The Americans 3, ITV Encore, Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell

From Fox  The Americans: SR3 on ITV Encore  Pictured: Elizabeth Jennings [Keri Russell] and Philip Jennings [Mathew Rhys].

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are back in The Americans

IT WENT out in the States back in the spring and finally The Americans series 3 arrives in the UK. ITV have switched it to its subscription channel ITV Encore, from Wednesday 19 August 10pm. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a substandard series shoved into the backwater equivalent of 5USA. ITV has high hopes for Encore and Americans 3 was a critical hit in the US. If you haven’t seen this unheralded classic thriller, we’re back in Reagan-era 1980s USA with two implanted Soviet super-spies, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell). The pressure on them mounts this time as their bosses want them to turn one of their all-American children, teenager Paige (Holly Taylor), into a spy, too. It’s a superbly made hour of tension and well worth getting into. UK viewers will start to hear more and more about ITV Encore in coming months, as the network will be debuting a string of high-profile dramas here, including The Frankenstein  Chronicles with Sean Bean and its crime drama with a supernatural twist, Midwinter of the Spirit, with Anna Maxwell Martin. So comrades, settle back for some pretty hearty dramas on the new network this autumn and winter…

The Americans, ITV, Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, PREVIEW

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings The Americans FX
All-American couple Elizabeth and Patrick. Pics: ITV

Rating: ★★★★

ITV: Saturday, 1 June, 10pm

Story: In 1981, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are undercover Soviet intelligence agents from the Directorate S of the KGB, sent to the US 15 years previously to work deep cover in Washington, DC. 
Their assumed identities are a married couple who run a travel agency, and even their own children Paige and Henry do not know their secret.

MOST OF US would hate to be married to our work, but that’s literally where Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are. Marrying each other is part of their job description, the job being highly pressured and dangerous – spying on the United States while posing as Americans.

Work and home life blur as they raise the two all-American kids they brought into the world as cover,

(Mathew Rhys as Philip Jennings. The Americans EX
Matthew Rhys as Philip

run a travel agency, dupe government employees to give away secrets – him by subterfuge and her by giving sexual services. And on their nights off they get to kidnap KGB defectors and risk exposure and imprisonment. Talk about pressure.

It is on such a night that we encounter Philip and Elizabeth in a heart-pounding opening sequence to The Americans. Their mission is to capture traitorous KGB captain Timochev and put him on a night voyage back to the Soviet Union, but the handover goes wrong and the couple have to keep him in the boot of their car.

Philip and Elizabeth have a defector in their garage

And then carry on as though nothing is out of kilter, breakfasting with their son and daughter while they ponder whether to kill the guy in their car. And wouldn’t you know it, but their new neighbour turns out to be an FBI agent.

OK,  The Americans is a bit of a stretch in the plausibility stakes, but it is still fairly compelling. It is hard not to compare it to Homeland as they both deal in subversion on American soil and divided loyalties.

Like Homeland, The Americans is often overwrought and over the top, but as a portrayal of characters on the edge, playing lethal games of hidden identities, it is equally gripping.

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Keidrich Sellati as Henry Jennings, Mathew Rhys as Philip Jennings and Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings The Americans FX
Good neighbours

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell

The two shows also toy with the friction and duplicity between the leading couples. Philip, played by Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, and Elizabeth, portrayed by Golden Globe winner Keri Russell, are hardened espionage operatives, but the strain of defying their emotional lives to keep up their cover is reaching crisis point.

The capture of Timochev brings a host of problems to a head. He tells Philip the Americans would give him millions of dollars if he also defected, while Elizabeth is forced to revisit a personal trauma as she has encountered the brutal Timochev during her KGB training days.

On top of all this, Philip may be getting too immersed in his role as American dad, seduced by the life there, loving his children, and his ‘wife’ too.

The Americans is set during the 1980s Cold War era

Where Homeland‘s backdrop is contemporary terrorism, The Americans is set in Reagan’s America,

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. The Americans FX
Elizabeth moonlighting as a spy

and the period is handled well and unobtrusively (though the odd sequence of Phil Collins music does send a shiver down the spine).

The Americans is inspired by the 2010 arrests of Richard and Cynthia Murphy of New Jersey, really Vladimir and Lidiya Guryev. It is made by FX in the US and has some strong talents behind the camera, including showrunner and creator Joe Weisberg (Falling Skies), a former CIA man himself, executive producer Graham Yost (Justified) and Gavin O’Conner (Warrior), who directed the pilot.

It is packed with morally complex, three-dimensional characters, along with intrigue and break-neck action. In TV terms, a marriage made in heaven.

Cast: Keri Russell Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys Philip Jennings, Noah Emmerich Agent Stan Beeman, Maximiliano Hernandez Agent Chris Amador,  Holly Taylor Paige Jennings, Keidrich Sellati Henry Jennings,  Margo Martindale Claudia

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Coming soon – The Lady Vanishes BBC1, The Americans ITV

Tuppence Middleton and Tom Hughes in The Lady Vanishes
Strangers on a train – Iris and Max. Pic: BBC

• Here’s Tuppence Middleton and Tom Hughes from the soon-to-be broadcast BBC1 remake of The Lady Vanishes, a cheeky reboot of the Alfred Hitchcock classic from 1938. This 90-minute thriller has a sparkling cast including Keeley Hawes (Ashes to Ashes), Gemma Jones (Spooks), Selina Cadell (Doc Martin), Stephanie Cole (Corrie) and Julian Rhind-Tutt (The Hour), and is likely to be shown in March, having originally been slated for Christmas.

Like Hitchcock’s film, this is based on the novel The Wheel Spins by British writer Ethel Lina White. Middleton plays Iris, the young socialite who, in 1931, is on holiday in the Balkans when she encounters Miss Froy on a train. Miss Froy tells her she is desperate to get home. After Iris wakes from a sleep, she finds Miss Froy has disappeared and her fellow passengers deny the old lady ever existed.

The new adaptation is by Fiona Seres, who also wrote The Silence. BBC drama boss Kate Harwood says, ‘Fiona’s adaptation of The Wheel Spins deftly weaves together the intriguing stories of a psychologically complex group of characters – with the mysterious disappearance of Miss Froy on a packed train – played out against the tense backdrop of the Balkans in the 1930s. I am delighted with the incredible cast and crew we have assembled for the project. The Lady Vanishes will be a thrilling treat for BBC One audiences.’

Also appearing alongside young stars Tuppence Middleton, recently seen in Spies of Warsaw, and Tom Hughes (Cemetery Junction), will be Danish actors Benedikte Hansen (Borgen) and Jesper Christensen (Melancholia).

Hitchcock’s film was a delightful mix of wit and intrigue, and helped to build his reputation to the point that Hollywood would come calling. Will 2013’s version be as entertaining – or will it quickly disappear like the now forgotten 1979 remake starring Elliott Gould and Cybill Shepherd?

• Meanwhile, ITV has signed new US series The Americans, starring Golden Globe winner Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys (The Scapegoat, The Mystery of Edwin Drood), another Brit headlining an American series. Where Homeland is about Islamist terrorists infiltrating the US, The Americans harks back to Soviet spying Stateside, as KGB agents played by Rhys and Russell undergo an arranged marriage and pose as an American couple in 1980s Washington. They even have two children who know nothing of their parents’ alter egos. And, wouldn’t you know it, their next door neighbour turns out to be an FBI counter-intelligence agent.

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