We live in an era of great television. The idea that TV is better than movies isn’t even a bold statement anymore; it’s just a fact usually greeted with a halfhearted shrug and a “Whaddya gonna do?” The funniest part, to me, is that due to the tyranny of the PG-13 rating, even what was thought to be the exclusive purview of movies — blood and nudity — is now more often seen on the small screen. The essential problem is well known: in an era of great television, good television can fall through the cracks. But what if this happens to great TV? What if this happens to a show with the potential to crack the all time list?
That’s what I’m talking about today. I’m talking about the FX show The Americans, which is already the greatest spy show ever made and is flirting with pantheon levels here. While I’m not ready to put it there yet, mostly because it’s not over, I would stack these first three seasons against the first three seasons of any other show. Ever. Yes, even The Wire.
So what is this show that has me so tied up in knots that I’m comparing it to the consensus best show of all time? It’s the height of the Cold War in the early 1980s, when the USA and USSR were a couple inches from armageddon and fashions weren’t in much better shape. While most shows would be about the heroic American agents fighting to prevent the end of the world, The Americans inverts the premise. The heroes are the Russian spies in deep cover as average Americans, doing the sorts of morally gray acts that we demand of our clandestine agents, but without the comforting sheen of “doing it for the right side.”
And that’s the first part of the genius of the show. The Cold War, which we are used to seeing from the side of the USA, we are now seeing from the Russian view. While both political parties in the modern day are intent on canonizing St. Reagan, it’s easy to forget he was an utter disaster as a president, and for our enemies, he was viewed — with some justification — as a dangerous madman. He wasn’t the only one. It was a Russian submarine officer who chose not to escalate the Cuban Missile Crisis to a nuclear exchange, and it was a Russian missile commander who chose not launch in 1983 when everyone — and his own instruments — told him to. While I’m not so naive as to call the Soviets “the good guys,” they don’t deserve the brand of villain simply because they lost.
That’s the second point. Our heroes, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) — and we still don’t know their full Russian names three seasons in — are fighting for the losing side. Unless this is an insane alternate history, they will lose. They have no idea, and in fact believe they are doing all they can to support what they feel are the good guys. The show first explores the way the US was on the wrong side of history as Reagan was a huge supporter of South Africa’s apartheid government, then the ways in which the US is repeating the mistakes of the USSR with the war in Afghanistan. Again, it’s a mistake to think of either side as “good” or “evil,” but it provides both context for the struggle and convenient morality points. “Of course we’re right,” Elizabeth might say, “we’re fighting the right wing apartheid state.” She chooses to ignore that this is only the case because the US chose the other side.
The pitch of this show could have been trite. Had it just been one Russian agent, a man, with an American wife and kids who have no idea what he’s up to, it would be like the spate of anti-hero shows out there: The Sopranos, The Shield, Breaking Bad, and so forth and so on. These shows are great, but the male anti-hero family man is getting a little stale. Instead, The Americans casts a couple — Elizabeth with as much if not more agency than Phillip — and places them in the role of anti-villains. They are not characters doing the right things for the wrong reasons, but the exact opposite. When they do something horrible, they both have moments of understated grief, trying to understand that while what they did was wrong, they will save many more lives in the future.
This led to an incredible moment in a recent episode, when Elizabeth calmly forced a woman to kill herself to conceal their break-in of a factory. The two had a companionable conversation, and as the old woman drifted away, Elizabeth was fighting back tears. She promised the woman that she would not hurt her son, and when all the artifice was stripped away, Elizabeth had to accept her victim’s judgment. It was a quiet, beautiful, haunting scene that was more affecting than the deaths of long term characters. We’d known this old woman for maybe twenty minutes, but the quiet dignity of her performance, the coiled grief of Keri Russell’s, and the magnificent writing, elevated her into a ghost Elizabeth will carry with her the rest of her days.
The weak link in any show like this is inevitably the children, but The Americans has learned from the lessons of other examples. The elder child, Paige, has been searching for who she is (partly because she subconsciously knows her parents haven’t been honest about who they are), and the writers bravely pulled the trigger on the revelation that’s been stewing from the first episode. We’re not waiting around for Walter, Jr. to look up from breakfast long enough to discover his father is Satan. We get to see Paige fight through that. Even the thankless role of Second Child has been better than in any other series. Though their younger son Henry is often shunted to the background, here the show acknowledges this, and lets that be a function of his parents leaving him in the background as well. He’s unmoored, and unlike Paige, who searches for a larger group to belong to, Henry has not even that much direction.
With all of this roiling around, it would be easy to forget the spycraft. The Americans features easily the best ever seen on television, combining clunky ‘80s tech, an array of bizarre wigs, honeypots both sexy and extremely not, and emotional stakes usually absent in ice cold spy fiction. While Elizabeth and Phillip’s marriage was a creation of their masters in the KGB, they spent the first season falling in love, and now their extramarital trysts, necessary to ensnare assets, have an element of tragedy to them. Every betrayal, even though there have been too many to count, still hurts a little. The tiny confessions between them now have barbs.
The Americans is the best show on TV right now, without qualification. It manages to walk the line between prestige programming and pulpy fun. Why should we sacrifice sexy thrills for very serious points? Well, thanks to The Americans, we don’t have to.