Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are the textbook middle-American married couple. They have a teenage daughter, Paige, and a slightly younger son, Henry. Philip and Elizabeth run their own business, a small travel agency. They have a nice house, in a nice street, in a nice suburb of Washington DC during the early 1980s, at the height of the Cold War. They are friendly with their neighbours, the Beemans. Stan Beeman is an agent with the FBI. Everything seems just perfect ...
Except the Jennings are fakes.
In reality, they are Russian Soviet spies working for the KGB, living in deep cover, posing as a respectable, married, American couple. Although actually husband and wife, they run a spy network, collecting sensitive and classified information whenever they can and from whoever they can. Both are ruthless killers who will stop at nothing, if need be. Trouble is, their two children don't know their parents' true identities. The FBI suspect their existence, but don't know their actual identity. Stan Beeman, their neighbour, is part of the FBI team hunting these KGB "illegals".
Created by Joe Weisberg, himself a former CIA officer, and based partially on his real-life experiences, this TV series has just started showing its third season in Australia, on channel 1 (part of the 10 network), late on Tuesday evenings. I watched the first two seasons some time ago, was surprised that such a quality show should be buried in the late-night TV lists, and feared for its future in this country. Fortunately, season three is now getting a run here.
For espionage buffs, this show is rolled gold. It's very good and very exciting. For human relationships buffs, the show is equally first-class: it depicts the stresses and strains on a marriage where both husband and wife are on the edge, never knowing when or if they will be unmasked, imprisoned, or even killed. The show's creator has been quoted as saying he intended the show primarily as a portrait of a marriage, rather than an exploration of the world of espionage. Fortunately for fans of both genres, "The Americans" does both brilliantly.
Philip is played by Matthew Rhys, while Elizabeth is played by Keri Russell, neither of whom I'd heard of before I discovered this show. Both are excellent. Keri Russell plays Elizabeth as the more dedicated, more ruthless one; she will do anything for the cause, even allowing the KGB to recruit her own teenage daughter, Paige, as a spy, when she is old enough. Matthew Rhys plays Philip as a little more flexible, not quite so blindly dedicated to the Soviet cause: he is appalled at the prospect of his daughter becoming a Soviet spy. At the close of season two, this issue threatened to be a bone of contention with his wife. At the opening of season three, Paige's future is clearly going to become a flashpoint between Philip and Elizabeth. What will happen when they reveal their true identities to their kids?
In the crucial support role of Stan Beeman, as their neighbour/FBI officer, is the very good Noah Emmerich, again unknown to me before I found this show. His family situation is as important to the show as the Jennings'. In season two, his marriage was under strain as he had an affair with a beautiful, young KGB agent who he was attempting to recruit to the American side. She was "rumbled" by her employers and Stan was forced to choose between his duty and his passion for her. At the start of season three, his marriage is collapsed, but his hunt for the unidentified KGB "illegals" goes on.
The good news is that there is a season four, which is currently screening in the US. I only hope it eventually gets an airing on Australian TV. As for a season five? No official renewal yet, but apparently discussions are under way.
Here's hoping. This is an excellent drama, much underrated, and, although shown in a "graveyard" timeslot on Aussie TV, well worth your attention.