Best TV of the Decade, No. 17: “The Americans”

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If you spend enough time watching and analyzing television, you start to notice that, past a certain point, everything is relative. If a TV show is excessively bad, then any aspect of it which betrays even the slightest level of competence can be seen as brilliant. The Newsroom, for example, is among the most obnoxious TV shows of the decade, a preachy, ham-handed, self-righteous mess with more misogynistic dialogue than you can shake a MeToo hashtag at. It gets to the point that you begin valuing Jane Fonda’s recurring role or Will McAvoy’s therapy sessions – not because they’re particularly good, but because – compared to the rest of the show – they’re practically at the level of classic West Wing.

There’s a similar impulse from the opposite end of the quality spectrum. Every so often, there comes a TV series in which one aspect is so incredibly, perfectly well-done that the rest of the show pales in comparison. It’s not that the surrounding elements are bad, necessarily; they just don’t match up to that one sweet spot of perfection.

Which brings us, in true transitional fashion, to The Americans.

Premiering on FX in February 2013, The Americans was molded in the tradition of antihero shows pioneered in the 2000s, but also included elements of both family and historical drama. Set in the Cold War-fueled ‘80s, the story centered on Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), parents of a seemingly ordinary American family, who were secretly spies for the Soviet government. They kept their lives secret from their kids and neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent, even as they carried out plenty of murderous missions for the KGB.

On the whole, The Americans hits all the necessary marks. It’s well-made, it’s well-acted, it deals with challenging themes of love and loyalty. It’s rarely a “fun” show, but it was never intended to be – the constant threats of exposure and betrayal in a real-life war that neither side knew how to win are purposely dealt with in bitingly real fashion.

It’s all well and good, until you highlight one aspect: the family dynamic. More specifically, the relationship between Elizabeth and daughter Paige (Holly Taylor).

Mother/daughter relationships aren’t a strong suit of prestige drama, which tend to be male-dominated and don’t often focus on interpersonal family issues. But that only makes The Americans stand out more. In Elizabeth and Paige Jennings, showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields crafted one of the most impressive familial relationships of the decade.

Paige is initially unaware that her mother is a spy, and to all intents and purposes, lives a normal adolescent life. Will she be depicted as a whiny, overprivileged teenager in the vein of so many other cable-TV daughters not named Sally Draper? No, she actually develops in a natural and believable fashion, and soon proves to be an emotional rock for her conflicted mother. At one point, Paige begins to attend a church group. Will the show paint religion in broad, comical strokes, as is often Hollywood’s wont? No, Paige’s faith is treated seriously, and Pastor Tim soon becomes one of the show’s most interesting and pivotal supporting characters. Eventually, inevitably, Paige learns of her parents’ “other lives.” Will she go down the Dark Path and become the true evil spy of the family? No, the revelation only leads to further complications between her and Elizabeth. The development of the relationship between these two across six seasons is careful, measured, and fascinating.

Would that the rest of the show could measure up. A lot of The Americans, as stated earlier, is very good – its standout years are Season Two (which highlights the perilous relationship between Philip and Elizabeth, and their conflicting perspectives on Mother Russia) and Season Four (which detonates many of the show’s biggest character bombshells) – and some great episodes glitter all throughout the series. (The show’s best one-two punch comes in the third season, with “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” and “Stingers.”)

But as with many other ongoing dramas in our heavily serialized era, The Americans tended to drag things out. Characters like Nina and Martha were envisioned as having one or two seasons of life in them, but after proving popular with critics and fans, both were kept in the show far past their expiration dates. Other characters, like Gaad and Arkady, were given substantial screen time but never much development, and arcs like Mischa’s journey built to nowhere. The show’s fifth season, in a trend that claimed many penultimate years of television, is an exercise in drawn-out wheel-spinning almost as blatant as the fifth season of Justified, and though the sixth season picks up near the end, the finale doesn’t justify the time taken to get us there.

But a very good show with one excellent aspect still beats many of the competent but unremarkable prestige-TV wannabes of the decade. Though the antihero drama hasn’t the glossy sheen it once did, The Americans was a fine torchbearer for the genre that helped kickstart the Peak TV boom.

Tune in tomorrow for the 16th-best show of the decade, which proved that not everyone appreciates good music.

The List So Far

20. Person of Interest
19. Justified
18. Hannibal

9 thoughts on “Best TV of the Decade, No. 17: “The Americans””

  1. I am digging your list so far. I’ve actually never seen this criticism of The Americans before, but I think I agree with it. The show is mostly meandering outside of Season 4 and a few standout episodes elsewhere, and that really is down to its steadfast refusal to finish a storyline in a timely fashion. Things pretty much remain the same on most fronts for all 6 seasons, except for the soapy Phillip/Elizabeth squabbles in Season 1. And, of course, the Paige/Elizabeth story-line, which was definitely the strongest part of the series. It combined all the strengths of the show but also moved at a natural pace.

    Perhaps it was down to the fact that nothing too crazy could happen, as the show was set on a predetermined path-Phillip and Elizabeth were not going to win, but I still think they could have shaken things up a little more.

