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The Americans: The Complete First Season(TV) (2013)
Centers on Russian deep-cover spies operating in the United States in the 1980s.
For more about The Americans: The Complete First Season and the The Americans: The Complete First Season Blu-ray release, see the The Americans: The Complete First Season Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on February 15, 2014 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Maximiliano Hernandez, Noah Emmerich, Margo Martindale, Annet Mahendru
Director: Jim McKay
» See full cast & crew
The Americans: The Complete First Season Blu-ray Review
Welcome to the neighborhood.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, February 15, 2014
Every family has a skeleton or two in its closet, but what if that skeleton were in fact a fully flesh and blood body—like a secret identity? While The Americans may seem on its face to be slightly ridiculous, positing a couple of Soviet era KGB agents who have integrated into American society as a typical suburban couple (replete with kids who have no idea of their parents' background), anyone who followed the headlines in 2010 probably remember the so-called Illegals Program, where a slew of Russian agents had in fact matriculated into American society and were attempting to forge relationships with various VIPs not just in government, but in a number of tangentially related fields. Even this may strike some people as patently unbelievable, but "secret spies", or at least alleged secret spies do exist, at least one of them related to seemingly unassuming Blu-ray reviewers. A generation before the 1980s timeframe depicted in The Americans, my own late uncle, an Air Force officer who had been stationed in Germany (then still divided), was suddenly arrested and accused of being a Soviet spy, something that ultimately invited a lot of FBI "interest" in my own nuclear family, in part because my father was one of the highest ranking Army officers in the United States at the time. There is indeed a copious FBI presence running rampant through The Americans, with the titular spy couple having to cope with a counterintelligence agent moving in across the street from them. Creator Joe Weisberg, a former CIA officer himself, is on the record stating the whole "spy thing" should only be seen as a metaphor, and that his real interest is in depicting the ups and downs of a marriage. That may be one of the more ingenuous assessments in recent memory, since few marriages have to cope with little "problems" like ultimately killing and disposing of a Russian defector they've captured and kept in the trunk of their car for several days while they debate what the best course of action forward might be.
The Americans starts with a one two punch that may initially throw viewers for a loop, but which ultimately fits into the overall arc of the show. We see a beautiful young woman, possibly a prostitute, about to earn her living (so to speak), while evidently coaxing state secrets out of her john. She later leaves and ditches what has obviously been a fake blonde wig. Then suddenly we're in the midst of some kind of hit, where a lone man walking down a deserted city street is about to be accosted by two guys who are already nervous because their mark evidently has a reputation for being very skilled at self defense. The mark actually intuits that something bad is about to happen and tries to hightail it out of the neighborhood, which is when all hell really breaks loose, and the woman we've already met arrives to take part in the melée. By the time it's all over, one of the attackers is seriously wounded, and the mark is lying prone on the floor of an improbably huge Oldsmobile sedan, circa late seventies.
The visceral intensity of the abduction scene is then contrasted with an almost surreal sequence where we're finally more or less "properly" introduced to suburbanites Elizabeth (Keri Russell, miles away from Felicity) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys, Brothers & Sisters), who are living what appears to be a pretty normal early Reagan era existence in an outcropping of Washington, D.C. The Jennings have a typically middle class ranch style home on a typical middle class street, and they have the requisite two children, daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) and son Henry (Keidrich Sellati). The series rather quickly fills in various aspects of the Jennings' backstory, showing them as idealistic young Soviets recruited into a top secret KGB program where they are trained to pass as Americans (the series posits this activity as being in the early sixties, some twenty years earlier than the series' main timeframe, though Russell and Rhys appear to be the same age in both eras).
Because their "co-worker" is stabbed in the opening sequence, the Jennings meet their appointed drop off rendezvous to hand off their captive, who is a KGB defector named Timochev. They end stuffing the hapless former spy in the trunk of that aforementioned Oldsmobile. It turns out Philip is posing as an American counterintelligence officer to ferret out information from deep inside the FBI, and he is thus made privy to the fact that their Oldsmobile was spotted at the abduction site, though with fake license plates Philip had put on the car. Things get considerably dicier when an FBI agent named Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) moves in across the street and feels that something is "slightly off" about Philip. In the meantime Timochev, pleading for his life, tells Philip the United States government will pay Philip millions to defect and even more millions to return Timochev.
