With “Breaking Bad” coming to an end last year and “Mad Men” starting its final season in a few weeks, there will very soon no longer be a safe, consensus pick for “the best show on TV.” That isn’t to say either of those shows were perfect, or that we should be in a rush to crown a new king; rather, the lack of consensus reflects how splintered the prestigious TV market has become. Judging by promos for FX’s “The Americans,” the network intends for their show to be another cult hit.
There certainly isn’t a shortage of shows clamoring to be named the next big critical hit, either. Showtime’s “Homeland” seemed like the obvious successor after coasting on the success of its excellent first season to a Best Drama Series Emmy in 2012 but has been unable to sustain its momentum. AMC, home of the two modern classics mentioned above, has struggled to launch another show to a similar critical reaction, but has managed to turn zombie show “The Walking Dead” into one of TV’s massive hits.
HBO has found some success with genre fiction in “Game of Thrones,” and just this year it launched “True Detective” by pulling in big-name movie stars. Netflix took the same approach with “House of Cards” and, more promisingly, has introduced some real diversity to the field with “Orange is the New Black.” I could go on, but I think the point is clear: We’re living in an era with an overwhelming abundance of quality television. The downside to this abundance of good TV is that shows without a flashy hook can easily go overlooked. FX’s “The Americans,” which airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m., is a perfect example—a solid, quietly confident show which recently kicked off its second season with little fanfare. Created by Joe Weisburg, an ex-CIA agent, the show is set in the late-Cold War era America of the 1980s, and “The Americans” is centered on a pair of Soviet spies embedded in deep cover on American soil as a perfect suburban family, complete with two entirely unaware kids. It’s a premise that sounds a little absurd, admittedly, but the show takes itself seriously enough that it works, and once you buy into that premise, the possibilities for psychological drama are bountiful.
The key to the show’s success is that it gives equal weight to both its espionage storylines and its domestic plots. Stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are equally adept at both, playing Elizabeth and Philip Jennings as both a compelling and engaging couple and as hyper-competent spies.
The Jennings family is the center of the show, and the excellent performances by Russell and Rhys are certainly one of the main attractions here, but Weisburg and his writers also structure the show around stories running parallel to its main thread. The best of these is the budding romance between FBI agent Stan Beeman, played by Noah Emmerich, and his Soviet mole Nina Sergeevna, played by Annet Mahendru. Partway through the first season, Nina, turned triple agent, uses her connection to Stan to serve her Soviet bosses.
Just as with the central romance between Elizabeth and Philip, the show doesn’t allow this plot line to be entirely black-and-white. Both characters clearly care about each other, but they’re both using each other as well. The focus on Nina also allows for a few scenes set in the Soviet embassy each episode, in which the dialogue is entirely in Russian with English subtitles, which is still a rarity on modern TV. On a smaller scale, episodes frequently require Elizabeth or Philip to wear disguises. This is, after all, a spy show, but the show is always careful to balance exciting espionage moments with deeper commentary on what these masks and false personas truly mean to its characters.
The show’s masterstroke, the aspect that truly makes it one of the best shows on TV, is how it advances the anti-hero trend television has been obsessed with ever since “The Sopranos” debuted 17 years ago. Whereas “Breaking Bad” gradually revealed the true extent of its protagonist’s monstrosity over the course of its run, “The Americans” refuses to offer any consistent moral position for its viewers. On a personal level, we want Elizabeth and Philip to be happy together, and when they’re out risking their lives and their cover on some mission we want them to succeed. But then the show reminds us what that success means on an institutional level, that our apparent heroes are actively working against the interests of the United States. This political and moral complexity extends to every part of the plot, from Stan and Nina’s tragic romance to the glimpses we get into the inner workings of both the FBI and the Soviet Embassy. There are no villains on this show, just men and women playing out enormous socio-political conflicts on a human scale.
While the first season featured all of these different elements, they didn’t quite fit together cohesively until the final few episodes. The constant give and take between Philip and Elizabeth got to be a little tedious, as each character seemingly rejected and then embraced their partner over and over again, but the season ended with their marriage stronger than ever.
Thankfully, the second season has carried that momentum forward and has built on it, featuring the strongest run of episodes yet. The fifth episode, “The Deal,” was particularly notable, as it separated its two protagonists for almost its entire running time and didn’t suffer in the slightest for doing so. “The Americans” may not have big, recognizable names in its credits, or awards buzz, or an especially flashy premise, but it doesn’t need those. Its sheer quality allows it to compete with anything else on TV right now.