Man, that Phil Collins song almost ruined everything! Not that I don’t like “In The Air Tonight”, but there were already a few too many “decade markers” in the first episode of ‘The Americans’ for my liking (the shoes at the mall, the shoulder pads, the Archie comics). The first episode released in the last few years to appear in the First Episode Tournament, ‘The Americans’ begins with a fantastic pilot.
An opening scene depicting Felicity in lingerie giving fellatio? Distasteful but I’m in! Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, an average American family with 2.5 kids (okay, just 2!) living in suburban America and carving out a life for themselves. The only catch, they’re actually Russian sleeper spies who spend their nights kidnapping Russian defectors and otherwise undermining American life, as we know it.
Now, the above-mentioned sexual nature of the series was not the only time in which Russell’s sexuality was put in the forefront of the episode, as we later see her origin story take a very dark path. This is a scene that further confuses the viewer’s emotions as we enter the world of this pseudo-couple; it’s nearly impossible not to relate to the protagonists we spend almost the entire hour with. But are we truly expected to take the side of these anti-Americans?
Contrastingly, we, as the viewers, know for sure which side we’re on during a viewing of the first episode of ‘OZ’, and it’s definitely not on the side of anybody locked up in a maximum security prison. Two years before ‘The Sopranos’ burst onto the premium channel landscape, Edie Falco plays Corrections Officer Diane Whittlesey, a rough and tough prison guard in who lays down the law among ranks and files of killers, rapists, gangsters and outright scumbags.
Revolutionary as it was, ‘OZ’ begins as a melting pot/clusterfuck of race, sexuality, classism, oligarchical politics and multiple “f-bombs”. The most intriguing ganster of the bunch being actor Leon who claws his way out of ‘Cool Runnings’ fame and ‘Cliffhanger’ shame.
The Ortalani/Sanchez interaction carries the first episode of OZ, a story arc that brings the AIDS epidemic of the 90’s to the forefront of premium television. And when both Ortalani and Sanchez die by the episode’s end, it establishes a “no one is safe” mentality within the series long before Illyn Payne lopped off Ned Stark’s head in 2011.
While eventual “payoffs” that come later in the season don’t count for anything in terms of this tournament, the “hook effect” is very much a factor. Both episodes have it, but ‘The Americans’ has it in spades. Specifically speaking, the “brownie scene” was especially hilarious, and made for some lightness before the extremely heavy “defection conversation”, during which I found myself incredibly invested in the relationship (or lack thereof) between Elizabeth and Philip.
Winner: ‘The Americans’
next matchup: ‘Daredevil’ vs ‘Arrow’ in the superhero division!