In the age of too much TV, Great shows are increasingly swamped out by the multitude of merely good ones. It’s getting harder and harder for us to decide which series to dedicate our precious spare time to. For the full article on Peak TV, what it means and its consequences, click here.
For reviews of our other current top-rated shows, see our posts on The Leftovers and Fargo. We believe these series are well on their way to establishing themselves as more than merely Great products of their age, but as stable members of the pantheon of All-Time TV Greats.
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Did you love Breaking Bad? Yeah me too. Remember that feeling of the tension just ramping up and the stakes rising as Walter White kept digging himself deeper and deeper in over his head? It was the ultimate MacGuyveresque thrill of how the hell is he going to get himself out of this one?
After it ended, I was left slightly dejected. AMC’s blockbuster wasn’t just any other Great show. It was a genuine All-Timer. I sat there enjoying my personal ongoing favourites like Justified and Hannibal – Great shows in their own right – but nothing could compare to the sheer intensity of experiencing BB. When would we ever see its like again?
Well, I was in luck, because what I didn’t know was that a curious little series, whose strong first season aired just as Breaking Bad ended, was about to take a serious leap in quality. Today, as I anxiously await its fourth season (which debuts this March), FX’s family-drama-meets-cold-war-thriller The Americans is the most exciting thing on television. Yes, you can keep your dragons and your midgets.
It’s the era of Peak TV. We don’t necessarily hear about the Great stuff anymore. Besides, most people only really heard about Breaking Bad just before its last eight episodes aired and the whole series got dumped on Netflix. The series finale made headlines with its 10.2 million viewers, but it had never even touched the 3 million mark before the final batch of episodes aired. Get in there early, ’cause the same thing is gonna go down with The Americans.
So, what’s it about and why am I so excited to get you into it?
Ok, so you know what it’s like when you begin to fall in love with someone? Those early steps in a romance, that feeling of making yourself vulnerable to another person, of really letting them into your intimate, true self?
Well, what if all that only starts to happen 16 years into your marriage with that person? How do you negotiate your way through those complex emotions when there’s already so much history, so much baggage between you?
That’s the most interesting concept behind The Americans. Created by former C.I.A. operative Joe Weinberg and set in the early ’80s, the series portrays the everyday lives of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, an ordinary couple with ordinary jobs, two ordinary kids and an ordinary home in suburban Washington DC. The very model of the suburban American Way. Except they’re not. In reality, the Jennings (Jenningses?) are undercover KGB operatives, trained specifically to speak, look and act as Americans in order to spy on US soil. So deep is their cover that, in their 16 years of marriage, they have never uttered a word to each other in their native Russian.
Even their American-born children are unaware of their parents’ activities, origin and ideology. Their jobs, their marriage, their whole life is a lie. Or is it?
How long do you have to pretend before it stops being an act? How long before the lie becomes truth?
Now, the premise of the show may excite you or not – but the real magic here is in how it’s handled. This isn’t the zany Dexter version of this concept, this isn’t Mr & Mrs Smith: the Jennings aren’t flippant or cute, they aren’t embarking on whacky adventures and they most definitely aren’t having fun. No, this is the scary, Breaking Bad version.
The Jennings are serious professionals. Dangerous, efficient and ruthless. The show never shies away from showing both the ugliness of what they do (including murdering innocents without hesitation if the mission requires it) and the impact is has on them. It’s pretty brutal.
I agree with myself that Breaking Bad is a perfect comparison. In many ways, The Americans is the spiritual heir to the exact type of thrill we used to get from Walter White’s shenanigans. Sure, there are differences. The Americans is more of an ensemble piece, and doesn’t have a singularly magnetic antihero at its center. It also avoids Breaking Bad’s more surreal elements and comedic proclivities. And in terms of texture and cinematography, it substitutes that warm New Mexico vibrancy for a tone that is as cold as a Soviet winter, and a visual palette that evokes the bleakness of late 70’s urban realism.
