we do feel for the family. The kids are completely unaware of their parents’ real tasks in life and that their doting mom and dad could flee or be arrested at any moment. There are flashbacks to Elizabeth and Phillip in Russia, being trained for the mission. There are bewildering events at night, car chases and last-second escapes from American authorities who know that there are Soviet spies in Washington.

Keri Russell has the juicy role here and she’s fabulous – the strong woman in a marriage that is profoundly demanding. There’s a scene, early on, which has her assert her KGB training and kick a guy’s head through a wall. It’s only plasterboard but, Jiminy, it’s thrilling. And Russell is clearly relishing a role that’s very distant from the coming-of-age drama Felicity, which made her a TV star, way back.

On the evidence of two episodes seen, The Americans (created by Joe Weisberg, a former CIA official who also writes for the series Damages) is not Homeland. That is, it’s about spying but it doesn’t have the propulsive pace and urgent intensity of Homeland. It sprawls a bit (some of the scenes in Russia seem hurriedly done) and takes its time to find focus. But there’s a vast wealth of rich material here. The show is compelling, odd and definitely for adults, because, really you had to be there, in those Reagan years.

Also airing tonight

Justified (SuperChannel 9 p.m.) goes from strength to strength in this new season and, if you’re not watching it, you’re missing exquisite, finely-tuned storytelling. The adventures of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) involve an old case – what looks like a drug drop gone awry decades earlier. The disentangling of the mystery is rich in dry wit and wonderfully drawn characters. You can find the last week’s opener, which was sublime, on SuperChannel on-demand.

George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight (CBC, 7 p.m.) is all about Oprah. During her tour of Canadian speaking engagements, Strombo was chosen to interview Oprah onstage. Parts of those chats are tonight’s “special episode.”

Mr. D (CBC, 8 p.m.) moves to Wednesdays starting tonight. And The Ron James Show moves to Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m., too. Mr. D continues to be as demented a comedy as ever, although it can veer off the rails. Tonight, some silliness about Mr. D, the hopeless teacher wanting to scam a trip to Boston to see the Celtics.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

 

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