When The Americans debuted last year it was a promising new show for FX, it mixed the the suspense of a Cold War era thriller with the nuance of a family drama. The first season laid a fantastic foundation for the series, and it ended up on a lot of critics best-of lists at the end of the year. I really enjoyed the first season. I thought that both of the lead performances (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys) were excellent, as was the supporting cast. The writing isn't always of the caliber of the more prestige shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, but the writers have a very deft feel for pacing, which is important given the balance between cold blooded espionage and passionate family value that plot is so reliant on. The show also does an excellent job in capturing the Cold War era; both in the incredible wardrobe (the wigs are amazing) and set design, and the superb soundtrack.
The basic plot of the show is that two Russian spies, Elizabeth (Russell) and Peter (Rhys) Jennings have been paired by the USSR to work as a spy couple inside the Unites States. Over the twenty years they have worked in the United States they have had two children and have tried to assimilate as much as possible to life in the US, both for the work and for the sake of their family. Here-in lies much of the drama of the show, as we learn more about the two main character's lives, we see how difficult it is for them both to live down the lies that they have to tell themselves and others to be able to effectively do their jobs. During the first season the stress fractures that develop in the Jennings marriage and our two Russian spies have to find a way to effectively serve the mother country, and be there for their children, all while trying not to be killed by US agents.
When you watch The Americans you always get the feeling that Peter and Elizabeths lives are hanging by a thread. The couple two are always at odds at one another, but show has a way of making it clear that the two desperately need each other to survive. It's a really compelling dynamic. Imagine getting thrown into an arranged marriage, shipped to another country to commit acts of covert war, and only have this relative stranger to rely on. There's a bond that forms between the two that is stronger than love in a lot of ways - a bond made of respect, trust, and need - but neither is sure if they are actually in love with each other. This nebulous connection creates a strain on their relationship strong enough that, by the end of the first season, the two decide to separate - a separation that doesn't last for reasons that I will not go into here.
Did I mention there is also a lot of crazy action sequences and more Cold War spy tropes than you can shake stick at? When I think about classic spy novels I think about things like dead-drops, bugging an embassy office, sleeping with a mark for information, and shadowy figures their pray. The Americans is like a college level survey course on these topics. The action sequences in this show are as good as you are going to see on TV, both Russell and Rhys are believable as bad-ass Russian spies. They also are believable as a husband/wife duo who have absolutely no idea how to justify their life of crime with their domestic life. There are times when either person has to sleep with a mark as part of their job, then come home to their significant other. The show doesn't just sweep the repercussions of a lifetime of planned infidelity under the rug, and the performances capture the weight of this sustained double life.
The premiere of season two was tonight, and it seems like the how has stayed on course from where it left off at the end of the first season. There are a still a hundred plates spinning, and one wrong move could get the Jennings killed. The first episode made it clear exactly what is at stake for Peter and Elizabeth, especially when it comes to the safety of their two children. I like that this show is able to have amazing action set pieces and sexy rendezvous without the show ever feeling like it is going for cheap thrills. Every bullet shot and every infidelity comes with consequences, and that gives The Americans a dramatic weight that grounds it. No matter how many wonderful wigs and disguises the Jennings put on while in the service of the KGB, we know exactly who they are. They feel real in a world where nothing is supposed to be real. I mean that as high praise.
You can check out the first season of The Americans on Amazon Prime Streaming, or on Blu-Ray. The second season is currently airing Wednesdays at 9PM CT.