The Refreshing, Radical Restraint of The Americans' First Season

The FX spy drama has put its characters through crazy situations—without relying on excruciating cliffhangers or cheap reveals.
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The premise of FX's The Americans makes it sound like a high-stress show. Two KGB agents pretending to be Americans, raising a family in early '80s suburban DC, living next to an FBI counterintelligence officer, and regularly dispatched on potentially deadly spying errands—a recipe for anxiety, it would seem, as the protagonists try to navigate their personal and professional lives without blowing their covers.

But I've watched its opening season with a leisurely enjoyment that feels almost wrong for a violent, sexually charged, antiheroic TV drama. That's because the show is rare hybrid: part episodic procedural—like, to use an ur-example, Law & Order—that introduces and resolves a "mission" over the course of an hour; part "HBO-style" serial drama with an overarching narrative a la Breaking Bad or Mad Men. (Most episodic shows have overarching narratives as well, but none regularly devote as much screen time to long-term development as The Americans does.)

The result is strange and sometimes clumsy, but also delightful and never too taxing: relatively light on the cliffhangers, the near deaths and resurrections of main characters, and the crazy reveals. Questions asked at the beginning of an episode are often answered by the end of it. When there's a twist, it's rarely a cheap shock but rather the result of careful, patient, discernable clue dropping. So unlike a lot of TV's critically acclaimed dramas that I regularly watch, I don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out the show when I'm not watching it. And that's kind of nice.

This isn't to say it's boring, or not provocative. Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings must do incredibly unsavory things for the motherland. Their relationship is fascinating. And Wednesday's season finale boasted climactic action as tense as anything. I'm not going to spoil it—I'm writing this post not to recap but to encourage people to go watch. But there's not a lot to spoil. The basic arc of the season has been the spies executing tasks and working out marital issues while the FBI starts to catch on that there's a cell of particularly effective Russian "illegals" running around. In this final episode, I think it's OK to say, Phillip and Elizabeth have their closest call yet. Certain characters are in tough spots at the end, and others seem ready to make life more even complicated for the main players.

I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the show when I'm not watching it. And that's kind of nice.

But as Peter Gabriel's "Game Without Frontiers" plays us out over a montage of what's happening in the various storyline, there's a sense of general OK-ness, completeness, that so many other season-enders for dramas shy away from. A superficially similar show like Homeland—which, to be fair, was scintillating in its first season in a way that The Americans never has been—thrives on keeping essential info hidden so that viewers crave knowing what happens next. The Americans lays it all out and trusts the audience will find its characters and central conflicts interesting enough to revisit. Happily, that trust probably isn't misplaced.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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