TIME Television

Here Are the Best TV Shows of 2015 So Far

In a television market more crowded than ever, these were the shows that kept me watching

Every year, I keep a running list of shows that amuse me, amaze me, impress me or depress me (in a good way). At the end of the year, I whittle that list down to 10, and I have my best-TV-of-the-year list. But it’s tough. I have to leave out a lot of really good stuff. And why should arguing over subjective choices come only once a year?

In that spirit, I give you my very provisional list of The Best TV of 2015 (So Far). But first, a few notes:

  • This list is only in alphabetical order, because I hate ranking lists and no one forced me to.
  • I kept this list to 12 items, because it seemed like a good place to stop. It could have easily been a different 12. There are a few shows I came very close to including, and I’m not going to tell you what they are, because that’s the road to madness.
  • One show I did rule out, for the same reason I did last year, is Orange Is the New Black. I saw six episodes in advance for review (and loved them), but I haven’t yet seen the entire season, which is already online, and didn’t want to give the impression that I was assessing episodes I haven’t watched.
  • I reserve the right to put shows on my year-end list that I omitted here, because I changed my mind / considered new arguments / saw later episodes / suffered a blow to the head.
  • As always, there is one show that is obviously the best thing on TV now, maybe ever, and I just left it off because I am a biased idiot who should be fired: [Your Favorite Show Here]. Please, tell us about it in the comments!
  • The Americans

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    FX

    The Cold War came home on TV’s most intimate spy drama, as Soviet moles Philip and Elizabeth Jennings struggled with how to handle teen daughter—and potential KGB recruit—Paige, all while carrying out enough morally compromising missions to make any agent flip his or her wig.

  • Better Call Saul

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    Ben Leuner—AMC

    What could have been a glorified <i>Breaking Bad</i> DVD extra evolved into its own thing, the picaresque story of James “Slippin’ Jimmy” McGill—the future Saul Goodman—trying to hustle his way into the Albuquerque law game.

  • Broad City

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    Comedy Central

    Lightning struck twice for Comedy Central’s best new show of 2014, as the second season built on its confidence and surreal humor. Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson make the kind of uninhibited comedy that dances like it’s alone in its apartment naked.

  • Empire

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    Chuck Hodes—Fox

    Rising to number one with a bullet–multiple bullets, actually–Fox’s hip-hip family soap built a watercooler colossus out of insane story twists delivered with authentic passion. May its chaotic, infectious energy never drip-drippity-drop.

  • Game of Thrones

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    HBO

    HBO’s sprawling fantasy drama plunged over the edges of its vast map this season as it surpassed the storyline of its source books and headed into the unknown. Often harrowing, always spectacular, TV’s biggest entertainment is also one of its most thoughtful shows about morality and power.

  • Jane the Virgin

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    Aaron Epstein—The CW

    The series began with Jane (Gina Rodriguez) pregnant, but it was born fully formed: playful, big-hearted and refreshing. Unlike some soaps, this comic telenovela never let its plot twists overwhelm its characters and their distinctive voices (not least among them the most delightful narrator in TV).

  • The Jinx

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    HBO

    You really couldn’t make this up: an artful, insightful documentary series, investigating an accused multiple murderer, that drew a character portrait rivaling TV’s best dramas and created actual news, as Robert Durst spilled his own beans on camera and was arrested in real life in time for the finale.

  • Justified

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    Prashant Gupta—FX

    Like Harlan County, Kentucky, this Elmore Leonard-inspired series had seen its ups and downs. But the final run, focusing on the long-running, intimate rivalry between Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder, inspired some of this show’s best hours and finest barrel-aged dialogue.

  • Louie

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    FX

    The biggest flaw of Louis CK’s slice-of-his-life series was that there wasn’t more of it. But even a half-sized season—pulling back from last year’s formal experiments to deliver more flat-out laughs—was painfully funny and hilarious real enough to last us another year.

  • Mad Men

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    AMC

    Arguably the dominant TV drama of its time, the series deposited its characters in 1970, a decade older and maybe even a little wiser. Its final moments—juxtaposing Don Draper’s long-earned moment of Zen with Coca Cola’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” jingle—showed us a man who lived a lie for years coming to his own version of The Real Thing.

  • Silicon Valley

    John P. Johnson—HBO

    This sophomore comedy built out its satire of tech culture, the egos it feeds with cash and the wired culture it enables. Exquisitely cast (T.J. Miller weaves obscenity into gold like an R-rated Rumplestiltskin), it’s a consistently hilarious picture of the coders who carry the modern world on their scrawny shoulders.

  • Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

    The Americans, Better Call Saul, Blackish, Broad City, Empire, Game of Thrones, Jane the Virgin, The Jinx, Justified, Louie, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
    Netflix

    It’s alive, dammit! TV’s greatest miracle of 2015 so far was Netflix’s rescue of this oddball Tina Fey comedy from NBC. The first season shared the frenetic, joke-dense structure of 30 Rock, but with a twist: it was a dark sitcom about survivorhood, illuminated with optimism by human glow stick Ellie Kemper.

TIME Television

This Is the Ronald Reagan Speech That Just Showed Up on The Americans

President Ronald Reagan addressing the National As
Diana Walker—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images President Ronald Reagan addressing the National Association of Evangelicals in a speech calling the Soviet Union an evil empire, on March 8, 1983

The episode title — "March 8, 1983" — is a clue

Contains a spoiler for the third-season finale of FX’s The Americans

Anyone who knew the title of Wednesday night’s season finale of The Americans might have guessed that a particular Ronald Reagan speech might make an appearance. After all, “March 8, 1983″ — the title of the episode — was also named by TIME, in 2003, to a list of the 80 days that changed the world.

That was the day on which President Reagan, speaking before the National Association of Evangelicals, delivered what is known as the evil-empire speech.

It was a time of potential change in the history of the Cold War, as advocates of a nuclear freeze or of nonintervention in countries like El Salvador, where a civil war was under way, were turning away from some of Reagan’s hard-line policies. The President took the opportunity of speaking in front of a religious audience to reiterate his belief in the existence of good and evil in the world, and that the U.S. and the Soviet Union were firmly located on opposite sides of that line. The USSR was the evil empire, and in that context, no hard line was hard enough.

At first the speech seemed to have backfired. That April, TIME noted, “Public-opinion polls showed that confidence in Reagan’s handling of foreign and defense policies had actually fallen during his monthlong hard-sell campaign on behalf of those policies” and that some White House officials called it his “Darth Vader speech.”

But, in the end, Reagan got what he wanted: the end of the empire in question.

In an earlier draft of the speech, noted TIME’s Romesh Ratnesar in explaining the speech’s inclusion on that 2003 list, Reagan had distanced himself from the strong language of good and evil. The version he ended up delivering, however, did anything but hedge — and that made all the difference:

His uncompromising rhetoric unsettled members of the Washington establishment, who warned that it would reheat the arms race and threaten peaceful coexistence with the Soviets. But Reagan managed to touch the hearts and minds of those who mattered: the rebels behind the Iron Curtain who ultimately brought it down. Nathan Sharansky read Reagan’s speech in a cell in Siberia. Knocking on walls and talking through toilets, he spread the word to other prisoners in the Gulag. “The dissidents were ecstatic,” Sharansky wrote. “Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.”

Read original March 1983 coverage of the speech, here in the TIME Vault: Hardening the Line

TIME Television

The Americans Watch: The Evil Empire Strikes Home

THE AMERICANS -- "March 8, 1983" Episode 313 (Airs Wednesday, April 22, 10:00 PM e/p) Pictured: (l-r) Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: Patrick Harbon/FX
Patrick Harbon/FX

The end to a spectacular season sets up more dilemmas than it resolves.

Given the title of The Americans’ season three finale, “March 8, 1983,” it was not a spoiler to anyone with Google that the episode would involve Ronald Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire” speech about the Soviet Union. That this series would use that signal moment in the Cold War isn’t surprising. How it used the speech was more so.

Reagan’s speech was not only a saber-rattling declaration. It was an ethical argument that his audience must choose a side–it cast the Cold War as a moral battle not just between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. but one within the West. Reagan gave the speech not to Congress or some think tank, but–befitting Paige’s spiritual crisis and turn to activist Pastor Tim–to the National Association of Evangelicals. As The Americans has showed, there was a strong pull toward the nuclear-freeze movement among some faithful, who heard a Biblical call for nonviolence and disarmament. Speaking to a more friendly religious group, Reagan made a counterargument:

So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.

I don’t think The Americans is using Reagan’s words to say that he was right or wrong about the arms race. The show has never been very interested in relitigating the ideology of the Cold War, and it’s deeply empathetic with its killer Soviet protagonists (which does not mean it’s sympathetic to their goals or tactics).

But the show uses the speech to underline a more philosophical argument: that every person, weak or powerful, has moral agency and thus moral obligation. It can be tempting to believe otherwise. It’s such a cliché that Philip writes it into the suicide note he dashes off for poor, collateral-damage Gene: “I HAD NO CHOICE… I’M SORRY.”

An overarching theme of “March 8” was: you do have a choice. Maybe not a good one, maybe not an easy one, but a choice. A dependent, frightened teen like Paige has a choice–if maybe a disastrous one–to decide that living a lie is not in her character and to call Pastor Tim. Even prisoners in the gulag have choices within their limited range, as Anton tells Nina when she realizes she’s no longer willing to “keep buying back [her] life”: Turn down the comforts they offer, however hard it may be, and they have no power over you.