    Agreed about Season 6. I don’t know if it’s just me not noticing things, but I didn’t think the major character and plot turns were earned. Elizabeth actually choosing world peace over the hardline Soviet cause is a massive, massive moment for a woman so stubborn and unyielding in her beliefs, and it really came out of nowhere. If Young-Hee, the old woman from “Mail Robots”, and the lab assistant killed in Season 5 didn’t convince her that something was wrong, why would what occurs in “The Summit” do so? And Stan finding them out because they were absent on Thanksgiving one time? The show has compelling stories, but everything spins in circles until the very end. Nothing builds on previous seasons, from either a plot or character perspective. That’s what separates a good show from a great one. I guess you could level the same criticism at Justified, but at least Season 4 did have some consequences for the Raylan/Art relationship, and Season 5’s wheel-spinning did directly set up the scenarios that took place in Season 6. Again, maybe due to the setting, maybe due to the fact that The Americans went on too long. Which I definitely think is the case. The Americans should have been 3 or 4 seasons.

    I’d put it on the lower end of the list as well. I didn’t think it was that great a lot of the time, but for all my complaining, it was still far better than most of the other content on the air. Well-written, well-acted, and consistent.

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    1. I’m not certain this is the right place to get into a discussion of major plot points of The Americans, but Elizabeth never wavered from the idea of “the Soviet Cause”. The problem that Elizabeth had that caused her to rebel a little to the degree she did was entirely based on the actions of the KGB. In their opposition to Gorbachev, they were no longer fighting for communism, they were fighting for themselves to keep power. That’s not the ideals Elizabeth strove and sacrificed for.

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    2. The way the show started hastily resolving its arcs in the last few episodes was a turn-off for me in the final season, though others seem to disagree. It’s a problem that hurt the show for years, though (e.g. Gaad dying the moment his character ceases to be relevant).

      The family stuff was always what kept me coming back. (Well, at least on the Paige side – it occurs to me I didn’t even mention Henry’s name in this piece, and not without reason.)

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    3. > And Stan finding them out because they were absent on Thanksgiving one time?

      Would it have been better if Stan had gone to the Jennings’ guest bathroom to take a crap and chanced upon a copy of Das Kapital signed by Oleg while sitting on the toilet?

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      1. That reveal worked because Breaking Bad was frequently over-the-top (Gus straightening his tie when he has half his face blown off was another example). Hank was frequently shown to be a bit of a doofus, to the point where he’d never even consider his nerdy, pathetic brother-in-law to be a criminal mastermind. That, combined with Walter’s hubris in keeping Leaves of Grass, made it a dramatically satisfying moment.

        Stan already investigated the Jennings in the pilot, and found nothing. And they’ve been gone a lot over the course of the show. So it’s really odd that of all the times they’ve randomly been gone on trips, that’s the thing that finally wakes Stan up. It works, kind of. Thanksgiving is an important holiday, and Phillip really should have come up with something better. But it does feel sort of flimsy, and holds the final season back a bit from reaching true greatness, which I think it could have reached had the show been shorter and tighter.

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  2. I think you’re correct to point out that the Elizabeth/Paige relationship is a uniquely laudable aspect of the show relative to the macho antihero dramas of the 2010s which The Americans shares a lane with. It is not, however, the thing I think is most special about the show – just one of many laudable aspects of The Americans, like its clever use of its period setting.

    What I think is most noteworthy about the show, relative to its contemporaries, is that I don’t think any other shows this decade have handled the Trump era nearly as well as The Americans did: it’s a fantastic commentary on our current national situation, while smartly avoiding any sly wink-winks at our current national situation. Which is odd, because the show is, at its core, about foreign nationals who’ve infiltrated the US, who keep their true nationalities secret from their American-born children, and try to evade the government agency chasing down “illegals” on the jingoistic order of a newly-elected, possibly demented president.

    I think this is what makes season five so hated, actually: in a moment where the nation became obsessed with Russian disinformation, the show pulled back from the spycraft angle and doubled down on being an immigrant story. There’s a reason they devote so much time to Pasha and his family. You guys think the Misha plot dragged? Sure. But there are plenty of Mishas in the world, going on grueling and dangerous trips from their home country to join their families in America, only to be rejected entry and forced to turn back. Dramatically compelling, maybe not – but it certainly isn’t wheel-spinning.

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    1. Every season except for Season 6 was written before Trump’s election. It’s hard for me to really see that interpretation. I guess it’s possible, but if the writers really did mean to compare espionage to immigration, then that allegory *really* doesn’t work for me. Not gonna wade too much into this topic, so that’s all I’ll say about that. But I don’t think that’s what they were going for.

      Except for the Mischa plot. Because I actually can’t think of a single thing that plot accomplished dramatically besides what you brought up.

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      1. To be clear, I don’t mean that the espionage aspect of the show is an allegory for immigration – which would be problematic, given that Philip and Elizabeth are quite literally violent criminals. I mean the show is literally about immigration, and that the Jennings’ characterizations are very much defined by negotiating between their Russian and American identities. It’s a very specific kind of dynamic that I see a lot in immigrant households but not so much on TV.

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        1. Ah, I see. That’s a fair point-I see where you’re coming from now. Phillip and Elizabeth, on the whole, were very rich, realized characters. Matthew Rhys killed it whenever Phillip flew off the handle.

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