Let’s get one thing straight right away: The Americans is a show for grownups. Being a grownup is hard and messy and complicated—three adjectives that could be used to describe any of the characters or relationships on FX’s critically-acclaimed drama about Russian spies living undercover in a suburb of Washington, D.C., during the height of the Cold War. Being a grownup is also about realizing the world isn’t as black-and-white as you might have once believed it to be—a theme that goes to the very heart of The Americans as both as spy show and a family drama.
The Americans is a show to be savored, discussed, and thought about into the early hours of the morning after each episode ends. It’s also a show that deserves a bigger audience and more attention than it gets. So here are 10 reasons why you should catch up with the first two seasons of The Americans and watch as the third season unfolds Wednesday nights at 10 p.m.
1. Its themes are universal.
One of the most common ways to describe The Americans is to say it’s a spy show that’s actually about marriage and family. And aren’t all the best spy stories about more than just wigs (no matter how awesome they may be) and gadgets? They’re about secrets and identity and loyalty. The Americans takes those themes one step further by asking us to think about them within the context of marriage and family. What does it really mean to be intimate with someone? What secrets do we keep from our spouses and our children? What secrets are they keeping from us? What are our parents really like? These are the kinds of questions The Americans asks in every episode. Yes, it’s a show about Russian spies and FBI agents. However, most of its brilliance lies in the depths beneath its “spy show” surface.
2. You’ll actually like the kids.
In order for those universal themes of marriage and family to work, the family at the center of The Americans has to be one that’s easy to invest in. For many shows, this is where things begin to fall apart, because young actors are typically the Achilles’ heel of even the best shows. However, The Americans features perhaps two of the most engaging and likeable child actors on television. Keidrich Sellati is cute without being cloying as young Henry Jennings, projecting just the right amount of innocence. And Holly Taylor is turning in some of my favorite work on television right now as Paige Jennings. Paige is written and played with the kind of deft touch that teenage girls on television are hardly ever brought to life with. She’s moody and self-absorbed at times, but she’s also looking for the truth about so many things—who her parents are, who she is, and who she could be. Teenage girls’ ability to care deeply about things is often the subject of ridicule, but Paige’s passion and enthusiasm for figuring out her place in the world are treated with such wonderful respect. With Paige set to be an even bigger part of the story in Season Three, I’m so happy that both the writing for and performance of this character are as truly fantastic as they’ve been so far.
3. It features the best pair of scene partners on TV.
You can’t fake chemistry—you either have it or you don’t. And Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell have it. As Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the show’s central characters, they are asked to do so much in terms of their performances, and they always rise to the challenge, supporting each other every step of the way whenever they share a scene. The Americans is an unconventional love story about two people who have been in a fake marriage for 20 years finally trying to make it something real, and Rhys and Russell make you feel every step on that rocky journey, often without needing to say any words. They’re masters of silent communication, projecting incredible intimacy through gestures as simple as her holding his hand or him unzipping her boot. They’re able to have entire conversations using only their eyes that convey as much information and probably more emotion than they could using dialogue. Philip and Elizabeth have come to rely on the strength of their partnership, and the same can be said of Rhys and Russell. They’re two of the best actors on television right now who only seem to be getting stronger with each episode.
4. Subtlety isn’t a lost art anymore.
Rhys and Russell aren’t afraid to show all of the nuances of their characters on The Americans, and the entire show isn’t afraid to ask its viewers to pay attention. The Americans treats its viewers like adults; it respects their intelligence and doesn’t hold their hands. This show embraces silence and stillness. It’s confident enough to know when it would be effective to whisper—when just the slightest facial tick, change in posture, or shared glance is enough to clue the audience in on a character’s mindset or emotional state. And because it whispers so effectively, it makes the rare moments it yells even more powerful. For example, Philip’s explosive tirade against Paige in Season Two’s “Martial Eagle” wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling without the subtle, physical signs throughout the episode that he was crumbling from the inside out. The balance between small and big moments is difficult for many shows to strike on a consistent basis, but The Americans is like a symphony, always changing its volume and pitch to take its audience on an emotional journey that’s anything but obvious and one-note.
