This article contains light spoilers for The Americans seasons one and two…
When Breaking Bad finished its stellar five-season run in 2013, it felt like the natural end of TV’s “golden age”… or at least the era of our obsessive need to identify the “best show on TV.”
During the “golden age,” the rise of the TV drama to cultural importance was always tied with a dominant “ZOMG BEST SHOW EVER” show. This began with a story similarly framed around an anti-hero and criminal in 1999 with The Sopranos. From that moment on, the “golden age,” while impressive in scope, had one or two critically-adored dramas in the front of the pack waving the TV-as-art flag the hardest for the rest of the industry.
This is because for all of our nuance and intelligence as TV critics and viewers, sometimes our animal brains just want to know who is “top dog” so we can comfortably categorize the rest behind them. We could appreciate Lost, The Shield or Dexter and still be comfortable knowing that one of The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad or Mad Men is wearing the proverbial TV crown.
Those days are gone now, with Walter White gracefully exiting stage right and Don Draper soon to follow. And in their place is a Netflix and Amazon-ized new TV world order where dozens of TV shows could stake their claim to the “best show on TV.” Just take a look at critics’ top ten lists this year. Where for five years the biggest dramatic moment of any top ten list would be what show would finish second behind Breaking Bad or The Wire, there is a real sense of chaos this year. Shows like Review, Transparent, Fargo or True Detective can take the top spot on four different lists.*
*Even the usually level-headed grand-daddy of TV criticism Alan Sepinwall went with The Leftovers as 2014’s best show, revealing that 2014’s Breaking Bad vacuum has driven even the best of us all a little insane.
That kind of chaos is great for the TV viewer, who gets a diverse array of excellent TV shows to watch and year-end list fetishists (like myself). But that post Breaking Bad chaos also means there’s one show that’s not quite getting the respect it should.
In a TV era focused on parity, FX’s The Americans deserves the top-ten-list capping, water-cooler-dominating best drama on TV crown like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad of yore.
The Americans season one was an uncommonly smart, sharply written and perfectly-acted TV drama about Russian spies living undercover as an American family in Washington. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys starred as KGB agents so deeply undercover that they got jobs, paid their taxes, had kids and argued over parenting duty. But it wasn’t exactly the high art that your college English professor would make you study as though it were Steinbeck or Fitzgerald, let alone Chase, Simon or Weiner. At times it was unsubtle and a little too concerned with making sure viewers understood the dramatic similarities between marriage and espionage. Season two, however, can stand toe to toe with any other TV drama season.
In The Americans’ second season, Russell and Rhys as Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings had to confront their worst fear of their dangerous lives coming right to their doorstep. Another undercover KGB couple is brutally assassinated in a hotel room along with their teenage daughter.
The Jennings’, like so many other parents, must deal with the reality that the life they chose for themselves might not be the best one for their children. Unlike many other parents, however, this life may actually get the whole family killed. Fascinatingly, Philip and Elizabeth never fully doubt that the cause they’ve chosen is wrong, they just differ in how to engage in it without destroying their family.
The Americans is TV’s best drama because it takes the quiet fears we all have about adulthood and our responsibilities and frames it on a global, deadly frame. The real world is terrifying enough without Cold War era espionage, as evidenced by Henry and Paige Jennings’ (Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati) season one dalliance with a potentially dangerous drifter. It’s another thing entirely when you live literally behind enemy lines. It’s that dichotomy of the normal and the extraordinary that The Americans does better than any other show on TV currently. Take out the garbage; bug a diplomat’s office. Talk to the kids about their failing grades; kill undercover Afghan soldiers in a restaurant downtown. Sleep with your spouse; sleep with the enemy.
And while the substance is now firing on all cylinders, the style has always been perfect. From moment one of the pilot where Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” blares while Philip and Elizabeth hunt down crucial information, The Americans has presented a realistic and stylish interpretation of the ‘80s Cold War while the rest of the entertainment industry wasn’t quite ready to accept that the decade is acceptably old for a “period piece” yet. The cars, big eyeglasses and the low-tech gadgets fit as perfectly with the espionage and the American family motif as the ‘60s fit with the advertising industry, cigarette smoke and Madison Avenue on Mad Men. It turns out the paranoia of the Cold War is the perfect complement to the general paranoia of being a husband, a wife, a parent.
All of this big picture excellence wouldn’t matter though if the show couldn’t nail smaller, more intimate scenes. But it can go “quiet” as good or better than any other show on TV. Big television or film productions are like Major League Baseball 162-game seasons. There is enough much talent in the league playing so many games that everyone can basically be penciled in for 50 wins and 50 losses before the season starts, with the good and bad teams truly being decided on how they handle the remaining 62 games. In TV and movies, everyone starts off with “50 wins and 50 losses.” The camera people know where to point the camera and keep it in focus, the actors look attractive and can be charismatic and the very least and the screenwriters probably at least perused a William Goldman. But it’s the little things that make a difference between a Mad Men and a Playboy Club.
The Americans has so many “little” moments that range from intriguing to heartbreakingly perfect. Moments like FBI Agent Stan Beeman casually talking to his wife about her infidelity and realizing that he’s only upset because he knows he should be as an American male and that their marriage is over. Or the look on Philip’s face as he leads a kidnapped Israeli scientist to a plane to be extradited to the U.S.S.R. and the scientist can only cry about how his wife and children will think he abandoned them.
But my personal favorite from season two and perhaps the best five minutes on TV this year is a particularly uncomfortable sex scene between Philip and Elizabeth in season two’s second episode, “Cardinal.” Elizabeth discovers from Philip’s other wife, Martha (yes, Philip has another wife and yes things get very weird in love and war) that the deep undercover character that Philip plays with Martha, Clark, is very passionate and aggressive in their sex life. Intrigued, Elizabeth seduces Philip as Clark when he returns from Martha one night to see the “other” side of her husband. Elizabeth is soon overwhelmed by the experience, however, and collapses into tears why Philip must tear off his glasses and wig to comfort her. Was the sex too intense? Did Elizabeth think the undercover alias of Philip was the real Philip? Or was she just suddenly conscious and upset of the perverse weirdness of their supposedly normal life?
An important factor holding The Americans back from being considered TV’s best drama is that quite frankly: no one watches it. FX has largely neglected traditional Nielsen ratings in deciding whether to renew shows and like HBO seems to be more concerned about cultural relevance than butts in seats watching their shows. So there is little chance of The Americans being canceled before finishing the story it wants to tell but with the season two finale receiving 1.29 million viewers on first airing, it’s debatable how much cultural cache the show can realistically grab. Breaking Bad famously took a spectacular ratings jump in the middle of its fifth season due in large part of viewers’ ability to catch up on Netflix. But The Americans, like other FX dramas, is only available on the less-viewed Amazon Prime. Beyond that, the TV industry has just changed. Save for Sons of Anarchy and Walking Dead–style violent hits, audiences are more fractured than ever.
This is undoubtedly a good thing as it means more opportunities for a wider range of shows. Channels like BBC America and Sundance have followed FX and AMC’s lead in dedicating their programming to quality, further expanding our DVR’s into uncharted territories in search of quality. Still, in another era not so long ago, The Americans could have been considered the consensus best drama on TV…because that’s exactly what it is.
The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
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