It’s 1981. Juice Newton is on the radio and President Ronald Reagan is ratcheting up the “Evil Empire” rhetoric.
Life is about to get much tougher for the attractive Jennings family.
“The Americans” stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Soviet agents posing as suburban Washington yuppies during the Reagan era. If it doesn’t rise to the highest level -- not yet anyway -- FX’s sneaky new drama comes closer than any other new show this season.
Created by Joe Weisberg, a former CIA spook who has written for the so-so sci-fi series “Falling Skies” and the better “Damages,” the new series is, at its frequent best, a marriage drama disguised as a spy thriller.
Russell and Rhys play Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, travel agents and loving parents of 13-year-old Paige (Holly Taylor) and 10-year-old Henry (Keidrich Sellati).
Back in Russia, they were trained as ruthless KGB agents, paired in an arranged marriage and dispatched to the American heartland.
Now a nosy FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) has moved into the neighborhood -- coincidence? -- and the defector who’s bound and gagged in the trunk of the Jennings’s family car needs tending to.
Elizabeth votes for a quick kill (the captured Russian turncoat is both her former captain and rapist), while Philip wonders whether the cutthroat life is worth all the trouble.
“America’s not so bad,” he muses, shortly after taking the kids to a new shopping mall.
He gets a quick, hard face-slap from Elizabeth, whose loyalty to the Motherland is unwavering.
“This country,” she says in not-mock horror, “doesn’t turn out Socialists!”
Russell (“Felicity”) and especially Rhys (“Brothers & Sisters”) are captivating in their subtle suggestions that the state-sponsored romantic union has evolved into something neither character expected: a real marriage.
The espionage stuff is hit and miss. The arrival of Emmerich’s FBI man feels more contrived than the arranged marriage, though a tense near-showdown suggests the dramatic set-up might pay off splendidly, and well before Perestroika.
Judging from the first two episodes, however, “The Americans” will focus as much on the marital rift as on the Cold War, and for the better.
“The Americans” airs Wednesday on FX at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: ****
The much-investigated murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby son gets yet another going-over, this time in “Who Killed Lindbergh’s Baby?” on PBS.
Bruno Richard Hauptmann still dunnit. The German immigrant executed in 1936 for the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr. gets no pardon here.
But Hauptmann certainly had help, says former FBI profiler John Douglas. The brains behind the crime, he suggests, was a Bronx delicatessen owner and Hauptmann acquaintance named John Knoll.
Douglas’s theory was outlined last year in Robert Zorn’s book “Cemetery John: The Undiscovered Mastermind of the Lindbergh Kidnapping.”
With modern profiling techniques, forensics and a hunch or two, Zorn and Douglas lay out their case in this “NOVA” episode.
I won’t spoil it by revealing how the investigators reach their verdict -- non-conclusive as it is -- except to say I wasn’t entirely convinced. (And a red herring about the Nazi-sympathizing aviator himself seems ludicrous).
Still, the notorious crime continues to exert pull, reasonable doubts notwithstanding.
“Who Killed Lindbergh’s Baby?” airs Wednesday on PBS at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: **1/2
NBC’s Jekyll & Hyde drama “Do No Harm” is the silliest thing in a lab coat since that monkey on last fall’s “Animal Practice.”
A schizodrama that can’t decide which face to wear -- dark comedy? violent chiller? -- “Do No Harm” stars Steven Pasquale (“Rescue Me”) as a brain surgeon with a double personality.
For reasons too absurd to detail, Pasquale’s good-guy Dr. Jason Cole transforms into the cocaine-snorting, orgy-loving sociopath Ian Price every evening.
To prevent mayhem, Cole self-injects a powerful sedative nightly to keep Ian in check. But a growing resistance to the drug is loosing his Hyde on an unsuspecting world.
Pasquale, who deserves better, is okay at pulling off the Hulk-like transformations, but creator David Schulner (“The Event”) presents this nonsense straight-up.
“Embrace the Ian in you,” advises Cole’s support-group sponsor. Unfortunately, he’s not joking.
“Do No Harm” airs Thursday on NBC at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: *1/2
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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