Since I wrote my Sunday appreciation for “The Americans,” which finishes up its six-season run on FX on Wednesday night, a number of people have asked me this question: Is “The Americans” in league with the era’s best, by which they mean “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad”?
I’ve loved “The Americans” since it premiered, and that love has grown as the plotting has grown more complex and as the actors have inhabited their roles. The writers have wound together the business of spying and the business of marriage beautifully, and some of the side stories have been quite affecting, the Martha tragedy, most of all.
But my answer is no.
Why not? There are a few reasons, including the cinematography. It wasn’t bad, really, but it never added to the experience. In the best series, I think, the camerawork plays into and off of the dialogue and the action — what the music is to the lyrics of a song, in a way. Yes, “The Americans” did capture the tense action well, and the violent results, too. It gave us the darkness and the noir affect of covert street meet-ups and drop-offs, the possibility that someone was lurking in the background watching. The show was about the Cold War, and suspicion. And it gave us a bit of the 1980s. But the camera never seemed to take a counterintuitive turn, or reveal nuance or theme through its framing, or add a touch of humor.
Which brings me to another quality about “The Americans” that has kept me from putting it on the all-time list: A shortage of humor. The show was a straight-up drama, and yet, with all the 1980s kitsch and all of Philip’s and Elizabeth’s undercover costumes, it could have used a bit of open irony and caricature. I found some of the kitsch amusing in itself, as well as the presence of EST and Mary Kay cosmetics, but the writers never seemed to milk that potential.
Please don’t think I am an “Americans” naysayer. I’ve been a rabid fan all along. But when I go to that proverbial desert island with room for only 10 shows in my computer memory, it won’t be among them.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.