The first four episodes of Season 3 of “The Americans,” which returns Wednesday night on FX, are just as absorbing and dark and impeccably realized as what we saw in Season 2. Now that you know, shred this document if you’re paranoid about spoilers.
The series picks up not far from where it left off, in fall 1982. In Moscow, Leonid Brezhnev is near death and glasnost is still a few years away. All the way around the world in Falls Church, Va., suburbanites and lifelong Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) have come to the point they’ve always feared: An old comrade, Gabriel (Frank Langella), reenters their lives to deliver news from home and to reiterate a request from “the Centre” that they begin grooming their teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), to take up the family’s secret trade.
“Did they not understand the she is 14 years old?” Philip angrily asks.
“Of course they do,” Gabriel says, dabbing at the pint of Frusen Gladje ice cream the Jennings have brought him (“The Americans” can be quite adept at nailing early ’80s period details; fans of “Upstairs at Eric’s,” an album from the British new-wave band Yaz, are in for a special treat this year).
“But [the Centre’s] position,” Gabriel continues, “and they have a point, is that now is the time to start laying the groundwork.”
“We’re doing what we need to be doing,” Elizabeth says. “We’re getting her ready to find out who we really are, who she really is, and that’s going to break everything open, change everything, but it’s going to take time.”
Patience is a real virtue when it comes to watching “The Americans,” a show that seems to move fast but is in fact excruciatingly deliberate in deciding where it’s headed. Some dissatisfied readers have told me they find the show too cold to the touch and bereft of any hope.
Yet, for all its exhilarating, high-anxiety sequences of Cold War espionage (including a gruesome, sure-to-be-talked-about scene this season that serves as a how-to lesson in getting a dead body out of a fancy hotel room), “The Americans” is, at its most essential, a deeply felt drama about a family eroding from within. It’s painful and tense.
“You’re assessing [Paige],” Philip snarls at Elizabeth, later, in the car, noticing how she’s pretending to take an interest in their daughter’s unseemly devotion to her church youth group. “Elizabeth, we are so close. A couple of years from now she goes to college and she can have her own life. We owe her that. Don’t you get it?”
The fact is, we’re all assessing Paige: Does she know more than she’s letting on? Is the Jesus stuff meant to crack her parents’ veneer?
“The Americans” is one of those rare shows that continually raises the stakes on its viewers’ investment in certain outcomes. It’s the same nail-biting slow-build that defined “Breaking Bad” — in fact, it even comes with its own Hank Schrader, in the form of Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the FBI agent next door who is closer than he could ever imagine to locating the Soviet spies his department is so desperately pursuing.
Every scene brings us precariously closer to a variety of endgames, none of them good for our so-called protagonists. (The more you watch, the more it’s clear that we’re meant to root for Philip and Elizabeth here, though true-blue feelings for poor Stan aren’t out of the question.) “The Americans” is now constructed in such a way that one false move could send the show spiraling into absurdity.
My trust in the writers and producers is unshakable at this point. Early in these new episodes they’ve made another smart move by following the story of Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru), a Soviet diplomat in Washington who was sent off last season to a gulag for counterspying. (I’d feared we’d seen the last of her after Stan’s betrayal.) Setting part of the show in the Soviet Union broadens the scope of the series.
Okay, enough slobbering “The Americans” with my continued praise. You’re either watching the best show on television or you’re not. May I offer one more enticement? Though it raises anxiety levels, “The Americans” is also a sort of soothing escape from our techno-
absorbed crime shows and espionage thrillers.
The popularity of westerns was once attributed to people’s desire to briefly escape the 20th century — the telephones, the cars, the electric appliances! — and return to the 19th-century frontier. Now, in 2015, one can find something quaint and reassuring in shows set in the recent but markedly different past, where nobody has a cellphone; where security cameras aren’t tracking characters down hallways and through toll booths; where the viewer doesn’t spend time watching the little blue bar upload the file; where mom or dad can disappear for hours at a time, with nary a text of explanation, to attend an “est” (“Ehrhard Seminar Training”) seminar or get rid of a body.
Those were the days, weren’t they?
Comrades, while we’re on the subject of old spies and renewed animosities with Russia, you are right to cast a wary eye toward NBC’s “Allegiance” (premiering next Thursday), an “Americans”-ish drama about a brilliant, present-day CIA analyst, Alex O’Connor (Gavin Stenhouse), who is on the verge of discovering that his parents and one of his sisters are part of a sleeper cell of former Soviet spies.
Dormant since the end of the Cold War, Mark O’Connor (Scott Cohen) and his Russian-born wife, Katya (Hope Davis), have been reactivated by their superiors in the SVR, Russia’s secret intelligence arm, who are hatching a plot to wreak havoc on the American economy. Their daughter, Natalie (Margarita Levieva), is also a spy and having an affair with another spy (Morgan Spector).
But the smartest (or dumbest) kid in the family, the workaholic, over-
achieving Alex, is coming unwittingly close to foiling the master plan. The O’Connors are given a choice: convert their son to be a Russian spy or he will be killed. Or they will be killed — or everyone will be killed. There are a lot of threats to sort out here.
Unlike the taut discipline seen in“The Americans,” “Allegiance” comes close to letting its most important cat out of the bag too soon, once Alex deduces that his parents are spies and confronts them. From there it’s a “how-will-they-wiggle-out-of-this-one?” kind of show. When you think about it, so is “The Americans,” but “Allegiance” lacks the necessary artfulness to make it work.
The compare-and-contrast here is inevitable. “Allegiance,” adapted from an Israeli TV series, exhibits the pacing and requisite preposterousness of most network action-dramas (see: “State of Affairs”), with the usual added silliness of wildly upgraded technology, including a shirt button that may as well be a smartphone.
“Allegiance’s” real mission, like “The Americans,” is to draw us into a believable family crisis and, in that regard, the show’s results are mixed. Some performances are strong (particularly from Davis and Stenhouse) and the first three episodes demonstrate a knack for getting everyone — viewers included — to hang together off the same cliff right at the 57-minute mark. While we’re dangling, perhaps enjoying the fact that villainous Russians are back in vogue (giving Islamist terrorists a rest, for once), it might be nice if one of the characters would stop and ask: How’d we get here again?
(one hour) returns Wednesday
at 10 p.m. on FX.
(one hour) premieres Thursday, Feb. 5, at 10 p.m. on NBC.