Let’s get this out of the way: you’re not watching The Americans. Very few people are. Just last week, the International Business Times published a great breakdown of the show’s flagging ratings and why the network views it as a luxury portfolio item. Not only does the audience skew wildly away from traditional primetime television – more than half of the show’s viewers are older than fifty – the digital delivery system is also holding the show back from realizing its full potential. “The network’s back-end distribution rights are anything but streamlined,” author Alex Garofalo wrote, noting that the show’s weaker streaming platform (Amazon Prime as opposed to Netflix or Hulu) limits the number of potential viewers who can jump on the show between seasons.
If the article teaches us anything, though, it’s that we have been given a brilliant television show through the sheer goodwill of a handful of network executives. The decision-makers at FX know that the show isn’t doing well, but they like having a critically acclaimed television show in their rotation and will continue to let it lag behind in the ratings as long as their other shows do well in their respective timeslots. This is not an arrangement that fills me with a tremendous amount of confidence. There are very few television shows that I actively seek out; the day and date that new episodes of The Americans are released is a minor holiday in my household, and knowing that the show operates almost entirely at the whim of a handful of people makes me conscious of how quickly it could go away.
How do we get more people to watch it? You could probably pitch a friend or family member on The Americans as a kind of pulpy historical fiction: two Russian spies posing as a married couple run covert operations against the FBI and CIA in 1980s America. It’s a nice compact little logline, but it also fails to capture what makes the show such a rich character study. At its core, The Americans is about asking people to immerse themselves within a competing ideology and how long it takes for them to lose their way. Each of the characters – American and Soviet alike – suffer from a fractured self-identity; their values are often in direct conflict with the people and things that they choose to care about. Add in career-defining work from some brilliant actors (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, and Alison Wright chief among them), and you have a show with everything in the world going for it.
Through the first three seasons, that hasn’t been enough. The Americans might be a great show, but despite the article’s assertions, it has never had a clear path to the title of ‘Best Show on Television.’ One of the major challenges for The Americans is that the show has always lived in the shadow of bigger and bolder series. The first season coincided with the final season of Breaking Bad; the second season ran alongside the electrifying first seasons of both True Detective and Fargo; and the third season was in competition with the last year of Mad Men. These shows had countless recaps and podcasts dedicated to their every episode and were mainstays come award season. The Americans, meanwhile, could only hang their hat on the repeated Emmy nominations of Character Actress Margo Martindale.
And if The Americans faced an uphill battle to be named the clear-cut ‘Best Show on Television,’ it struggled even more to define itself as appointment television. In 2015, the New York Times ran an article on the emergence of television as a social phenomenon, singling out Scandal as one of a new breed of shows that benefited from a collective social lift. “In an unexpected throwback to the earliest days of television,” author Farhad Manjoo notes, “the best stuff, rather than playing out whenever we like, is best experienced live, because that’s when everyone else is watching, too.” The social dimension of television has become a driving force for media scholars and network executives everywhere; its impact can be felt in a variety of different ways, from the revival of live television musicals like Grease and The Wiz to AMC’s tie-in recap show, Talking Dead. These shows are designed with social interaction in mind, and if you aren’t watching the first time it airs, you might as well be talking to yourself.
The only problem? The Americans is many wonderful things, but a ‘social event’ isn’t really one of them. The very premise – the methodical undermining of American culture – necessitates a narrative long-view that does not lend itself well to cliffhangers or unexpected reveals. As the relationships between the characters have matured, the show’s emphasis on interpersonal storytelling has only increased. Season three, for example, spends thirteen episodes with Elizabeth as she methodically positions a family of government workers to knowingly trade state secrets for cash. There is no climactic shoot-out, no heartbreaking betrayal, only the grim satisfaction in seeing how easy it was to convince someone to commit treason. The audience demographics and poor VOD positioning makes it highly unlikely that The Americans will find the audience to reward its reputation anytime within the next few years.
Still, if The Americans were to be cancelled tomorrow, it’d be hard to feel too sorry for the show. Many brilliant programs struggle to secure a second season; The Americans were gifted with four wonderful years of network television, and nothing in the execution of the show suggests they ever had to compromise their long-term narrative goals. They’ve been (rightfully) acclaimed for their incredible use of music, defended passionately by talented writers, and singled out by second-tier awards shows such as the Critics Choice Television Awards for each and every season. I may not see a lot of television shows through to the very end these days, but as long as there are new episodes of The Americans to be seen, I will be there to watch them. I hope more than a few of you will choose to join me.