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‘The Americans’ Bids for Best TV Drama

| Tuesday, March 18, 2014

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“True Detective” quickly came and went, a new season of “Mad Men” is still a month away, and now there are shoes to fill for TV’s best drama. Thankfully, creators Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have come to the rescue with their excellent FX series “The Americans.” This Cold War drama about KGB spies posing as a married couple flew under the radar in its first season, but the first few episodes of Season 2 prove the show’s intent to avoid a sophomore slump and become a 2014 standout.

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys star as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two Soviet KGB officers sent to the States in their early twenties as strangers to live as a married couple and work at a travel agency in the suburbs of northern Virginia. In the pilot, the couple and their unsuspecting children Paige and Henry (the terrific Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati) meet their new neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent assigned to take down the KGB.

This premise allows for some very complicated and gripping narratives (and I didn’t even mention Nina, Agent Beeman’s Soviet mole), but “The Americans” is ultimately a show about relationships and family. In an interview in Slate, Fields himself has asserted, “at its core [it’s] a marriage story. International relations are just an allegory for the human relations. Sometimes, when you’re struggling in your marriage or with your kid, it feels like life or death. For Philip and Elizabeth, it often is.”

These multi-layered themes make “The Americans” an incredibly smart show, achieving the perfect balance of thrilling spy stories and compelling tension on the home front. As an attestation to the superb character development, viewers are shaped to cheer for Russian spies and American FBI agents simultaneously, a seemingly impossible task that “The Americans” accomplishes skillfully. And as a period piece, it’s absolutely dynamite; the use of pop music in particular is effective in capturing the early ‘80s Reagan-era feel (or so I’m told).

That’s not to say that there weren’t some bumps in the road in the first season of the show: some of the pacing and use of flashbacks were awkward, it took a while to gain momentum and the writers failed to incorporate Paige and Henry as more than just inconveniences in most cases. However, just as you would hope for any show that transitions from its first season to the second, “The Americans” played to its strengths and fixed what didn’t work.

For instance, the show quickly finds multiple ways to emphasize how important Paige and Henry are to both their parents and the series as a whole. In the premiere of this season, Philip and Elizabeth’s comrades get into serious danger on a mission that ends up with them murdered in their hotel room and their only son walking in to see the dead bodies. This is a huge wake-up call for Philip and Elizabeth: as the stakes get higher, they have to protect their children from not only the continuing danger, but also from the truth of who they really are.

All of these ramifications that are coming to a head in this season of “The Americans” make it the most compelling drama of the year thus far. If you were waiting to see if it was a show worth catching up on, let me assure you that the first three episodes of this year alone prove it to be so. History may have already written the end for Philip and Elizabeth, but it’s certain to be quite a ride.

Season one of “The Americans” is available for streaming on Amazon Instant, and you can catch new episodes on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on FX.

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About Kevin Salat

Kevin is a junior from the suburbs of Chicago pursuing a degree in Marketing. He is currently studying abroad in Shanghai, China.

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