In the spy game, intelligence is the most precious commodity. And in the world of fictional espionage, few authors of historical suspense deliver thrills with the crisp and unsparing intelligence of Alan Furst. BBC America's Spies of Warsaw, a two-part miniseries adaptation (concluding Tuesday, April 10) of his 2008 novel, loses none of its twisty allure and passionate urgency in the translation from page to screen (9/8c). Tension comes with the territory of late-'30s Poland, a country harboring refugees and dissidents in a murky culture of political intrigue, as everyone nervously waits for the jackboot to drop as rumors spread of Nazi aggression.
"Surprising how few secrets there are in our secret world," muses an enigmatic German doctor-in-exile as he trades information — if he can be trusted — with the story's protagonist, Jean-Francois Mercier (the dashing David Tennant, late of Doctor Who), a war hero who has come to Warsaw as the French embassy's military attaché. (Best not to dwell on his Scottish brogue; the polyglot blur of accents adds to the film's exotic appeal.) Mercier oversees a complex network of operatives who trade in seduction and blackmail, risking their lives to further his agenda of acquiring and analyzing news about Germany's preparations for war. The last thing he should have time for is a torrid affair with a lovely Parisian lawyer (Janet Montgomery, of CBS' short-lived Made in Jersey) who travels across dangerous borders for the League of Nations.
Their perilous escapades reach an exciting climax next Wednesday in a final mission aboard a Romania-bound train bearing hidden cargo. Throughout, Spies delivers the vicarious pleasures of old-fashioned spy movies with the bold contemporary frankness of the best of cable. But even at its most heroic, the story is tinged with darkness, because we know Warsaw's terrible fate when war inevitably comes. Such is the price of our own intelligence.
Likewise, there's a sense of fatalistic inevitability that haunts FX's first-rate thriller The Americans (10/9c), as we witness the desperate plotting of deeply embedded agents from the Russian "evil empire" as they try to stay a step ahead of the feds representing the Reagan administration. "You're going to lose this war. You know that, right? We're going to kick your motherland's ---," an adversary taunts Russian-in-hiding Phillip Jennings (an excellent Matthew Rhys) in the series' most intense episode yet, a true game-changer that escalates the covert homeland war between the FBI and the spies literally next door — or across the street.
The tension operates on several levels: the chill in the Jennings household that causes Phillip to separate from "wife" Elizabeth (Keri Russell), moving out to the dismay of their kids; the vindictiveness of their FBI neighbor Stan Beeman's boss Agent Gaad (a very effective Richard Thomas), who decides to retaliate against the Russians on their soil, a mission that deep-down-decent Stan (Noah Emmerich, never better) tries to distance himself from until a shocking turn of events forces him to reconsider.
There's a telling moment when the Jennings' sulking son Henry (Keidrich Sellati) turns in a social-studies paper on the Revolutionary War which simply reads: "America won." When challenged by his mom, he answers: "I didn't have anything else to say." America also won the cold war against Russia, but thankfully The Americans has plenty to say about the emotional cost of deception on both sides of the conflict.
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UNDERCOVER COP: DirecTV's first original series (as opposed to first-run acquisitions) wants to be Wiseguy on steroids, and Rogue (The Audience Network, 9/8c) certainly has over-the-top swagger to burn. Thandie Newton, beautiful but brittle, brings an almost comically tough edge to the hero's role of Grace Travis, an undercover detective working in Oakland, Calif., whose infiltration of the Laszlo mob family is interrupted by the drive-by killing of her young son, a tragedy that illuminates her failings as a wife and mother. (And the family never misses an opportunity to remind her. No wonder she prefers work.)
When clues link her boy's death to an attempt on the life of mob boss Jimmy Laszlo (Marton Csokas), the grieving Grace recklessly goes back undercover without backup at work or at home. Her sole motivation is to bring justice to her fallen son, even if it entails investigating who's after Jimmy, creating a dangerously weird symbiotic relationship, the only narrative element of Rogue conveying any surprise. Rogue has all the attributes of pay cable — rough language, extreme violence and no-kidding graphic sexuality and nudity — but little of its depth and nuance. It's never as original, memorable or enjoyable as Cinemax's pulp guilty-pleasure Banshee. Give Newton credit, though. She's doing some heroically heavy lifting here, because with the exception of Ian Hart as a broken-down detective on her squad, the supporting cast (especially the Laszlo sons) is mostly awful.
