Yikes! Our little Felicity has become a hooker and a Communist spy! In the opening scene of “The Americans” (9 p.m., FX), Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell, “Felicity”) dons a blond wig and come-hither clothing. All the better to ensnare blabbermouth FBI agents in boudoir confessions.
The year is 1981, and Jennings and her husband, Philip (Matthew Rhys), are posing as two boring suburbanites outside Washington, D.C. They’re really Soviet spies, trained to blend into the PTA circuit. They even hide their identities from their two children. And — given the arranged nature of their “marriage,” and the fact that Elizabeth’s duties include sleeping with other men — they do a pretty thorough job of keeping their true feelings from each other. Things get a little sticky when their new neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), shows up. He’s an affable guy who just happens to work for the FBI.
Much like “Homeland,” this series does a good job of exploring the shadowy world of spy craft with a special emphasis on what a life of deception can do to one’s psyche. Only, in many ways, “The Americans” has set the bar higher. Viewers of “Homeland” come to understand that Brody (Damian Lewis) was tortured and manipulated into working for terrorists. He’s a fleshed-out version of a Manchurian Candidate. Philip and Elizabeth weren’t “turned” or brainwashed. They’re true believers in the Soviet system. Or, at least, Elizabeth is.
There is a fine line between being a serious drama and being merely grim. Too often, “The Americans” crosses that checkpoint to the wrong side. All the same, “The Americans” is an ambitious, involving drama. It may not be perfect, but it’s good to see somebody look at the critical success and popularity of “Homeland” and try to go one better.
Tonight’s other highlights:
• Boomer Esiason and Aisha Taylor host “Super Bowl’s Greatest Commercials 2013” (7 p.m., CBS).
• Auditions continue on “American Idol” (7 p.m., Fox).
• Thea faces harsh justice on “Arrow” (7 p.m., CW).
• “Nature” (7 p.m., PBS) continues “Attenborough’s Life Stories.”
• Nia Vardalos cameos on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (8 p.m., NBC).
• “NOVA” (8 p.m., PBS) revisits the murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby.
• A teen arsonist kills on “Chicago Fire” (9 p.m., NBC).