REVIEW: The Americans TV3, Monday, 11pm.
It's a pity that spy dramas have become the preserve of shows like the unpleasant 24, but there's still room for the old-fashioned sort, where good characterisation and suspense take precedence over torture and gunplay. So thank goodness for The Americans, a smart, well-crafted period piece steeped in the pervasive paranoia of the bad old days of the Cold War.
Mathew Rhys (Brothers and Sisters) and Keri Russell (Felicity) star as "Philip and Elizabeth Jennings", Russian-born KGB spies posing as a true blue baseball-and-apple-pie couple in Washington DC in the early 1980s, not long after Ronald Reagan became president and started amping up the rhetoric against the "Evil Empire".
Behind their suburban facade, complete with two kids, Phil and Liz are busy stealing secrets for the Soviets, and they don't flinch from unpleasant work, like poisoning an innocent man to put pressure on his well-placed mother. Liz is firmly committed to the communist cause, but Phil is wavering after coming to enjoy the American lifestyle ("The electricity works most of the time, the food's pretty good").
In an unpleasant coincidence, the man in charge of ridding the USA of Soviet spooks, veteran FBI agent Stan (an excellent Noah Emmerich), has moved in across the street from them.
He knows all the tricks of the spy game, and has already done what any good agent would do, breaking into his new neighbours' garage at night to have a sniff around.
He just missed the kidnapped KGB defector they had in the boot of their car - and he didn't see Phil lurking in the shadows, ready to whack him.
The reds seem to be one step ahead all the time, but this doesn't stop them fretting over whether Stan's arrival means the feds are on to them.
The success of The Americans rests on the shoulders of Rhys and Russell, who convey the emotional turmoil involved in Phil and Liz's double lives without descending into melodrama.
He wants their kids to enjoy a better future in America, and is tempted by the lucrative bait offered to defectors, while she worries about divided loyalties and is trying to stay close to their teenage daughter. Even though their marriage is a sham, they've become close, and can't help being wracked by jealousy whenever a honey trap sting is called for.
The other aspect of The Americans' appeal is that it's set in the days before cellphones and cyberespionage - the spooks use clunky old bugs and tape recorders, and are more resourceful, having no instant information or means of communication at their fingertips. And some of the situations are still relevant today - such as how American intelligence agencies are hampered by a lack of personnel with in-depth knowledge of their enemies' language and culture.
- © Fairfax NZ News