In many ways, "The Americans" has it all: Sex, violence, Cold War intrigue, Reagan-era fashions (oh, that hair!), marriage as metaphor, Margo Martindale … the list goes on and on. If it weren't on FX and full of Americans, you'd think it had been made by the BBC.
It also has the one big and too often ignored problem shared by so many shows that ask viewers to accept crime and violence as necessary plot-points: Kids.
The couple to whom the title refers, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) Jennings, are a pair of Soviet spies who had been living and working in the D.C. suburbs for more than a decade when we met them last year. During that first season, many things happened — an FBI agent named Stan (Noah Emmerich) moved next door, Philip had to "marry" a source, Elizabeth was almost killed — but the A-plot followed the emotional arc of the two leads. Increasingly, Philip came to love America and, more important, he and Elizabeth began to love each other. The sham marriage was made real.
It was a lovely twist on the more typically combative work versus family storyline (if a slightly worrisome celebration of arranged marriages). Except for one thing. Two things, actually: Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), the Jennings children.
Though the product of a fake marriage, they are quite real and, at 14, Paige has a few questions about why her parents come and go at odd hours and don't seem to act like other grown-ups who are married.
Again, this could be used as a humorous metaphor for every teenager's tendency to judge parental habits and find them wanting. Except it's not. Paige is not crazy or paranoid or simply adolescent. She's right. Her parents really are secret-hoarding, lie-telling spies and not the good (i.e. American) kind.
While the combined attractiveness of Russell and Rhys make it fairly easy to suspend our more natural feelings toward a couple of murderous Soviet super-soldiers, it's much harder to sympathize with a pair of adults who are so obviously screwing with their children's psyches.
Also their lives, as Season 2 addresses head-on in a decidedly brutal way.
As with so many of these sympathetic bad-guy dramas, Elizabeth and Philip are portrayed as caring parents, but only if you don't factor in that pet elephant in the living room: Being a spy is a mortally dangerous business, especially for those who don't know they're in it.
Something the adult Jennings seem to be realizing Just This Second.
The second season premiere of "The Americans" unblinkingly shows the great bodily harm of a child and the emotional destruction of another, on screen in all its attendant horror.
Elizabeth and Philip react with the appropriate amount of fear for and protectiveness of Paige and Henry. No doubt, this will further widen the cracks already forming in their political/professional resolve, but there is no going back: "The Americans" puts the kids front and center.
This may ratchet up the emotional intensity of the show, but it also raises question that should be asked of so many shows: How much can we care about characters who are so willing put two children at risk?
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)Copyright © 2015, RedEye