The show’s six seasons are set from the beginning of 1981 to the end of 1987, and while flashbacks dig a little deeper into the past at times it’s the 80s that the series calls home. It captures the decade less with nostalgia and more with accuracy for its excesses, and while the period details are precise and on-point the atmosphere and feel of the time are every bit as authentic. From the neighborly feel of suburbia to the air of paranoia and fear amplified by the Cold War, this is recognizably Ronald Reagan’s America seen through the eyes of imposters.
The core setup introduces a model family of four living just outside Washington, D.C., but looks can and are deceiving. Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) run a travel agency while their two kids — Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) — attend school, play with friends, and live their American lives oblivious to their parents’ truth. That truth, of course, is that they’re Russian spies juggling their outside appearance with missions ranging from theft to sabotage to assassination. Accomplishing it all requires skill, dedication, and an investment at times into portraying entirely different characters.
It’s there where the show’s moral challenge rears its head, again and again, as both Philip and Elizabeth manipulate other people sometimes to the point of building friendships and entering relationships that rarely end well for the other party. These interactions can last an episode or stretch across multiple seasons, and they rarely feel like lazy story beats as each instead feels a part of the whole. These actions, all sanctioned and instructed by the Russian intelligence agencies holding the other end of the Jennings’ respective leashes, are orders that can’t be disobeyed. Well, that shouldn’t be disobeyed, but therein rests some of the series’ multiple threads of deceit and disobedience. This couple, put together by order rather than love, finds their own emotional truth across the years, and the viewers follow suit. We have to assume they’ll be fine from one episode to the next as they’re the leads, but that isn’t necessarily the case as they face struggles together and apart that sometimes see different roads taken. This is high-stress entertainment at its finest.
And again, lest you think it’s all mind games and subterfuge, the show delivers its share of action beats — from the explosive to the brutal and bloody — and skin as sex remains a tried and true method of extorting and/or blindsiding targets. It being an FX Network show, fleshy bits are rarely shied away from meaning it delivers some sexy scenes that, fair warning, sometimes end in more than just little deaths if you know what I mean and I think you do. The show’s power is frequently in the calm before these storms, but when they hit they do so with energy, style, and more often than not, killer song choices too from artists including Peter Gabriel, Yaz, Crowded House, Roberta Flack, Fleetwood Mac, U2, Alabama, and many, many more.
While Russell and Rhys are the main players here the show’s supporting cast is filled with equally compelling talents. Noah Emmerich tackles the difficult role of neighbor and friend to the Jennings who happens to be a counter-espionage agent for the FBI, and what could have been a thankless fool becomes a character with a beating heart. Lev Gorn, Costa Ronin, and Annet Mahendru deliver Russians whose own humanity shines through what are too often cliched, one-note characters elsewhere. And you can’t go wrong with appearances from talents like Richard Thomas, Dylan Baker, Frank Langella, Julia Garner, John Carroll Lynch, and beloved character actress Margo Martindale.
The best and most binge-worthy shows are ones that tell an engaging story that builds across episodes and seasons. The Americans begins with a solid genre premise involving spies integrated into American life, and it accomplishes something impressive in allowing them to do terrible things while still making them likable, understandable people who grow through and alongside their experiences. The journey shows us their motivations, their histories, and their shifting hopes for the future, and it builds in its final season into the most suspenseful and nerve-wracking show on TV. It’s thrilling, sexy, relatable, and never less than engaging, and it compels you to squeeze just one more episode in… and when the episodes do finally end it leaves viewers with an immensely powerful satisfaction. This is masterful television more than deserving of your time.