1. The Couple
The show is built around the dynamic between Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys
and Keri Russell
, who became a real-life couple over the course of the show). Their relationship is complicated by disguises, the sex they have with strangers to steal their secrets, Phillip's marriage to another woman, and the fact that they got married for country, not for love.
2. The Family Drama
Yes, we know the real Americans won the Cold War. What we don't know is whether the Jennings or their two children survive it. That's the central drama of the show.
3. The Spy Drama
These are legit spy stories that would work even without the family dynamic. We have bugs, blueprints, toxic warfare, wigs... without any James Bond theatrics.
4. The 80s
"The Americans" wears it setting lightly, never succumbing to gimmicks. People have bad haircuts and eat frozen French bread pizza -- the kind of '80s foods we ate before carbs were blacklisted. But there are no silly jokes about President Trump or Governor Schwarzenegger or other awkward winks at the modern-day audience. It just feels like you're in the actual '80s, when nuclear apocalypse felt like a viable possibility.
The Jennings' daughter (Holly Taylor) is the show's secret weapon. A born-again Christian, she's torn between her parents (and the KGB's interest in recruiting her) and her belief in American-style social justice.
5. The Neighbor
The Jennings have the misfortune of living across the street from an FBI agent. A smart one. Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich
) is a perfect foil to the couple, always perilously close to catching them.
6. The Pace
Season 4 of "The Americans," the most recent, revolved around whether a church youth leader would rat out the Jennnings as Soviet spies. Those kinds of small, interpersonal dramas power the show, and they play out like emdless Iron Curtain chess games. The more closely you pay attention, the more fascinating they are. What's that knight trying to do? And did you catch that pawn before it became a queen?
8. The Realness
Sometimes storylines on "The Americans" just end, hopelessly, with no one learning any lessons. It's devastating.