Soviet spy tale the best of new season

THE AMERICANS: Keri Russell and John Rhys star.
THE AMERICANS: Keri Russell and John Rhys star.

Now the silly season is officially over - if it ever is - the new season's bright, shiny new shows are starting to shout at us from the promos. But the best of the bunch is tucked away almost unheralded on TV3, Mondays: The Americans.

If you set Spooks in Desperate Housewives' Wisteria Lane and applied lashings of 80s music to it, this is what you'd get: A thriller with a glossy surface and a turbulent undertow.

It's so new you can practically smell the paint drying, having only been released in the United States last month. Already it has been compared to The Sopranos, which is probably going a bit far.

But there are parallels in this story about Soviet Union sleeper agents posing as a normal American couple in the suburbs in 1981 - while carrying out daring espionage missions.

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play the couple with two wholesome and unsuspecting kids. Via flashbacks, we see their intensive training as Soviet teens and their arranged marriage. By now they're perfectly camouflaged - though can still karate-chop your carotid as soon as look at you.

What lifts this above action- suspense escapism is that spy dad Phillip is having doubts. He has figured out that Western food is better than home's, the electricity is reliable, the people are nice, the weather's good. What's so decadent about all that?

When their mission to snatch and return a Russian defector to their KGB bosses goes awry and it appears they might get caught, Phillip proposes they defect to the West. They will be handsomely rewarded and relocated. They can be fully what they have become - a normal, loving family.

But Elizabeth - who moonlights as a prostitute skilled at downloading US agents' boastful confidences - has been factory programmed rather more successfully. She would still lay down her life for the Motherland - and, tacitly, her family does not come first.

Right there we have the seeds of a wonderfully bumpy ride.

On another level, the plot is usefully silly. For as luck would have it, a senior counter- intelligence operative has just moved in over the road, and already he has his suspicions about Phillip.

In the pilot's final scene, the US spy is snooping round the KGB spy's garage, the latter hiding, prepared to kill the former, but after a white-knuckle few minutes, our real American decides he's just being paranoid.

It's appointment viewing - and a surprising reprieve for 80s music and fashion.

The Dominion Post