This sets up one of the recurring subplots of the first season, where Elizabeth's unquestioning fealty to the "Motherland" is contrasted with Philip's supposedly more vacillating attitude. The two have been pretending to be Americans for so long that Philip feels it's time to jump "whole hog" into the charade, especially since their children have no idea of their parents' real identities. Timochev's abduction leads Reagan to sign a secret Executive Order commanding the FBI to find any sleeper cells of Russian agents and deal with them, with extreme prejudice, if necessary. Of course Beeman is part of this operation, setting up a season long cat and mouse game between him and the Jennings.
The Americans rather smartly plays on the "new Cold War" that began with Reagan's inauguration and the President's proposal of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or so-called "Star Wars" missile defense program. The series is rather ruthless in depicting the rampant espionage that both the Americans and the Soviets engaged in during this era, a complicated labyrinth where neither the Jennings, Beeman nor a number of other interrelated characters, ever truly trusts the people with whom they're interacting and parlaying various state secrets. There's a certain over calculated aspect to the series at times, especially with the neighboring spies and FBI agent, as well as a perhaps too convoluted cascading series of events as the series wends it way through its first season, where a number of betrayals and counter-betrayals may leave some viewers at least momentarily perplexed.
While perhaps too overly contrived and even patently unbelievable to be totally compelling (despite its "historically accurate" antecedents), The Americans is often a lot of fun. The Jennings assume a number of sometimes hilarious aliases through the first season, and Russell and Rhys seem to be having a field day playing these multilayered characters. Supporting performances are also uniformly solid, including the seemingly unavoidable Margo Martindale as a "handler" with a few secrets of her own. Erstwhile John-Boy Richard Thomas also turns in some nice guest performances as an FBI agent trying to get to the bottom of the Russian plot to infiltrate American society.
The Americans: The Complete First Season Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Americans: The Complete First Season is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.78:1. This series delights in recreating the "lo-fi" world of the 1980s, and I almost have to wonder if some kind of conscious decision was made to carry that over into the look of this series, for despite being shot with the Arri Alexa, this is one of the more curiously soft, drab, low contrast shows I personally remember having seen recently. Episode after episode is built on scenes shot in what appears to be natural, and often very low, light, adding a murky haze to even daytime interior scenes. Colors are rarely more than anemic, though there are occasional welcome exceptions (see screenshot 13). Even given a perhaps "artistic" decision to give the show a desaturated appearance, the tendency to shoot so much of the series in such low light ultimately defeats a lot of what a high definition experience can offer. Fine detail is very good when there's decent lighting in close-ups, but often midrange shots are unexpectedly soft looking.
The Americans: The Complete First Season Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Americans: The Complete First Season features an often nicely immersive lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that really springs to life in some of the action sequences (like the exciting opening scenes), but which still provides better than average surround activity even in the supposedly calmer domestic environments the series depicts. One of the best things about the show, and the sound mix in particular, is Nathan Barr's propulsive but brooding score, which is splayed throughout the surrounds quite nicely. Dialogue is cleanly presented and fidelity is excellent in this very enjoyable track.
The Americans: The Complete First Season Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Americans: The Complete First Season Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Despite my own personal experience with familial "spies" (alleged or otherwise), I frankly never completely bought into The Americans' conceit. That said, the show is intricately structured and features some fantastically fun (and sometimes unexpectedly funny) performances. This is "high concept" television and that can either mean one of two things: 1) a really distinctive viewing experience, or; 2) jumping the shark sooner rather than later. My hunch is the second season will tell the tale for this fledgling show. The first season comes Recommended.
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The Americans: The Complete First Season Blu-ray, News and Updates
• This Week on Blu-ray: February 11-18 - February 9, 2014
For the week of February 11th, Walt Disney Home Entertainment is bringing The Jungle Book to Blu-ray. Other titles include Lionsgate's riveting one-man adventure story All Is Lost, Season 3 of the BBC's Sherlock, and Fox's The Americans: The Complete First Season ...
• The Americans: The Complete First Season Blu-ray - November 5, 2013
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment has officially announced that it will release on Blu-ray The Americans: The Complete First Season. The release will be available for purchase online and in stores across the nation on January 14th.
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