5. The supporting cast is an embarrassment of acting riches.
It would have been easy for The Americans to be a show where you lose interest every time the Jennings family isn’t the focus. However, thanks to the incredibly talented supporting cast, every storyline has enough internal and external conflicts to hold my attention. Noah Emmerich isn’t just the assistant coach from Miracle to me anymore. His work as Stan, a beleaguered FBI agent who lives across the street from the Jennings family, is layered and emotionally compelling enough to be center of his own show. Annet Mahendru is a revelation as Nina, Stan’s KGB asset-turned-lover, whose vulnerability is both her greatest weapon and her biggest weakness. Mahendru and others in the supporting cast deliver many of their lines in Russian, and there are times their performances are so strong I can’t even read the subtitles because I’m crying so hard at what they’re doing onscreen. Finally, Margo Martindale, who plays KGB handler Claudia, is one of the show’s biggest assets. Claudia is an impossible character to decipher, but Martindale always gives her just enough humanity to make you wonder if she really does care about Philip and Elizabeth. It’s so much fun to watch great actors sink their teeth into roles worthy of their talents.
6. There are no good guys or bad guys.
Because the entire cast of The Americans is so strong, it’s easy to become emotionally invested in every character’s journey. There are plenty of shows about “antiheroes,” but The Americans isn’t one of them. Instead, it’s a show about people who all think they’re doing heroic things—or who at least all started out thinking they were doing the right thing. The smartest thing about this show is the way it’s slowly revealing that people on both sides of the Cold War believed in what they were doing, but people on both sides also questioned whether or not what they were doing was right. The Americans isn’t a show that asks you to see the Russians as the good guys or as the bad guys. It doesn’t ask you to see the FBI as cocky idiots or patriotic heroes. It only asks you to see all of these characters as people, with families and lovers, demons and doubts, beliefs and passions. There are moments when, through the nature of the medium, you find yourself “rooting” for someone, but more often than not, you simply find yourself feeling for them—all of them. And that’s what great fiction does; it asks you to feel empathy for people and recognize the basic humanity so many try to ignore when pitting “us” against “them” in any conflict.
7. The 1980s references are an extra treat.
The Americans is often heavy, but it’s not above having fun every so often. And much of that fun comes from the 1980s pop culture and fashion references sprinkled throughout. Whether it’s Paige and Elizabeth fighting over legwarmers or the kids going to see an Indiana Jones movie, it’s always enjoyable to count the 1980s references in each episode. Many of those references come in the form of excellent musical choices—from “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins being used to signal a change in Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship in the pilot to Peter Gabriel’s “Games without Frontiers” playing in the background of a fantastic montage at the end of Season One. Season Three’s main trailer even got in on the act with the perfect choice of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.”
8. It’s not all about the plot twists…
Most spy shows are rife with enough plot twists to make your head spin, but The Americans isn’t known for its fast pace. It’s a show where missions and overarching plots are certainly important, but they’re often used as vehicles to develop the characters or push them into new emotional places. The emotional beats are just as important as the spy stories, and that balance between plot and character development is what keeps the show interesting.
9. …But the plot twists are still pretty amazing.
Because The Americans isn’t a show that relies on plot twists to keep viewers engaged, when plot twists do happen, they still feel shocking and hugely important. For example, the Season Two finale was filled with one twist after another, answering season-long questions in ways no one saw coming while raising huge new issues for all of its characters in ways that left me speechless. I love when shows can still surprise me, and I can honestly say that all of the major twists on The Americans have managed to shock me so far.
10. It will leave you with emotions you never expected to feel.
While the plot of The Americans often leaves me surprised, the biggest surprise I’ve had while watching this show is the way that it makes me feel deeply enough to cry for characters I never thought I could care about. I sometimes find myself thinking late into the night about how sad I feel for Martha, the woman Philip married under one of his aliases in order to get information from her. I’ve cried real, ugly tears over Nina and the men who love her, especially Oleg, who I was ready to write off initially as an unnecessary side character. I feel drawn to Paige’s story of self-discovery and finding a purpose in a way I never saw coming when I started watching the show. And I care so deeply about Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage that all it takes is a whispered “Come home” or a hug to turn me into an emotional mess. The Americans has a powerful secret weapon on its side that it wields with incredible precision, and that’s the ability to make you feel.