Entertainment

02.26.14

Why ‘The Americans’ Is the Best Spy Show on TV

How the second season of FX’s ‘The Americans,’ which will premiere Wednesday night, overcame the sophomore slump and bested ‘Homeland’ by reinventing itself.

The second season of The Americans—the hourlong FX drama about a pair of married Russian spies (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) masquerading as an apple-pie American family in suburban Washington, D.C. at the height of the Reagan Era—is just as smart, gripping, and propulsive as the first. And that's no small feat.

Sophomore seasons can be tricky. Back in the day, a show could limp along for a season or two before finding its voice. In fact, that's how some of the best shows ever started out. Go watch Season 1 of The Simpsons, for example. Or Seinfeld. They're kind of ... uncomfortable. 

But now there are so many good series on so many different channels that breathing room has become an impossible luxury. Competition for viewers—and cultural cachet—is fierce. If Season 1 is a hit, the pressure is on to prove it wasn't a fluke. If Season 1 isn't a hit (and somehow the show survives anyway), the pressure is on to prove that the plug shouldn't be pulled the next available opportunity. Either way, the pressure is on—which has a way of squeezing, straining, and stretching a series into strange, unflattering shapes. Ultimately, you wind up with things like Season 2 of Friday Night Lights, with its juvenile Landry-Tyra murder subplot, or Season 2 of The Killing, with its desperate elongation of a mystery that should have concluded at the end of Season 1.

Above all, you wind up with Homeland—a show that privileged commercial considerations over creative logic and kept Marine-turned-POW-turned-Al-Qaeda-terrorist-turned-congressman-turned-CIA-double-agent Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) alive far past his Season 1 expiration date in order to exhaust every last permutation of his love-hate romance with bipolar Langley officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). As a result, the series cratered at the end of Season 2 and never really bounced back. 

At first glance, The Americans seems like Homeland's retro cousin. The spies. The international intrigue. The bureaucratic infighting. Even the basic structure is the same: a man and a woman struggling to keep their relationship alive amid the slings and arrows of outrageous counterintelligence. But Season 2 of The Americans makes none of the same mistakes that Homeland made, and the reasons why are revealing. The Russian spy saga was simply better crafted from the start. 

A little background before we proceed. Soon after news broke in 2010 that federal prosecutors had accused 11 normal-seeming U.S. residents of "being part of a Russian espionage ring, living under false names and deep cover in a patient scheme to penetrate what one coded message called American 'policy making circles,'" writer Joe Weisberg received a call from a television producer asking if he wanted to spin the story into a show. Weisberg said yes, but he wasn't quite sure how to pull it off. The stakes didn't seem high enough—largely because America no longer views Russia as its mortal enemy. But then Weisberg had a clever idea: why not create a period piece

The Americans could have repeated the pattern of Season 1; it could have kept its sights set on the ups and downs of coupledom.

And so we got a series about Soviet sleeper agents undercover in America at the dawn of Ronald Reagan's inherently dramatic Cold War presidency—seducing sources, eavesdropping on the enemy, and kicking ass in hand-to-hand combat. Or so it seemed. What The Americans actually turned out to be was something more subtle and surprising: a metaphor about the complexity of marriage. Philip and Elizabeth were bred as spies in the Sixties, then paired off as spouses and sent to America to pose as travel agents. She's the icier of the two—more Soviet. He blends in a little better. 

It's an unusual scenario, to put it mildly, but that's kind of the point. The ebb and flow of the Jennings's murderous made-for-TV marriage—the subtle shifts in affection and loyalty; the lies and half-lies and sudden moments of emotional clarity—mirror the ebb and flow of a normal domestic partnership; the espionage stuff simply throws the familiar contours and challenges of matrimony into sharper relief. When Season 1 began, Elizabeth was inclined to view the relationship as a mere cover story. Then Philip did something chivalrous—I don't want to spoil it for readers who are only discovering the show now—and Elizabeth's feelings deepened. But complications and betrayals came between them, and as the finale approached, they decided to separate. By the time Season 1 ended, The Americans had become the wisest portrayal of marriage on TV since Friday Night Lights. 

If that makes the series sound like a slog, my sincerest apologies. Trust me: it's anything but. Another reason Weisberg set The Americans in the 1980s is that he served as a CIA spy back then, and he brings a granular, first-person knowledge of tradecraft—interrogation, surveillance, encryption, dead drops, disguises, and so on—to bear on every episode. Homeland is at its best when it veers away from soapy romance and returns to its roots, but actual espionage got less and less screen time after Season 1. The Americans, in contrast, never strays far from the operation at hand, and it's more grounded—and fascinating—as a result. 

The FX drama also has a better sense of humor about itself than Showtime's flagship series, which is serious to the point of self-parodyThe Americans never goes too long without slapping a frumpy wig on Elizabeth or cueing up some Peter Gabriel on the soundtrack, and there's a vein of dark irony in nearly every scene: Philip lets his daughter believe he's an average American dad but scolds her for betraying his trust; Elizabeth has to listen to Martha, the wife of Philip's alter-ego, Clark, wax rhapsodic about Philip's prowess in the sack.

The Americans is such a zippy ride, in fact, that as Season 1 wore on, some critics started to fret that it was going overboard. "The show is killing off significant characters at such a rapid rate, without having set up comparably rich characters to replace them, that I worry that executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields are sacrificing long-term dramatic solidity for the "Oh, shit!" factor that drives so much of dark cable drama," wrote New York magazine's Matthew Zoller Seitz. In four successive weeks, four major characters were offed. (To avoid spoilers, I won't say which ones.) 

But the culling turned out to be another clever decision, and the first few episodes of Season 2 prove that killing your darlings can be better for your creativity than keeping them alive. Now the series is focused on its four most compelling figures. There's FBI counterterrorism agent Stan Beeman—a repressed, pitch-perfect Noah Emmerich—who also happens to be the Jenningses’ neighbor. There's Nina, the Soviet woman he loves—played by intoxicating, inscrutable newcomer Annet Mahendru—who started out as his mole but secretly turned against him (or maybe not). And of course there's Philip and Elizabeth: roles to which the haunted Rhys and poised Russell bring endless layers of tenderness, intelligence, and brutality. Everyone is up to something. Everyone is a double-agent. No one can be trusted. 

As Season 2 begins, Elizabeth and Philip are back together; she returns home after recovering from a gunshot wound. Sure, The Americans could have repeated the pattern of Season 1; it could have kept its sights set on the ups and downs of coupledom. But right away a drop goes wrong and the two Jennings children are put at risk. Suddenly, the show isn't just a metaphor about marriage; it's a metaphor about parenthood as well. "All these years, I never worried about Paige and Henry being safe," Elizabeth says. "How are we going to live like this?" 

For three seasons, Homeland was too terrified to cut its Carrie-Brody life-support system. By playing it safe, the show suffered. But The Americans is already reinventing itself. Why? Because it has the confidence to know that it's about more than the relationship between two specific characters. Rather it's about the idea of relationships in general, in all their intricacy and weirdness—the secrecy they require, the comfort they create, the confusion they entail, the danger they can unleash. And that never gets old.