But like Breaking Bad, its world feels authentic and more than a little frightening. This isn’t Suits – here, things have real consequences. The stakes are insanely high and the threat of death is very real for every character.
Most of all, The Americans is every bit as unbearably tense as its illustrious predecessor. Much as you did when you were rooting for Heisenberg, you will spend hours biting your nails wondering how the Jennings are going to figure their way out of deadly tight spots.
Now let’s take a quick look at the main reasons The Americans is one of the best shows on TV.
1. Marriage has never been so interesting
I find the genius of The Americans lies mainly in the ways it asks simple questions about married life – how to be supportive, how to deal with infidelity and crucially, how to raise your children – yet imbues these with a sense of desperate urgency. The extreme and constant danger the Jennings are under means that any situation can result in discovery or death. All couples grapple with trust issues, but when Elizabeth and Phil wonder whether they can trust one another, they are aware that a misstep would not just be painful, but lethal. When their daughter develops an interest in Christianity, far from treating it as a trite subplot about teenage independence vs hands-on parenting, The Americans instead lays out the stakes: does this fit with the atheist fundamentals of their cause? How will this impact the KGB’s planned recruitment of Paige, as part of a new breed of American-born operatives?
That in particular is a very big deal. What if your employer sees your own children as an asset to be groomed and deployed? What if you’re not on board with them on how your children should be raised? And crucially, what if you and your spouse start to diverge on parenting philosophy? These questions may be the same as raised in a number of other family dramas, but against the backdrop of two nuclear superpowers attempting to undermine and destroy each other and the ruthless organisations at the heart of this battle, the stakes have never felt higher.
2. It’s emotionally realistic
Ok, look, I know the wig disguises look silly. And of course people are going to notice them – have you seen how hot Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are? No, I’m talking about emotional realism. It means that the characters act as those characters actually would in that situation. The Americans very rarely falls into the classic TV cliché where characters keep secrets way past any logic or purpose simply to milk the drama, and people do and say things for no other reason than the script requiring it.
Instead, the highly intelligent Jennings tend to act in the most highly intelligent way in any given situation, including revealing information when it’s actually needed in the story rather than when it would make for a good cliffhanger. The other characters also behave in accordance with what we understand their personalities and beliefs to be – this is a show where, from the KGB brass to the FBI agents, everyone is very competent, so it befits them to behave competently. There simply is no space for the idiot plot here. And even the dumb characters are dumb in consistent ways.
3. It features the best acting on TV
All my top three shows have great acting. Shit, Connie Coon in particular is absolutely phenomenal in The Leftovers. But The Americans has some of the most artful and subtle performances I’ve seen in recent years. This show simply wouldn’t work if the Jennings didn’t sell it and boy, do they.
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are called to act as people acting as though they’re not acting. The Jennings are trained to conceal their thoughts, emotions and even physical pain. The performers need to not only make us aware of all this even as the characters can’t, but also get us to empathise with them. It’s next level stuff. The rest of the cast is top-notch too. But let’s move on.
4. It’s frackin’ exciting!
Yes, this is really where The Americans has taken up Breaking Bad’s mantle. It’s simply the most exciting thing on television, other than the news. The elements of tension are expertly laid out at the beginning of every season and the suspense is gently ratcheted up, episode by episode, until things are so intense you feel like screaming at those Yanks and Soviets to just nuke each other already. And the fight scenes are fantastic. No movie fights here, with their stylisation and whiff of choreography – these are quick, brutal affairs where every blow has real physical impact. Nobody’s jumping out of windows, landing on cars and walking away from explosions intact.
So yes, just watch this. You’ll love it. The Americans is what Homeland would be if it hadn’t completely shit the bed after its debut season (wanna defend Homeland’s honour? Leave a comment and let’s discuss). In fact, in its second year The Americans vastly improves upon an already very solid season, leaping from being merely interesting to being truly Great. This is fun, intelligent and riveting television. I think you owe it to yourself to check it out.