Flipping Channels: Open Season for Antiheroes with The Americans and House of Cards



TV audiences love antiheroes. You would be hard pressed to find two more popular figures in recent small screen history than J.R. Ewing and Tony Soprano, stone-cold manipulators with a shark's instincts for taking care of business. But will viewers show the same love-to-hate affection for a pair of traitors?

That is precisely the tag that fits the "heroes" of the new FX series The Americans, premiering Wednesday, Jan. 30 at 9 p.m. Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell) seem like the prototypical Washington D.C. suburban couple, raising two children and running a travel agency. It's 1981, and the age of Reagan is in full swing.

Only the Jennings are actually Russian sleeper agents planted in America years ago, soon to be activated because the Soviet Union fears both the man in the White House and the nation as a whole. Now, the KGB begins making demands for intelligence gathering and more from the couple, who must accomplish these missions while maintaining their cover.

It will be quite interesting to see what reaction (if any) this story engenders among contemporary viewers, decades away from memories of who and what the KGB were. Nor do they remember an era when the U.S. and the former Soviet Union were at each other's throats. The producers are obviously hoping there's as much interest in the '80s as the '60s, and that they may have hit upon a period-piece wallow along the lines of Mad Men with a larger audience — or at the very least, Homeland at a cozy remove from current events.

There are some intriguing plot twists added to the ongoing intrigue of spies trying to maintain their cover. The couple's children are American citizens without the faintest idea who or what their parents were and are. Plus Phillip Jennings has grown comfortable in his American-dad persona and has lost some enthusiam for the Party and the communist cause. That causes tension between him and his true-believer wife. It also seems the Jennings haven't totally fooled everyone. FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) suspects them, and is now closely monitoring their activities.

Creator Joe Weisberg (Falling Skies), a former CIA intelligence officer, has said he plans to have the couple execute the type of covert operations that would have been realistic in that era, including the possibility of KGB-ordered hits and bombings. But will American audiences buy into the irony of rooting for the success of foreign spies and saboteurs on a weekly basis? Bottom line: FX hopes to get the same kind of buzz USA enjoys for Covert Affairs, but with a far less traditional espionage storyline.

Cards a strong hand for Netflix
Having driven a stake through Blockbuster's heart, Netflix now seeks to stave off competition from online challengers as the place for fans to get video content cheaply and quickly. They've continually upgraded and tweaked their system over the years to get access to more first-run TV shows and new movies, battling to compete with cable/satellite's On Demand services. They've also grudingly gotten the networks to view them as more of a partner than an enemy.

But no one at either the broadcast or cable networks is happy about Netflix's latest move, an entry into episodic TV. Its first show House of Cards debuts this Friday, Feb. 1, and the entire 13-episode first season will be available that day — a nod to the lucrative market that devours whole TV runs in one boxed-set gulp.

Adapted from a novel that became a memorably nasty 1990 BBC miniseries, the show looks on the surface like yet another political-insider drama, this one depicting the ongoing plans of House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). The cold-blooded pol wants revenge on the president and anyone else who helped change the POTUS' mind about a deal that would have made Underwood secretary of state, in exchange for his support on the campaign trail.

But Frank is more Richard III than Dick Nixon — a cunning monster whose guile, in the classic TV antihero tradition, should prove very hard to resist. Frank has no scruples or concerns, and his ultimate plan will include extortion, sex for hire, and much, much worse. He's also playing games with an ambitious young reporter (Kate Mara) and forcing a congressman (Corey Stoll) to help him or be exposed as a drug addict.

"Cards has all the hallmarks of what makes great drama," Spacey recently told TV Guide. "All the things that are inherent in Washington D.C., and that world." And yes, that means snakes like Frank and his overly ambitious wife (Robin Wright).

Cards boasts a hand full of aces on its creative team. The esteemed David Fincher directed the pilot as well as the first episode and serves as executive producer (and yes, his longtime casting director, Nashville resident Laray Mayfield, is aboard). The creator is Beau Willimon, whose play Farragut North became the George Clooney political thriller The Ides of March.

All this gives House of Cards unusual potential to be a commercial and critical hit. But Starz tapped a similar vein with its ambitious series Boss, an inside-baseball political thriller focused on a zestily ruthless protagonist, and it got canned just before the fall season announcements were made. Regardless, it'll be exciting to see how House of Cards withstands its turbulent competition.

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