Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
'The Americans' aren't us, they're U.S.S.R.
OTHER FEATURES CRITIC'S CHOICE SERIES NOTES LATE NIGHT BY KEVIN McDONOUGH,
Yikes! Our little Felicity has become a hooker and a Communist spy! In the opening scene of "The Americans" (10 p.m., FX, TV-MA), Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell, "Felicity") dons a blond wig and come-hither clothing. All the better to ensnare blabbermouth FBI agents in boudoir confessions.
The year is 1981, and Jennings and her husband, Philip (Matthew Rhys), are posing as two boring suburbanites outside Washington, D.C. They're really Soviet spies, trained to blend into the PTA circuit. They even hide their identities from their two children. And -- given the arranged nature of their "marriage" and the fact that Elizabeth's duties include sleeping with other men -- they do a pretty thorough job of keeping their true feelings from each other.
Things get a little sticky when their new neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), shows up. He's an affable guy who just happens to work for the FBI.
Much like "Homeland," this series does a good job of exploring the shadowy world of spy craft with a special emphasis on what a life of deception can do to one's psyche. Only, in many ways, "The Americans" has set the bar higher. Viewers of "Homeland" come to understand that Brody (Damian Lewis) was tortured and manipulated into working for terrorists. He's a fleshed-out version of a Manchurian Candidate. Philip and Elizabeth weren't "turned" or brainwashed. They're true believers in the Soviet system. Or, at least, Elizabeth is.
She has all of the intensity of Carrie (Claire Danes) on "Homeland," but none of her goofy weirdness. Elizabeth's hard-core. Despite her perky front as a soccer mom (before anyone used the term "soccer mom"), she's consistently joyless.
There is a fine line between being a serious drama and being merely grim. Too often, "The Americans" crosses that checkpoint to the wrong side.
And don't go looking for "The Americans" to do for 1981 what "Mad Men" did for 1960, or even what the British sleeper spy drama "Restless" (recently seen on Sundance) did for the 1970s and '40s. We're frequently told that Ronald Reagan has just been inaugurated and that the Cold War is back with a vengeance. But besides cars, some outfits and a few period songs, there's little in "The Americans" to evoke the era's particular look. And really, is there ever a good reason to inflict Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" on a 21st-century audience?
All the same, "The Americans" is an ambitious, involving drama. It may not be perfect, but it's good to see somebody look at the critical success and popularity of "Homeland" and try to go one better. Sometimes you whiff when you're swinging for the fences. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try.
Boomer Esiason and Aisha Taylor host "Super Bowl's Greatest Commercials 2013" (8 p.m., CBS, TV-PG).
Auditions continue on "American Idol" (8 p.m., Fox, TV-14).
Thea faces harsh justice on "Arrow" (8 p.m., CW, TV-14).
"Nature" (8 p.m., PBS, TV-PG, channels 33 and 12) continues "Attenborough's Life Stories."
Nia Vardalos cameos on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (9 p.m., NBC, TV-14).
"NOVA" (9 p.m., PBS, TV-14, channels 33 and 12) revisits the murder of Charles Lindbergh's baby.
A teen arsonist kills on "Chicago Fire" (10 p.m., NBC, TV-14).
A duty to duet on "Nashville" (10 p.m., ABC, r, TV-PG).
A Nazi war criminal (Orson Welles) hides out as a professor in the 1946 thriller "The Stranger" (9:45 p.m., TCM), co-starring Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young.
A bad ex returns on "Whitney" (8 p.m., NBC, TV-14) ... The wrong impression on "The Middle" (8 p.m., ABC, r, TV-PG) ... Solitude on "Guys With Kids" (8:30 p.m., NBC, TV-PG) ... Country club snobs on "The Neighbors" (8:30 p.m., ABC, TV-PG).
Tandem killers on "Criminal Minds" (9 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14) ... Out on a limb on "Modern Family" (9 p.m., ABC, r, TV-PG) ... Sam and Dean meet grandpa on "Supernatural" (9 p.m., CW, TV-14) ... Yakult sulks on "Suburgatory" (9:30 p.m., ABC, TV-14) ... A deadly rave on "CSI" (10 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14).
Al Gore is scheduled on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" (11 p.m., Comedy Central) ... Sanjay Gupta and Ben Folds Five appear on "Conan" (11 p.m., TBS) ... Piers Morgan, Drew Droege, Fortune Feimster and Jo Koy are booked on "Chelsea Lately" (11 p.m., E!) ... Bill Gates sits down on "The Colbert Report" (11:30 p.m., Comedy Central).
Jason Bateman, Alison Brie and Shovels & Rope appear on "Late Show With David Letterman" (11:35 p.m., CBS) ... Jay Leno welcomes Quentin Tarantino and Holly Williams on "The Tonight Show" (11:35 p.m., NBC) ... Nicholas Hoult and Antibalas appear on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" (11:35 p.m., ABC).
Jude Law, Mike Tyson, Joshua Topolsky, Bad Religion and Michael Bolton visit "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" (12:35 a.m., NBC) ... Craig Ferguson hosts Dominic Monaghan and Ellie Kemper on "The Late Late Show" (12:35 a.m., CBS).