If you know anything about “The Americans,” which starts its fourth season on FX tonight, you know that critics love it, and almost no one else does: The show’s small but loyal — but small — audience would have seen the adventures of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, Superspies cut off after a season or two in a different climate. But in the age of Peak TV, a term popularized by FX’s Jon Landgraf, critical support and executive enthusiasm is enough to keep a show going for years. (Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields say they’re preparing to wrap things up at the end of season 5 or 6.) God bless Peak TV.
There are many theories about why “The Americans” hasn’t caught on with a broader audience, from its measured pace to its dark visual palette, and honestly, it’s the kind of thing you can tie yourself in knots fretting about: Not everything is meant to be enjoyed by everyone, and as long as the show’s still on the air — and all its previous seasons are available on Amazon Prime — the issue is largely academic. But here’s one possible reason, which is perhaps more clear now than it was a few years ago. The show’s heroes are, in effect, terrorists: They may work behind the scenes rather than orchestrating deadly public displays, but Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys’ Soviet sleeper agents have murdered numerous innocents in the course of the show’s run, and now they’re debating whether or not to bring their teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor) into the fold. “The Americans” doesn’t shy away from the moral murk of the Jennings’ actions — see last season’s devastating “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep,” in which Elizabeth kills a kindly old woman in cold blood to cover her tracks, or this, in which the Jennings seriously contemplate killing off a priest — but it doesn’t condemn them either, except to living with the guilt of their own actions. TV’s monsters tend to be caricatures, but the Jennings are all too recognizable, not so different from the neighboring FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) who is their unknowing foe. They’re the monsters next door.
At the moment, the nation’s electorate is in no mood to consider the possibility that our mortal enemies may be just like us; we’d sooner build literal and figurative walls, even if that means subjugating the country’s founding principles to the ugliest aspect of its people’s character. The title of “The Americans” began as a paranoid in-joke, but as time has passed and Philip in particular has been moved to reconsider what exactly it is they’re fighting for, it’s taken on more literal resonance: Given that almost none of us are true natives, what is an American, other than someone who lives in America and takes on our values, both our aspirations? The show asks so many fundamental questions, about ideology and religion and marriage and parenting and sex, but that might be the most fundamental, along with one that’s always waiting in the wings as the timeline advances through the 1980s: After years positioning itself in opposition to Soviet totalitarianism, how will the U.S. define itself once it’s gone?
The answer, for much of the last 25 years, has been to find new superpowers to battle, and invent them if we must. But in keeping our foes at a distance, we’ve been blind to the enemy within; in the name of fighting violent, repressive demagogues, we’ve brought one within hailing distance of the White House. If there’s an applicable lesson in “The Americans,” it’s that if you betray your national ideals in the name of protecting them, you lose touch with what you stand for, and when that happens, you’re capable of anything. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are becoming Americans. What are we becoming?
Reviews of “The Americans,” Season 4
Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture
From “The Twilight Zone” to “The Sopranos” and beyond, some of the greatest television shows have found ways to lift basic human predicaments out of their familiar contexts and deposit them in alien scenarios, so that we see their essence etched in sharp relief against a background of contrivance. “The Americans” does this as well as any show in TV history, and with more modesty than many of its predecessors. It has a knack for creating metaphorically or symbolically rich situations that never strut about announcing themselves as such. It’s all there if you care to delve into it, but it’s never in the foreground and affixed with a tag; often you catch it hiding behind, or within, the characterizations and plot twists, as spies hide in plain sight.
Maureen Ryan, Variety
There is something very Russian in the soul of “The Americans,” which shows how impossible and important compassion is, and which finds beauty in sacrifices that may be pointless. In its first three seasons, the show’s melancholy nature set it apart, as well as its commitment to exploring complicated ideas about dignity, autonomy and the harsh outer limits of morality. It’s long been in the top tier of TV dramas, and this year, it looks set to stay there.
James Poniewozik, New York Times
“The Americans” has created a crowded bulletin board of characters and subplots, and this new season struggles to pin the yarn to connect them all. But each resonates with the others, like movements in a melancholy symphony. This may be a Manichaean global struggle, but on the ground it’s just soul-weary spies versus jaded bureaucrats, like the F.B.I. agent who reads a memo chastising employees for using the verb “feel” in official communications. “The bureau,” he says mordantly, “does not feel.” “The Americans” is all about the connection between physical and metaphorical feeling. Even its violence is intimate, up close and personal: beating, strangling, point-blank shooting. Elizabeth and Philip may or may not be good people, but they are affected by each of these acts, and the show’s drama makes their feelings palpable. In their world, in their family, it’s a fine line between a death grip and an embrace.
Vikram Murthi, A.V. Club
If the fourth season reminds viewers of anything, it’s that “The Americans” has a masterful control of tone, doling out horror and slow-burn dread like very few of its contemporaries. Though the series excels at introducing standalone elements in each season, primarily in Elizabeth and Philip’s missions, it nevertheless has a very long memory, using serialization to capture the effect of watching a car crash in slow motion. Weisberg and Fields never let the audience forget that all of the characters’ choices will eventually come back to haunt them: The guiding principles we adopt are often what causes our own undoing, whether it’s Martha’s love for her husband, or Nina’s empathy for the broken men in her life, or Philip and Elizabeth’s oath to a country that will soon no longer exists. But Weisberg also understands that people need principles to give their lives meaning, no matter how shortsighted they may be. When Arkady informs Oleg that his brother was recently killed in combat, a heartbroken Oleg mutters that his brother’s tour was up months ago, knowing full well that it was his loyalty that ultimately brought him down. The Americans lives and dies in that moment of fractured, conflicted recognition, knowing that the things we do to survive are never as sustainable as we’d like to believe.
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
“The Americans” has always worked on those separate planes: that of the spy world and that of the marriage/parent world — it’s the magic combination that elevated the series from a good idea on paper to a great idea onscreen. Anyone who watched The Americans last season no doubt thought, “Oh my God, you can’t tell Paige” while also realizing that as both parents and spies they absolutely had to tell her. That tension — and it was never more intense than in the finale — is only part of what coils and uncoils and reverberates in season four.
Allison Keene, Collider
That’s the beautiful thing about “The Americans”; its exploration of identity and loyalty is unmatched, because of how it focuses on the human element so eloquently. Yes the spycraft can be fun and tense and exciting, but it’s the emotional conflicts that set the show a cut above. Season 4 is, so far, full of hard choices, carefully calibrated decision making, and the simple chaos of life that changes everything in an instant. There is also, of course, a knowing sense of dread that this life the Jennings have created — false as it may have started, but real as it has become — cannot last in this same way forever. There are forces marching against them at all times, but the show’s greatest achievement is how deeply we care about that outcome.
The relationships and how those finely rendered characters crash into and bounce off of each other in their concentric orbits drives the show forward. Just like “Game of Thrones,” where people countries apart still have an impact on one another, everything that happens ripples across the landscape. To make things more intriguing, the central relationship between Philip and Elizabeth, which goes from love to friendship to collegial to adversarial and back again, is like nothing else you’ve seen before. Russell and Rhys are so exquisite you don’t miss one flash of emotion as it flickers through the room.