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Blu-ray Review: 'The Americans: Season One'

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in "The Americans"
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in "The Americans"Yahoo Images

The Show:

We’re all familiar with classic spy shows of old like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” "Get Smart,” and “I, Spy,” and how they were always told from the American point of view, with our heroes taking on fictitious enemies like KAOS and THRUSH. However, imagine taking a much more realistic approach to such a show and flipping the point of view so that it’s told from the side of the “enemy.” This is exactly what Joe Weisberg has given us with his hit show “The Americans,” which focuses on two undercover Russian KGB agents, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), living in America during the height of the Cold War in 1981. To their neighbors, they appear to be just like everyone else, a typical married couple with kids, with Phillip working a boring-sounding job as a travel agent.

However, their actual everyday lives involve collecting top secret information and reporting back to their handler, Claudia (Margo Martindale), and their superiors back in the motherland. Their mission is made even more difficult not only by the fact that they have to hide their activities from their two kids, but also because of an FBI agent, Stan (Noah Emmerich), that has recently moved in across the street who happens to work in counter-intelligence. Elizabeth and Phillip must use all the tricks of their trade (disguises, gadgets, etc.) to stay one step ahead of those that would stop them from carrying out their orders.

“The Americans” is a fascinating idea for a show. I don’t recall getting to explore the spy game from the other side like this, and that’s where much of the show’s attraction lies. We’re introduced to the two sleeper KGB agents as our heroes of the series, which pretty much has you rooting for them to accomplish their various tasks. At some point, you’re bound to sit back and realize you’re rooting for the Russians, but it hardly matter when you become transfixed on the story. Helping things along tremendously is the outstanding chemistry between the two leads, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. True, they’re not actually Russian (she’s American and he’s from the UK), but they lend a great amount of believability to the situation and are actually a good part of the reason you end up feeling for them.

This is one of those shows that falls into a standard pattern pretty quickly, with Elizabeth and Phillip trying to complete a mission while Stan continues to hunt them down, but it also takes time to focus on the characters themselves every once in a while. Elizabeth and Phillip are not actually married and were forced together at a young age when they were sent on this mission. This leads to some strain in their relationship that they must deal with while also keeping up with their work. Admittedly, the show would be a little tedious if all we saw was them doing their spying thing, so the focus on their relationship was very welcome and acted as a good counter-balance to the more action-oriented side of the show.

The show’s other fascinating element is its setting. In the special features, the cast and crew make a great point about how spying nowadays is all done with advanced technology (cell phones, laptops, etc.), whereas, back then, there was no easy way to get information around. This causes our spy heroes to have to hand-deliver messages in secret locations and send out coded signals when they want to make a report. To put it simply, there’s a lot more activity than what would take place in a similar show set in modern times.

Now “The Americans” isn’t a perfect show. As I said, it falls into a standard pattern pretty quickly, but they manage to keep things moving along nicely by featuring a variety of missions for Elizabeth and Phillip to carry out, in addition to the various family problems that they face at home. These 13 episodes have made me curious as to what’s going to happen in season two, which is just another sign that this first season has gotten things off to a fine start. It’s a different kind of spy show than we’re used to, but it’s one that’s worth giving a try nonetheless.

Video/Audio:

“The Americans” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.78:1 widescreen transfer that looks quite impressive for a television show. The picture is sharp at all times and does not present any noticeable fuzziness. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is likewise outstanding, with all sounds being perfectly audible and presented at acceptable levels. Overall, there’s not a single complaint to be found with these specs, resulting in a great experience from both areas.

Special Features:

Deleted Scenes: A generous helping of cut scenes from the first season. As usual, there’s nothing here that’s particularly great, but then again, that’s probably one of the main reasons as to why they were cut.

Commentary on “The Colonel” by Creator Joe Weisberg, Producer Joel Fields, and Star Noah Emmerich: Unfortunately there’s not much of interest to be heard on this commentary track. These guys never take the time to delve into the episode very far, making this an easily skipable extra.

Gag Reel: A standard gag reel that has the cast messing up and goofing around. Not particularly funny, but slightly amusing.

Three Featurettes: Executive Order 2579: Exposing The Americans, Perfecting the Art of Espionage, and Ingenuity Over Technology: These three featurettes are the main bulk of the extras that feature interviews with the cast and crew discussing various aspects of the show from how it started to the importance of setting the show in the 80s. They’re worth a watch if you’re looking to get some behind the scenes info on the show.

Conclusion:

With the only disappointing extra being the commentary, these end up being a decent set of special features overall. Combine that with a show that has shown that it has a lot to offer in just its first 13 episodes and you have a release that is easily recommendable. Now that the show’s base has been established with this season, I look forward to seeing where it will go from here. There’s certainly room for it to expand into larger territory, taking bigger risks in the process than just having our two spies completing small missions. Hopefully this was just the beginning. Now it’s time to step things up and really allow the show to take off.

Score: 3.5/5

Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: Darkman, Hellbenders, Rocky: Heavyweight Collection, Chicago: Diamond Edition, All is Lost, Austenland, How I Live Now, Night of the Demons, Witchboard, Dallas Buyers Club, The Fifth Estate, Captain Phillips, You're Next, A Single Shot, Insidious: Chapter 2, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

Now playing in theaters: Labor Day, The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Also be sure to check out my lists of the Best and Worst Films of 2013.

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.