TV Review: ‘The Americans’

What 'The Americans' won't do
Courtesy FX

As “The Americans” heads into its fourth season, it’s time to praise the show for what it hasn’t done.

Since it began, this spy drama has supplied exciting twists, fabulous performances, a wonderfully mournful atmosphere and a stellar re-creation of the mid-’80s Cold War in the Washington, DC area. It’s hard not to take these things almost for granted, even as they impress anew in season four.

What’s even more admirable is the way the series has quietly rejected the idea of changing its DNA in order to make itself more commercial. It’s never had the ratings it deserves, but in pursuit of bigger numbers or a higher profile, executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields never pandered or turned up the dials on the show’s more sensational aspects. “The Americans” easily could have gone in cartoonish or preposterous directions, but it never succumbed to the temptation to make itself slicker and less intelligent. That’s a worthy accomplishment in this day and age, when the cacophony of shows doing superficially outrageous things for attention grows louder by the day.

Sure, the narrative includes murders, but each one is deeply felt and often even more deeply regretted. There are sex scenes, but every one boasts layers of nuanced intensity. The betrayals and turnabouts that take place can be shocking, but they’re hard to shake, in part because viewers know how each setback will reverberate within the characters’ lives. The chase scenes and bare-knuckle fights that break out skillfully punctuate the low hum of tension, as do the wry jokes and ironic asides, but the real focus of the show has always been on what transpires on psychological and even spiritual levels. 

This season, it very much feels as though “The Americans” is heading into the home stretch. Revelations at the end of the third season made the positions of undercover Russian spies Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) even more untenable, and the show has never been one to drag out developments past their potency.

Of course, there’s no word on how many more seasons FX will give the period piece, but this is one of those perfectly calibrated shows that should not overstay its welcome. It’ll be hard to lose the series, whenever that is, but it would be even harder to see it contort itself in untenable ways in order to keep going. That scenario is unlikely, however: By this point, “The Americans” has earned an almost unlimited supply of trust, given how smart it’s been about staying true to its strengths.

Writing about the performances of Russell and Rhys often devolves into simply listing an array of rapturous adjectives. It may be more helpful to say that this season, even more so than in the past, both actors say and do so much without words. The two have had plenty of time to build up the central couple’s challenging relationship, and the writers know by now that a tired sigh or a frustrated shrug can convey a great deal. That’s not to say the dialogue isn’t good — it is — but the show’s minimalist tendencies only help it maintain its distinctively watchful atmosphere. 

As Philip, Rhys’ eyes convey so much tender concern that it’s almost hard to take at times, but there is more to the man, who would and does kill to keep his family (and secrets) safe.

Russell doesn’t so much play Elizabeth’s toughness as radiate it quietly from the center of her being; it’s always in the room, making her the unquestioned center of gravity in the Jennings household. “The Americans” has never hedged Elizabeth’s strengths or tried to make her seem “likable,” whatever that means. The show simply makes her worries understandable, and her actions always reflect her flinty pragmatism and intelligence. From there, it’s up to the audience to decide whether or not to like her. And as Philip has found, it’s nearly impossible to do anything but love her.

“The Americans” has always been about people faced with impossible choices. No matter what Philip or Elizabeth do about their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), who now knows their secret, or what they tell their handlers (who include the great Frank Langella and Margo Martingale), someone eventually will get hurt. The Jennings have long since stopped caring about what happens to them as individuals if they decide to forsake the Soviet Union, but they want their children to survive the extremely dicey situation the entire family is in.

The unspoken wish that underlines every situation is something they almost never talk about: Philip and Elizabeth, who started out as strangers, want their marriage to survive the coming reckoning as well, but neither of these very smart people can quite figure out how to make that happen. It’s a tragedy, but one they quietly endure together. This show has hit upon the magic formula that turns stoicism into romance. 

Over time, “The Americans” has expanded its array of characters facing similarly brutal situations. Philip’s other “wife,” Martha (Alison Wright), has never been played for a fool; she could have been a punchline, but the show has always treated her with compassion. It’s been a pleasure to watch Taylor’s role grow within the show, and as season four progresses through its first four episodes, she does an excellent job of displaying Paige’s terror, confusion and even her competence. It’s entirely possible, after all, that Paige is fated to be the next Soviet operative in the family. 

Disgraced Soviet bureaucrat Nina Krilova (Annet Mahendru) continues to occupy a parallel narrative that takes place on another continent, but her storyline couldn’t be more thematically appropriate. As she tries to extricate herself from a dangerous situation, she is continually faced with decisions that might affect the future of Russia but will certainly define the quality of her soul. None of her options are good, and it’s tremendous to watch Mahendru quietly imbue each choice with dignified sadness. Like the other characters on the show, she clings desperately to the idea that meaningful connections can survive, even inside a nightmare, after dogma, politics and belief have all fallen away.

There is something very Russian in the soul of “The Americans,” which shows how impossible and important compassion is, and which finds beauty in sacrifices that may be pointless. In its first three seasons, the show’s melancholy nature set it apart, as well as its commitment to exploring complicated ideas about dignity, autonomy and the harsh outer limits of morality. It’s long been in the top tier of TV dramas, and this year, it looks set to stay there.

There’s a discussion of “The Americans,” “Agent Carter,” “And Then There Were None” and “The Carmichael Show” on the latest edition of the Talking TV podcast, which is here and on iTunes

TV Review: 'The Americans'

(Series; FX, Weds. March 16, 10 p.m.) 60 MIN.

Production

Filmed in New York by Fox 21 Television Studios and FX Prods.