MEET THE GRAND-PARENTS: If just being wacky is enough to make your night, then you might feel right at home with ABC's How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life), which presents the endearingly flustered Sarah Chalke (of Scrubs and second Becky-on-Roseanne fame) as Polly, the "normal one" in a fractured family of outrageously vulgar clowns who barely resemble human beings.
"I'm not a failure. I'm trendy," Polly tries to convince herself, and us, in the set-up for the pilot episode (9:31/8:31c) as she flees her broken marriage to a still-smitten idiot and brings her cute little daughter to live at the home of her free-spirited mom and stepdad. Thankfully, Weeds' delirious Elizabeth Perkins and Everybody Loves Raymond's gruff giant Brad Garrett are skilled comedians, and while Garrett doesn't get to do much beyond bluster, Perkins makes the most of her dizzy Auntie Mame-like character, a boozy sexual libertine who declares, when reluctantly asked to babysit, "Kids are boring. We're the fascinating ones." There are laughs to be had as Polly's first post-divorce date goes off the rails, thanks to her own (and her date's) neuroses and the general level of mayhem perpetrated by her oafish folks' lack of discretion and control. But between the cutesy on-screen captions and an anything-goes sensibility that flirts with child endangerment (just kidding, kind of), Parents ultimately just feels like it's trying too hard.
THE ANTI-CLIMAX: On the other hand, ABC's on-fire family comedy The Middle (8/7c) feels especially real, hitting close to any TV addict's home in a storyline involving Frankie's unnatural attachment to The Bachelor. While I'm sure some might see this as synergistic abuse of ABC self-promotion, it's absolutely in character, as Frankie (Emmy-worthy Patricia Heaton) declares, "This is my escape." And when long-suffering husband Mike (the invaluable Neil Flynn) reminds her that the Oscars are also her escape, she barks, "I have a lot to escape from, OK?" Fair enough. But when the bachelor's ultimate pick in the season finale doesn't go Frankie's way, she can't handle it, going into a tailspin of comic despair that is no bed of roses for Mike, who mutters, "20 years and I've never once slapped you, but..." It's only a matter of time before she reaches for that box of wine. Meanwhile, in a lovely B-story, Mike coaches Sue (Eden Sher, hilariously ebullient as ever) to stop being so nice to her opponents in tennis, but what happens next is a first for Poor Sue.
It's a full night of new episodes for TV's best comedy line-up. On Suburgatory, now airing earlier where it should have been all season (8:30/7:30c), George (Jeremy Sisto) becomes fixated on his body when posing for a "Dads of Chatswin" calendar. ... In what sounds like a promising detour for Modern Family (9/8c), Phil and Claire are confronted by "The Future Dunphys" (the episode title) when they meet a family that could be them in the future, and it isn't pretty.
THE CRIME BLOTTER: B.D. Wong returns to NBC's Law & Order: SVU (9/8c) as Dr. Huang, consulting on the troubling case of a violent 9-year-old whose mother (Hope Davis) can't control him. Also dealing with new parenting issues: Detective Amaro (Danny Pino). ... Shaquille O'Neal guests on TNT's Southland (10/9c) in a rare bit of stunt casting, as a drug dealer's funeral leads to mayhem on the mean streets. ... There's a family connection on CBS' CSI (10/9c) as Ted Danson's daughter Kate plays a lawyer in a story involving the discovery of what might be a serial killer's lair. ... Real-life policing is on display in Discovery's three-part Pot Cops (10/9c), following a strike team in Humboldt County, Calif., as they raid marijuana crops and take on the Mexican cartel.
THE WEDNESDAY GUIDE: The theme is classic rock, no ballads on Fox's American Idol (8/7c), which can't be good news for a collapsing crooner like Lazaro. ... The tribes finally merge, just in time for a disgusting food challenge on CBS' Survivor (8/7c), where all the buzz is about a blindside. ... On Showtime's 60 Minutes Sports (9/8c), Lara Logan interviews longtime ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman, Byron Pitts (who just signed with ABC News) reports on a revitalized Los Angeles Dodgers, and Steve Kroft shoots a round of golf with renowned golf-course designer Pete Dye. ... Joel McHale hosts E!'s The Soup Awards (10/9c), commemorating the year's most outrageous TV moments, which certainly could fill more than an hour. ... TV Land puts five "juniors" under 30 and five "seniors" over 70 in the same house in the comedic reality experiment Forever Young (10/9c), which only manages to make me nostalgic for the theme song from Parenthood.
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