As Season 2 Starts, "The Americans"' Deception Is All in the Family

Television
by Sam Adams
February 26, 2014 3:50 PM
2 Comments
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Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in "The Americans"

FX's "The Americans" stars its second season tonight, and the consensus is that it pushes the show towards being one of the best on TV -- except for critics who think it was already there.

Without giving away the details, the season's first episode -- and especially the second -- focuses the season on the issue of family. If the first season was about deep-cover Soviet spies Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip (Matthew Rhys) Jennings realizing the bonds that have grown under the facade of their state-ordered marriage, season two is about the family that's resulted from it. Can they really keep their children -- especially their elder daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), who in last season's finale was suggestively nosing around the laundry room where Elizabeth keeps her spy paraphernalia -- separate from what they do for Mother Russia, and if they do, does that mean their kids are growing up... American?

"The Americans" takes care to remind us early on that Elizabeth and Phillip's opposition to the U.S. is not simply a matter of geopolitics or loyalty: In their separate ways, they despise what the U.S. represents, its groundless amorality and its increasingly atomized society. Not for nothing is the wife of their FBI-agent neighbor starting to delve into the self-help movement. But with the end of the Soviet Union barely a decade away, would they even recognize it if they were to go home? A new arrival in the Soviet Embassy, put there in part to give Annet Mahendru's Nina someone to bounce off, seems much more comfortable employing the tools of capitalism to get his job done, and even savoring some of its fruits. 

As the season rolls on -- five episodes were made available in advance -- Paige becomes a more significant and complicated character, and "The Americans" starts to overlap with "The Good Wife" and "House of Cards" in plumbing the collateral cost of deception. Although Margo Martindale, who's now lending her considerable talents to the less-than-considerable "The Millers," is missed, there's enough to meat here that my main complaint is I wish it was moving faster. But in the grand scheme of things, there are much, more worse problems to have.

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture

The element of playacting makes things fun for the audience -- at times it's almost a sitcom-ish, "I Love Lucy" sort of fun, as in, "How on earth will the heroine fool law enforcement this time?" -- but it also makes things pleasurably dizzying, because it lifts familiar issues and questions out of their standard contexts and makes you think about them as statements, and about the words themselves, and what they refer to. 

Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker

It’s not a critic’s job to be a P.R. flack, to sell a show. We’re supposed to maintain healthy boundaries, gazing at art from an Olympian distance. But there are certain TV series that bring out the evangelist in any writer, and, in a world of hype for "prestige cable dramas" -- the Internet’s favorite topic to obsess about -- FX’s smart thriller "The Americans" came in way too far under the radar last year.

James Poniewozik, Time

"The Americans," returning on FX Wednesday night, is about two Soviet spies (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) recruited to marry and live as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings in suburban Virginia, where by the early 1980s they have a thriving travel agency and two children.... It's also about a working couple trying to balance their professional partnership with a rather complicated relationship. It’s about the poignance of living in exile and raising (and protecting) children who to some extent will always be strangers from you. It’s about the conflict of being loyal to an ideal (even a doomed one like Soviet communism) even as you’re badly used by the people working in the name of that ideal. It’s about committing to little lies and big lies over the course of years, and realizing that those lies have now added up to an actual life. It’s about making choices with consequences not just for you but your family and realizing the repercussions, possibly too late.

Mo Ryan, Huffington Post

Holy Mother Russia, you need to be watching "The Americans." Very few shows are able to combine pleasurable episodic storytelling so deftly with solid character building and delicious suspense, but the first five episodes of the new season do that with style, not to mention period-perfect wigs. What more could you possibly want from a television program?

Alison Willmore, Indiewire

"The Americans" gets a lot from the contrast between the suburban D.C. normalcy the Jennings are playing at and the high risk espionage they engage in, not always in their off hours. It's a heightened show, with the disguises and the car chases, but it continues to maintain its delicate balance between domesticity and intrigues, with both the Jennings and the other characters.

Television
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2 Comments

  • Skippy | February 26, 2014 4:28 PMReply

    I usually enjoy the Criticwire columns, but there seems to be some problems here.

    What is "SOviety?"

    What happened to this sentence? "But with the end of the Soviet Union barely a decade away, would they even recognize it if they were to home." (After reading this several times, I realized that I think you're missing the word "go.")

    Finally this: "they despise what the U.S. represents, its Godless amorality"

    The USSR frowned on religion, so I don't know if they would despise "Godless" anything. Were you going for something about materialism or capitalism?

    Anyway, I only bring these up because I respect your work and I hope you would want it to be at its best.

    And I am very much looking forward to "The Americans' tonight!

    Thanks--

  • Sam Adams | February 27, 2014 12:54 PM

    As the kids say, my bad. Long story short I got stuck in several airports with spotty internet yesterday and was consequently a bit off-balance. Fixed, with some scuffing of shoes.

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