Crew

Executive producers, Joe Weisberg, Joel Fields, Graham Yost, Darryl Frank, Justin Falvey, Chris Long; director, Thomas Schlamme; writers, Weisberg, Fields.

Cast

Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Alison Wright, Holly Taylor, Keidrich Sellati, Annet Mahendru, Lev Gorn, Costa Ronin, Richard Thomas, Margo Martindale, Frank Langella, Dylan Baker

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 11

Leave a Reply

11 Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. Garf. says:

    I just recently started watching this and this Russian couple what are they Bulletproof what a bunch of BS they managed to get out of every situation which makes it so unrealistic signed disappointed

  2. I haven’t watched all the episodes and I am not up to date. I just watched the scene where Elizabeth ” raped” a Korean scientist to get access to Level 4. However in general I believe this is not a good show for people to be watching, especially at a time where we have a “illiberal autocrat” (dictator) Putin in power and the fairly terrifying truth of Trump supporting him. For a lot of the first episodes we have the familiar feel of moral equivocation. The Russians think that way because they were bought up that way and we think this way because we were bought up this way. Kids learn this in school already….their aren’t really any good guys and bad guys, that was something for kindergarten. When you grow up you realize nothing is black and white, we are all nasty and out for ourselves. Gradually though Philip and Elizabeth start murdering innocent citizens so frequently and so nastily that we get the feeling THEY ARE NOT VERY NICE PEOPLE and Elizabeth starts to get headaches after murdering or “raping” someone and Philip starts to look a little troubled. What I hate though is the fact that, as Solzhenitskyn recognized, the fact that the masses are seeking to be entertained, not to think, means that sexy little dramas like this exist and do not make anyone think. The only Soviet dissident turns out to be a spy. There is no guts and true moral fiber to the show, it is just a sort of Bond like spy thriller without the Russians being the badder guys, with a lot of sex and violence thrown in. What would have taken real courage would be to produce a show about Russia and the dissidents fighting the system, standing up as free breathing and thinking individuals. And you know what, that is who the writers in today’s Russia are and were, hated, reviled and full of courage…..basically, wait for it, basically good people. But to do this would be to right leaning. After all, communism, living life for the masses not the individual (who lick up this tawdry drama) is something all American TV writers secretly admire…..because they are so liberal. That is why Solzhenitskyn would weep, because we are fed this tawdry morally equivocating stuff. We are afraid to stand up for our beliefs. I would so love to see the writer or writers of these shows really bite the bullet, write something that acknowledges what is wrong with America, the inequalities, but stands up for the individual, that fights back against the authoritarianism of Putin and his admirers. I would love to see our cynical and tarnished age admitting that the Soviet dissidents, the writers and free-thinkers are the heroes. But no, neither side is righter, absolutely not. The dissidents and free thinkers of Russia are crying

  3. Bpa says:

    the Americans is very unique in the way rooting for the enemy that being the Russian spies that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings Are. never have I watch the series with the emotions and intensity that wanting to see a good outcome for the Jennings even though they are against our country and they are the enemy. I wonder how this show would have fared if it was done during the time that it is depicting that gives you something to think about. nevertheless the Americans is my favorite show on TV Keri Russell and Philip are such a part of you when you look into their emotions, the job that they do, and how real it really seems. as a writer myself I commend the creators of this great piece of work as we know one day it must end and that is a day that we’re not looking for any time soon. so keep it going you guys are doing a damn good job and I look forward too. more of The Americans

  4. I´m pretty sure that Henry is going to be the FBI agent that the Rezidentura so desperestly want but they´re focus on the wrong Jenning child lol

    I love this show so much, one of my favorites right now. C´mon FX you have to trust in The Americans!!

  5. shark says:

    I don’t see any way for this show to have a “happy” ending. At least half these characters are going to be massacred. Really, I see Paige as the only one who comes out of this, and as a spy.

  6. Nicholas Spock Jr. says:

    Loved this show from the beginning, turned some others onto it as well. Russell & Rhys are consistently spot on and the supporting casts storylines equally engrossing. As a someone coming of age in the late 70s -early 80s, I’ve marveled how well the show runners have captured the flavor those strange times, Star Wars, Iran-Contra, the Soviet-African ties as part of the ‘Great Game’ of Cold War diplomacy played by the superpowers with proxies in other countries, it’s all here.
    Holly Taylor too is a wonder, coming across as a real teenager, unlike Morgan Saylor’s horrible daughter on Homeland. Want to see more brother Henry, could be interesting to see Emmerich and Sellati’s characters bond. Mahendru too is a marvel, her beauty matched only by her talent at making us care so much about Nina. And Richard Thomas is great as a prickly bureaucratic supervisor as well.

  7. Terri says:

    The Americans is one of the best shows currently being produced.
    As far as how long it should go, hopefully it will make it through the Chernenko period into Gorbachev’s.
    It would be fascinating to watch the life of the family unfold in parallel with the life of the Soviet Union.

  8. Matrices says:

    In regards to the show having ‘never been one to drag out developments past their potency’, I would suggest that’s exactly what they’ve done with the pretend-marriage.

  9. Gary Brown says:

    Completely agree. Found this show while surfing the dish and am now an avid fan for past two seasons. As a child of the fifties, I would never root for the Russians, yet this show almost compels one to do so. Each episode is a jewel and the writers, actors and production staff are to be commended for resurrecting a time in America when political ideology was more intercontinental as opposed to our current issues.

  10. Dusntan says:

    Maureen, great summation and analysis of one of my favorite shows.

More TV News from Variety

Loading