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Shows you should be watching: 'The Americans' on FX

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, KGB spies and loving parents, on the FX drama "The Americans."


Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, KGB spies and loving parents, on the FX drama "The Americans."



Just like the show's spies, FX's The Americans seems to be TV's best kept secret. Ask any TV critic; it's most likely on his or her best list. Yet major award shows don't give the show and its actors recognition. But as dismal as the ratings are, FX has faith in the show, and The Americans begins its fourth season Wednesday night.

For those who are likely not watching, here's one more TV fanatic pleading with you to start.

The Americans are Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, played by Keri Russell (Felicity) and Matthew Rhys (Brothers & Sisters), Russian spies living a sham marriage in suburban Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. Their two young children, Paige and Henry, have no idea that their family is a lie. They think their parents are running a travel agency, but really the two KGB spies are on exciting missions for Mother Russia.

Adding a little more stress to the family is next door neighbor Stan Beeman, who just happens to be a FBI agent assigned to U.S.-Russian relations. Noah Emmerich gives a perfect performance as Beeman, a lonely, miserable man who's very good at his job. He's suspicious of the Jennings couple, but his attention is focused on Nina Krilova, a double agent he recruited from the Russian Embassy, who he's also sleeping with. Oh, and he's got a wife and kid at home.

Marital tension and history collide to make one of TV's most fascinating dramas. Here are a few reasons to catch up with The Americans:

Historical references

A great period drama doesn't just retell history, it makes you relive the moment and brings back those emotions. The Americans opens with the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. It's 1981, at the height of the Cold War. Throughout the entire episode, Elizabeth and Philip scramble to figure out if the Soviets are involved. When they figure out that's not the case, we also feel a little let down.

Family drama

While their covert operations outside the home are entertaining to watch, the spies' marriage provides the most compelling part of the show. In the first season, we painfully watch Elizabeth and Philip try to live inside this fake 15-year marriage. It's clear in the beginning of the show that Philip enjoys living the American Dream, and maybe thinks this marriage is becoming legitimate. Elizabeth does not. She struggles with this duality. She's tough, cold and fierce. But she still has to be a delightful mom to her American kids, who are enjoying a childhood she doesn't morally agree with. As Paige gets older, she turns to religion, and her secret communist parents struggle to outwardly support her.

The music

Much like Fargo, another FX show with fantastic music, The Americans uses recognizable tunes from its era to emphasize emotional scenes. The pilot episode includes Phil Collins' In The Air Tonight, and the season ends with Games Without Frontiers, a song from the other Genesis frontman, Peter Gabriel. Some other great musical moments over the last three seasons include Pete Townshend's Rough Boys, Yaz's Only You and the pilot's use of Fleetwood Mac's weirdest hit Tusk. And coming up in the fourth season, Weisberg said David Bowie songs will make for a special tribute.

The wigs

Much '80s nostalgia rests in its fashion. And the wardrobe on The Americans feels completely authentic. While you're not going to see neon colors, everyone's hair is a little fluffier, their glasses are a little bigger and clothes are a little funkier. Elizabeth and Philip are incognito during every mission, and they have an outstanding wig collection. But the biggest mystery of the show: How do the wigs stay on when the characters are having sex (something these Russian spies do a lot)?

The intrigue

A warning: The Americans is a slow burn. Tonally, it's cold, quiet and sometimes depressing. Many scenes are tough to swallow. But most of the time it feels like I'm watching chess. The pieces are logically moving into place, in anticipation for those big moments in the plot and character development. The entire cast is doing some of the finest acting I have ever seen. Another mystery: why none of them get award recognition.

The brilliance and intensity of The Americans lie between the good guys and the bad guys. Are we rooting for the Jennings? Or are we rooting for the United States? We all know how the Cold War ends, but how will our heroes fare?

WATCH IT: Season 4 begins on FX on Wednesday at 10 p.m. Past seasons are available to stream on Amazon Prime.

[Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2016 5:09pm]


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