Elizabeth Jennings is not particularly having a good night.
A Soviet spy living in early 1980s Washington DC, as part of an arranged, fake marriage that has somehow become a real one, she begins the second episode of The Americans' third season having just received a call from her husband, Philip, also a spy, also not having a particularly good night. He needs her help, even though it's much too late to be requesting such a thing.
Their daughter, Paige, sits on the couch. Unbeknownst to the girl, Paige has become a bargaining chip in her parents' marriage. The KGB hopes to turn the 14-year-old into a so-called "second generation illegal," an American citizen who can infiltrate the government at levels far deeper than Philip or Elizabeth could under their assumed identities. Elizabeth believes this is the right course, the cause that could reunite mother and daughter in the tumultuous adolescent years. Philip is dead set against it, believing that if Paige, who's been raised an American, learns the truth about her parents, her fragile emotions will explode, and who knows what the damage will be?
The Americans is also the best show on television, by a fair amount — and this is a great era for the medium
These are the stakes of every decision Philip and Elizabeth make. No parent wants to see their child emotionally devastated by something said parent has done. But every parent secretly hopes their child will follow in their footsteps, at least a little bit. This emotional fog hangs over every scene, every conversation, every moment of this series.
Paige turns to her mother, having learned that Elizabeth will be joining Philip for another late night. "You guys look out for each other, you and Dad."
Elizabeth agrees, briefly, before Paige cuts her off again. "More than us," she says, referring to her and her younger brother.
And it's true, in some ways. Elizabeth and Philip may love their children, but they also have to keep a crucial distance. The cause, the calling, of Communism will always be there, lurking in the background, casting shadows.
A show about relationships
The Americans, which debuts its third season Wednesday, January 28, on FX at 10 p.m. Eastern, is a show about loyalty, broadly speaking, both in personal and sociopolitical senses. Every single one of its characters is united behind some grand, overarching cause, defending a nation-state or way or life. But they're all also bound up in personal relationships that influence their decisions.
That's appropriate for a show about espionage, where so much of the tradecraft is about building relationships, then turning the screws. Philip and Elizabeth (played beautifully by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) were forced into a kind of intimacy, and then that intimacy became real. Going through the motions of a marriage became a real marriage, even if neither forgot the origins of their story.
The Americans is also the best show on television, by a fair amount, and this is a great era for the medium, with terrific series bursting out all over. The show combines the slow-build intensity of Breaking Bad's plotting with the emotional acuity of Mad Men's character work, and it spices all of this with a mordant sense of humor and one eye turned to the geopolitical spheres of the '80s, spheres that look more than familiar if you squint. It's a show about how nations can never quite understand what the other is going to do, because people fundamentally can't understand each other, blinded as we are by our own perceptions, our own inability to get out of our heads.
What's interesting is how The Americans gets here. It's one of the most deeply emotional shows on television, but it hides those beats within the chilly heart of the spy thriller, where characters must always be on guard, and plots twist and turn with every new revelation. It's a show that seems to be a series about deeply complicated geopolitical game playing, but is actually a show about the life and death of relationships. The show has yet to break through as fully as Mad Men or Breaking Bad did, and that may be because of its emotionally complicated core. Every episode of The Americans rides an emotional roller coaster, but all of your fellow passengers sit, tight-lipped, doing their very best to never react.
A show nobody watches
Basically nobody watches The Americans. Fewer than 2 million people watched its most viewed episode in season two, and only 1.12 million tuned in for the least-viewed episode. Yes, those numbers more than double when you add in everybody who watches later on DVR and streaming sites, but even if those numbers were to triple, they would still reflect a tiny audience, in terms of the overall television viewing landscape. The series has also struggled in terms of awards nominations, largely ignored by the Emmys in favor of inferior programs like Downton Abbey and House of Cards.
This is the peril of being a great TV show in an era of so many great TV shows. Mad Men and Breaking Bad were lucky, in that they came at the tail end of an era when only a handful of networks were seriously programming good TV. Thus every season could feel like an event.
