Though we’re probably twenty years into the revolution of TV drama, the generally accepted canon is still a relatively thin one. Most critics would agree on a handful of shows — “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Six Feet Under,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “Deadwood.” Some with longer memories would suggest something like “Homicide: Life On The Streets,” those able to forgive patchy seasons or disappointing conclusions could fly the flag for “Lost,” “The West Wing,” “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” or “Battlestar Galactica,” and there’s probably a second tier of shows with a small but passionate following, shows like “The Shield” or “Justified.”
It’s hard to say which of the shows currently airing will take their place in the canon once they wrap up. “Game Of Thrones” seems to have locked down a place, “Orange Is The New Black” will likely get there. But the one that we’re most confident of, a show that returns this week, is one that, while critically beloved, doesn’t seem to have punctuated the pop culture and the TV establishment in the same way. But we’d put FX’s drama “The Americans,” which begins its fifth season tonight, up against the very best that we’ve had on TV in recent years.
Created by Joe Weisberg, a former “Damages” scribe and novelist who’d also served as a CIA agent for a few years back in the day, the drama debuted in January 2013, and quickly revealed itself to have as clockwork-perfect a premise for drama as any show could ask for. In brief: Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) Jennings are a seemingly perfect couple, living in suburban Washington D.C. in the early 1980s with their two children, running a successful travel agency, and living the American Dream.
Except they’re also Soviet sleeper agents, born and raised in the USSR, trained for years in everything from their accents to deadly martial arts, and deeply embedded in D.C. for more than a decade, they’ve developed a network of assets and sources that help them get intelligence back to their colleagues in behind the Iron Curtain. Already, it’s easy to see the potential of that premise, but Weisberg’s pilot script had a couple of twists in store.
One, the Jennings’ new neighbor and fledgling friend Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich, consistently superb), is an FBI agent recently returned to his family after years undercover with white supremacists, and is now helping to lead the charge to find Soviet agents for the bureau. And secondly, that while for years their marriage has essentially been one of convenience, Philip and Elizabeth appear, only now, to be falling in love (well, he’s secretly been in love with her for a while, but she’s starting to meet him in the middle).
It’s, first and foremost, a thriller, one with enough tradecraft, dead drops and brutal assassinations to satisfy any fans of the espionage genre. But in all honesty, it’s a show that’s about suspense rather than pure thrills, in the truest Hitchcockian sense of watching a bomb fail to explode. From the very beginning, the show’s built those unexploded bombs into its plotting, from Stan living next door, to the couple’s ever-curious daughter Paige (the terrific Holly Taylor, a rare non-annoying teenager in a prestige cable drama), to the now-adult son that Philip fathered back in Russia.
It’s a show that can find knuckle-gripping tension just by having the right combination of characters in a room together, from the knowledge that one slip-up could lead to life in prison or worse. It also keeps its rhythms unpredictable — characters might die or bombshells might be dropped, but not exclusively in a cliffhanging season finale like some series, just at the point where they make the most organic story sense, but can still be capable of shocking you. From the four seasons to date, it feels like a vice that’s slowly tightened and tightened and tightened on the two protagonists, even as they remain nominally free and without suspicion.
It’s not a show that only simmers, it should be said. It often has a wry, darkly funny tone, particularly thanks to Rhys, and is capable of pulling off great set pieces — the direction, by a top-notch team including Gavin O’Connor (who helmed the pilot) and Thomas Schlamme to Larysa Kondracki and Nicole Kassell, is almost always impeccable. Its use of needle-drops in particular is great, deploying unlikely ’80s favorites from Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” to Yaz’s “Don’t Go” to always memorable effect that often helps to bring real cool to songs long since dismissed as daytime radio AOR fodder.
For all the suspense and violence and New Wave pop soundtrack cuts, “The Americans” is an undeniably slow burn, and that’s probably why it’s struggled to catch on in the way that some shows have. The writing and direction is so dense, so unhurried, so full of characters and motifs that reflect, replicate or inform each other, that it’s actively harmed if you try to binge through it in a hurry. It’s best savored at a slower pace, and not everyone has that patience when you have twelve other shows to watch.