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Wildly Enthusiastic Review: The Americans

Another brilliant show that ended not long ago (and I only recently caught up with the final seasons):

er-theamericansThe Americans (S1–6)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
A period drama, happening in Washington of 1980s, it focuses on a pair of KGB agents working under the disguise of a typical American married couple. The show focuses on the question of lies and deception, imagining the mentality of people whose entire life is a facade and what happens when this facade begins to crumble. Also, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes spy stuff, if that’s more your jam.

How I found it:
When it first aired, I saw a trailer and found it interesting – though it was a trailer for an entirely different show, a sort of action-packed satire and not this existential psychological drama that we were eventually graced with. So I’m glad both that the trailer got me interested in the show and that it misrepresented it.

Summary judgment:
That might be the most thought-provoking, truly adult show I have seen in recent years.

Best things about it:
No show ever has made me and my husband discuss it as much as this one. We would pause the show to vent our emotions about the story and the characters and we would carry the conversations after we finished watching, analyzing the motives and illusions of the protagonists. Of course, being from Central Europe, we can’t look at KGB as a stock action-drama Agency but we have a more visceral reaction to the issue.
The show’s focus on the inner drama of the characters: their psychological motivations and limits, their humanity (or its lack sometimes) catapults the show so, so far away from any James Bond-nonsense that the theme might suggest.

Worst things about it:
Sometimes, rarely enough, the show will veer into more action-packed Cold War thriller one might expect (particularly badly in season four) and while this would be fully acceptable and maybe even enjoyable somewhere else, on The Americans it feels like a wasted opportunity for further moral explorations.

Other pluses:
✤ What I said so far will probably sound to some of you very much as anti-praise and a recipe for a perfectly boring show, sort of Bergman about Russian spies. But that would not take into account how tight most of the story is and how invested one feels in the plotlines.
✤ Matthew Rhys as Philip is breathtaking. He creates such a nuanced, heartbreaking performance that you want to hug him, shake him and slap him, sometimes in the same scene. But mostly you just keep rooting for him to do the right thing.
✤ Most of the other performances are also very convincing and memorable.
✤ Perhaps most importantly this is such a smart show. It never tells you too much, at the risk of confusing you or allowing for different, conflicting interpretations of the characters’ motives and feelings. Instead, it allows you to draw your own conclusions.
✤ The 1980s work in this vision – the period feels lived-in not caricatural, as it is often shown. I read that the producers had to limit the 1980s fashion so as not to make it distracting and in the first season I was a bit surprised to see this visually calmer version of the 80s but then I really got used to it. Also, the show has a distinctive visual style, with the muted color palettes (so much brown).

Other minuses:
✤ Keri Russell as Elizabeth does not, unfortunately, rise to Rhys’s standard (but calling this tour de force “standard” is probably unfair) and her character for most of the series is odious in her blind devotion to a child’s notion of communism.
✤ That’s not a minus exactly but the show does not give a lot of historical background for its political plots. I wonder if people from other areas of the world realize just how bad Philip and Elizabeth’s employers are. But again, it’s part of the smartness of the show, letting you figure things out for yourself.

How it enriched my life:
I rarely watch shows with such excitement and so many emotions about whatever’s going on. This was also a bonding experience for me and my husband because of all the discussions it provoked.

Fun fact:
Philip and Elizabeth constantly wear disguises and most of them are unbelievably silly. You would think they couldn’t possibly work but then again I have no idea how people are ever able to describe anyone to the sketch artist so they would certainly work on me. (Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to accurately describe things like the chin or nose of my closest friends from memory.)

We had a huge break between seasons 3 and 4 so not everything happening was crystal clear and this is a great reason for a re-watch some time in the future. Also, I’m possibly there for Matthew Rhys’s next project (unless it’s something awful).

Recommended for:
People looking for a smarter kind of show.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: The 50 States