I'm kind of in the target demo for these Cold War-era set television projects, was a fan of Deutschland 83 when I finally saw it. The Americans is the bigger, more visible brother on the stage, and while it has a lot of eyes of it, its story and execution are fascinating and at times could easily be mistaken for a Ludlum or Le Carre novel.
Set in 1983, Philip (Matthew Rhys, Burnt) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell, Waitress) are married, have two kids and run a travel agency just outside Washington, D.C. What few are aware of is that the pair were born and raised in Russia and trained in the KGB, and their role in America is to spy on government officials and/or perform covert operations when called upon. All the while they are trying to keep from getting caught by their unknowing neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich, Blood Ties), who is an FBI agent in his day job.
One of the big things I've enjoyed about The Americans is that early in the show, the viewer was brought into the hook willingly, and Keri Russell kicking a lot of ass in the pilot helped in that regard. And over the course of the show, what creator and former CIA officer Joe Weisberg has managed to carefully include over the course of the show's three seasons (the fourth is airing as of this writing) is a sense of regret/remorse among the characters in various ways. Elizabeth and Philip have a growing uncertainty about their marriage, Stan sees his wife leave him and he wonders what to do with his family and his job. Doubling things for Elizabeth and Philip how to maintain their grip on family when their missions come calling, and all are expressed well.
A fine thing about the show is the various KGB handlers for Elizabeth and Philip. Early in the show the first one is played by Margo Martindale (Justified), but as the show went on, the introduction of Gabriel (Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon) seemed to increase the ante for the characters, particularly as Gabriel suggests that one of their children be used as an agent.
In earlier seasons, we saw a former flame or two in Elizabeth's life. While we don't have that with Philip, his relationship with Martha, who is a receptionist at the FBI, in the same office where Stan works, starts to have the screws tightened on it. Weisberg and the show have placed slow burns on other events in the show, and the subplot with Martha was one were some I've read expressed exasperation at a lack of payoff. Well, things start to move to some finality in Season Three, and it makes for another level of pressure for Philip and by extension, Elizabeth. This season culminates with a broadcast of the "evil empire" speech from Ronald Reagan, which began the course that eventually saw the elimination of the communist empire in Russia. It's fascinating to see how the characters in Season Four thus far act almost with that in the backdrop, an ending moment of understated power.
Rhys and Russell continue their already excellent turns, and you sense when watching the couple that Elizabeth is more of the strength of the two, and Philip defers to her a lot, but isn't afraid to step in with moments of his own. This role reversal is fascinating to see play out. Emmerich's increased involvement is good, and Alison Wright deserves mention as Martha. The ensemble generally fire on all cylinders but those are some of the better ones for good reason.
The Americans uses a retrospective setting and uses modern storytelling to craft one of the best shows on television. Just when you think the stakes cannot be increased, the show does so, effortlessly and flawlessly, using a cast who delivers above and beyond what is on the page for their characters. Even as they reach new heights in Season Three, you get the sense that so, so much still has to happen in this show.The Discs:
The thirteen episode third season of The Americans is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and looks fine, speaking as one who viewed the episodes in high definition when they first aired. Colors are reproduced competently with little noticeable moments of pixilation or crush. A lot of the show is shot in the dark and the black levels are pretty consistent for most of the show and at least in standard definition, the show looks pretty good.The Sound:
Dolby Digital 5.1 surround for all of the episodes and Fox puts a little more dynamic involvement in the show from these discs, starting from the opening music. Dialogue sounds stronger than I remember from the show while maintaining balance through the season, and the use of music in the show is clear and has a decent range to it. It was a pleasant surprise to listen to The Americans, thanks Fox!zExtras:
There isn't really a lot here; five deleted scenes (7:11) for four episodes don't shed any noticeable light on things, though "The Cold War for Paige" (10:18) looks at the impact of the arc on the character and thoughts from the cast and crew on other characters is recounted, and the ideas for putting it in motion.Final Thoughts:
The third season of The Americans continues to move the characters forward both in America and Russia, and the cast and creators continue to turn in excellent work on a show that deserves an even wider audience than it does. Technically, the discs look and sound good, but the extras could use a little bit of work. For new fans, I think you can jump into the show here with the basic storylines and be sucked right into every action of Elizabeth and Philip like many of us already are.