The brilliantly tense period spy drama about KGB agents will have you defecting to the couch
Why binge The Americans?
Universally hailed as the best show not on prestige cable channels like AMC and HBO across the Atlantic, The Americans might just be the most morally complex 45-minutes of TV you’ll watch per episode. Sure, Game of Thrones took home the Emmy earlier this month, when The Americans finally ratcheted up enough good grace after four seasons of sizzling Soviet espionage, but this show is every bit as complex, layered, and subtitled as the HBO juggernaut.
At its heart, it’s a family story. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two mild-mannered travel agents raising their two kids in the suburbs of Washington DC in the early 1980s. Nobody suspects that they are also KGB spies, deeply embedded in their All-American way of life, spying on the US and carrying out counter-espionage when the need arises. You know, as the decadent westerner you are, that you shouldn’t be rooting for the KGB, and yet Russell and Rhys bring so many shades of charm and sexiness to their work that it is impossible not to sip the borscht-flavoured Kool-Aid.
Toss in stellar supporting performances from Noah Emmerich and Margo Martindale, and an utterly unforgettable turn by Alison Wright as an FBI secretary, and this might be one of the best-acted TV shows you’ve never seen. Hitting all the period beats better than Elizabeth punches her way out of a fight, it won’t be long till you’ve defected to your couch to mainline the entire show before the final two seasons wind things up.
How long will it take to binge?
As it currently stands, stateside the show has just wound up its fourth season, each with 13 episodes. It’ll take one day, 17 hours and 36 minutes to binge what we’ve got so far, but if you watch two episodes a night you could do the whole thing in about a month.
Where can you binge it?
Like a Soviet spy in Regan-era America, you’re going to have to work for this one. The show does air on RTÉ television, but it’s unclear when it will return to screens for the fourth season – and as the story follows some grand arcs, if you’re unfamiliar you need to start from the beginning. Prices for the DVD boxset vary, with the first two seasons coming in below €10 each, and the third retails for €28. Season four has yet to be released on DVD, but a multi-region DVD player could handle a US version of the boxset.
Any hurdles to overcome?
Maliaphobes, that is people who get the heebie-jeebies from wigs, should look elsewhere, because the weaves and rugs on offer here are akin to something you might see on QVC at 2am. Aside from that, bear in mind that the show also features employees of the Russian embassy in Washington speaking to each other in Russian, so those second screening their way through the show will need to look up to catch the subtitles if they want to follow the plot. Otherwise, the biggest problem is the constant state of nail-biting tension you’ll find yourself falling into.
Who steals the show?
Make no mistake, the two leads put in incredible work here, full of doubt and self-loathing and a screen magnetism that has since translated into love off-air. But arguably the two finest performances in the show belong to Noah Emmerich’s FBI agent Stan and the aforementioned Alison Wright as Martha. The latter, who only gets bumped up to season regular in the second run, will break your heart just by looking at a jar of peanut butter.
A scene to sample:
It’s tricky to pull one at random that won’t spoil the major plot twists that come in the later seasons, so sufficed to say this one, in which Philip has to perform some DIY dentistry on Elizabeth after a run-in with the FBI captures the kind of constant and quiet intensity the show marvels in:
What to follow up The Americans with?
In terms of quality, it’s hard to find a spy show that reaches the same calibre as The Americans, though if you like wigs and dodgy accents, Alias has its moments – and goes wildly off the wall towards the end. The Night Manager, an adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel of the same name, works well at building up an undercurrent of menace, and Quantico, which watches like a Shonda Rhimes take on the genre, for better or worse, at least zips along at a hasty pace.