Ellen Gray: 'The Americans' debuts on FX

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are "The Americans," travel agents and KGB espionage agents.

* THE AMERICANS. 10 p.m. Wednesday, FX.


IF ANYONE can bring back high-waisted jeans, it's Keri Russell.

But the former "Felicity" star will have an even tougher assignment Wednesday as she returns to television in FX's new spy drama "The Americans": To make viewers identify, at least a little, with the aims of the KGB in the waning years of the Cold War.

Inspired by the case of 10 Russian sleeper agents exposed by the FBI in 2010, "The Americans" stars Russell and Matthew Rhys ("Brothers & Sisters") as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two KGB plants living in a Washington, D.C., suburb with their two children in 1981.

Ronald Reagan is president, the Soviet intelligence community is in turmoil, and the daily lives of the Jenningses, already more exciting than those of most of their neighbors, is about to get more so.

And not just because their newest neighbor (Noah Emmerich) works in FBI counterintelligence.

"The Americans" grabbed me early in the supersized pilot - it's scheduled to run for 97 minutes with commercials - with an action sequence choreographed to the pounding rhythms of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk."

That's probably more heart-pounding than most of the real sleeper agents experienced in a year, but creator Joe Weisberg, who worked in the CIA for four years in the early '90s, notes that those agents' stories didn't sound like they'd make much of a TV show.

"Once we slid it back into the Cold War, it seemed to get very exciting," he told reporters at an FX news conference earlier this month.

The passage of time - and knowing how things turned out for the Soviets - made his job easier in other ways.

"I think, if you tried to tell a story like this, you know, about al Qaeda now, it would be completely impossible," he said. "And I think it would have been the same way about the Soviets or the KGB even 10 years after the Cold War. I mean, they had and still have a lot of nuclear weapons pointed towards us and felt during the Cold War like they maybe were ready to kill all of us. So nobody wanted to try to relate to the enemy, but I think enough time has passed now that people are willing to look into their hearts and see them as people we can understand."

It doesn't hurt a bit that Rhys' character, Philip, is already more than half in love with the country he's spying on (and even more so with the woman the KGB married him off to). Assimilated to the point of seeming at times like any other TV dad, he plays games with his children involving ice cream, embarrasses his 13-year-old daughter (Holly Taylor) by dancing in the shoe department and frets about her budding maturity.

Russell's Elizabeth is the team's true believer, still wary after more than 15 years in the U.S. of the country's values and convinced that Reagan, particularly, is out to destroy her motherland.

Comparisons to Showtime's "Homeland" are inevitable, but tonally, the shows are different, with "The Americans" having more fun with the sexy side of spying. Both Elizabeth and Philip are seen bedding others in the line of duty and there are some equal-opportunity fight scenes where Russell, a former dancer, gets to show off her moves.

I was reminded more of the former FX series "The Riches" - which I also loved - in which Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver also played a couple living under assumed identities.

By the second episode, "The Americans" announces its intention to mix it up with some real-life figures, with a plot line involving the coercion of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's housekeeper, a raising of the stakes some may find head-spinning.

But the real fascination of "The Americans" can be found not in the lies Philip and Elizabeth tell the world, but in those they tell themselves: She, that she'll somehow be able to raise socialist children amid plenty, he that there might be an out that would allow him to become the person he's long been pretending to be.

Even in a land of opportunity, those are tall orders.



Email: graye@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: EllenGray.tv