The Americans: Check It Out!

A couple of weeks ago Scott linked to an article in the Wall Street Journal about the top television shows of 2013 in our Picks. My wife followed the link and learned about a series neither of us had heard of, called The Americans. She thought it sounded intriguing–it’s about Soviet spies living under cover in the U.S. during the 1980s–so we bought Episode 1 and watched it. Then we bought Episode 2; then the whole first season.

I don’t watch a lot of television, so take it for what it’s worth, but I think The Americans, which is on the FX network, is the best TV series I have ever seen. The principal characters are a husband and wife (although they were never actually married, as we learn late in Season 1), Philip and Elizabeth, who were assigned to one another by the KGB and sent to America as Soviet agents. Fifteen years later, they have two children and are living in suburban Washington, D.C., still hard at work for the KGB.

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But there are tensions and complications. Philip enjoys living in the U.S. and would like to have a real relationship with his wife. An FBI agent who works in counter-intelligence moves into the spies’ neighborhood and they become social friends. The Reagan administration’s anti-ballistic missile program forms part of the backdrop of the series’ ever more convoluted plots. The Russians are desperate for information about the program, and at one point Moscow dispatches an assassin to murder top scientists working on anti-missile research.

The acting is sensational. In particular, Keri Russell, who plays Elizabeth, is superb.

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The series is produced by Adam Arkin, the son of Alan Arkin, the actor. Adam Arkin is, I believe, a conservative of sorts. At any rate he is not a cookie-cutter liberal, which means that the viewer is spared the usual anti-Reagan snark. Moreover, there is no faux moral equivalence, which is not to say that the characters don’t face moral dilemmas of various kinds. What makes The Americans fascinating to me is that the central conflict is not between us and them, but rather between the political and the personal. In that sense, its perspective is deeply conservative.

There is sporadic violence–both Philip and Elizabeth are lethal at close quarters–and occasional sex, some of it, happily, featuring a young Russian who works for the KGB at the Russian embassy and is turned by the FBI agent. The Americans is the most enjoyable thing I have seen in a long time, and my wife likes it even better than I do. I recommend you check it out. Season 2 starts next month.

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