A lot of shows spend their first season figuring out what they do well, but when “The Americans” debuted last year, it was more or less fully-formed, and if not for “Orange is the New Black,” it would have easily been the best new show of the year. In its second season, which premiered Wednesday night, “The Americans” irons out the few kinks it has, continues to spotlight complex, unexpectedly sympathetic characters, and returns with remarkable confidence and intensity.
The 80’s-set drama takes place in the throes of the Cold War, and Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, respectively) are walking justifications to American paranoia, a pair of KGB sleeper cell agents who’ve built a life as an American family. Last season found the couple struggling to determine just how real their arranged marriage had become, while trying to keep their identity under wraps from Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the FBI agent across the street. This year, Phillip and Elizabeth have to confront brutally heightened stakes after some of their colleagues are eliminated, while trying to throw their increasingly inquisitive daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), off the scent of their illicit activities.
The increased focus on Paige gives Taylor an opportunity to shine in a role that was previously thankless, and the young actress makes her early stages of rebellion sing with authenticity, selling her curiosity as she begins to wrack up a few secrets of her own. Russell and Rhys continue to impress as they try to find the balance between their all-American image and their all-Russian allegiance. While the show isn’t afraid to paint the characters as ruthless killers (and does, often), Phillip and Elizabeth’s horrific actions are always filtered through an unflappable determination, making these complex, ostensibly villainous characters sympathetic and even admirable. Rhys in particular does a great job finding the small complexities in his character, his seething rage as he hands out a little parental discipline contrasting with the cool efficiency he displays as he kills a restaurant full of people – including a teen not much older than his daughter.
Perhaps the best performer in the cast, however, is Noah Emmerich, whose FBI agent is currently embroiled in an affair with Nina (Annet Mahendru), a Russian asset who’s milking him for information. Beeman is the show’s most conflicted figure, the weight of his job slowly disintegrating his personal life, and Emmerich brings tinges of regret and resignation to every bad choice his character makes. Though Nina is trained to hide all emotion, Mahendru makes the smallest gestures and moments count with her marvelously restrained performance.
It’s impressive that “The Americans” is able to root itself in the 1980’s without pointing to the obvious aesthetic signposts, and the show’s soundtrack choices are often inspired, using off-the-beaten-path choices to underline character moments and emotional beats. This season also finds the show brutally upping the stakes, a twist towards the end of the first episode adding a welcome urgency and sense of danger to the Jennings’ adventures. “The Americans” has always been great at using its period and characters to build suspense, and even lingering threads like Beeman and Phillip’s budding friendship have moments of tension based in the inevitable discoveries to come.
“The Americans” debuted last season as one of the year’s most exceptional shows, and teetered on the edge of greatness throughout its freshman year. With tonight’s second season premiere and the impressive episodes that follow, “The Americans” follows through on that promise, telling stories that beautifully use the dueling lives the Jennings lead to add tension to every scene and giving its strong roster of performers plenty of dramatically taut notes to play. If the rest of the season continues on such a strong note, viewers may be looking at FX’s next flagship show.
Creator: Joe Weisberg
Airtime: 9PM, Wednesdays