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John Doyle: Why The Americans is brilliant but unloved

A couple of years ago, the organization to which I belong, the Television Critics Association, gave an award to The Americans (Wednesdays, FX Canada, 10 p.m.).

Keri Russell came to the little ceremony, wearing a nice lace dress with her hair swept to one side. This made the papers in various parts of the world. The dress and the hair, that is.

That TCA Award remains among the few the series has won. It did win a Peabody, which is the most prestigious award in terms of honouring cultural significance and art. But a Peabody is an under-the-radar honour. It won an American Film Institute Award, too. But the Emmy Awards and the Golden Globes have largely ignored it.

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Why? Well, as this new, fourth season unfolds, the reason becomes clear. It's too damn bleak and to a great extent the series is about endless, callous deception. The plot points are terrible, heart-scalding betrayals. See, there's nothing uplifting about The Americans. And what that tells us about mainstream award-giving organizations is that they cling to the traditional American fear of pessimism and are wary of celebrating work that details duplicity.

Besides, the entire premise of The Americans is anchored in an idea that will end in defeat. It's about Soviet spies Nadezhda (Russell) and Mischa (Matthew Rhys), who pose as a married couple named Philip and Elizabeth Jennings in Washington in the 1980s. They now have two children, Paige (Canadian Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). They kill, lie and steal for the Soviets. They leave a brutal wake of destruction of other lives.

And yet, for all their deft spycraft and cynical duplicity, we know what they don't – that in 1989, the Berlin Wall will fall, and not long after, the Soviet Union will be no more. They are on a fool's brutal errand.

Essentially, the show requires us to root for the two Russian spies. But that's not the issue that shifts the dynamic as far as the Emmys and Golden Globes are concerned. In any sophisticated drama, it's possible to have antiheroes. The turn-off for awards-givers, and for much of the mainstream American audience, is that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that is inspiring in the series. In short, there is nothing edifying about The Americans.

And what's interesting and honourable is that the show has become even darker, more bleak and cynical. In the first two seasons, there was a thriller aspect. Our two spies pulled off daring acts and lived on a knife edge as neighbour and FBI man Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) had occasional suspicions about the people who lived close by. Even Stan became embroiled in a monstrous dishonesty when he became involved with Nina (Annet Mahendru), a Russian embassy employee.

Perhaps the most heinous deceit in the series, one that becomes more perverse episode by episode now, is the fate of Martha. The woman is the wife of one of Philip Jennings's aliases, Clark Westerfeld. While working as a secretary for the FBI, Martha was targeted by Philip, became romantically involved with him and married him. The amount of deceit inflicted upon her is astonishingly cynical. Right now, Martha (played with sublime, touching composure by Alison Wright) is in shock, almost demolished. But the deceit continues.

The entire cast of The Americans is first rate. They work in murky territory, obliged to play characters who exist on multiple levels of dissemblance. Only the viewer has a full picture of what is going on. No character in the show is aware of the intricate web of deceit and the breadth of perfidy. The quality of the acting is the only truly uplifting aspect of The Americans. The storylines are gloominess itself.

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There have been many attempts by critics to pigeonhole The Americans. And multiple attempts to see it as having meanings and attractions other than the core premise. Some have called it a fantasy about Russian spies, others have labelled it a show about the 1980s and explained its appeal – limited though it is – as a fascination with eighties-era pop culture. Yet others see it as simply a white-knuckle cliffhanger rooted in a very simple plot – will the spies get caught?

None of this does justice to the morbid, ghoulish gloom of it, as the series now stands. In truth, every character in The Americans is being deceived but, forlornly, wants to believe in the value of their actions and lives.

Martha has been exploited beyond anything a deceived woman could cope with. Yet she wants to believe she's loved and wanted. The two main spies face near debacle time after time. Yet they go on working for their Russian masters. Stan is a mess of guilt, suspicion and regret, but he goes on, clinging to ideals of truth and manliness that have already destroyed him and Nina.

It is bracing to see such misanthropy and bitterly wrought cruelty play out. It is even better to see that the series has become more gloomy.

That's the brilliance of The Americans. It says "no" to uplifting, and the fact that it isn't honoured in mainstream awards only underlines the troubling genius of it.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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