Whenever a stranger finds out what I do for a living, they typically reply with one question: What show should I be watching? This sounds like an easy thing to answer — just name my favorite show on TV — but it has to be tailored to the person. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is wonderful, but its rapid-fire quotability isn’t for everyone. Neither is You’re the Worst‘s raw, comedic look at depression, or Review‘s psychological exposé of a man unable to say no (to pancakes). Lately, my go-to response has been Fargo, our best series from 2014 and 2015, because if you don’t like Fargo, well, you’re wrong. It’s tense, funny, thrilling, and stylish — it’s the kind of show that, 10 years ago, people would have said it’s “too good for TV.” Think how great the split-screen “Jabberwocky” monologue would look on the big screen.
But Fargo isn’t my favorite show on TV. It’s a close second behind FX’s flat-out brilliant The Americans, which I almost never recommend. Here’s why.
Season four, which premieres tonight at 10 p.m. EST, begins with a flashback. We see a young Philip Jennings, back when he still went by his real name, Mischa, in Russia. He’s being followed by and hiding from two other teens, one of whom he kills by bashing the boy’s head in with a rock. That’s the first scene of the season. Even Game of Thrones usually gives us some “tits and dragons” before getting to the bloody stuff. And by The Americans‘ standards, it’s not even that vicious. A dead, naked woman having all her bones broken so she can be stuffed into a suitcase is far worse. That’s a weird thing to recommend to someone with whom you’re making small talk at the gym.
Oh well. It’s their loss, because The Americans is outstanding, and it continues to be excellent in season four. It’s also somehow even darker and more suffocating. There’s no hand holding. The action picks up soon after the events of last year’s finale (watch the “previously on…” segment), when Paige called Pastor Tim to tell him her parents are Russians spies and Philip murdered Gene, the FBI’s computer specialist, and made it look like a suicide. In typical Americans fashion, there’s no immediate fallout from Paige’s admission. Elizabeth and Philip (played by the tragically Emmy-less Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) don’t run to the church and make Pastor Tim choke on a Bible. That would be too simple, and Paige would ask too many questions. The show has never been interested in quick, easy solutions — it’s a slow, morose burn that unfolds over several episodes, if not an entire season. That’s not only impressive, character-building restraint from executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields in the age of #TooMuchTV, it also makes the sporadic “holy sh*t” moments even more “HOLY SH*T.”
It’s hard to talk about the season without giving too much away (the less you know, the better; that’s also the Jennings’ parenting motto when it comes to raising Henry), but Nina is still toiling away in a Soviet laboratory with an increasingly depressed Anton; Stan is still harboring deep feelings for his estranged wife Sandra, even though he’s dating a new woman; and Martha is still “poor Martha.” (If anyone deserves good things in life, it’s Martha. She’s Jesse Pinkman locked in a cell, but for four seasons.) Philip’s unwillingness to do everything the KGB demands, no questions asked, has only intensified, and Elizabeth may soon join him, now that they’re handling risky biochemicals.
(I’ll admit that’s unlikely, because Elizabeth is steely and devoted to the cause, and I can imagine the show’s final season, whenever that is, being about Elizabeth having to “take out” a panicked Philip. Call it a “spy’s divorce.”)
The Americans is cold and complicated, with few moments of dark humor (in the premiere, it’s Philip and Elizabeth slowly stripping their stakeout disguises in what appears to be the world’s deepest garage). But the admiration it inspires is easy to understand, if you’re willing to give it a shot.
The Americans premieres tonight on FX at 10 p.m. ET. You can catch up with older episodes on Amazon Prime.