In a year that included the return of Aaron Sorkin, "Homeland" and "Mad Men," no one was looking to FX – home to the bacchanalia that is "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" – to offer one of the most compelling, complex television drams of the year. But "The Americans" wooed the critics and won over DVR space, while highly buzzed about seasons of "The Newsroom," "Homeland," "Downton Abby" and "Mad Men" (thus far) disappointed, among others. On the day on which "The Americans'" fantastic first season wraps (here's hoping it doesn't burn out too fast), here are some of the things the spy thriller did right:
Marriage of Equals. Many critics have noted "The Americans" is just as much a show about marriage as it is about Soviet spies. And, in an era of many TV antiheros, it features a two-for-one antihero union – an exciting development from the "bad guy husband" trope perpetuated from Tony Soprano to Walter White to Don Draper. In a reversal, Elizabeth is the more nefarious of the duo, fervid in her anti-American ideology and willing to throw her husband, Philip, under the bus of their superiors. Yet Philip displays his own moments of cruelty, particularly when lying to Elizabeth about sleeping with a ex-lover or "marrying" (under the cover of one of his alter-egos) a source. Even though the couple hurts one another in ways only a husband and wife can, they are completely dependent on one another, raising the stakes on typical domestic dysfunction.
A Blast From the Past. By setting the series in the 1981, "The Americans" can revel in some classic '80s fashions, music and technology. It can also explore American pop culture and foreign policy with the advantage of three decades of hindsight. For instance, Elizabeth believes the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan's life will lead to a coup – a conclusion that is both comically off-base, but also an insightful way to portray Cold War paranoia. "The Newsroom" and "Homeland" are uncomfortably close to the events and policies they wish to examine, and thus their critiques often come off as either patronizing or sanctimonious.
Competent Characters. One of the (many) complaints about "The Newsroom" was that its characters, particularly its females, were frustratingly incompetent at their jobs – doing things like sending personal emails to the entire staff – even though the audience was told they were the best in the business. Not so on "The Americans," where watching the Jennings and their FBI counterparts outsmart one another is key to the thrill. Elizabeth's impressive spy abilities may make her even more likeable, even though she is playing for Mother Russia.. A foolish, reckless Carrie Mathison she is not.
The Kids Are All Right. The plot of "Homeland's" second season was hijacked by Nicholas Brody's daughter. Equally as frustrating is the way "Mad Men" routinely ignores Don Draper's sons while devoting a chunk of narrative to his daughter. "The Americans" proved that children can be utilized in the larger story without overwhelming it. Paige and Henry Jennings can keep getting into cars with strangers; just don't let them run over anyone.
Have a Little Fun. For all of its serious reflections on marriage and family, "The Americans" lets itself have a little fun with all the espionage nonsense. The spy games and ass-kicking gives "The Americans" its adrenaline. Elizabeth and Philip can seduce a source in one minute, and beat them up the next. And the wigs — those wigs! Take note, other serious television dramas – sometimes its best to laugh at yourselves a bit, and give your viewers some action-packed sugar to help the medicine go down.