The premise of The Americans, which is set in the early 1980s, is that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a suburban Virginia couple who seem as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July, are actually a pair of ruthless KGB sleeper agents whose marriage was arranged by spymasters in the Kremlin. The show returns for its third season next week, and here are six reasons why you should be watching:
1. The Americans is exciting!! From the opening sequence of the pilot (which involved a kidnapping, a stabbing and a car chase) right up until the closing moments of Season 2, the show gives us all the exciting spy games we could possibly want. There’s also the mental and emotional tension of not quite wanting Philip and Elizabeth to succeed in their missions (and we know, of course, that ultimately the Soviets didn’t win the Cold War) but also not wanting them to be exposed or killed.
2. The writing is, for the most part, extremely intelligent. I love the way the writers incorporate actual historical events into the storylines, such as the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, or the U.S. government’s support of the Contras in Nicaragua, or the struggle of Soviet Jews to be allowed to emigrate to Israel. Plus, showrunner Joe Weisberg’s own background in the CIA and knowledge of spycraft informs such wonderful set-pieces. Take “Gregory” for example, an episode from Season 1 where Philip and Elizabeth try to make contact with a colleague’s widow before the FBI gets to her. The writers also don’t fall into the trap of making smart characters do stupid things just so the plot can move along; we get the far more exciting pleasure of watching clever people do clever things that are thwarted by circumstance or the technological limitations of the early 1980s (from our vantage point, it’s so startling to watch a world without cell-phones, GPS systems, tiny cameras, or sound recorders, etc. But they do have an awesome mailroom robot in the FBI!). The show’s writers even managed to put the Jennings’ teenaged daughter Paige at the center of the plot last season without making me roll my eyes or reach for the fast-forward button.
3. The acting is fantastic! Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are both excellent as the fiercely private Elizabeth and the more open (and openly conflicted) Philip, while Noah Emmerich as Stan Beeman has been nothing short of brilliant as a man who is torn between what he sees as his duty and his private attachments. My absolute favorite, though, is Annet Mahendru, in her first big role as Nina, a KGB flunky turned double or triple or quadruple agent.
4. And speaking of Nina and Elizabeth: The Americans has marvelous, intelligent, capable, female characters. I would go so far as to say that Elizabeth is the first real female anti-hero I’ve seen. She has the resolve, capabilities, and toughness that we’d traditionally see ascribed to a male character in her position, complete with an angst-ridden backstory. And then there’s Nina, who starts off the series as a beautiful damsel in distress, and ends up as a steely player of the spy game. She was in a bit of a perilous position when we last saw her, but I have every faith in Nina’s abilities as a survivor.
Even characters we see less often such as Martha, Philip’s informant (played by Alison Wright), and Sandra Beeman, Stan’s wife (played by Susan Misner), get brilliant moments, as does Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor). I’d add the great Margo Martindale as Philip and Elizabeth’s erstwhile controller “Granny” to the list of awesome female characters except that, sadly, she got a role on another show and we don’t get to see her too often.
5. The supporting characters (male and female) are great: even people we only know for an episode or two, like Elizabeth’s former lover, are well-rounded, and seem to exist outside the confines of their scenes. (In this respect, The Americans reminds me of Justified, which is perhaps not so surprising, since Graham Yost, the producer of Justified is also an executive producer of The Americans.) I’m particularly impressed by the portrayal of the Russians on the show, since they’ve been the favorite one-dimensional villains of Hollywood for awhile now. In The Americans, the Russians are almost as important. (I mean the actual, acknowledged Russians, not the hidden ones like Philip and Elizabeth!) There’s Nina, but there’s also the wearily sarcastic Arkady Ivanovich (Lev Gorn), who’s trying to stop the U.S.’s missile defense program whilst dealing with all the plagues of middle management like pressure from above, unruly subordinates, and the frequent end-runs around his position by Moscow Center. And then there’s the encroaching, cocky Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), a young man with relaxed attitudes about Western culture and friends in high places, who seems to be gunning for Arkady’s job. They’re all people we might know, except for the fact that they’re spies and double-agents and, occasionally, cold-blooded killers.
6. Last of all, The Americans works on a deeper level. Underneath the Mom jeans and the Greatest Hits of the 1980's music, the show asks some deep questions about love and family. We’ve watched Philip and Elizabeth, whose marriage started off as a kind of business arrangement, slowly learn to love and trust one another, and we’ve watched their anguished love for their children, whose trust and faith they betray every day with every lie they tell. The final episode of Season 2 introduced an entirely new dimension to those dilemmas, one that will surely be explored with intelligence and heart in Season 3. And I, for one, can’t wait!
Season 3 premieres Wednesday, January 28th, on FX at 10 pm ET—and we’ll have episode recaps here!
Regina Thorne is an avid reader of just about everything, an aspiring writer, a lover of old movies and current TV shows, and a hopeless romantic.