Philip and Elizabeth have an arranged marriage. The matchmaker was a colonel in the KGB.
For 16 years, they've been living as husband and wife, prototypical suburban parents (in other words, child chauffeurs) in Falls Church, Va. But they're also on call as highly trained covert operatives for the Soviet Union.
That's the premise of The Americans, a bold and exciting new series on FX (Wednesdays, 10 p.m.).
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys star as the couple leading a double life. They're agents - both secret and travel. By day, they run Dupont Circle Travel. By night, they're conducting dangerous espionage assignments.
In the series' very first scene, Russell, in a platinum wig, is loosening the tongue of a Justice Department official.
Fair warning: The seduction goes a good deal further than you might expect from a basic cable show. The Americans amps up its sexual content to strictly adult.
In the next scene, Russell is in a Danskin top, whipping up some eggs for her two adolescent children in a sunny breakfast nook.
It's 1981. Walter Cronkite is still huffing and puffing the evening news. Juice Newton is playing on the loud speakers at the mall. And President Reagan is determined to root out the network of deep-cover spies that the KGB's Directorate S has planted under our noses.
Russell is convincing as the more doctrinaire and committed half of the couple. "I would go to jail; I would die: I would give up everything before I would betray my country," she shouts when it looks as if their cover might be blown.
She genuinely despises the decadent capitalist society she is forced to conform to.
Rhys is really impressive as the more conflicted partner. It pains him to put the needs of the Motherland above the safety of his family. Biology trumps loyalty for him.
It's a little hard to buy Rhys, who played Kevin, the gay sibling on ABC's Brothers & Sisters, as a walking weapon. But that's the point. He should never arouse suspicion.
Obviously Philip and Elizabeth are spread a little thin. They have to conduct elaborate surveillance and espionage operations, often in disguise, while running a business and raising two adolescents.
Before they can go out to bug the Secretary of Defense's den, they have to find a sitter.
And the assigments are getting riskier as hostilities between our nations ratchet up. They're snooping on us. We're snooping on them, courtesy of a turncoat in the Soviet Embassy.
Yes, it's contrived when the FBI's most brilliant counterintelligence agent (Noah Emmerich) just happens to move in across the street from Philip and Elizabeth. But putting the cat and the mice at close quarters does heighten the tension.
Michael Gaston and Richard (John-Boy) Thomas play for the FBI side. And Margo Martindale, who won an Emmy as Mags Bennett on Justified, joins up in a few episodes. She may be the first Soviet sleeper agent who could easily pass for Shirley Booth on Hazel.
The Americans may be a tricky concept to sustain, because it means bringing the protagonists to the very brink of discovery on a regular basis.
But for now, it's a daring tightrope walk, full of action and suspense.