The Americans Series Premiere Review: “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 01)

I’m not making the most critically sound case for The Americans when I tell you that my recommendation of it owes a great deal to a song used in the pilot. I might as well be telling you that Justified is worth watching because its ads are so consistently good, or that the restrained brilliance of Terriers could be found just by watching the opening credits. These are peripheral elements that are completely inessential to what a show actually is, how well it’s executed, and whether or not it will be worth investing in for the long-term. Judging a show based on its music, ads, or credits, is putting ancillary style ahead of actual substance.

That being said, I bought into The Americans about three minutes into its premiere last night, thanks almost entirely to how it employs an arrangement of “Tusk” by Fleetwood Mac, which I’m struggling to describe as anything but damn near perfect. It starts up when a beautiful women is making the dreams of a loose-lipped government official come true, continuing as we jump ahead three days to see two men staking out a street corner at night. “You hear stories about this guy, and how he killed a lot of people,” says the less confident of the two. “I heard once, he got in a bar fight with the entire Japanese Olympic judo team. Took out four of them before the rest of ‘em ran.” His partner gives him a dismissive look, clearly uninterested. “Which year? Because ’64 to ’72 were pussies, they didn’t even medal.”

Meanwhile, the woman we saw earlier bribes her way into a nearby apartment building, and flashes a signal to the waiting duo when a third party approaches on the street. The drumming on the song grows more intense as the man draws closer to the two guys waiting for him, but cuts out entirely as he stops for a moment, feeling something’s not right. Then the song slowly starts building up again, and once it’s back to full power, the target takes off in the other direction, with his welcome party in hot pursuit. A few minutes later, the runner has been apprehended, and the two able members of the hunting party load him into a car, while the third is trying not to bleed out from a nasty stab wound.

Everything great about the premiere for The Americans, and hopefully for the show as a whole going forward, is in the song. It’s got a driving beat at its core that your brain can’t resist falling into lockstep with, and then builds around that hook with unexpected, but catchy riffs and lyrics. It’s a rock solid base from which Nicks and company can lash out with baroque flourishes, sounding at once intense, sexy, sleek, and a little bit gleeful. Even at an instrumentation level, the mix of deep bass, light guitar licks, and blaring horns seems an ideal blend of the show’s mood and themes, merging Western rock with Eastern folk.

But now I’m getting ahead of myself. The Americans meets chronologically and tonally between a McCarthy-era horror story, and the tastes of the modern day. It stars Keri Russell (Felicity) and Matthew Rhys (Brothers and Sisters) as a pair of sleeper KGB agents, who are posing as a married couple in Washington D.C. at the start of the Reagan administration. By day, they’re Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, model representations of the 1981 nuclear family, which includes two tweenage kids, early morning hockey practice, and making sure you say hello to the new arrivals in the suburbs via a warm plate of brownies.

By night though, they’re the man and woman who have just taken a defector from the Motherland hostage, while their partner, Rob, is bleeding out in the back of an Oldsmobile. The Americans hits hard and fast during the cold open (thanks in no small part to the assistance of “Tusk”), making its spy-thriller influences and aspirations readily apparent. Shadowy figures walking down alleyways, tantalizing briefcases, and hastily switched out license plates are all heavily featured in the opening ten minutes, and not since Justified have familiar genre conventions been so effectively, and stylishly employed as an opener. There’s a giddiness to the sarcastic one-liner Phillip delivers after missing the drop-off for their hostage, but the key bit of dialogue comes from what Phillip tells Rob when dropping him off near a hospital: “You were trained to surmount any obstacle. Go.”

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