The first four episodes of Season 3 are every bit as taut and finely crafted as the stellar prior season of the show, and below, I offer a roster of reasons to get caught up if you've never seen "The Americans." I actually envy anyone who hasn't sampled this Keri Russell-Matthew Rhys spy drama before: New comrades have an enjoyable TV binge ahead of them. (Seasons 1 and 2 are on DVD and Amazon Prime.)
There are many different kinds of worthwhile TV these days, but I cannot think of a show on television that has more reliable dramatic engines than "The Americans." The show's premise is relatively straightforward: Two married spies from the Soviet Union live undercover as Americans in a Washington, D.C., suburb in the early '80s. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings sometimes doubt their mission and each other, yet their historical bonds to their homeland cause them to continue to put themselves in great danger as the Reagan-era Cold War heats up. Unlike many spies paired up for undercover work, the Jennings' have fallen in love with each other, an unexpected development both are still adjusting to. Despite their differing opinions on the American way of life -- Elizabeth is more anti than Philip -- their deepening emotional bonds with each other and their love for their two unsuspecting children lead both to question the massive lies at the core of their lives.
Morality, love, political worldviews, espionage techniques, even child-rearing philosophies: These aren't merely elements of the show, they're dynamic entities that constantly evolve and ping-pong off each other and keep all the lead characters on their toes. "The Americans" has a lot in common with killer viruses: It keeps mutating in new but perfectly logical ways and becoming even more irresistible and potent as a result.
According to TV writer-producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, every film or movie has to have a functional "operational theme." As he wrote, "Your series can have a lofty, intellectualized theme … 'power,' 'alienation,' 'the shallowness of modern life' or 'the banality of evil'…but without an operational theme -- one that can support a number of variations of action while supporting a consistent emotional need -- you don’t have a series." One of the many wonderful things about "The Americans" is that its operational theme -- in Grillo-Marxuach's words, "the basic want that propels episode after episode" -- sets up so many oppositional dynamics that bear such damned delicious fruit.
Philip and Elizabeth want to be good parents, but their jobs put their kids, Henry and Paige (Holly Taylor), in danger. To be caring parents and good spouses, they have to be considerate and emotionally available, but their jobs often require them to be cold, calculating and uncaring. They want to fulfill their duties as spies, but to do so, they regularly have to use and discard other people -- some of whom they regard as friends -- in ruthless and brutal ways. They love each other, but for a spy, emotional bonds serve as potential blackmail. In every relationship on the show, political ideology and personal philosophies come up against very human needs for connection and emotional intimacy, and when people lie and put on disguises for a living, the truth of every situation is often difficult to grasp.
Each way they turn, Philip and Elizabeth get more ensnared by a web that can never be untangled; pulling away from one problem or dilemma only produces another. And you might think that watching the story of characters mired in a series of unsolvable problems would be grim, but you'd be wrong.
I don't mean to imply that "The Americans" is never dark; sometimes it is quite poignant and effectively bittersweet. The lead characters in "The Americans," which also include conflicted FBI agent Stan Beeman (the wonderful Noah Emmerich) often seem quite alone, whether they're in a crowded bar or in bed with a lover. But every dark element is balanced by something lighter; moral dilemma are not minimized, but they're sometimes wrapped in a delicious candy coating.
One of the canniest things executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have done is to thread enjoyably light elements throughout the show. You want deeply conflicted characters? "The Americans" has them in bulk. But there are so many aspects of the show that make it a pleasure to watch. So how about a handy list of them?
Here are a few of other elements that make "The Americans" a pleasure to watch:
- The awesome-terrible fashions: Without allowing the outfits to become distracting, the costume designers on "The Americans" do a great job of evoking the sartorial styles of the time, and making those of us who grew up in the '80s try to remember why we thought any of those ensembles were good ideas. And yet the cast wears these retro styles with such panache: Check out Keri Russell wearing preposterously oversized glasses or Matthew Rhys going full '80s douche in aviator glasses with blue lenses, and you almost understand why those accessories were once fashionable. Almost.
- The ace soundtrack: It's killing me not to give away a couple of the music cues from the fourth episode, but trust me, they're spot-on for the era and evoke the times -- and what is happening on screen -- very well. The fine use of music is not surprising from a show that got so much great mileage out of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk," but it's a treat nonetheless.
