In my opinion, FX has been on a roll for the past few years. Their original TV programming could easily rival some of the best of HBO and other premium TV outlets. In a way, they have been champions of basic cable programming. Their mature hour long shows are more available to the public, and are often sometimes edgier than anything else on TV. I’d go as far as to say that even Netflix based some of its programming strategies off of what FX has done – crafting adult stories that are outside the box and thoroughly original. They’ve had many hit shows in the past decade, but one that has stood out to me lately is their Russian spy drama The Americans. This is going to contain some minor spoilers.
If you’re not familiar with the show, The Americans is about two married Russian spies – Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) – living in 1980’s Washington D.C. The two KGB agents that have been assigned to each other for years now. They are posing as a married couple but they actually have two biological children together. Their next door neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), is an FBI agent who works in counterintelligence. Underneath their seemingly normal American exteriors, Phillip and Elizabeth are highly trained killers, and their kids have absolutely no idea. Each season, Phillip and Elizabeth have to deal with a specific mission given to them by “The Center” – their higher ups at the KGB. You’d have to search high and low to find a more complex drama on television right now.
The Americans not only shows the spy game from Phillip and Elizabeth’s perspectives. You eventually get to see the perspectives of Stan at the FBI, as well as Oleg (Costa Ronin), another KGB agent. Both Russian and American government operations are fully fleshed out here. The show never paints either one as the bad guy, but you get to see the inner workings of both agencies. The 1980’s was a strange time for Russian/US relations, and The Americans takes full advantage of each side questioning their actions. At the center of the show is a strong morality tale.
Through the course of the first few seasons, Phillip and Elizabeth brutally murder or kill many people in order to maintain their covers. In the show’s current fifth season, you can see how much of a toll it takes on their romantic relationship. They also begin to question why they became spies in the first place. Through flashbacks, we learn more about Phillip and Elizabeth’s training in Russia. Although they appear to be loyal to Russia, their actions and overall comfy family lives in America leave them questioning their work. Why are they trying to spy on America when they both see that there are many advantages to living here? Their nationalism, especially Phillip’s, seem to be slowly eroding away over time.
He even goes to EST, which was a popular form of group therapy in the 1980’s. His humanity shines through often, and with a huge sense of guilt and pain. Elizabeth is a true Cold War soldier. Her ferocity and undying loyalty sometimes overtakes her moral compass. She’ll do whatever is necessary to complete their missions. During some of their missions, Phillip and Elizabeth have to seduce their marks, resulting in some great scenes of deceit and charm. Their genuine love for each other becomes stronger over the seasons, resulting in jealousy whenever one of them has to seduce a stranger for intel.
Their relationship with their children, especially Paige (Holly Taylor), becomes infinitely complicated. Paige starts unrelentingly questioning where Phillip and Elizabeth go at night. What is their job? Why are her parents always away on business? Paige soon begins to put the pieces together, and she unknowingly puts herself in danger. Phillip and Elizabeth also start to become close friends with Stan and his family. They like to keep a close eye on him, just in case he slips up and gives them intel. They also just really like him, and their families start to develop a bond – especially when Paige starts dating Stan’s son.
Stan also has an intriguing and complex story. He begins an affair with an undercover KGB agent, and it threatens his marriage and career. He has to work with the Russian embassy in D.C. while also trying to keep his family together. Noah Emmerich plays Stan as a competent and sensitive FBI agent who just can’t seem to get out of his own way. At the same time, Phillip is sleeping with a woman named Martha, who happens to be the personal secretary for the director of the FBI.
The sense of dread and claustrophobia permeates this show. Phillip questions the methods of the KGB often, especially since he and Elizabeth only receive communication through their handlers – Gabriel (Frank Langella) and Claudia (Margo Martindale). The Americans has a lot in common with Breaking Bad: their main characters try to hide and contain their violent and often complicated work lives; close friends/family work for government agencies; and tragedy seemingly looms over their heads. The Americans is definitely more of a slow burn, but it deals with many more complex and interesting ideas about loyalty.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of levity in The Americans. Phillip and Elizabeth sometimes don amazing and hilarious costumes in order to assume a new identity for their various missions in all 1980’s ill-advised glory. The giant wire rim glasses and shoulder pads are a sight to behold.
The soundtrack is also fantastic. Almost every episode has a lesser known song from great 70’s/80’s artist. In the most recent episode, they played one of The Rolling Stones’ more underrated songs from 1981’s Tattoo You. Not unknown in the least, but the selection of songs for each episode fits like a glove.
I had heard some critical acclaim for The Americans during the break between its second and third seasons. I stayed away from the show just because I hadn’t heard anyone else talk about it. A relative of mine convinced me to check it out on Amazon Prime Video, and I was immediately hooked. In the binge era of watching television, The Americans definitely benefits from watching episodes back to back.
Its fifth season is about halfway done, and it has already been renewed for a sixth and final season in 2018. If the quality continues in the final season, it will go down as one of the best shows of all time. It has consistently become more suspenseful and emotional. The Americans truly has everything. It’s a spy, family, espionage, and political drama. What’s more astounding is that the show feels real. The 80’s clothing, the music, the sets, and the cars all add that extra layer of believability.
If you were looking for a slow burn show that peels the onion off of its intense concept every season (a la Breaking Bad), then The Americans might be the show you’re looking for. It doesn’t have insane season-ending cliffhangers, and it can kill a main character randomly in the fifth episode of a season. It doesn’t play by the normal television rules, and I respect the hell out of the writers for that. It’s one of the few television shows on right now that is truly unpredictable. I highly recommend it, and most critics are in consensus about its quality. Do yourself a favor and check it out. The first four seasons can be streamed on Amazon Video.