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( Courtesy photo) Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Phillip Jennings in FX's "The Americans."
Scott D. Pierce: Putin makes it harder to root for ‘Americans’
First Published Mar 08 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Mar 10 2014 09:38 am

The premise of "The Americans" has always been sort of a tough sell. Viewers are asked to identify with a pair of Soviet spies operating in early 1980s Washington, D.C.

But when the show premiered in January 2013, it was easier to look at the USSR as a relic of the past. Russia was our economic partner, to some extent, and we 13 months away from the Sochi Olympics — a huge symbol of the "New Russia."

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Well, the New Russia looks a whole lot like the Old Soviet Union these days, what with President Vladimir Putin ordering an invasion of the Ukraine. Which doesn’t make it any easier to identify with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys).

The premise of "The Americans" (Wednesdays, 11 p.m., FX) was risky from the get-go. Elizabeth and Philip are KGB agents who are deep under cover in the United States. They’re in an arranged marriage, and their mission is to spy on and undermine the United States.

And yet, as the series is constructed, the viewers identify with and root for Soviet spies who are, to a large degree, Americanized.

Even creator/executive producer Joe Weisberg said he doesn’t have a "clear answer yet at this point" about whether "this is a Russian story or an American story."

And it’s even more complicated because the couple’s teenage daughter (Holly Taylor) — who has been raised 100 percent American — begins to suspect that her parents aren’t who she has always believed they are.

But, somehow, it was easier to root for Elizabeth and Philip when the Cold War seemed a thing of the past. Easier knowing that the Soviet Union collapsed and we won the Cold War.

And it’s tougher now that the successor to the Soviet Union is growling and attacking like the Russian bear of old.

However, "The Americans" has always been far less about ideologies than it is about characters. Viewers are pulling for Elizabeth and Philip, they’re not pulling for the triumph of Communism.

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"We’re rooting for them, not because of their political agenda, but because of their humanity — because, essentially, of their hearts, of their souls that we feel connected to," said Noah Emmerich, who co-stars as Stan Beeman, the FBI agent who happens to live across the street from the KGB couple. "I think one of the great opportunities the show affords is seeing people as people first."

It’s nearly impossible not to see the KGB agents that way in Wednesday’s episode when they deal with the aftermath of the deaths of another embedded family.It’s easier to watch a show where everything is black and white. But not more satisfying.

Even when Putin is making the world a far worse place to live in.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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