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Dollars to doughnuts, The Americans is almost certainly the best US TV show you’re not currently watching. While it has yet to garner the same kind of awards recognition as classic prestige shows such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, it is unquestionably worthy of a place at their side, thanks to its stunning lead performances and its compelling mix of gripping Cold War spy thriller and powerful family drama. With Season 1 to 5 now available on Amazon Prime Video (and Season 6 on Wednesday nights from 4th April on ITV 4 in the UK), now is the perfect time to catch up.
Here’s just a few reasons why you need to be watching:
Set during the Reagan administration, the show centres on married travel agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, also together in real life), who live just outside Washington D.C. with their young children Paige and Henry (Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati). The twist? Philip and Elizabeth are actually Soviet sleeper agents, embedded in the U.S. in the 1960s and only recently activated. Guided by their KGB handler Claudia (character actress Margo Martindale), Philip and Elizabeth undertake a series of dangerous missions, which often involve seducing and manipulating various American targets.
The supporting characters
In addition to the Jennings family, there are three key supporting characters that we quickly come to care about. These include: FBI Counter-Intelligence agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who just so happens to be the Jennings’ neighbour (an instant source of tension); Soviet embassy employee Nina Krilova (Annet Mahendru), who begins an affair with Stan as he attempts to turn her into a double agent; and hapless FBI secretary Martha Hanson (Alison Wright), who is duped into a romantic relationship with Clark, one of Philip’s many alter-egos.
The insane levels of tension
You thought Breaking Bad was tense? You ain’t seen nothing yet. The tension levels in The Americans are off the scale on a weekly basis. One primary source of suspense is the fact that the Jennings’ own children are blissfully unaware of their parents true identities, so they have to carry out their often-deadly missions while still ensuring that they maintain their ordinary domestic facade. There’s also the constant threat of capture on each mission, while FBI Agent Beeman moving in next door creates a whole new level of tension, especially when the children become friendly with Stan’s family (including his teenage son, who’s around Paige’s age).
The sex and violence
Admittedly, sex and violence is an easy sell for most TV shows, but here, each element takes on a devastating plot significance, as the characters wrestle with the moral consequences of their actions. Philip and Elizabeth are frequently tasked with seducing targets, some of whom are much more problematic than others – one particular plot strand in Season 4 is especially difficult to watch and yet the show handles it perfectly. Similarly, the violence is often shocking, brutal and frighteningly realistic, with the characters forced to confront the horrific human cost of their missions.
The complexity of the writing
The writing is consistently impressive, working on multiple different layers at any one time. Perhaps the most significant achievement (backed up by the quality of the two lead performances) is that the writing puts you in the rather anti-American position of rooting for the Russians (i.e. Philip and Elizabeth) each week, which seems positively subversive. The central relationship is also extremely complex: flashbacks gradually reveal more of the couple’s heart-breaking background, as we realise that theirs was actually an arranged marriage, meaning that, in many ways, they’re still getting to know each other and maybe even falling in love. In addition, the show isn’t afraid to play an extremely long game – for example, there are storylines set up in the first season that start paying off big-time in Season 4.
The costumes… and the wigs
Remember, The Americans isn’t just a show about spies – it’s a show about spies that’s set in the 1980s. Cue a wealth of wonderful opportunities for the costume department, who take full advantage of the fact that the characters are dressing up in disguise week after week. Elizabeth’s range of 80s shoulder pads, hair-dos (and don’ts) and wide-rim glasses are a wonder in themselves. What’s really impressive is how fully the actors convince in their disguises (there’s an extra level here, because when we see their alter-egos, it’s also the characters who are acting) – for example, the audience becomes so used to seeing Clark that it’s easy to start thinking of him as a completely separate character.
The killer soundtrack
Aside from the show’s wonderful theme tune (which combines a tense, 80s-style thriller score with Soviet-style instrumentation), The Americans makes full use of the period setting for its musical choices, eschewing the obvious 1980s cheesy options for more left-field tracks, which are frequently used to unexpected and powerful effect. Artists deployed so far include Peter Gabriel, The Cure, the Squeeze, Pete Townshend, and Roberta Flack, while the pilot episode makes terrific use of tracks by Phil Collins and Fleetwood Mac. It’s safe to say that there are certain songs that you’ll never hear quite the same way again after seeing this show.
The Americans Season 1 to 5 are available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. For information on how to watch Season 6, click here.
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