Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cold War, Warming Up: FX’s The Americans

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in FX's The Americans.

One of the unique aspects of television as a popular medium is its ability to foster and deepen longstanding relationships between a given program’s audience and characters. Whereas a movie generally has to establish a connection within a two to three-hour time frame, TV shows can build on our emotional ties to characters and the situations in which they find themselves over years. Done properly, this sustained engagement can lead to especially satisfying – or devastating – payoffs to long-running plot or character dynamics, as well as an increasing sense of connection to shows that might initially come off as a bit distant and chilly. This has especially been the case for me with FX’s superb The Americans.
The Americans, which follows the exploits of deep-cover KGB agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) in late-Cold War America, has been earning breathless accolades from TV critics for nearly as long as it has existed, with many calling it the best drama on the air at the moment. I’m often inclined to agree with that assessment, but I’ll admit to having required some time to warm up to it at first. It’s a show that’s both literally and figuratively dark, as well as often being set amidst unappealing Eighties décor. It also paradoxically portrays its characters with deep sympathy and seemingly endless nuance, while at the same time always retaining a certain clinical distance from their oftentimes appalling acts of violence and betrayal. The cast is compulsively watchable, with leads Rhys and Russell giving complex performances; I’ll admit that my knowledge of their real-life relationship adds an extra layer of fascination for me, since the show’s central concern is the nature of the Jenningses’ marriage, which is simultaneously a façade aimed at perfecting their cover story and a very real and emotionally-charged union. However, The Americans also has a remarkably deep bench of supporting actors, including Noah Emmerich, whose portrayal of morally ambivalent FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman has been one of the recurring pleasures of the show for me. More recently, daughter Paige Jennings has come into her own as a character with her (partial) discovery of the true nature of her parents’ work and her slow progression towards becoming a part of it. Holly Taylor, who plays Paige, has had a substantial amount of additional responsibility foisted upon her as a result of this move, and for the most part she’s acquitted herself well.

Annet Mahendru in The Americans. (Photo: Jessica Miglio/FX)
My initial lack of wholehearted emotional investment in the show has gradually fallen away over multiple seasons of watching the Philip and Elizabeth snoop, murder, and seduce their way through the Reagan era, but there was another, arguably less subjective, issue with the show that it’s recently moved to remedy. By its third season, The Americans had expanded so far beyond its initial focus on the Jennings family that it sometimes felt like a show that contained its own spin-off series, rather than giving certain peripheral characters standalone dramas of their own. Characters such as Annet Mahendru’s compromised Soviet embassy worker Nina continued to appear on the show long after events that would have marked her departure from other dramas. However, this season has seen an oftentimes ruthless trimming of superfluous plotlines, with some characters, such as Susan Misner’s Sandra Beeman more or less fading away and others, such as Mahendru’s Nina and Alison Wright’s Martha, concluding their roles in sensational fashion.

Although these supporting actors were all quite good, the narrowed focus has worked for the show, concentrating the energy that threatened to dissipate among too many far-flung plotlines. Now, slimmer and just as brutal as ever, The Americans seems to be kicking into an even higher gear, setting the table for a number of painful confrontations between close friends and even family members. It’s this constantly growing sense of looming catastrophe, involving characters to whom I’ve become attached over three-and-a-half seasons, that make the show something that I look forward to with increasing eagerness every week.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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