Sometimes it takes a little while for a show (or a series of books, or games) to find their footing. I’ve recommended Parks & Recreation to many people over the years, with the proviso that they just sort of have to suffer through the blessedly short first season to get to the good stuff.
The Americans starts out strong, gets even better in the second season, and has a final hour that I’d put in the top five or so I’ve ever seen in my life.
That’s not to say the show didn’t change over time. When you watch the first episode, you immediately get some strong impressions: intense ’80s spy theatrics–complete with amazing musical cues–and the sort of interpersonal drama that no modern prestige television show can go without. Sweet wigs and Mission: Impossible gadgets. And, of course, ridiculously attractive leads.
The first big thing is the least surprising if you know anything about the show: the main characters are, very definitely, not The Good Guys. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play deep-cover Soviet agents who, when the first episode begins, have been in the US long enough to have had two children together. Their marriage is all part of the cover… except, as becomes painfully obvious almost immediately, that’s not really the case for Philip, Matthew Rhys’ character.
One of The Good Guys then moves in across the street: Stan Beeman (played by the always-awesome Noah Emmerich), a man who happens to work for the counter-intelligence branch of the FBI, trying to root out the very people who live across the street. This is the sort of Dramatic Tension you expect in a drama such as The Americans. Except: Philip and Stan become best friends. Not, like, fake-y bullshit side-eye buddies, but genuine compadres.
And then things get more and more complicated from there.
After the first season, the show begins to concentrate more on the relationship between Philip and Keri Russell’s Elizabeth, although the spy stuff is still a major part of the plot and often drives entire episodes. Elizabeth in particular is perhaps one of the best studies in contrast when it comes to character motivations: on the surface, she’s Felicity all grown up, a suburban businesswoman and mom who loves her kids. Under the surface? Hard as nails and Red as can be. Russell plays brilliantly on the expectations of viewers who remember her ingenue turn in that first big WB hit series, somehow simultaneously evoking her previous big role while aggressively subverting it. And Matthew Rhys knocks it out of the ballpark as the saddest man on television.
Like Game of Thrones, there are young cast members–the Jennings’ kids–who could easily make or break an entire aspect of the show. And like Game of Thrones, the casting department lucked the hell out with the most important one. Holly Taylor plays Paige, the older daughter, as someone who is both aware that something weird is going on and aggressively trying to believe her parents are just Normal American Parental Units.
I don’t want to say too much more about what happens in the show, because the plots are fascinating to watch unfold. You get to see some multi-year train-wrecks unfold on the screen. And lots and lots of fantastic wigs. Not to mention the best robot on TV since… well, I don’t know when there was any robot more awesome than Mail Robot.
Just… watch it. It’s one of the best television shows I’ve ever seen, it asks a lot of serious questions about purpose and truth and family, and somehow it managed to use “With or Without You” as a music cue in a way that, once it’s over, you’ll realize it never could have been any other song. If that isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is.
[The show is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and is available for purchase digitally basically everywhere.]