The first season of The Americans was a pleasant surprise. It was arguably the best new drama of 2013, a confident and fully-realized debut that took the retro appeal of a show like Mad Men and added the espionage and political intrigue of a Homeland.
On its surface, it certainly looked like it could have been a lazy combination of different elements in an attempt to win over the prestige drama crowd. Luckily, unlike shows like ABC’s Pan Am, it wasn’t just a new coat of paint on concepts that had already been done better elsewhere. It stands on its own as a show that weaves together the Cold War and a legitimately captivating relationship drama into a series that is more than just the sum of its parts.
The show follows two deep cover Soviet Directorate S agents living in the suburbs as average American citizens. As is mentioned in one of the special features, the inspiration for the story came from a real case in 2010 where a number of Russian “illegals” were caught spying on American soil, then released to Russia as part of a prisoner swap. It’s a pretty intriguing premise for a show, and The Americans does not waste it. Beyond the obvious potential for good old fashioned spy vs. spy action, it also is used to explore the relationship dynamics of two people trying to make a marriage work despite almost every aspect of their lives being a lie. As a result, the show works on multiple levels. It’s not just a show about spies; it’s an exploration of the lies people tell each other and how those lies affect our relationships.
Another part of the fun is how faithfully it recreates the 1980s. From the moment Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” starts playing over an action sequence at the beginning of the first episode, it’s apparent that viewers are in for a treat. That action sequence quickly became the defining moment for the show, setting the tone for what was to come. Of course, for every “Tusk” there’s an “In the Air Tonight,” which also appears in the first episode, this time toward the end. It’s a pretty awful song, used in a somewhat clumsy love scene, and one of the few real stumbles of the show so far. With any show there are going to be some freshman mistakes, and The Americans is no exception. See also the scene in which Philip, one of the half of the titular couple, hunts down and beats up a pedophile in a scene that seems to serve little purpose other than winning the audience over to his side. Luckily, the good far outweighs the bad, and there are fewer missteps as the season progresses.
Of course, if you’re reading this review then you probably want to know if the Blu-Ray of season one lives up to the show itself? Well, yes and no. The basic elements are there: 1080p video that is considerably crisper than what you would see from most cable and satellite providers and audio that likewise takes advantage of the capabilities of the Blu-Ray format. Those who have seen the series on TV, though, and are looking at the disc for a wealth of special features… well, they might be a little disappointed.
The video quality of the special features and the episodes themselves is about what you would expect from the Blu-Ray format. There is none of the artifacting that can occur with over-the-air broadcasts of the show. There is noticeable graininess to the video of the episodes though, but this is due more to the source material than any video compression. As is pointed out in the special features, the look of the show is a bit of a throwback to late ’70s/early ’80s arthouse cinema, which has a dirty, gritty look to it. That being the case, the graininess in the video is entirely intentional and helps keep the show actually keep its retro look and feel.
There are thirteen episodes split across three discs. The special features on the first two discs are limited to a handful of deleted scenes. Like in most cases, those scenes were deleted for a reason. They add very little to the show and were excised because they quite obviously would have slowed down the pacing of what is otherwise a fairly fast-paced show. The third disc offers more deleted scenes and an entirely inessential gag reel, but then thankfully there are also a few behind-the scenes featurettes that are interesting to watch: Executive Order 2579: Exposing the Americans, Perfecting the Art of Espionage and Ingenuity Over Technology.
All three of these featurettes draw from the same set of interviews with series creator Joe Weisberg, producer Joel Fields, and a few of the actors. Noah Emmerich gets the most facetime out of any of the actors, probably because he seems to have the most to say out of any of them. Matthew Rhys manages to be pretty charming in his native Welsh accent, though, which viewers of the show might be surprised by given that his character switches between pretty convincing American and Russian accents.
While the similar format of the three featurettes can cause them to kind of run together, they all touch on different aspects of the show. Executive Order 2579 is the most comprehensive of the three, focusing on the background, including the historical events that inspired it and Joe Weisberg’s experience in the CIA which has allowed to give the show a bit more realism than it might have had otherwise. Perfecting the Art of Espionage goes more into the details of that CIA experience and how it informed the actions of the characters in the show. Ingenuity Over Technology deals with the show’s setting in the 1980s and how that informs the plot. This is the least essential of the three featurettes, as it basically features the interviewees all stating in different ways how the lack of cellphones makes the plot more interesting.
The final special feature is a commentary on the episode “The General” with Weisberg, Fields, and Emmerich. It’s a real shame that they only included commentary for a single episode, because it’s interesting enough that it would definitely warrant being expanded over the course of the season. The commentary has a light, jovial feel to it, with the three commenters having a lot of animated back-and-forth among each other and generally sharing their enthusiasm for the show. Their discussion of the show is very high-level since they have so much ground to cover, and while that helps keep the pace fast it also means they skip over a lot of the episode-level minutiae that they might otherwise be able to cover.
For those who have not yet seen season one of The Americans, buying it on Blu-Ray is kind of a no-brainer. It is an excellently constructed, engaging first season that shows a lot of promise for the season to come. For those who saw it on cable and want to re-watch it, the improved video and audio quality certainly makes it a worthwhile purchase; just don’t expect a wealth of special features.
The Americans season one Blu-Ray offers a great way to catch up on the freshman season of one of the strongest new dramas on TV. However, the special features leave much to be desired, especially given the potential to explore the show's Cold War spy elements.