Now, you have no idea if the next exciting TV drama will be arriving on a channel you've never heard of (like Pivot's upcoming Arctic Circle noir Fortitude) or as an added bonus to your Amazon Prime membership. (Have you caught up with Transparent yet?) As the overall universe of great TV shows expands, the overall universe of great TV shows that people seriously pay attention to paradoxically grows smaller. Not even the best critics of the medium have the time to watch everything anymore, and that means the noisiest shows are the ones that stand out, not quiet little potboilers like The Americans.
Essentially everybody involved in the production of the series knows this, too. At the recently completed Television Critics Association winter press tour, FX Networks president John Landgraf said he thought the show would run at least five seasons, even with its relatively anemic numbers. The network clearly loves the show and thinks it could have a long afterlife in streaming, and it clearly hopes the Emmys will catch on sooner or later.
"The Americans is a very existentially truthful show. For some people, it hits a little too close to home."
Landgraf told me that he believes the show suffers because of its emotional acuity. He believes the most popular shows on TV are those that provide the audience with an escape, either one that allows them to laugh or one that is so divorced from actual reality that no one would ever have to fear living through it. (See also: The Walking Dead.)
But The Americans is different.
"The Americans is a very existentially truthful show. It's very truthful not only about spying, but all the metaphors that it gets to through spying — lying and false identity, certainly about the very real challenges of marriage and being a parent. And my suspicion is that for some people, it hits a little too close to home," he told me.
For their part, the show's showrunners, Joe Weisberg (who also created the series) and Joel Fields, try not to sweat the numbers, saying that FX has insulated them, to some degree, from bad ratings.
"They truly make us feel that their priority is quality," Fields told me. "They would rather have a show that they're proud of and build the audience for that, than have a show they're not proud of that maybe is more popular."
This is also an era when it's become more and more difficult to figure out just how many people are watching, when they're watching, and what the commercial value is of a show that people may catch up with years from now.
"How many people are watching? That's an interesting question. That's become increasingly difficult to tell. Who knows?" Weisberg said, adding that a show that will eventually be consumed in one big chunk is of increasing value to networks. "It's certainly of creative and artistic value. But there's also some commercial value."
"We're telling a long character story, and we're setting up pieces of things that we hope will pay off far down the line. We have this big story in our mind that we want to tell." Fields said, adding that his dream is someday, people will sit down to watch the whole show on Amazon Prime (where it has a streaming deal) in a week.
The example everyone in the television industry — including everyone I interviewed for this article — points to in this regard is Breaking Bad, a show that struggled through four seasons of low ratings, before exploding in its two-part final season thanks to people who caught up on Netflix. Amazon Prime has yet to make inroads into the popular consciousness as much as Netflix has, but Weisberg said he finds himself cheering on the success of Transparent, precisely because it might bring more eyeballs to Amazon, and, thus, more eyeballs to The Americans.
And yet there's something a little lonely about this. TV is meant to be a medium of the immediate, isn't it? A medium where we all gather around the water cooler the morning after? And now, we find ourselves, more and more, waiting for one long feast, rather than smaller meals.
When people find out he works on The Americans, Fields says, "Many say, 'I hear it's great. I've gotta watch it one day.'" He jokes, "And then I punch them in the face."
Dramas of action; dramas of emotion
Earlier in the year, NPR's Linda Holmes rediscovered a terrific bit of wisdom from former Entertainment Weekly TV critic Ken Tucker's review of the '90s drama Relativity. Tucker writes:
Basically, there are two kinds of TV drama: the drama of action, which includes all genre series (cop shows, doctor shows, sci-fi shows, Westerns), and the drama of emotions — tremulous programming like Touched by an Angel and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, plus all non-sitcom family shows, which for some reason tend toward the one-word title: Family (1976-80) or Sisters (1991-96) or now Relativity (ABC, Saturdays, 10-11 p.m.). The latter is the most recent effulgence from executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, who took television's drama of emotions to high levels with thirtysomething and My So-Called Life.
Holmes's argument is that we have just ended a great era of dramas of action, where characters had clear-cut goals and did whatever they had to to achieve those goals. In that era, we've lost sight of the drama of emotion, outside of your occasional Friday Night Lights or Parenthood.
On its surface, The Americans looks like a drama of action. The characters do have goals — discover the secrets of the American stealth program, recruit Paige, find a way to infiltrate the FBI — but what's interesting is how the show grounds all of those goals in relationships. First and foremost, The Americans is about charting the course of the many relationships within its confines, not just between Philip and Elizabeth. Every character on the show, no matter how minor, has a point of view, or at least a suggested one.
