'The Americans' returns, with even higher stakes

Posted: February 27, 2014

* THE AMERICANS. 10 tonight, FX.

SO, OK, two main characters were tortured - and one sustained a serious gunshot wound - but FX's splendid spy drama, "The Americans," may have been a little too much fun in its first year.

The wigs.

The on-the-job sex.

The perfectly chosen music.

And were there ever sleeper agents for the KGB who got so little sleep?

Don't worry: The wigs are as wild as ever (and the sex, too), but as Season 2 opens tonight, undercover suburbanites Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) have more things than ever to keep them awake at night: The real threat to their peace of mind turns out to have been in the house with them all along.

Check out the deer family Elizabeth encounters tonight as she drives away from the safe house where she'd recuperated after being shot by the FBI.

It won't be long before she knows that caught-in-the-headlights feeling, as the couple's daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) surprises her parents in the bedroom at a moment when their focus is definitely elsewhere.

In any other show, the ensuing breakfast-table conversation would be interesting enough, but closed doors carry special meaning in a household where the parents have secrets that could get them killed.

"Do we even know if this is the first time she's checked on us?" Philip asks later, a little creepily, and we already know the answer. It's not. Her little brother Henry (Keidrich Sellati) may be blissfully ignorant, but Paige has already shown an interest in her mother's dirty laundry, and a lecture on "respect" isn't likely to head her off.

There'll soon be more to worry about than a daughter's curiosity, but as "The Americans" sharpens the focus on Philip and Elizabeth as parents, I can't help thinking about what for me was the scariest story from last season, in which Paige and Henry had an unsettling experience while hitchhiking. It could have happened to anyone's children, now or in the '80s, when the show is set, and it forced me to take "The Americans" seriously in a way that nothing else quite had up until then.

On the spy front, this season will continue to test fans' affections for characters from both sides of the Cold War.

But, hey, it was all a long time ago. And as we see Philip, in yet another of his wigs, pretending to negotiate with Afghanis seeking U.S. support to help drive the Soviets from Afghanistan, we're reminded of how swiftly loyalties can change.

"We're going to be there for you every step of the way," he assures them. "Money, guns, America's going to get you whatever you need."

And so - at least for those who prize artful ambiguity over dull certainty - should "The Americans."

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On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray

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