The Americans, Season 1 (2013)

The first thirteen episodes of Joe Weisberg’s The Americans reminds me of the first season of Homeland (2011), which I consider one of the most intense, practically-perfect TV seasons ever. Here’s the difference: Homeland took four episodes to spin up before letting rip; The Americans nails its environment, characters, and never-stop plot twists right from the start. What the shows have in common is spectacular acting, and the kind of multilayered insight into human relationships more often found in literature than pop entertainment. The Americans is also funnier, bleaker, and makes better use of period music. Joshua Rothman writes in The New Yorker: “Watching it, you feel both dread and delight — a bitter kind of happiness. It’s the whiskey sour of television shows.”

Weisberg is a former CIA officer who became a writer. The idea for The Americans came partly from his interest in the “illegals program,” uncovered by the FBI in 2010. That was a network of Russian sleeper agents posing as US citizens, some married to each other (some even had children.) The spy ring was mostly inept, characterized by sloppy tradecraft; none of those uncovered and deported were charged with espionage, because there wasn’t evidence they’d passed classified information. One can imagine Steven Soderbergh making a contemporary off-center comedy from the pathos, but Weisberg moves the story back to the 1980s, and his spies are grimly professional.

The Americans stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as KGB officers posing as a married couple in Washington, D.C. They have two children, run a travel agency and live in an upscale suburb – they also put on fabulous wigs, steal secrets, and kill people. The plot construction is intricate and thrilling, like a Shonda Rhimes series, and though it’s all two steps beyond plausible (I don’t question the existence of such agents as much as their raising two kids and running a business after spying all night), Weisberg is actually using the scenario to dissect the concept of marriage itself. As the episodes progress, deceptions and betrayals multiply and circle back on themselves, then get refracted by a growing cast of supporting characters. (The title of the series gains meaning as the story builds.) Weisberg and the creative team make great use of flashbacks to open up new meanings, similar to Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black, another show that’s primarily concerned with human relationships.

Also like Orange is the New Black, The Americans is fascinating in its exploration of women, with some of the most interesting female characters (and some of the best acting) on TV. Kerri Russell is literally a chameleon as she changes disguises (kudos to the costume and makeup teams), but it’s her portrayal of the emotional turmoil of a self-reliant woman trying to open up and finally trust that amazes. Margo Martindale goes deep as a mother-bear antagonist – her interactions with Russell in particular are a gripping (and in one case, mordantly funny) rumination on the difficulties of mother/daughter relationships. Alison Wright is a daffy comedienne, imbuing her straight role as a naïve executive secretary with shades of humor and heartbreak via her constantly changing array of facial expressions. At another extreme, Annet Mahendru is preternaturally still, eyes and body language constantly at odds, as a mouse trapped between predators and trying not to upset either into devouring her.

Matthew Rhys and Noah Emmerich (as FBI agent/neighbor/troubled husband) are also wonderful, and many other shows would be content just to explore the ying/yang of their mirrored lives, as they circle each other warily. It’s testament to Weisberg’s team that while this alpha male theme is explored and built upon, it complements rather than dominates the psychic space of the series as a whole. As the KGB husband, Rhys is allowed more emotional latitude than Russell’s badass bitch (the kids prefer Dad), but the two intensely charismatic leads are well matched and share a lived-in chemistry that sells the entire concept.

The production design is a treat, transporting this 80s kid back to his teen years, when a 19″ Zenith and SONY Betamax were the height of consumer technology, and cars still had trunks big enough to fit a body inside. Pay phones were everywhere, and most bookshelves held Robert Ludlum and John le Carré hardcovers. Paranoia was the national mood, Ronald Reagan and Dan Rather seemingly always on, commenting in the background. Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Fleetwood Mac, Echo & The Bunnymen, and Pablo Cruise were omnipresent; all are featured throughout The Americans. (The pilot opens with a terrific Tusk workout, and the season closes perfectly on Games Without Frontiers.)

The Americans’ first season is so good, I almost dread watching more of it (4 seasons have been shown, with a 5th ready for this spring.) This kind of breakneck storytelling combined with intricate meditations on marriage and relationships is so rare it must be fragile – one wrong move and the soufflé might fall. If I tally my reference count, it’s like Homeland with Scandal’s pacing, the female sensibility of Orange is the New Black, and the psychological complexity of a le Carré novel. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum says it provokes “a psychic hangover unlike any other show,” but don’t let a Pulitzer winner’s praise scare you – The Americans is like discovering your favorite chocolate cake has no calories and lowers your cholesterol, to boot. It’s delicious.