No, The Americans is a drama of emotion, just one where the characters have built so many edifices between themselves and the truth that the emotions remain distantly glimpsed forms, barely visible through the mist.
What's interesting about the idea of The Americans as a drama of emotion is that its characters are so chilly, so frigid, so locked off from themselves. This is very much intentional. Though the show is driven deeply by psychology, Weisberg and Fields do their best to make sure the characters themselves remain unaware of what's fundamentally driving them.
"One of the most interesting elements of it is that our characters are not psychologically attuned people at all. None of them. Not one of them," Weisberg told me last May. "We always go through each draft of a script, and when we find a character making a psychologically in-tune or aware statement, we pull it out."
The Americans, then, is a drama of emotion, but it's also a drama of repression. In that regard, it has more than a little of Mad Men, another show where characters are driven by impulses they can't quite understand and hide behind carefully constructed false faces, in it. But it's also it's own thing, because the show pushes all of its characters into horrible corners, then watches as they do terrible, terrible things.
Philip and Elizabeth — and their CIA and FBI counterparts on the American side — lie to everyone. They murder people. They use others for their own gain, even consider using their own child. But all of these characters remain fundamentally interesting and even empathetic, because we know, on some level, how lost they all are, how far from home. (Or, in the case of one character, shipped back to the Soviet Union, how lost they are within their home.)
Philip and Elizabeth, deep down, are immigrants in a land they don't quite understand, trying to reconcile who they've become with the lives they left behind in the USSR. Indeed, much of this season revolves around news Elizabeth gets from home and how she deals with that information. Similarly, Philip and Elizabeth's neighbor, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), finds his marriage crumbling, stuck in a house that no longer feels like his home, because of his own terrible choices.
All of these people have gaps inside of them, gaps they try to fill with propaganda and nationalism. Even Paige (the remarkable young actress Holly Taylor) is attempting to fill whatever part of herself is left wanting with Christianity. (Paige's turn toward religion — and how it conflicts with her secretly Communist parents — has been one of the show's most reliable fonts of story.) Stan turns toward self-help credo EST in an attempt to understand why his wife left. Elizabeth reconnects to the cause. Philip drifts.
There's nothing to fill that gap, is there? Human beings are made up of gaps. We're created by the pauses in sentences, the blank spaces that exist when we think nobody's looking. The Americans understands that every single face we wear is false. Some are just falser than others.
Ultimately, this is a show about marriage. Which is not a new observation about the series, nor a new thing to build a TV show around. But as it begins its third season, the show now has the best of its first season — when Philip and Elizabeth were often at odds — blended with the best of its remarkable second — when the two found common cause but discovered that made them less effective spies.
Now, the two are deeply committed to each other and deeply in love, but they're also deeply split over what it would mean to reveal the truth about themselves to their daughter. (And when was the last time you saw a drama of this caliber focus its entire emotional conflict on relationships between mothers and daughters, rather than fathers and sons?) The moment when you discover the truth about your parents can be a liberating one, or a shattering one. The beauty here is that both parents have ample reason to believe the truth will set their child free — or cause her to explode.
The Americans understands that every single face we wear is false. Some are just falser than others.
This is also a show of staggering intimacy, a show where the smallest of gestures, the tiniest moments of physical connection, have as much importance as any sex scene (and this is a show with some great sex scenes). In this season's third episode, in a sequence I dare not spoil, Philip cares for his wife in a moment of great pain. Director Thomas Schlamme's camera holds each of them, lovingly, in frame, as Philip, wordlessly, reveals, how deeply he knows and understands this woman, no matter how much, how often they fight. They are bound, by knowledge, by emotion, by intimacy, by love. And to be bound is at once terrifying and wonderful.
In that moment, too, there's a hint of how perfectly Weisberg and Fields have directed this show so far, through all of the travails that normally beset dramas of both action and emotion. Maybe this will never be a huge hit, with viewers or with awards voters, but both showrunners say when they meet with those who actually watch it, the response is "overwhelming." Maybe the plan, then, is not to find the largest audience, but the most passionate one, the one that might be bound to the show forever, whether that audience finds it tomorrow or in 20 years.