Espionage. Outrageously close shaves. Attempts by outsiders who have infiltrated American society to tear the nation's soul in two. Sex. Blurred loyalties. Awkward conversations in family kitchens where at least one parent is secretly a ruthless killer. Constant peril. Epic betrayal. Murder.
These were the qualities that made Homeland a global hit, and they're all present in The Americans, a period thriller that's recently finished its acclaimed first season on FX in the States, and comes to ITV on Saturday 1 June. So could The Americans be the next big US import?
The premise takes more than one line to explain fully but, once established, it shows itself to be fiendishly well conceived, rich with dramatic possibility. It's 1981. The Cold War has the US and Russia in a constant state of hysterical paranoia. In the suburbs of Washington, DC live Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, an unremarkable young couple with two children and a travel agency business.
In fact, Philip and Elizabeth are Russian spies. Their flawless all-American exterior is a result of intense training and many years under deep cover. They have perfect American accents – and two children who are none the wiser about Mom and Dad's real line of work, or about their marriage having been arranged by the KGB.
"I remember reading the script going: bloody hell, it’s got so much going on," Matthew Rhys tells Radio Times. Rhys, the Welsh actor known to US audiences for his role opposite Sally Field in family melodrama Brothers & Sisters, plays Philip Jennings. "The premise is a spy series but what interested me most is the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth, the husband and wife. They’re put together by the KGB and told to have children – which was true! In 2010, a Russian spy ring was uncovered in New Jersey and two operatives had had children in order to solidify their identity as Americans."
While Elizabeth (Keri Russell) is intently devoted to the Russian cause – she kills with an efficient ferocity that outstrips her husband – Philip is more demonstrative, more emotional, more inclined to see the enemy as people. Or perhaps the comforts of capitalism are weakening him. Either way, in episode one Philip raises the possibility of defection, to his wife's horror – and, in a contrivance the show effortlessly glosses over, the guy who's just moved into the house across the road turns out to be Stan (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent charged with rooting out KGB sleepers. Philip and Stan chat about cars and play racketball.
Yet while all this is happening, the years spent in each other's pockets have made Philip and Elizabeth more than colleagues. These fake spouses might just be falling in love.
"They’ve been in this arranged marriage," says Rhys, "and then feelings start to cross over, and it makes everything incredibly complicated. That’s what’s interesting – the more human element of two people trying to make headway in this madness."
The Americans takes Homeland's idea of humanising an official enemy and smartens it up, layering on several more shades of grey. Jace Lacob, west coast deputy bureau chief and TV critic for The Daily Beast, was one of many US critics who immediately praised The Americans when it premiered on FX in January. Talking to RadioTimes.com, he describes the show's "nuanced portrait of the disillusionment felt by Soviet secret agents operating overseas in a time of overt capitalism and materialism, juxtaposed with the participants in an 'arranged' marriage. The Americans asks us what it means to be an 'American' or to pledge allegiance to a national cause.
"Additionally, it's tinged with a palpable sense of tragedy, given that we know the Soviets lost the Cold War: there's a sense of futility to Elizabeth and Philip's plotting. It continues a trend in popular culture towards anti-heroes, one that has its roots in everything from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad."
These are big words given the slew of Emmys Homeland has won, but: is The Americans the superior show? "I found it to be better, certainly, than Homeland's second season, which fell apart completely in the second half," Lacob says. "In fact, Homeland could learn a few lessons from The Americans, in its handling of pacing and atmosphere as well as romantic/marital dynamics. While Homeland staggered into 24 territory, The Americans wisely keeps its focus on marriage as a metaphor for political discourse. Betrayals, allegiances, secrets, lies: all the Soviet/US action is a backdrop for a provocative exploration of what makes marriage – and its participants – tick."
The spy thrills drive on the narrative of every episode, but the beats that resonate the longest come from the show's portrait of marriage and family in general. Philip and Elizabeth are learning to love and trust each other – not uncommon, even in non-arranged unions. They have to compromise their beliefs to meet each other halfway. They have a world of adult concerns that their children, who are 13 and 10, are oblivious to, for the moment at least. They struggle to juggle work and parenting. And although most of us don't have jobs that involve literally assuming several other identities, complete with wigs, false IDs and full-on sexual/romantic relationships, working spouses often have complex professional existences they can never fully share with their partners. They might never reveal their full selves. The Americans explores all these issues with edgy honesty.
Or as Keri Russell put it, interviewed by Lacob ahead of the first episode airing: "The best part of the show is the dynamic of the relationship and how strange – outside of the spy issue – it is. It's just these two people going, 'Why can't you do it my way? Do it my f***ing way for once.' That's every marriage alive."
While British dramas are almost as likely to be set in 1913 as they are 2013, high-end US series tend – with one very obvious exception – to take place in the present day. The period stylings set The Americans apart a little further: it's less obviously a wide-ranging assessment of the early 1980s than Mad Men is of the 1960s, but the specifics of 1981 contribute much to the show's atmosphere. This is a time between the dark funkiness of the 70s and the brash glitz of the mid-80s, austere and slightly alien. In The Americans, Washington always looks... cold. With Philip and Elizabeth having to adjust to a bewildering or dangerous new threat every week – at times, the show is oddly reminiscent of The Prisoner – the paranoid vibe is well realised.
“1981 represents a very specific time in recent American history,” says Jace Lacob, “one that's close enough for the majority of the audience to call up the appropriate symbols and sigils within their memory banks, but also far enough away that there is licence to see the era as something potentially flawed and fragile.”
On the other hand, there's plenty of boxy suits, high-waisted jeans and heavy hair. "Most TV networks, like most movie distributors, are leery of period pieces because they cost more money to make than things set in the present," observes Matt Zoller Seitz, TV critic for New York Magazine. "But the Cold War setting lets The Americans deal with timeless issues in terms of metaphor, while simultaneously letting us enjoy classic pop tunes from the era and have a good laugh at the clothes and hairstyles that were once considered very hip. The show isn't Miami Vice-level in its production design immersion, but it definitely gives you a taste of what it was like to live through the worst fashion disasters of the entire American century."
The Americans is an ITV show thanks to the network's head of acquired series Sasha Breslau, who wasn't in the job the last time ITV bought a big American drama. That was Pushing Daisies, in 2007 – so for Breslau, The Americans was a gamble.
"When I first saw The Americans I thought it was incredibly smart and sophisticated and subtle," Breslau says, admitting that the show wasn't an obvious fit with the rest of the ITV schedule. But the success of homegrown dramas like Downton Abbey and Broadchurch emboldened ITV and made it look at foreign imports afresh. "There was no brief," says Breslau. "No directive. It wasn't something we were looking to do."
An endorsement from director of television Peter Fincham – who was instrumental in allowing Broadchurch writer Chris Chibnall free rein – made it easier for Breslau to take the plunge that all executives in her position are faced with: committing to a series before the reviews and ratings are in.
"We did get in fairly quickly," she smiles. "I believe there were other interested parties... You cross your fingers and hope it will be received well in America. There is the extra comfort with a cable show where they commit to it – we knew upfront there were going to be 13 episodes, whereas a network show might be pulled. It's been picked up for a second series already, and we'll have that on ITV next year.
"We're already down for series two, yes."