There’s a lot of TV that I’m ashamed to admit that I watch. But I’m even more ashamed to admit the TV that I don’t watch.
I’ve yet to watch Black Mirror, despite all of Twitter trying to bully the world into watching it. I’ve told myself it’s because I don’t have time to check it out, and yet I spent six hours on Sunday watching a marathon of Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta—Lori and Monte are my spirit animals—and then two episodes of Stacey London’s new WEtv show that aired after it. Masters of Sex and Olive Kitteridge still sit on my DVR, but I recently rewatched an entire season each of 30 Rock and Sex and the City.
And while I am absolutely certain that I will love every second of Rectify once I bother to watch it, I am even more certain that I will enjoy the rerun of Chopped that is undoubtedly on TV at any given moment, too. I enjoy watching Chopped so much that I even cried during a recent episode. (The competitors were small-town lunch ladies! I’m only human!)
But there are occasions when the shame over what I am watching and the guilt over what I’m not watching are too great for the shenanigans to continue. Enter: The Americans.
There are only so many times I can pass a billboard for The Americans and say, “I’m going to start watching that,” knowing full well that I am just lying to myself. There is only so much of the flood effusive praise for this FX espionage thriller/marital soap opera that I can face without being drowned by it.
So I have decided to come up for air. I have decided to face my shame head-on. I have decided to watch The Americans, which premiered its third season Wednesday night.
And if this really is a safe space where I can be honest enough with all of you to admit these things, I also need to be honest with myself: There is no way on Oprah’s green earth that I am going to watch the 26 episodes that have already aired in the two previous seasons of this show. Don’t have the time. Don’t have the patience. Don’t have the willpower.
Will I be shortchanged by jumping in cold turkey on Season 3? Well, this is the perfect time to employ my life philosophy: “Meh.”
To be fair, there were a few things I knew about The Americans before dipping my toes into the Season 3 premiere. They are spies who are married. Felicity (Keri Russell) is better than ever as the female lead and Adorable Gay Kevin from Brothers and Sisters (Matthew Rhys) is now straight and apparently delivering the performance of his career.
I knew that Margo Martindale has a guest arc, which, really, should’ve been enough to get me watching in the first place—she even conned me into watching a few episodes of The Millers, and I’ve only recently forgiven her. I knew that Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys 69-ed in an episode and it was scandalous and hot and awkward. And I knew that it was good.
69-ing and quality television? I’m already on board.
From what I gathered in Wednesday night’s Season 3 premiere, Elizabeth Jennings (Russell) and Philip Jennings (Rhys) are KGB spooks posing as a happy American husband and wife. They have a fake marriage that has somehow become sort-of real. A Mr. and Mrs. Smith situation with more realism, a slower burn, and less Jennifer Aniston victimizing.
The evolving intimacy and blurred legitimacy of the Jennings’ marriage imbues The Americans, which is so very clearly about the world’s most fucked up marriage more than it is about espionage, with deep questions about trust, dependency, and ambition. It also sets up some crazy, screwed up stuff with their family (aka some GREAT television). The KGB wants Elizabeth and Philip’s daughter, Paige, who has no clue as to her parents’ real identities, to enter the family business. As an American-born teen raised oblivious to her parents’ spy lives, she could infiltrate the U.S. government at levels her parents could never do.
Should Elizabeth and Philip comply? Or should they protect their daughter? Umm…Whaaaa?!
The Americans does that thing that great TV shows do. It reflects back your own life to you in relatable ways (how will the way we are raising daughter affect her future?) and then escalate the stakes to unfathomable levels (should we tell her that we’re Russian spies, force her to be one too, and take away any hope she has of ever being normal?).
As far as the espionage stuff goes, I had not a damned clue what was going on. I assume that after a few more episodes, puzzle pieces will start fitting together in a way that makes more sense to someone who is tuning into the show without the history of the first two seasons. I also assume that these spy games are secondary to the emotional cat-and-mouse being played here between the central characters, which I am already following with baited breath and engrossed glee.
While there are extended, subtitled scenes in Russian that I imagine I’d have more tolerance for if I wasn’t a neophyte viewer, there are also kickass streetfights between Keri Russell and Richard Thomas, who plays a member of a FBI counterintelligence team. And there is a naked strangulation scene that was as psychologically intricate as it was erotic and violent.
From just one sampling, there’s a cocktail with hints of Alias and Homeland with a shot of Orphan Black—what with all the false identities—all stirred into the emotional acuity of Mad Men and the earnest family strife of, say, Parenthood. That is a very heavyhanded booze metaphor that is all to say that, after one episode, I am drunk on love for this show.
It’s not easy to hook a viewer who is being thrown into the deep end of a show without a preexisting affection for the characters, or without enough of an understanding of the plot to make them care about what is happening even though they don’t comprehend the significance of little details and twists.
It’s even more impressive with a show like The Americans, a series that has expertly finessed its dramatic pacing, but has settled on an extra-slow burn other thrillers (cough, Homeland, cough) would never have the creative confidence to ease into. In the age of whiplash plot twists and the “why wait for the finale what we could settle in Episode 3” mindset, The Americans is all the better for its insistence on patience. The richness of the relationship it has cultivated between Russell’s Elizabeth and Rhys’s Philip speaks to just that.
They’re at odds with how to treat their marriage, how to balance their own career-mandated infidelities, how to reconcile their misaligned ideologies, and how to reconcile their misaligned opinions on whether to indoctrinate their daughter into their lifestyle—a decision that doesn’t just affect her family, but, you know, an entire nation.
Those are tensions and stakes that, admittedly, are far more engrossing than those on an episode of Say Yes to the Dress…or at least most episodes.
This is a fantastic show. Now, I’m finally free of shame for having watched it, which is of course good for one glorious thing: now I get to shame all of you.
Have you watched The Americans yet? No? Well. You must be so embarrassed.