Today, Sonia Saraiya wrote an interesting piece on The Americans, which is finishing its third season tonight. It addresses a topic that is near to my heart: why is it that "no one" watches The Americans, even though it has been called by some the best show on TV? My wife and I are the only people we know who watch it (usually, when I say something like this, friends pop out of the woodwork talking about how they are watching, too, so I apologize in advance if I've missed you here). Its ratings are shaky enough that you never know from one season to the next if FX will renew it, but since it's a show that still has a lot of story to tell, and since it hasn't lost any steam creatively (Saraiya calls Season Three the best yet), it would be a shame if it was shut down. (It has been renewed for a fourth season.)
Saraiya struck a nerve with me because she gets right to what I find to be arguably the most interesting thing about a very interesting show: that no one watches it. We all have shows like this ... just yesterday on Facebook, my sister linked to an article titled, "'Call the Midwife' Is the Most Feminist & Socially Conscious Show You're Not Watching". The author of that piece, Sabienna Bowman, has no difficulty finding reasons to praise Call the Midwife, and if many of those reasons seem less artistic than socially progressive, people who prefer series they can "agree with" will understand Bowman's claims (and, to be sure, she also draws attention to the artistic excellence of the show). What makes Saraiya's piece different is that she does as good a job as Bowman of describing what raises the series to the higher levels, but the point of her argument is that nevertheless, The Americans is less than great as a viewing experience.
It’s a good show—sometimes even a great show. The season ending Wednesday evening is to my mind the series’ best yet—one where some of the most carefully laid secrets from as far back as the first few episodes are beginning to unravel.... It’s a very well-crafted show missing some ineffable je ne sais quoi—the “zsa zsa zsu,” as Carrie calls the spark of chemistry she feels with Berger, in “Sex And The City.” “The Americans” is charismatic for some, but it’s not alchemically watchable—it’s not must-see TV. It’s something else....
A lot of shows about death and mayhem may be populated with nothing but embodiments of grim despair, but they will still make an effort to be funny—“Breaking Bad,” one of the most violent and upsetting shows I’ve watched, was still a sardonic, starkly humorous show. “The Americans” can’t quite manage that. It’s hard for a show to find humor when it benefits the protagonists to keep everyone as miserable as possible.
Which is another part of the show’s essence. There’s no one to root for in “The Americans” ...
This is the beauty of “The Americans,” too. It’s a hard show to love, but in some ways, that’s the point. None of this, the show seems to say, gesturing at the world in 1983, is particularly easy. It’s a reminder of the worst part of humanity, and a memento of a terrible time in history—when a pointless struggle between two ideas of nationhood killed thousands of people and ruined the lives of many more. It’s all real, and still upsettingly relevant.
There are "feel good" shows, and it's easy to see why they might be popular. But nothing feels good about The Americans. There is no one to root for, because the central characters, the ones who in another show we would expect to identify with, are Soviet spies who commit horrible acts in the name of ideology. We could root for the U.S. spies, except despite the central characters being hard to like, our instincts as viewers are to at least hope that those characters survive ... like when we root for the anti-hero to emerge victorious. And the U.S. spies are no better from a moral standpoint than the Soviets.
As Saraiya concludes,
[W]hat I struggle with in particular is the show’s lack of hope, in the midst of so much horror. I respect the hopelessness—it’s valid, it’s rational, and given how we know the Cold War is going to end, for the Jennings family, it’s inevitable. But it’s hard for me to live with that, for hours or weeks or years at a time. My distance from the show is a defense mechanism; a way of holding out hope for my future, as yet unwritten.
I sense the same thing, although my taste preferences gravitate towards art that represents hopelessness. I don't feel a need to distance myself. Having said that, it's hard to think of another show that makes me as anxious as does The Americans. A show about spies will necessarily include tense scenes where the spies are close to being caught in the act. There are multiple such scenes in every episode of The Americans. You're on the edge of your seat, even if you aren't "rooting" for the characters. And this feeling is relentless ... it's built into the series.
Saraiya is right: The Americans lacks hope. Nothing is going to work out well in the end, and we in the audience know this. The Americans has leading characters who are hard to like (even though the acting is great), it regularly features scenes that are excruciatingly tense, the moral compass of the characters is not easy to love ... of course no one wants to watch it.
Ultimately, Saraiya's essay helps me understand what has puzzled me for three seasons. For most people, it's not enough that a TV series is excellent, if the excellence is designed to make the audience feel bad. I stand by my position that The Americans is one of the best shows on TV. But I don't blame you for ignoring it.