- The impressive wig game: Just when you think the show's collection of wigs can't get any better, it does. It's important to remember that what decisively places "The Americans" at the pinnacle of TV's fake-hair pyramid is not just the wigs -- the mustaches are also ridiculously great.
- The low-tech spy games: Setting the show in the early '80s was a stroke of genius, and not just because "The Americans" can prey on our (questionable) nostalgia for big hair and shoulder pads. Spy shows set in the present day have to incorporate so many kinds of technology that they can start to feel a bit cold and bloodless; not so with this drama. Due to the rudimentary nature of the tech, operatives like Philip, Elizabeth and Stan often have to put themselves on the line physically to gain information and follow targets. There's endless tension to be wrung from faulty wires and unreliable antennas, from windswept dead drops and wily car chases.
- The altruism: If you're tired of shows that are more or less about the glumness of selfish and/or well-to-do people, "The Americans" can serve as a nicely calibrated counterbalance. Sure, all the characters have occasional self-aggrandizing moments, but the core individuals -- including the Jennings' new handler, a wise Russian operative played by the fantastic Frank Langella, and the Jennings' daughter, Paige -- believe in something greater than themselves. Of course, the genius of the premise is that everyone's goals constantly collide; the characters on "The Americans" can't simultaneously satisfy the needs of their families, their colleagues, their countries, their loved ones and their own minds and hearts. But each person tries to do his or her best in each arena, whatever it the mental or emotional cost. Every person has some doubts about the political entities and institutions they've aligned themselves with, but these men and women live up to commitments they've made, and there are ideas -- and people -- they'd die for. Self-absorbed characters can be fascinating, of course, but they aren't hard to find. It's just refreshing that none of the characters on this show care primarily about personal gain.
- The history: Certain TV settings, ideas and premises have been overworked to death, and of course, there's rarely a dearth of espionage-relates shows on TV. But putting characters on the front lines of the Cold War was a smart idea: It's not an era that's been done to death on the small screen, and hey, we might learn something.
- The acting: Every single member of the cast is very good, particularly Lev Gorn, Annet Mahendru and Costa Ronin as Russian operatives. But Russell and Rhys have next-level challenges that they master with ease. They're often playing two or three personas at once; the Russian spy who pretends to be a boring suburbanite playing a struggling alcoholic, etc. Thanks to their fantastically nuanced performances, we see what it costs Philip and Elizabeth to keep up these fronts, even as their marks completely believe they are who they say they are. Their masterful multi-level performances are always fantastic, and inject compassion and humanity into even the most tense and disturbing moments.
- Hallelujah, a non-annoying teenager plot: My husband and I have a phrase for one of TV's most tiresome go-to storylines: The "S.T.P.," or Stupid Teenager Plot. We've all seen it dozens of times: A one-dimensional, predictable teen character flies off the handle and does dumb things, and the plot machinery of the show has to take a lumbering turn toward that dopey storyline and handle whatever idiocy it engenders. These threads are usually dominated by whiny behavior, immature dialogue and "you're not the boss of me" flounces; in a word, ugh. Even prestige dramas have gone to this highly questionable well, but "The Americans" is the rare show capable of using teen character's wonder years intelligently. Much of this season revolves around the Jennings' daughter, Paige, whose religious awakening disturbs her secretly atheist parents. Holly Taylor is up to the challenge of playing this watchful, smart character, and the show doesn't disrespect her faith or her choices, which adds pathos to the dilemma of her parents. Elizabeth and Philip are understandably agonizing about a decision they have to make: Do they tell her who and what they really are, or let her live in ignorance?
"The Americans" started out as a show in which the subterfuge of spying was a metaphor for marriage; it's now added another layer of fascinating moral, political and familial confusion to an already pleasingly dense tale. Parents always worry about alienating their kids, but what do you do when learning your very identity might cause your kid to snap? Or cause an international incident? This would be an academic question if Paige, Philip, Elizabeth and all the other people in their orbits weren't so specific and intriguing.
Long may the Jennings family wrestle with these and other brain-melting conundrums.
"The Americans" airs 10 p.m. Wednesday on FX.