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Review: Spying for Mother Russia with ‘The Americans’

On first taste, “The Americans,” which premieres Wednesday on FX, seems to be a stew made of “Homeland” (spy stuff), “Mad Men” (relatively recent period drama) and something like “The Riches” (a family of dissemblers), though for that last ingredient you could substitute “Breaking Bad” or “Dexter” or any other series in which the protagonist has a dark secret and will go to great, brutal lengths to keep it.

To carry on the metaphor, it’s an intriguing dish not yet perfected, in which familiar big flavors overwhelm the more interesting subtle ones.

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We are in 1981, the first year of the Reagan presidency and a time of escalating tensions between East and West. This means more work under more difficult conditions for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), a couple of Russian spies living near Washington, D.C., as ordinary, picket-fence Americans, with their two American-born children. And that’s not even counting the FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) who’s moved in next door.

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The unusual tenor of the marriage is made clear in the opening moments of the first two episodes when husband and wife are by turns shown in sexual situations with other people — all part of the job. In addition to their daily false identities they assume a variety of other false identities as the need dictates, accomplished with a collection of hats, wigs, paste-on mustaches and fake spectacles; yet somehow they manage, while being so many different people, to make it to school assemblies and the dinner table, and to call each other by the right fake name.

Creator Joe Weisberg worked for the CIA, so I’m going to assume that at least some of what seems fanciful here is not fanciful at all; though, having worked for the CIA, I am sure he is also capable of making things up — that and the fact that he wrote for TNT’s alien-invasion serial, “Falling Skies.” But the show does seem to be tuned more toward the fantastic exigencies of an action flick, in which every agent is a sexy superhuman fighting machine, than to accurately portraying a line of work that, even in a period of heightened urgency, must include a lot of quiet, even boring routine.

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Still, there are enough interesting ideas inherent in the material to warrant giving “The Americans” a chance, and interesting enough ideas that one wishes a little more attention were being paid to them, and a little less to the usual spy-jinks. (Then again, I am a person for whom AMC’s glacially paced “Rubicon” was the best espionage series since “Smiley’s People.”)

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For instance: How do you raise the kids to be the people you’d like them to be when you have to hide the values you hold dear? Elizabeth hopes her daughter will become some sort of socialist, though it is a hope founded on — what exactly? What does actually constitute a good life — having nice things or sharing the wealth?

How do you not become the thing you spend years and years pretending to be? (Or do you, and move on?) When does ideology become a meaningless reflex?

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The show flits around these questions without seeming quite to engage them — Weisberg’s plans may, after all, not be consonant with my own interests — but that they are at least implied seems promising.

Indeed, my favorite moments in the opening episodes are among the quietest. There is a lovely twist on our expectation that all Russians know and love caviar, which deepens our understanding of the leads and their understanding of each other.

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And on a trip to the mall, Philip tries on a pair of cowboy boots, test-driving them with a few country line-dance steps. He’s good at this, which suggests he might do something more social and fulfilling with his nights than lurking, chasing, fighting, kidnapping and having sex for the motherland. It would be nice to go to that place and stay a while.

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There is some novelty in seeing Russell, who was Felicity (it seems like only yesterday), playing (1) the mother of two, one of them a teenager and (2) a sexy superhuman fighting machine; she is good at both, caring in the first case and steely in the second, though less convincing when called on to sound like a Soviet true believer. Rhys, as her less doctrinaire husband — he flirts with the idea of an authentically normal life — is charming, though nasty when asked.

As their kids Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati are well cast and natural and do a lot to screw the series to a real place. The generally excellent Margo Martindale — who was the bad gal on Season 2 of “Justified,” whose show runner Graham Yost is an executive producer of “The Americans” — will be coming on board as another KGB agent, press materials relate.

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As in the early days of “Breaking Bad,” “The Americans” is, perhaps most profitably, a portrait of a troubled marriage, and you do root for them to make it work — it is the show’s real hook. At times the couple do seem a little too much like strangers, as if their 20-year relationship were a brand-new project, but whether that’s a fault in the writing or a comment on matrimony, I’ll leave you to decide.

What also keeps the Jenningses sympathetic — they are enemies of our state, after all — is that we know, as they do not, that the game is almost over. Within a decade, the USSR will be officially dissolved, the Berlin Wall will be down and the Russians of Western cultural imagination will change from the jackbooted agents of our enslavement or annihilation into gangsters, taxi drivers and Internet brides. Progress.

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‘The Americans’

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Where: FX

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday

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Rating: TV-MA-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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