There are some shows, like The Sopranos or Lost, that are genre-shifting hits from the very start. Both came storming out of the gate with their pilots, immediately becoming critical, cultural and ratings successes, and helping to define whole new generations of TV shows. Then there are shows such as Breaking Bad and The Wire, critical successes that are now considered just as influential, if not more so, than the prior two shows. But both of them barely stayed afloat in their first seasons, buoyed only by the patience and confidence instilled in them by their respective networks (Breaking Bad, for example, averaged 1.3 million viewers per show in its first season; it was over 8 million by its final season).
For both of those shows, there came a moment: when word-of-mouth, critical acclaim, and streaming availability reached a critical mass and elevated each to national attention. It took Breaking Bad until season four to become the show of the moment (and its ratings really only surged dramatically in season five), while it took until the very final season for many viewers to finally tune into The Wire. But to their creators' credit, there was little change in that time between the stories those shows were telling and how they were telling them—each had a clarity of intention that was as fully-realized in their first seasons as their later ones. People just had to catch up and catch on.
That moment has seemingly now come for The Americans, FX's brilliant show about Russian spies posing as an all-American family in D.C. in the 1980s. The fifth season premieres on Tuesday with all the amazingly bad wigs, triple agents, period-appropriate soundtrack cues, and complicated spy shenanigans fans have come to expect. But along with that comes a lot of extra attention, because of the fact that Putin has become a special adviser to the president, as well as the overwhelming amount of critical adoration that likely means you either have bugged your friends to start watching the show, or have been bugged by your friends to do so.
We saw your ad and we're here at Mar-a-Lago to apply for the waiter positions. pic.twitter.com/3j24IJHESD
— Jonathan Ladd (@jonmladd) February 15, 2017
The barrage of pieces that have come out over the last week or two has set the terms for the big leap: after four seasons of slow boil storytelling and escalating tension—four seasons in which the show mined the tensions of the Cold War to excavate the emotional lives of its main characters—it is now "the most relevant show on TV"; history suddenly "feels less retro"; we're all apparently living in a flash-forward episode of the show.
The parallels are too fun to deny, especially now that we are living in a time when the Russian government has been actively meddling in our election, and the Trump administration has seemingly embraced the outright corruption and cronyism of the Soviet Union government of the '80s. That cronyism is explored in new and fascinating ways in season five, as the show spends more time than ever tracking events in Russia via Oleg Burov, who applied for a transfer there at the end of last season.
The Americans has always used its Cold War backdrop and suspenseful action sequences as a jumping-off point to deeply explore the struggles and complications of love, identity, marriage, patriotism, and parenting. But the show has also joyfully embraced the period details (clothing, hair styles, music, the general unceasing paranoia), and creators Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have been meticulous about historical accuracy with their spy shenanigans, with every Americans script submitted to the Publications Review Board at the CIA (where Weisberg used to work).
a gripping serial about Russian operatives working to undermine American democracy. But once you’re done with the news, watch #TheAmericans
— Noah Emmerich (@NoahEmmerich) March 7, 2017
The creators and cast talked to Vulture about the real-life parallels and how history has caught up with their show in a strange and wondrous way:
The politics of it are just bizarre, and not that great for the show, we don’t think, because the show was intended to help look at the former enemy, not our current enemy! [Laughs.] It’s weird to have this stuff talked about — it’s something we’ve been dealing with and doing in the show for years — and for it to suddenly be the main item in the news, that’s just bizarre. There’s really a firewall between the political discussions in the office, which are ferocious and intense and pretty much only at lunchtime, and the writing of the show, which exists in 1984. But we get the news alerts, and we’re like, “WTF?!” All the time. Our set is probably no different than everywhere else, except that our actors are dressed up as Russian spies. And sometimes we’re shooting in KGB headquarters when we get those alerts. That is odd. But it’s also a little awesome.
Joel Fields: I always like to say, some of the most outlandish things we do on the show are the real things, and now it seems that those outlandish things are dominating the headlines. I mean, they figured out a way to interfere with the election of the United States? That would have been a good plot for Philip and Elizabeth. It probably would have been too outlandish for us, actually. But then again, if you read this week’s New Yorker, the Russians did try to prevent Reagan from getting elected. So who knows? In fairness, Philip and Elizabeth did help prevent World War III right after Reagan was shot. I think we could have done it.
— Joel Fields (@joel_fields) March 3, 2017
This I think is the key to understanding where the show's interests truly lie: "There’s something, in a twisted way, that’s kind of fun seeing all this stuff in the headlines we’re trafficking in all the time,” Fields said at the Television Critics Association winter press tour a few months back. "But on the other hand … the initial idea of the show was really to say, ‘Hey look, these people who we think of as enemies are really just like us.’ That was at a more peaceful time in US-Russian relations and to see how things have spiraled so out of control, frankly, just doesn’t feel so good."
This is the quality that has elevated the show above many of its excellent contemporaries: it has always been deeply empathetic toward both sides of an absurd conflict. It is in its dignified treatment of the humans caught up in the machine of war that it transcends its genre trappings and enters into the pantheon of great shows. Alyssa Rosenberg of Washington Post nailed this on the head:
“The Americans” is frequently described as a bleak show. But for all the shattering stories it tells, “The Americans” makes clear that human connection is inevitable. And Philip and Elizabeth’s handlers, as well as Stan’s bosses at the FBI, caution against love and friendship and even mere respect because they know just how powerful those ties can be. Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage was arranged for operational convenience, not ardor; the blossoming of their relationship into a real marriage has been a source of anxiety for their handlers. In a similar way, Stan’s ability to see Oleg as anything more than a tool to be manipulated marks him as a kind of squish within the FBI, rather than the decent, nuanced, flawed man Stan himself is.
It may not be a show that one can just jump into five seasons in (although you could read our season four recap if you really want to try), but there's a reason critics and audiences have become addicted to it. Without giving away too many spoilers (yes, consider that a spoiler warning), you can be assured that The Americans hasn't lost a step as it enters its penultimate season. Stan is getting closer to finding out who Philip and Elizabeth are, even as he gets giddier and giddier over the idea of their families combining thanks to Paige's romance with his son Matthew. Oleg is off in Russia learning a lot more about the corruption of his motherland. Philip's long-lost son is still trying to find him. And the big new subplot that everyone is circling around has to do with an alleged U.S. plot to destroy the Soviet Union’s grain crop, a plot that forces various characters into facing some hard truths about their allegiances. "Why can’t we grow enough grain ourselves?" Philip asks at one point, inching once again a little bit closer to a realization that could tear his family apart forever.
The tension continues to grow at exponential rates, but that is to be expected with things drawing to a close. The more surprising thing, as ever, are the choices the characters make. Philip and Elizabeth were offered the chance to hang up their wigs and go back to Russia at the end of season four after the FBI came way too close to discovering their identities. Couple that with Paige not only finding out the truth about her parents, but beginning to become a willing participant in their work (and getting some lessons on how to fight from her mom), the question lingering over the first episodes is: why the heck didn't they go back? Why have taken on yet another secret identity? Why put their children in increased danger when even their handlers don't think it's a good idea? We only have two more seasons to find out.