It's a tricky business, and a pretty big gamble for a TV series in search of an audience.
The Americans, a new '80s-era spy drama that premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on FX Canada, is like any other TV series in that it asks viewers to make an emotional investment in its main characters, married suburbanites Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell).
By outward appearances, they're an average couple with average American aspirations -- they have two kids, 13-year-old Paige (Holly Taylor) and 10-year-old Henry (Keidrich Sellati), they run a moderately successful travel agency, they drive an average Oldsmobile sedan and they seem to be doing their best to pursue the circa-1981 American dream.
So far, not such a hard sell in terms of appealing to American TV-watchers.
But theirs is an arranged marriage, set up a decade and a half earlier by their KGB bosses, and Philip and Elizabeth have been functioning as a sleeper-cell Soviet spy team intent on infiltrating the highest levels of the Reagan-era U.S. government. They are ruthless and, when duty requires, deadly.
In any historical or political context you choose to apply, Philip and Elizabeth are the bad guys. But for the purposes of The Americans, they also need to be a couple that the TV audience roots for as they carry out their various cloak-and-dagger missions.
"I think that is one of the big questions of the series," The Americans' creator/executive producer, Joe Weiseberg, said earlier this month during FX's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "I think we would all very much like both for Philip and Elizabeth to have a happy, healthy marriage that goes on for a long time. From the start, it's going to have a lot of ups and downs like most of the marriages that we're all familiar with.
"And then, with the Cold War -- although it might be a little bit difficult to believe and get used to -- we want you to root for the KGB. I know that's a (stretch)... They're going to try and undermine the U.S. government; they're going to try to help the Soviet Union win in the Cold War. We know that's not going to work out too well for them, but that's the side we want you to be on."
Actually, it's this twisted-loyalties element that might make The Americans an easier sell on the chilly side of the Canada-U.S. border than in the country in which it was created. Given the depth of post-Cold War unease and lingering anti-communist sentiment that still exists within America's polarized political framework, there might be a large segment of prime-time viewership that's simply unwilling to entertain the idea of Soviet spies as TV-series heroes.
It would be unfortunate if bigger-picture ideological concerns proved to be The Americans' undoing, because it's a very entertaining drama. Rhys (Brothers & Sisters) and Russell (Felicity) are superb as a couple who have sacrificed everything and immersed themselves in a huge, inescapable lie in order to serve their country -- they've grown into their concocted marriage, outwardly embraced American values and raised a couple of children who have no idea that their parents are spies, or even that they're Russian.
As the Cold War heats up after the election of Ronald Reagan as U.S. president (one of the spies' KGB bosses observes that "the American people have elected a madman as their president, and he makes no secret of his desire to destroy us"), Philip and Elizabeth are ordered to take on increasingly dangerous missions that bring them ever closer to having their cover blown.
At one point in the series pilot, Philip seems to be cracking under the pressure and muses to his wife/comrade that perhaps they should consider turning themselves in and taking the huge financial windfall that awaits double-agent informers.
Elizabeth, communist to the core, is incensed. And the chill that follows their discussion extends beyond their espionage identities and into their suburban-parents existence.
But the Jennings household must remain resolute and calm if their mission and their lives are to be maintained, particularly when the new neighbour who moves in across the street turns out to be an FBI agent who's either very friendly or slightly suspicious.
Time will tell. And time -- as in the years that have passed since Reagan and the fall of the Soviet empire -- might be the key to Americans' willingness to embrace The Americans.
"I think, if you tried to tell a story like this about al-Qaida now, it would be completely impossible," said Weisberg. "Nobody (in the U.S.) would be prepared to hear it. And I think it would have been the same way about the Soviets or the KGB even 10 years after the Cold War. I mean, they had and still have a lot of nuclear weapons pointed towards us, and it felt during the Cold War like they maybe were ready to kill all of us. So nobody wanted to try to relate to the enemy, but I think enough time has passed now that people are willing to look into their hearts and see them as people we can understand."
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