‘The Americans’ is the Best Show on Television

“It’s amazing what you get used to.”

So says the Korean Mary Kay saleslady as she describes living with all of her ESL in-laws under one roof to her latest recruit, a bright-eyed and pretty (if a little awkward) woman she does not know is really the one doing the recruiting.

It is not yet clear what KGB spy Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) wants with the Mary Kay lady, but it is amazing to consider what she has gotten used to: she has gotten used to an arranged marriage with a fellow deep-undercover KGB agent, posing as a happy couple with a travel agency and two all-American teenage kids. She has gotten used to sneaking out at all hours to cultivate, seduce, and/or murder intelligence sources, to wearing outlandish disguises, to lying to her kids, to gently trying to recruit her 16-year-old daughter into the same life.

Her husband, for his part, has gotten used to the outrageous disguises, the arranged marriage, to a second wife on the side – the secretary to the FBI’s director of counterintelligence – and to staging her co-worker’s suicide to protect her. He has gotten used to being best friends with the FBI agent across the street, who just happens to be looking for undercover KGB agents, he has gotten used to drugging a girl the same age as his daughter so he can bug her father’s office (so far he’s managed to resist seducing her), he’s gotten used to the fact that his wife is all-in for Mother Russia, even though he’s losing faith, that she agrees with their handlers that their daughter needs to be recruited, and that the only comfort he’s going to get from anyone is at a self-help seminar.

Their daughter, Paige, has gotten used to the knowledge that her parents, who until recently she thought were as American as she is, are KGB spies born in Russia, and that her closest friend, the pastor from the Christian youth group she joined (over her heathen parents’ muted objections), will probably be killed because she confided in him – unless she stays close enough to him to keep him believing her walked-back story that Mom and Dad are actually just “peacekeepers.”

Her brother Henry, still too young to get sucked into all this, has gotten used to none of these people being home, and going across the street and looking to FBI agent/neighbor Stan for company and groceries.

It’s amazing what you get used to.

The Americans arrived on FX three years ago as a fully-formed, muscular, confident series with a mastery of tone and suspense and economical storytelling, and each season has been better than the one before it, continually turning the screws on the Jenningses, making their situation increasingly dire and, more importantly, complicating the dynamics between the characters. It can feel at times like you need a bulletin board and a couple stacks of colored index cards to keep track of everything, but at the same time every plot development makes sense, everything feels organic, nothing is contrived.

It can feel a little strange, following and even rooting for a pair of characters whose mission is to destroy America, until you realize that, unless this series goes off the map the way Quentin Tarantino did with Inglorious Basterds, that these people are definitely not going to win – the best we can hope for is that they figure out a way not to drag their kids down with them.

The performances at its center, by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, are the best currently on television. Russell, as the more committed and remorseless of the pair, is steely-eyed and totally bottled up – as unlikely as it seems that a 90-pound, five-foot-nothing woman would be able to take down 5 dudes at a time, somehow she sells it. And as great as Russell is, Rhys is even better, wearing the considerable strain of his many secrets and lies and betrayals and murders on his face, in his body language. He may have been committed to the cause when it began, but his family, and particularly his all-American children, have long since taken precedence.

The one and only flaw with this show is that it’s not one you can easily jump into; each season builds on and pays off the one before it. Having said that, the first three seasons are available on Amazon Prime, and all season 4 episodes (eight have aired and there are five more to come) will be available on-demand until July 14, so there is more than enough time to catch up. I have started to feel a little crazy, running around telling everyone I talk to that they should be watching this show, and I guarantee that if you start watching it, you’ll be doing exactly the same thing. You might feel a little crazy, but that fades.

It’s amazing what you get used to.

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