Season two of The Americans premiered Wednesday night on FX. Maybe you knew this: The Americans was the most-watched first season in FX history, tied with Justified. A few critics, chiefly Andy Greenwald at Grantland, who had it as his second-favorite show of the year, champion The Americans aggressively. And, at least in Los Angeles, it’s hard to drive a mile through the city, or turn on any Fox-affiliated station, without seeing some of the show’s Soviet-tinged, '80s-paranoid advertising, which perfectly conveys its alchemical mix of will-they-or-will-they-kill-each-other romance and constant, suffocating menace.
Then again: Maybe you didn’t know that The Americans was debuting on Wednesday. Maybe you’ve never seen an episode of the show. Maybe you didn’t realize that Keri Russell, Noah Emmerich, and Margot Martindale are in it. Or, like me before I watched, maybe you think it’s some sort of weird kitschy sci-fi alt-history thing and not an obsessively plotted throwback. The Emmys seemed to have this reaction: The show only received one major nomination—it also got nom’d for “theme music”—and that went to Martindale for her performance as a diabolically matriarchal handler.
It doesn’t have the common mark of FX’s dramas, which is men taking on the burden of being men. On the contrary, it features one of the most interesting female protagonists on television—and it’s not a comedy.
My go-to elevator pitch when I try to get people to watch The Americans—which I think is, if not the best show on TV, then firmly in the top five—is that it’s what Homeland would be if Homeland were good. I know that’s mean. But what I’m trying to get at is that The Americans delivers on the promise of Homeland, which is an unconventional and dynamic heroine, international intrigue, a story filled with unknowns and tension, and some brilliant set pieces. Homeland doesn’t convert this potential into quality television. The Americans does. Yet Homeland’s first season wasn’t just nominated for an Emmy; it won. And more colloquially, it feels like Homeland had a buzz, particularly in the realm of online recaps, dedicated TV obsessives, and magazine thinkpieces, which The Americans has never come close to having.
This might all be in my head—but why isn’t The Americans more popular? I don’t mean in terms of viewership or ubiquity; the show’s 2014 premiere averaged 1.9 million viewers, which isn’t terribly far behind the viewership of Homeland’s season three finale. I mean: Why isn’t it viewed as a zeitgeist-defining show in the same breath as, say, Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey and House of Cards, all still in relative youth and all, it seems to safe to say, with a firmer grip on the American consciousness? Why isn’t it an Emmy nominee or Golden Globe nominee? Why isn’t President Obama asking for preview screeners?
THE AMERICANS IS ON FX. This isn’t a limitation in and of itself: Plenty of FX shows, especially Louie and American Horror Story, which, you could argue, paved the way for True Detective, current bearer of the TV crown in terms of sheer buzz, have been major objects of public fixation. Others, including Justified, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and The League, have carved out dedicated followings that probably rival the trendier shows like Mad Men and GoT in terms of size and box-sets-owned. FX’s major programming has been a mix of comedies like Louie or Always Sunny or Archer, auteurish undertakings that exist in their own unique language, or soap-operas-for-men like Sons of Anarchy and (the very good) Justified, which both can trace a significant amount of their DNA back to The Shield and Rescue Me, FX’s two original hits. (Not going to pretend like I have any understanding of Nip/Tuck’s legacy.)
The Americans, on the other hand, falls into neither of these camps: It’s less melodramatic, than Sons of Anarchy, far more elaborate than Justified; unlike nearly every show on the channel, it’s rarely hysterical, even when the action reaches a fever pitch. It doesn’t have the common mark of FX’s dramas, which is men taking on the burden of being men. On the contrary, it features one of the most interesting female protagonists on television—and it’s not a comedy.
In tenor and style, The Americans is much closer to the thoughtfulness and human drama of Mad Men or The Sopranos, except infused with a shot of espionage camp. The Americans is about spying, like Mad Men is about advertising and The Sopranos is about the mob: it is, and just as often, it isn’t. It’s a quieter show, despite the wigs and the suggestions of camp, than everything else on FX, which favors pomp and grandiosity, to varying degrees of effectiveness. The Americans has more to do, like the shows on HBO and Showtime and AMC (occasionally), with what’s happening away from the lens of the camera, or just out of its sight.
Unlike these other prestige-type shows, The Americans has not been a candidate for binge watching. And as a show on the lighter-regarded FX that airs as far from the hallowed grounds of Sunday night as calendar-possible—Wednesday night, son—it might benefit from this more than most. I watched it after purchasing the first season on iTunes—it wallpapered the four cross-country flights I made in the process of moving from New York to L.A.—and so many people who I urged to check it out responded by saying that they’d wait until it hit Netflix. And they’re still waiting. The Americans recently appeared on Amazon Prime, but in our current cultural climate, a presence on Netflix or HBO Go can be the catalyst that helps a show—especially if, unlike Homeland, it came out of the gate a little behind—reach a new level. Breaking Bad being the prime example.
Sometimes, though, the market is just sated. Homeland got its hooks in deep; even after the show descended into nonsense, and the folks who liked it began to sour, they stuck in, because we feel like these things are an investment of our time and, after a while, the sunk cost becomes an albatross we aren’t keen to think about.
The Americans became the other spy show, much like Damages, another underappreciated, seemingly out-of-place FX critic’s darling, became another show about lawyers. But The Americans shouldn’t be the other spy show: It’s the better spy show.