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.