Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in "The Americans" (FX/Patrick Harbon)

"The Americans" will end, and that's good news: Knowing when to close out a TV story is an underrated skill

The news that the spy drama will end after 2 more seasons is welcome—its Cold War tension can't last forever


Scott Timberg
May 25, 2016 11:30PM (UTC)

If you’re a fan of the 1980s-set spy series “The Americans,” today may be bittersweet for you. The show’s network, FX, has just announced that it will renew the show for two more seasons. That’s two more seasons – only -- with 13 episodes next year, 10 the following year.

Despite the show’s critical worship – it’s been known as “the best show on TV” by some of its fans for years now – “The Americans” has been parked around 2 million viewers. It’s hardly gobbled up the awards, either. So the fact that it’s being renewed for even one season is good news, especially in a time when there is so much television and the competition is getting brutal.

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Why do people like me love “The Americans” so much? Its premise sounds a little corny: A married couple live in Washington’s Virginia suburbs, raises two children, runs and travel agency, socializes with the FBI agent across the street, and… spies for the Soviet Union. The early-‘80s setting could be played for laughs, but besides some well-chosen and non-obvious period musical selections, and the goofy wigs, facial hair, and glasses used to disguise the couple, the show never becomes campy.

That is, it never distances itself from what the actions would mean for Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell.) So their chemistry as a married couple, their relationship with their KGB handlers, the way they reconcile their lives in the U.S. to their early years in the U.S.S.R., their complex connections to their children and to the people who help them (Martha) and threaten them (Pastor Tim) make it one of the deepest shows that’s ever been on TV. There’s violence, some of it fairly graphic, but the show’s not about gore. The sex is better than most on cable.

The level of nuance involved would be too much for most actors, but Rhys and Russell pull it off in a way that seems effortless. (The fact that the two are real-life partners probably helps.)

So why is it good news that “The Americans” will close out in 2018? It’s not just that shows like “Happy Days” – for which shark-jumping was a literal event – and the U.S. version of “The Office” demonstrated how listless a series could get when it went past its prime. It’s that “The Americans” is one of the most chiseled shows ever on television: There is not ever an extra beat in the way the acting proceeds, rarely a point pushed too far. If you like spontaneity and a show that really “breathes,” this is not a series for you. It’s disciplined and perfectly worked out. A behind-the-scenes piece in Vox looking at the making of one masterful episode, “Clark’s Place,” got at the show’s immense amount of planning and attention to detail.

“The Americans,” then, has an arc, and I’d rather see the arc work through in an artistically satisfying way than have it stretched out season after season. This show is tense – any show about spies should be – and that level of tension can’t go on forever. Almost every episode, Philip and Elizabeth’s cover is close to being blown. There’s only so many times the writers can keep that up without it feeling like a cheap trick. Series like these are sometimes compared to novels, and there's a reason novels have to end, and it's not just the price of paper.

With six seasons, “The Americans” will have one more season than “The Wire,” another rich and dense show that also managed not to overstay its welcome.

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Realistically, given its ratings, “The Americans” probably would not have become the kind of show that drifted endlessly. But it could have become like “Freaks and Geeks” or “Deadwood” – series that were either cancelled before they could end (the former), or had to rush to a premature conclusion (the latter.)

Showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg say in the press release that “we’re so grateful to know we’ll be telling the story to its conclusion." For a show that’s as controlled and polished as this one, lasting too long, or ending too soon, would make the whole thing look different. Kudos to FX for doing this right.

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Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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