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When The Americans premieres its third season tonight on FX, it will be the best ongoing drama series currently on television. When Mad Men comes back on April 5, we can hash out that intriguing little situation sometime after more episodes are seen.
But in my Best TV of 2014 list, I ranked The Americans as my No. 2 series of the year (Mad Men was No. 4), and only FX’s limited series Fargo was above it. Those rankings were based on the episodes presented that season, not on some historical long-term curve. But it’s clear that producing more than one great season is the bigger accomplishment, and The Americans not only built on its impressive first season when the second came around, but the first four episodes of season three find it rising to new creative heights yet again.
It’s one of those maddening awards-season elements that pushes our thinking about shows into who got unjustly ignored. And The Americans, as a series, along with Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as its stars, certainly qualify as glaring snubs. But ultimately the lack of recognition changes nothing in the show — it remains superb.
Executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have done an excellently controlled job of ratcheting up the situations that Philip (Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Russell), Soviet spies in America, have been facing since the series appeared.
The beauty in the mix is that viewers have witnessed great ’80s Reagan-era Cold War spying, an incredibly complex and malleable marriage and — at the tail end of season two and now into season three — what it means for two super-secret Russian spies to be raising born-in-America kids who don’t know what their parents do for a living right about the time the Soviets want the Jennings to push a button and turn 14-year-old daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) into a spy.
Having a 14-year-old daughter with none of these other aspects is its own kind of Chernobyl. And that’s why season four is already percolating with lots of pressure. The tail end of season two had Paige finding some kind of rebellion/solace in a church group (much to the consternation of Philip and Elizabeth), which pitted daughter against parents, who were barely putting back together the fraying ends of their own — arranged — marriage. Elizabeth has always been the harder-ass spy and, in many instances, parent. Philip’s at-least-momentary doubts about Mother Russia in the early going and his situational softer touch with the kids led to many stern-eyed looks from his wife.
Now, as Philip passionately resists the idea of A) telling the kids who they are and what convoluted situation they’ll find themselves in, and B) pushing Paige to be a spy, he’s sensing that Elizabeth is manipulating things on her own, co-parenting be damned.
And that’s all taking place in the home. Meanwhile, after a number of setbacks at the hands of the Soviets in the first two seasons, the Americans are getting better (and luckier) tightening in on Russian agents, which makes the combined Jennings Family Issues pretty gnarly.
The deft handling of this by Weisberg and Fields is never less than thrilling. And every episode makes you wonder what Rhys and Russell (and Noah Emmerich) need to do for their shape-shifting acting chops to get noticed. In truth, The Americans has a deep bench of fine actors and a visual approach that director Daniel Sackheim nails episode to episode, whether it’s the nuanced close-ups of a struggling marriage or the dangerous limitations of ’80s-era technology, Sackheim provides a varied visual brush throughout.
Whether The Americans ever gets a huge rating or even some long-overdue recognition is irrelevant on two main points — it’s still the best ongoing drama on television until another steps up to contend, and you should absolutely be watching the defense of that crown.
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