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Why 'The Americans' is Working — Very Well
March 20, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 2 comments

When it was announced, The Americans not only seemed anachronistic, but potentially dull. It didn't seem to have the stylish nostalgia Mad Men had going. While the swinging sixties were visually fun, a throwback to the Reagan era, early 1980s, was what? Largish lapels, mustaches, bulky gas-guzzling cars with wide rear ends? And as subject matter, the Cold War seemed well-known, and well tread.

Underwhelming aesthetics of the decade aside, what a political history lesson The Americans has turned out to be. Those old enough to remember well recall the time when both sides relied on MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction – as the main method of deterring nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. And for those too young, it's a worthwhile look at our life before cell phones, the Internet, and what the political climate was like before the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed.

There also is the extremely well-crafted work being turned in by creator Joe Weisberg and executive producers Graham Yost and Joel Fields. As a good period piece should, The Americans brings history forward, and as it recites the past, it makes its own commentary on the present.

And there are the intense, Emmy-worthy performances by Keri Russell (top photo) and Matthew Rhys, portraying Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, two KGB spies in arranged marriage with two children living in suburban Washington D.C.  As intense and unfailing as Elizabeth is, Phillip is sometimes questioning of the worth of his mission, and the effects they may have on their children – who have been born in America. Both parents, however, are extreme, bad-ass operatives, willing to go anywhere, or through anyone, to continue their mission.

FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is also as idealistic, but not without a few similar cracks of his own as the Cold War has extracted its own costs from him and his family, shrouded as he is in secrecy. Next Emmy season, Emmerich should be a shoo-in for a supporting actor nomination.

On the surface, The Americans is a good analog for modern times: a docile domestic state with an enemy within, hiding in plain sight. While Al-Qaeda was puny, and never had the network and capabilities of the Soviet Union, the two situations are characterized by similar conditions – a peaceable U.S. homeland, with little to do with armies on the battlefield. But underneath, it's a brutish contest of espionage and guerrilla tactics – in the case of The Americans, sometimes to the death.

The Americans plays this historical analog out further, exchanging our suspicion and contempt with that of the enemy's. When Phillip and Elizabeth see Reagan on television in early episodes, what we see as an arch-conservative, and certainly a staunch patriot, they plainly see as a mad man.

It's a startling, but sly and brilliant, reversal. For the briefest of moments, we can equivocate the intensity of their patriotism, their deep rooted political beliefs, with ours. We see ourselves mirrored in the other – and it's a shining, short, moment when scripted television is able to turn the lens back onto the viewer.

It's not a thing easily done, and The Americans has done it with an integrity that is unassailable.

Ironically enough, tonight's upcoming episode (Wednesday, 10 p.m., ET) is entitled "Mutually Assured Destruction." Phillip and Elizabeth must stop an agent who's spun out of control, while Stan and the FBI hunt the same man. If the first half-dozen episodes are indicative, this next installment should have its full-tilt share of suspense. (The spy game in The Americans is not for the faint of heart.) Yost and the team, as they do on Justified, tear off large chunks of story lines, and The Americans has moved along in large, thrilling giant steps all season.

Along with AMC, FX is now clearly the envy of broadcast networks, with a stable of dramas and comedies that are smart, well-crafted and provocative. (Although neither network is infallible, and has had its share of clunkers.) Alongside The Americans, FX currently is running Yost's Justified, and also has Louie and American Horror Story as their top, acclaimed shows. And, as AMC did in 2011 bringing an adaptation of Denmark's The Killing to American audiences, FX will similarly adapt The Bridge, last year's Scandinavian/Danish hit. That brooding thriller followed the hunt for a serial killer on the border of Denmark and Sweden. (The FX version this summer will set the story on the border between the U.S. and Mexico.)

Not bad for a cable channel now out-dueling the best that the networks have to offer. Add The Americans to that effort. Filed under "success."

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Donna Dale
In addition to the great chemistry between Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, downplaying the ambient culture of the 80s enhances the contemporaneous urgency of the situations and the universality of the themes.
Mar 23, 2013   |  Reply
DD - Agreed. The art direction and 80's style have, by design, taken a back seat to the characterizations in 'The Americans' -- and the series has benefited from the choice. –EG
Mar 23, 2013
Goofball Jones
I've loved this show from the very start. For one, it's totally believable and plausible. There's no hackneyed, over-the-top super-technology here. No James Bond type fantasy spy-gear. It's made as if it could really happen.

Also, the stories aren't contrived or untrue to themselves. So far, there's really no false moves to the story. Sure, some are predictable as to what is going to happen, but the WAY they handle things is a breath of fresh air.

After years of suffering through unbelievable BS with shows like CSI and Bones and other non-sense, totally unrealistic, fantasy-land crap, it's shows like this that restore a little hope back into TV.
Mar 21, 2013   |  Reply
GBJ - Agreed; the series is very well grounded, and there are very few plot points that go outside the lines of plausibility. Sort of a rare thing these days. Add the great acting, and you've really got something here. –EG
Mar 21, 2013
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