“Russia! Russia! Russia!” chants Sean Hannity nightly, over on Fox News. “Collusion! Collusion! Collusion!” he squawks. Hannity ridicules what he sees as prosecutor Robert Mueller’s overreaching investigation into Russian collusion with the Donald Trump presidential campaign. Sean ought to calm down, relax, and chill out with some entertainment television — say, the season premiere of The Americans, on Wednesday night on FX. He can sit back and enjoy the escapades of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), Russian agents who are spending the 1980s … oh, right: colluding with any American they can get their clutches on who’ll help them help Russia to take over the world. On second thought, maybe Hannity should watch a different FX show, like Zach Galifianakis clowning in Baskets, or Donald Sutherland swanning around wealthily as J. Paul Getty in Trust.
Now more timely than ever, although not because the show wants to be, The Americans provides ample nightmare material for conservative and liberal viewers. Elizabeth Jennings has become, over the course of the show’s six seasons, an even more hard-line Communist devoted to subverting what she sees as our “soft,” “weak” capitalist system. If her husband, Philip, isn’t as tough-minded, it’s primarily because American democracy has begun to exert its creeping rot on him — he’s become a devotee of the ’80s’ most touchy-feely cult self-help program, EST. Last season’s Americans suffered from a certain spinning of its wheels, as though the show needed to hold back on plot and action to heave itself over the finish line for this sixth and final season. Now that the sixth season has arrived, The Americans is revved up and ready: Every one of the three episodes made available for review hums along at a swift pace, dropping revelations right and left — no political pun intended.
In the new episodes, it’s 1987, and Elizabeth is unnerved by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s warm feelings toward the West. Why, it’s as though the old Bolshevik had started taking EST classes with Philip, for Pete’s sake! Her trickle-down anger seeps into daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), whom we saw last season being trained as a next-generation Commie spy; she’s now come into her own and she’s just as grim and determined as dear old Mom. I’ve always found the espionage element in The Americans — the stuff that is presumably based primarily on facts and research — to be the least believable, or the least enjoyable, stuff in the show: all those frowsy wigs and high-school-musical disguises, and all that karate-chop killing.
No, the good stuff is the Jennings family drama — the way they behave with each other and present themselves to the world around them. It’s a measure of how superior those plot lines are that, watching the new episodes, I am as interested in the ways Philip is expanding his travel-agent business as I am in seeing whether Elizabeth can snuff the life of an informant-turned-traitor. Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields are moving us closer to the series’ end by pulling Philip and Elizabeth apart — a clever idea. In real life, Rhys and Russell have become a romantic couple who make goo-goo eyes at each other on talk shows. Knowing this provides what I think is the real suspense as The Americans draws to a close: I think it’s always a mistake when co-stars fall in love and commit to each other. Why? Because then the TV series ends, and each moves on to other, different jobs, they’re no longer together all the time, and suddenly that new co-star starts looking awfully good, and seems so much more understanding of one’s needs. Well, that’s where my mind takes me when I’m watching The Americans. I never claimed I was as serious as Sean Hannity.
The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
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