ITV, Saturday; BBC4, Thursday

TV review: The Americans and Up the Women - Women who kick ass and crochet? I'd vote for that

3.00

The early days of the suffragettes deserve better than a micro-budget sitcom on BBC4. At least ITV snuck a no-nonsense Soviet-agent housewife into its schedule last night

Is it just me or did anyone else experience a time warp last night on the sofa? Just me? Let me explain. ITV's new American import, The Americans, is set in the 1980s. And, judging by its first episode, its makers probably think Cagney and Lacey was the high water mark of US television drama. For that matter, when was the last time BBC1 or ITV1 committed a chunk of Saturday night to a big brassy American show? For a moment – and I could be wrong about this – it felt as if I was watching an Eighties-style show set in the Eighties being broadcast like it was … well, I've already laboured the point.

The premise – Soviet spies passing as Americans in Washington DC! – is grabby. The spies, Philip and his wife Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, inset right) live with their two children in suburbia. He's a chirpy businessman, she's a fretful housewife, and by the end of the opening chase they had a Soviet defector tied up in the boot of their car while they doled out homework tips that were perhaps too well appraised of Carter-era geopolitics. As such, you would say that the show rewinds current American fears about "the enemy within" back to the cosy-seeming polarities of the Cold War. But it was in too much of a hurry to dwell on anything as beard-strokey as that. The opening episode packed more into its 90 minutes than you'd have found in a season of The Sopranos.

Having got their man, Philip and Elizabeth argued about doing their duty and packing the high-profile defector back to the Kremlin, or handing him over to the CIA and defecting themselves.

In flashbacks so hammy they ought to be classified material, we learned how they were recruited in the Motherland, before washing up in the land of the Yankee in 1965 with distinctly non-Russian dentition and a wide-eyed delight at the air-conditioning. A decade and a half later and Philip still had a twinkle in his eye for cowboy boots and the star-spangled banner, to the distaste of Comrade Elizabeth.

It's snappy and lightweight, and with a swagger you might recall from a typical episode of, say, Moonlighting. Episode one even had the gall to tee-up a car sex scene with a snatch of Phil Collins on the soundtrack, and get away with it. The quick-change disguise scenes, iffy wigs and all, were also what you might generously call a homage to The Man From UNCLE. In all this, the drama was helped by Matthew Rhys, a performer who could charm the most staunch KGB man into a pair of Levis.

This shamelessness sometimes tipped into implausibility, but at least the writers had the grace to clear their throats. When a CIA counter-intelligence expert moved in next door with his family, Philip worried that their cover was blown, but not so Elizabeth: "It's probably a coincidence". You think?

The episode concluded with some lumbering exchanges, explicitly looking ahead to the ideological deep freeze between the Soviet Union and the USA in the Eighties. But among this froth was the grist that might well pull an audience through 13 episodes: the tension of a marriage in which the wife has to oblige as the occasional no-holds barred honey-trap, and the troubling future for those vital accessories of the all-American family, the kids.

How many Edwardians does it take to change a light bulb? About eight if Up the Women (**) is anything to go by, though as one of them said: "It's hard to see how this would replace the candle." Jessica Hynes wrote in this newspaper last week that her three-part sitcom about a group of failed suffragettes was originally intended as a film. It says nothing too complimentary about our priorities that the project ended up as a BBC4 micro-budget three-parter, shot in front of a studio audience in a two-room set.

As it was, the traces of its film script origins were detectable in Hynes's performance as the clever but timid Margaret. She proposed that the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle revitalise itself as the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle Politely Request Women's Suffrage. Hynes appeared to be acting in the uplifting, thoughtful movie that you would never have quite got round to seeing at your local arthouse cinema. Oddly, though, she seemed to be surrounded by performances, from Rebecca Front, Vicki Pepperdine et al, that were sketch-show broad.

The script, too, careered between these two registers. Still, the brilliant Pepperdine had some funny false teeth and mugged her way through a quite silly knob gag. That just about got my floating vote.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The 44-year-old insisted there had been “no fallings out” with the other members of the band
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style