The most popular dramas on TV are Empire, Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Scandal, The Blacklist, and How to Get Away With Murder (not an actual guide). With these and so many other shows (including those on Netflix) taking the spotlight, why does The Americans deserve a look? For one, they never insult your intelligence and they don’t care about cheap fan service (GoT).
As an avid TV viewer, I am a big fan of many of the aforementioned shows, but each and every single one of them has “lost” me on several accounts; either by actors overacting, storylines going off the rails, characters acting out of character, or the show just completely jumping the shark. The Americans, after four seasons, has remarkably not done any of these.
The Americans has political intrigue, romance, family drama, suspense, FBI procedural, and realistic fight choreography; all from a writer who was in the CIA. The recent season four finale on FX showcased what The Americans does best, it doesn’t depend on a big shocking cliffhanger for a finale, but rather large tension-building events in a series of constant developments. The big finale included a leak of information about our starring spies, an ultimatum from their leaders, and a long-awaited kiss between two teenagers that could have dire consequences for their families.
What exactly is The Americans? First and foremost, it is about relationships, the main one being between Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, played by Keri Russell (Felicity) and Matthew Rhys (Brothers & Sisters). They play a pair of Soviet spies who were sent to the U.S. during the Civil Rights movement and married to start a family as part of the cover for their Cold War espionage. We meet them and their family in the 80’s.
The Cold War in 1980’s United States was a tense period with Ronald Reagan referring to their long-time enemies, the Soviet Union, as “the evil empire.” Gone were the televised Red Scare witch hunts and ineffective classroom drills of the 50’s, but the idea that the world could plunge into a nuclear holocaust loomed in the air no less.
Elizabeth is a loyal soviet soldier who kicks ass, while Phillip has grown soft to western ideals like capitalism after raising their children. The Jennings’ are trapped in a loveless marriage for duty to their country. Sure they bore two children, but it seems this was all mechanical and out of necessity for them.
Their chemistry is so palpable as two spies learning to actually love each other for the first time, that the chemistry seeped off-screen. After their first season, Russell and Rhys became romantically involved in real life. They’re fulfilling on the small screen the Mr. & Mrs. Smith trope that Brangelina failed to deliver on the big-screen.
Holly Taylor is an amazing young actress. For four seasons she has played a believable teenager, going through complex emotions and situations without ever feeling like a hammy stage actor (see the majority of the cast of How to Get Away with Murder and Fear the Walking Dead). As far as supporting actors go, she may be the most underrated supporting actress in a drama; hopefully the Emmys notice before the series ends.
Paige evolves from a self-established loner, into a devout parishioner, and beyond in later seasons. Without giving too much away, she is exposed to some realities of her parents’ secret lives after much digging, and learns to cope with them.
When we meet the family, we are also introduced to their new neighbor, FBI agent Stan Beeman. I know, this sounds seriously hokey and like a tongue in cheek sitcom situation, but when played by the gruff Noah Emmerich, even the most tired trope finds piercing depth.
Beeman comes with his own life problems, again, highlighting the series’ focus on relationships. He forms an instant bond with the Jennings’ and is constantly getting his personal affairs mixed with theirs, while trying to track down infiltrators at work.
The show has added and removed characters tactfully, always making sure it fits the story. Informants come and go, yet they all make their impact in the story. This last season, the formerly mousy office assistant Martha (Alison Wright) left the series clinging to her pride after being uncovered as a mole in the FBI counterintelligence office; in a turn Emmy voters will surely take note of.
The Emmys have already taken note of Margo Martindale’s minimal role as their ruthless KGB handler Claudia (if the DCCU ever decides to use Granny Goodness, they should look no further than Martindale). The show has become a magnet for underrated actors from stage and screen, in later seasons adding Frank Langella, Brandon J. Dirden, Ruthie Ann Miles, and Dylan Baker, who also made a noteworthy turn this season as a spy smuggling biological weapons.
The Americans has a sobering look at American culture and politics, looking at characters from different backgrounds and beliefs. Since it’s a period piece a lot of situations are inspired by true events and very real political conflicts of the time.
Radical black socialists assist the Jennings’ on some missions, they also cross pass with Sandinistas who are fighting Contras supported by the U.S. government, and Israeli operatives who are supported by the U.S.; the Jennings’ even have ties to the Soviet-Afghan War. In terms of the culture, the show gets the media right on many levels, from early clunky video game handhelds to the extremely popular The Day After TV movie, which depicted a realistic imagining of the worst case scenario of Cold War tensions.
The latest season has felt like the best because some main storylines were concluded, as well as many smaller operations from previous seasons, bringing the focus on the Jennings family and the delicate balance they have found themselves in. With more personal threats looming in on them and the show’s ticking clock (it only has two seasons left), it leaves much to the imagination.
Will they finally be caught? Will they flee the country with their American-born children? Or will they find another way out?
The Americans just aired its season four finale on FX, but you still have plenty of time to catch up with the series on Amazon Prime before season five next year.