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You Should Be Watching: “The Americans”

You don’t expect any American viewer to be rooting for married Russian spies not to get caught as they masquerade as suburban U.S. citizens and try to steal top secrets during the Reagan administration in the 1980s. But many viewers find themselves in that strange situation watching the FX series “The Americans.” Like most American TV viewers, I’m just rooting for a series that gets me involved, keeps me interested and, as a bonus, illustrates differences and similarities with enemies. And “The Americans” succeeds on all levels.

Title: “The Americans”

Year it began: 2013

Where it can be seen: FX On Demand, Amazon Prime, Hulu, DVD

Who’s in It: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Richard Thomas, Noah Emmerich, Holly Taylor, Margo Martindale, Dylan Baker, Frank Langella.

Typical episode length: 42 minutes

Number of episodes to date: 52

Brief plot description: Elizabeth (Russell) and Philip Jennings (Rhys) appear to live the American Dream in suburban Washington, D.C., with two children. The Russian spies have to be extra careful to conceal their identity because a decorated FBI agent (Emmerich) is a neighbor. They wear disguises and spend most of the time in missions either killing vulnerable Americans or ruining their lives while befriending them in an attempt to uncover secrets. But they can feel a little guilty about ruining the lives of Americans they get close to in their missions.

Why it’s worth watching: You’ll have to suspend disbelief for a couple of reasons: Besides the FBI agent living next door, Elizabeth’s ability to defend herself in violent scenes belies Russell’s small physique. But the acting is exceptional, the predicaments they get into are involving, and the problems the Jenningses have in their marriage and raising their teenage daughter (Taylor) add an extra dimension.

On the outside, the Jenningses – who had an arranged marriage – appear to be the perfect American couple. They keep their domestic battles out of view of their children, Paige (Taylor, who deserves an Emmy nomination Thursday) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). Elizabeth is more committed to the cause, while Philip considers what life would be like as real Americans. He enjoys American life – trips to the mall included – more than his wife.

It is easy to get hooked from the opening episode, which does a terrific job in setting up the suspense of how the couple attempts to get away with their international missions with the help of their supervisors (first Martindale, later Langella) and deal with their own domestic dramas. Through flashbacks in the series, viewers also see how they were paired by the KGB and how they are wired differently.

– Alan Pergament