It's growing more difficult for TV networks to surprise viewers. Sometimes you flip on the TV and think every story has been told several times over. (See the review of "Do No Harm" on page 10 for example.)
So it's a relief to have cable outlets like FX. While some of its programming may be too extreme for some viewers -- the overly bloody "Sons of Anarchy" and "American Horror Story," for instance -- FX has found ways to push the envelope in less graphic ways, including genre ("Justified") and now in period setting with "The Americans" (10 p.m. Wednesday).
Set in 1981 just after the election of Ronald Reagan as the Cold War intensifies, "The Americans" follows Philip (Matthew Rhys, "Brothers and Sisters") and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell, "Felicity"), KGB agents in an arranged marriage. They live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., own a travel agency and have two children who are unaware of their parents' true identity as Soviet spies under deep cover.
When FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich, "The Walking Dead," "Super 8") and his family move in across the street from the Jennings family, "The Americans" threatens to collapse under the weight of this what-are-the-odds? situation, but series creator Joe Weisberg, who worked in the CIA's directorate of operations in the early 1990s before becoming a professional writer, manages to make it all seem plausible.
It helps that Beeman is not depicted as a bumbling gumshoe. He's more like Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) on "Breaking Bad" but without the bravado. And the premiere episode hints at a potentially interesting backstory for the character when he worked undercover among white supremacists.
If there's a downside to the "Americans" pilot, it's that it has some pace problems. The premiere runs long -- an hour and six minutes -- and spends time on flashbacks to Elizabeth in training 20 years earlier and the pair's first meeting. Not that these flashbacks aren't useful, but it feels like they come a bit early in the life of the series; or maybe the plan is to revisit them later in greater detail.
"The Americans" raises many questions about the meaning of patriotism and how far you would go for your country. It also raises questions about its own characters: Elizabeth seems more dedicated to the cause than Philip, a gender role reversal from what might normally be portrayed on TV. The show also causes viewers to ponder the true nature of the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth -- Do they love one another, or are they just comrades acting as husband and wife?
The series' second episode gets at the conflict between the couples' work lives and their home life, particularly when it comes to their children. Elizabeth's one soft spot is for her children and her worries about what will happen to them if she and Philip are arrested for spying.
While "The Americans" is mostly serious, it does have a few moments of levity. When the Jennings' grade-school son writes a report on the first man on the moon, Elizabeth is quick to allude to the Soviets beating the U.S. into space, saying, "You know, the moon isn't everything. Just getting into space is a remarkable accomplishment."
Ms. Russell makes a welcome return to TV, playing Elizabeth with the zeal of a true Russian believer while being softened by her concern for her children. And Mr. Rhys capably plays her opposite, a tough guy who can fight but who remains conflicted about the value of the work they're doing and its impact on the innocents whose lives they damage.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published January 27, 2013 6:00 AM