Felicity as Mata Hari? The mind reels. And yet there's Keri Russell, once America's sweetheart on The WB, bewigged and brazenly seducing classified secrets out of a Department of Justice stooge in the opening minutes of FX's engrossing spies-among-us drama The Americans (Wednesday, 10/9c).
FX has an affinity for compelling anti-heroes — The Shield's Vic Mackey, those oversexed Nip/Tuck docs, the unruly Sons of Anarchy — and the faux-American couple at the heart of The Americans is one of the network's most fascinating studies yet in conflicted loyalties. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Russell and Brothers & Sisters' Matthew Rhys) exude normalcy as middle-class travel agents in 1981, devoted parents of two well-adjusted kids in a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. No one would imagine they're harboring a kidnapped Soviet defector, bound and gagged in the trunk of their '77 Oldsmobile Delta, while keeping up the happy-family façade.
Deep-cover KGB agents embedded in the U.S. since 1965, they've built an actual life — though we can't help wondering, to quote a song of the era, how deep is their love — while carrying out covert assignments with higher stakes now that then-President Reagan has amped up his crusade against the Soviet "Evil Empire." The juxtaposition of surface banality and the high-octane spy intrigue of their shadow identities gives The Americans a suspenseful kick. So does the realization that the fierce Elizabeth has remained a true believer while Philip waffles in his antipathy to the U.S. "What's so bad about it?" he wonders, and gets slapped for his perceived weakness.
A red flag of your own may go up when an FBI counterintelligence agent conveniently moves in across the street, though Noah Emmerich plays this fed so disarmingly that you might forgive the contrivance. But whom will you be rooting for in this deadly spy game? Now that's an all-American dilemma, full of the delicious moral ambiguities we have come to expect from the worlds FX so boldly creates.
This is the night before the February sweeps officially kicks in, so there's one last flurry of repeats (especially on CBS and ABC), though a few new nuggets are worth pointing out.
ABC's Suburgatory (9:31/8:31c) has been on a frenzied roll lately, and scores again with a return visit by the very busy and very funny Wilmer Valderrama (who showed up on Raising Hope on Tuesday) as self-loving guru Yoni, who clashes with the ever-skeptical — and don't we love him for it — George when Dallas leans on the seductive interloper to rescue her precious dog Yakult from her latest "dark pit of despair." While the Royce household goes to the dogs, poor man-hungry Lisa Shay dreams of a spinster future surrounded by cats (one named after Jeff Garlin). "I don't want to die alone in a bed full of animal dander," she cries to Tessa, who's somehow still content with Lisa's boneheaded jock brother Ryan. Lisa's desperation leads to a most surprising double date, where it's not always clear who's crushing on whom.
NBC clearly considers Chicago Fire (10/9c) a keeper, having recently extended its freshman-season run by an extra episode, and now takes advantage of the network competition being in repeat mode to air an original episode — though not terribly original, story-wise, not if you've ever seen a major character (in this case, Taylor Kinney's Severide) weigh whether to stay or go midway through the first season. Still, he has a fairly good motive for turning his aching back on an experimental spinal-surgery treatment: a knockout girlfriend (the ever-fetching Sarah Shahi) who wants him to move with her to Madrid. This dilemma sends him to a maudlin encounter with his dad: Treat Williams, moonlighting from playing Neal Caffrey's dad on White Collar. In other soggy subplot action, Casey (Jesse Spencer) mulls whether to speak up for his mom (Kathleen Quinlan) during her latest parole hearing, and Chief Boden (Eamonn Walker, emoting like he's in a Shakespeare epic) tries to be father figure to a reluctant teenage arsonist. This show appears to be on firmer ground than when it first started, but I'm still waiting for even a flicker of originality to flare up. (Rescue Me may have ruined me for this type of conventional firehouse dramas.)
THE WEDNESDAY GUIDE: Guest-star alerts: We loved getting a glimpse of Seth Gabel's Lincoln Lee during the series finale of Fringe, but he's up to no good on The CW's Arrow (8/7c) as a drug dealer known as The Count, whose new product "Vertigo" may send Arrow's sister Thea to jail. ... Nia Vardalos squares off against ADA Barba (Raul Esparza) on NBC's Law & Order: SVU (9/8c) as a defense lawyer who's a lot wilier than she first appears. ... Some Winchester backstory on The CW's Supernatural (9/8c), when the brothers encounter their time-tripping grandpa Henry. ... It's the final week of auditions on Fox's American Idol (8/7c). ... As the countdown to the Big Game continues, viewers can vote for their all-time favorite Super Bowl ads, with the winner announced at the end of CBS' Super Bowl's Greatest Commercials 2013 special (8/7c), hosted by Boomer Esiason and The Talk's Aisha Tyler. ... To whittle the field down to the Final Four, an expanded episode of Bravo's Top Chef (10/9) sends the top 5 on a cruise ship from Seattle to Alaska, where they'll have to work their magic in a floating kitchen. Curtis Stone joins the judges for the elimination.
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