The title of “best show in television history” is, of course, subjective, but strong cases can be made for shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, Better Call Saul, and one that’s not mentioned in the same breath as all of those, but it should be: The Americans. The FX spy series tells the story of two Russian spies deep undercover in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., during the 1980s, and it features some of the best acting, music, and wigs to ever air on television. Also, it’s roughly based on the true story of a real couple caught spying in 2010.
The Americans is available to stream now on Hulu.
From the FBI, Operation Ghost Stories was a decade-long operation tracking a group of Russian Foreign Service Officers (SVR), dubbed “Illegals,” who were assimilating into the United States after crossing over from living in Canada. Primarily identifying people who could be important further down the line and how they could be co-opted to turn against the United States, the “Illegals” were ultimately unsuccessful. A prisoner exchange with Moscow kept them out of jail in the United States, but the story and the potential damage they could have wrecked formed the seed of The Americans, which started airing three years later in 2013.
Starring Keri Russell (Felicity) and Matthew Rhys (Brothers and Sisters) as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, Russian agents deep undercover as a married couple in Washington D.C., with two kids, Paige, played by Holly Taylor (Manifest) and Henry, played by Keidrich Sellati. Using a travel agency as cover for their activities, the arrival of their new neighbor, Sam Beeman, amazingly portrayed by Noah Emmerich (Dark Winds), an FBI agent tasked with hunting the mythical “Illegals,” who happen to be Elizabeth and Philip.
During its six-season run, The Americans was consistently considered one of the best shows on television by almost every critic, from Rolling Stone to the American Film Institute…
At the start of the series, the sham marriage between Elizabeth and Philip is on the rocks, constantly put to the test by the tasks asked of them by Moscow. Get used to seeing both spies act as “honeypots,” using sex as a trap to ensnare someone with information or access that they need, with varying results. Sam, starting out as the morally straight and upright FBI agent, is also shown during the show’s run to be just as human, with his own faults and weaknesses eating away at his own marriage.
Each season advances the calendar, with different real-world events, from Reagan’s announcement about the “Star Wars” laser defense program to his attempted assassination becoming major plot points. The latter incident, shown in the fourth episode, “In Control,” shows the chaos that engulfed each country’s intelligence agencies, assuming the other was somehow behind what was a random lone operative. It’s a forgotten moment in American history, and The Americans uses it to produce an amazing hour of television.
The Americans is, along with Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The West Wing, and Northern Expsoure the only shows to win two Peabody Awards, while Homicide: Life on the Street, is the only three-time winner.
During its six-season run, The Americans was consistently considered one of the best shows on television by almost every critic, from Rolling Stone to the American Film Institute, with Season 3 receiing the highest marks, including a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Nominated for Emmys every season, Matthew Rhys won for Best Actor in a Drama Series for Season 6, while even the supporting stars, including Margo Martindale (Justified) and Alison Wright (American Horror Story) won as well.
The Americans is, along with Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The West Wing, and Northern Expsoure the only shows to win two Peabody Awards, while Homicide: Life on the Street, is the only three-time winner. Despite the historic run of critical acclaim, the FX series struggled to find ana udience during its initial run on cable. On average, each new episode was watched by only one million viewers, but the critical accolades and success on streaming kept it on the air.
Considered by some critics to be the bookend of the “Golden Age of Television” opposite The Sopranos, The Americans is the best show no one watched. Avoid any and all spoilers if at all possible, and go in blind for maximum impact. But be prepared, because once you’re done binging, you’ll want want more.