Imagine this: you’re a television executive, and you’ve got what you’re absolutely certain is the next breakout prestige drama on your hands. It’s got a strong cast, a smart premise, and a couple of shrewd veteran writers at the helm. The early reviews are overwhelmingly positive, and it appears destined to amass a large and loyal following, launch a thousand weekly recaps, and become a fixture of water-cooler discussions in offices across the continent.
Except none of that happens, because the show arrives five years too late. Instead of becoming the next Sopranos, it gets lost in the noise of our increasingly fragmented television reality — just another entry in a seemingly endless torrent of shows premiering every week across an ever-expanding balloon of channels and streaming platforms, all trying to feed a populace still somehow starving for readily available, smart entertainment. Now you’re faced with a tough call: do you cancel what you know to be a Hall of Fame-worthy show? Or do you keep it going for the sake of great art at an equally great expense?
That’s been the dilemma faced by FX Networks CEO John Landgraf with The Americans, a series that’s been showered in fervent critical acclaim (heading into its fourth season, which premieres Wednesday, it clocks in at 95% on Rotten Tomatoes) and never had anything to show for it in the ratings. Consider: seven of its 13 episodes last year were watched by fewer than a million people live. By US cable standards that’s effectively nothing.
Here’s the pitch, in case you’re not one of those fewer than a million people: it’s the early ’80s, the Reagan-charged days of the Cold War. A pair of Soviet spies pose as an average American couple in the suburbs of DC — so deep undercover their two US-born children don’t know their true identities — while carrying out covert KGB operations. Over its first three seasons, the show managed to weave a taut narrative web that combines the heart-pounding tension of early Homeland with the dysfunctional interiority of Mad Men. Led by unswervingly nuanced performances from Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, it’s a brilliant examination of marriage filtered through a smokescreen of lies and loyalty and beliefs. It is, in many respects, the perfect show for our paranoid, overly politicized times.
This is tense, artful, vital television, and it deserves to be savoured and digested from week to week.
Ultimately, Landgraf has stuck with the show. And while he might not be getting brilliant financial returns, The Americans has repaid him by getting better and better with each passing season — an anomaly for television, where creative diminishing returns are the norm. The hope, it appears, is for The Americans to be among a new generation of series created without initial viewership in mind, content for content’s sake that might one day gain a following via streaming services (the first two seasons are currently on Shomi).
But you should do Landgraf — and yourself — a favour and watch The Americans right now, in the moment. This is tense, artful, vital television, and it deserves to be savoured and digested from week to week. Landgraf has publicly committed to The Americans through at least the fifth season. Start watching soon, and it might just get the sixth and seventh it deserves, too.