I don’t always buy what The Americans is selling.
The FX spy drama (which returns March 28 at 10 p.m. ET) had a hot concept, built on suburban paranoia equal-parts Cold War history and Twilight Zone. Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) and her husband Philip (Matthew Rhys) are a regular pair of keep-up Joneses; a nice house, a couple kids, one of those families that wore the ’50s into the ’80s. But they are also Soviet spies, with a diva’s wig collection and more fake identities than their countrymens’ bots.
They look like regular neighbors, but they are actually socialist atheists who despise the American President and don’t like private schools. Actually, that describes all my favorite neighbors, and I wonder if the best thing about The Americans is how the Jennings duo—for all their apocalyptic ambiguity—can feel quite aspirational. Consider: They work together—they work two jobs together—and their family is a big part of that work, like how every Fixer Upper episode finds time for a cute Gainesling montage. How hip are they? They have an open marriage, halfway between chic ’70s swinging and chic ’10s polyamory. And they talk to each other about each other’s lovers, which feels positively Scandinavian.
They are never not busy, yet always find time to worry about the advancement of their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor). Like, worry about her: They want her to understand the world, they want her to feel inspired by social justice issues. They also have a son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), raised by videogames. But even his neglect is a secret parental success. Last season revealed Henry as a math genius, like all those early-adopter computer kids who played Ultima until their overstimulated neurons created Google. Elizabeth and Philip, ugh, such #CoupleGoals.
I’m having some fun here, but it’s important to remember that The Americans can be ludicrous. Over six seasons of spycraft, Elizabeth and Philip have investigated stealth aircraft, bioweaponry, the birth of the internet, killer flies that were actually helper flies. Their bugs infiltrated the highest levels of the FBI; and, by the way, the FBI agent investigating them lives next door. Noah Emmerich’s Stan Beeman is one of my favorite characters on television, but his presence is a still premise hurdle too far for me, something I have to get over every time he swings by for a beer. And I’m not always convinced by how the Jennings keep Gumping their way through Cold War history: Reagan’s Star Wars program, the Soviet food shortage, the evolution of ’80s synth-pop into ironic-violent soundtrackery.
Creator and co-showrunner Joe Weisberg was an actual CIA officer, while I have seen some Bourne movies twice, so credit him for certainly knowing what he’s doing. And the spy ops are TV magic, humming with quiet efficiency: Dead drops, pedestrian-automotive tracking teams, the pleasant two-note crk-crk the Soviet spies use to communicate via radio. And the show has an austere autumn-gray look, like everywhere is Siberia.
But I worry in its later stages, The Americans is overstretching itself, trending toward wild dramatics. There’s a feeling in the first three episodes of final-act hyperbole that left me a bit dizzy. After a slow-paced fifth season, the final year begins with a parade of bloody deaths. In one episode, I swear, Elizabeth is wearing a different wig in every scene. After years of sprawling the main cast across the world, the premiere awkwardly brings everyone back together, in one rough geographical location and dedicated to various sides of one spy operation. One character gets a mission that could decide the fate of Russia. And one character gets a mission that will affect, well, the fate of the world. [John Oliver snarky voice]: Cool.
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