Crafting a television pilot can be one of the biggest challenges a TV writer can take on. It presents its own unique set of challenges and pitfalls that no other episode in the series has the burden of carrying. It has to properly introduce the main characters, establish conflicts that can be resolved by the end of the episode and/or be explored throughout the rest of the series, it has to capture the intended spirit of the show in one episode, but most importantly, it has capture the viewers’ attention. It is the first impression of every television show, and the quality of it can make or break the viewership. Many times a pilot can suffer from having too much or too little, trying to do too many things at once, or just not being interesting enough to warrant people tuning in for episode 2.
With FX’s new offering, The Americans, the pilot easily excels on all the requirements of what a pilot should be and more, presenting a suspenseful and engaging story that perfectly portrays Cold War Era paranoia. However, what made the pilot even more effective was that all of the espionage was second to what the series really focuses on, which are its main characters.
The episode starts right in the thick of things, in the middle of a sting operation by KGB sleeper agent Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) as she gets cozy with a federal agent over drinks at a bar. The show wasted no time in letting its viewers know it was an edgy cable show with a racy scene that was two steps away from belonging to HBO. Anyways, all of that was to gather information on a certain Russian defector that lives in DC. This is how we’re properly introduced to our pretend American couple, in action as they capture a former high ranking official for the Russians who is now giving speeches to the FBI in exchange for save haven and lots of money.
I give kudos to the show for letting actions speak louder than words. With the bagging of the defector, the relationships were established adequately, good old fashioned spy action was showcased in the first act, and with the mishap of the mission, sets up the entire conflict of the episode.
Now Elizabeth and Phillip (Matthew Rhys) have a valuable Russian defector tied up Pulp Fiction style in the trunk of their car, a government agency that may or may not be onto them, and on top of that, they have to continue the façade of being the quintessential all American family to preserve their cover.
The rest of the episode is dealing with the conflict of what to do with their defector, while at the same time setting up the various players that will continue to inhabit the universe of the show, such as the FBI agents and the Jennings’ various contacts. Normally the set up would be obvious and at times feel forced, but The Americans does it so organically that everything feels that it is at the right place.
Well that wasn’t intense enough, the writers said, so they decided to throw a few curve balls at us. First it’s revealed that the Jennings’ captured defector raped Elizabeth when she was just a cadet in training. That scene in it of itself was tough to watch. Then the Jennings get a new next door neighbor, who happens to work for the same government agency trying to bring down Russian spies. Incidentally this was the only plot point that I felt seemed forced to serve the story.
There are several things the show does well, at least with the pilot. One, there’s the atmosphere. The production design pulls off a fairly convincing 80’s look. The placement of cars, styles of clothing, and looks of buildings are just subtle enough to let you know the time period, but at the same time does not scream 80’s. The show also avoids the glossy look that most shows have now, instead favoring an older, washed and grainy look that works well for the show’s gloomy setting of the Cold War. Two, there’s the tension. There are a few moments in the pilot that genuinely warranted nail biting. To name a few, there’s the trunk scene, the other trunk scene, and even the meet the neighbors scene. You’ll just have to watch the pilot to know specifically what I’m talking about. I don’t want to give too much away. Three, the show’s pacing. The show took its time to buildup its main characters and central conflict, never spoon feeding anything to the viewers and always allowing just enough information and exposition to keep things interesting and flowing. The pilot didn’t feel too long despite its increased running time, and things fairly stayed consisted as the episode progressed. Four, and of utmost importance, there are the characters. The two leads had their own personal arcs that coincided well with the episode’s main plot. Elizabeth was raped by the defector and desired vengeance, while Phillip was beginning to consider becoming a defector himself because of the strain it’s put in his life and the one he shares with Elizabeth. Special mention goes to Matthew Rhys for playing such a good husband, father, and boring friendly neighbor. The scenes between the family felt so genuine that I almost thought I was watching a different family oriented show at one point. Most of that was carried by Rhy’s down to Earth portrayal of suburban dad.
The episode did have its minor problems. There’s the aforementioned plot point of Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) moving in next door, which seemed a bit forced. However this does open a lot of doors for more tension and paranoia for the Jennings’ so I’ll let it slide. My only other complaint would be the inclusion of the huge guy from the mall scene, the one who checks out Phillip’s 13 year old daughter. His role was too small to be that much relevant, and something like that could’ve been explored in later episodes with much more meat. Its inclusion ultimately felt tacked onto the episode. The tender scene between Elizabeth and Phillip at the end when Elizabeth finally opens up to Phillip was touching and well acted, though there could have been a bit more of it.
Overall The Americans got off to a great start with a solid pilot that carefully balanced exposition and establishment. It has great characters, a gripping premise, and the promise of more character centered drama, without the expense of over shadowing a thrilling spy story. Recently, intense character driven shows are what prove to be popular on the cable networks. After seeing the pilot, The Americans can step up and take their place among the pantheon of cable shows now dominating the primetime airways. If they can keep the same quality of the pilot with the rest of the episodes, this show is guaranteed to be an instant hit.
This article was first posted on February 8, 2013