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Spies with nothing on 007...

Where would modern thriller writers be without the mobile phone? It's a handy, handheld plot device for putting characters in grave peril at crucial moments.

Our hero or heroine's mobile may function perfectly 99pc of the time, yet as soon as there's a crazed killer chasing them down a dead-end alley, they invariably can't get a decent signal to call for help.

You won't find any mobile phones – not even brick-sized ones with antennae that could put your eye out – in new period espionage drama The Americans, beginning this week on RTE2 and UTV/ITV. At one point in the opening episode, a lead character uses a plain old payphone in a public park to impart some secret information.

24 and especially Homeland put the spy thriller, a genre that hadn't really been fashionable on US television since the 1960s, back in the frame. The Americans looks back to a more recent period by setting the action in Washington in 1981, when Ronald Reagan was in the White House and the Cold War was rapidly heating up again.

WIGS

This is a world where spies disguise themselves with glasses and bad wigs, surreptitiously record conversations on dictaphones and stick coded messages under park benches.

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell play Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, an apparently average suburban married couple with two well-adjusted kids. Except they're not average; they're Soviet Intelligence agents who, back in the '60s, were rigorously trained by the KGB to be more American than hotdogs and apple pie, and then planted in Uncle Sam's backyard. They speak perfect English, don't discuss their old lives and have never even told one another their real names.

When we first meet them they've just kidnapped, to the thumping accompaniment of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, a Soviet defector and plan to ship him back to Russia. But when they miss the boat, literally, they're forced to tie him up and hide him in the boot of their car while they await instructions from Moscow. We learn via flashback that the defector is a former KGB captain who raped Elizabeth when she was a young trainee agent.

They've both been assimilated into the American way of life – in Phillip's case, perhaps a little too thoroughly. He's been secretly harbouring thoughts of defecting, so when their prisoner dangles the prospect of $3m for becoming a turncoat under his nose, he's tempted.

But when he reveals his feelings to Elizabeth, who's more fiercely loyal to the motherland than he is, it's a toss-up whether she's going to kiss him or kill him with the kitchen knife she's using to cut up chocolate brownies.

CLUMSY

Throughout the first episode, in fact, Russell wears the intense, wide-eyed expression of someone who's continually teetering on the edge of violence.

In the meantime, another complication crops up in the shape of the Jennings' new neighbour, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who just happens to be an agent with the FBI's counter-terrorism unit – a fact, incredibly, he reveals the first time they meet.

Would an FBI agent really go around advertising the fact that he's, well, an FBI agent?

The Americans has been extremely well-received in the States, where a second 13-part series has already been commissioned. I can't for the life of me see why.

The tone is uneven, the flashback scenes – which are full of growling, cardboard cut-out Russians – look like they've strayed in from an entirely different series and the plot contrivances are painfully clumsy.

The Americans spills its hand early and tries to pack an awful lot of exposition into the first episode. While there are patches of genuine tension, there's also the suspicion it might have worked better as a mini-series or a movie.

The Americans: RTE2, Thursday, 10pm; UTV/ITV, Saturday, 10pm


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