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 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.