It’s not always easy to acknowledge, though. More efficient to get through life saying you’re trapped, or you’ve already made your decisions, or you have a duty. In her last words to her daughter, Elizabeth’s mother reckons with her choice: “I had to let you go. Everything was at stake.” Talking to Paige about her mother’s decision–with the implication hanging over it of possibly recruiting Paige as a spy herself–even Elizabeth, not one to blink at harsh reality, can’t bring herself to confront the choice head-on.

Paige gives her an opening to do it: “Would you let me do that?” But Elizabeth, whether for her sake or Paige’s, won’t accept the premise: “You would never have to do anything like that. OK?” (Not really an answer, Mom!) There is, maybe, an element of Elizabeth believing what she wants to believe about her daughter, as later when she tells Philip that Paige was “really good” on their trip when she’s plainly not doing well at all with carrying the family secret.

But then again, Elizabeth has a job to do, and she has the constant contrast of Philip, who always hopes for a choice–a way to satisfy both his patriotic duty and his conscience–and is tortured by the thought of making the wrong one. Sometimes it leads him to lash out, in a way that Gabriel likens to the rebellion of a petulant teenager: “Grow up.” Sometimes it leads him to turn inward, as when he returns to EST, maybe consoled by its quasi-Colbert emphasis on not overthinking things: “These feelings in your gut are just as important–more important–than all the shit in your head.”

Occasionally, his struggling works, as when he found a way out of committing statutory rape with the babysitter. Mostly, it leaves him morose, making greater-good arguments that don’t even persuade himself. “Yousaf, I feel like shit all the time,” he says, a stunningly simple and accurate summation of his character. By finale’s end, he’s unloading himself to Elizabeth, saying that he needs to start doing the job differently, but he can’t even articulate how–”From now on, I need to be know what I’m doing better so I…”–before he’s interrupted by the Great Communicator, for whom the answers, the right and wrong, seem to come so easily and without self-doubt.

And that’s pretty much it. Very little is final about this finale, by the standards of The Americans or of other dramas. Unlike in seasons one and two, there is no climactic mission, no violent resolution or reveal. (Who else had “Someone gets stranded in Russia” in their betting pool?) Nina started the season in prison–and she’s still there. Various of Philip and Elizabeth’s operations are still hanging out there. Is Martha dead, or a convert? Neither! She’s still processing Philip’s wig-off confessional (the details of which we never get). Stan’s defector sting is settled but only leaves more questions. And what of the mail robot?

After three seasons, The Americans is fully committed to being serial, to telling its story over however many seasons it gets, to build and build tension without releasing it. Its game is long, its pace controlled. The finale set up more business than it settled. (What’s this connection between Philip and Sandra Beeman? Is the FBI pushing Stan’s loyalty too far by sacrificing Nina?)

That’s had great benefits: it has never tipped over into Homeland-style absurdity in an effort to constantly keep things moving. (After season one, for instance, it had the good sense to dial back the cat-and-mouse game with Stan, which would have either become unbelievable or made him seem incompetent had he constantly been one step away from catching them.) It’s allowed the show to treat the characters, however outlandish the premise, with deep emotional realism. But that may alienate viewers who find the resulting slow burn frustrating, cold and without payoff.

But if you love The Americans like I do, it’s because the investment, the building of dread and its effects on the characters, is the payoff. Overall, season three was an improvement even on season two, which Transparent beat out for first place on my Best of 2014 list last year only by a wig-hair. Confident, soulful, rich: it will be quite a mission to dislodge this as best drama of 2015.

And while I say there was little climax or closure, there was a return to a pattern. Every Americans season finale has ended with Paige: alone in the laundry room in season one with her just-blooming doubts; targeted as an agent by the Centre at the end of season two; calling Pastor Tim here. (While young actors are often in a tough spot in very adult dramas like this–again, see Homeland–Holly Taylor makes Paige’s desperation achingly real.) Last year’s finale showed us the Jennings family in tableau, together, but alone in their thoughts. The finale ends strikingly with them each in a series of fade-ins: Henry (the most truly isolated, even if he doesn’t know it) with Stan, Paige huddled on her bedroom floor, Philip hanging his head, Elizabeth watching Reagan with a hawk’s sentinel intensity.

A war has begun. Little do Philip and Elizabeth know it happened right down their own hallway.

TIME Television

Fake It When You Make It: The Sad Sex of The Americans

How FX's espionage drama is upending the sexy-spy-fantasy cliché.

Spoilers for The Americans, “Salang Pass,” below:

From its beginning, The Americans both fit into the tradition of sexy spies and and pushed against it. On the one hand, Elizabeth and Philip’s tradecraft always involved plenty of bedcraft: they teased, screwed and, in Philip’s case, even married targets to get favors and information. They could each rock a good-looking wig and a pair of ’80s jeans.

On the other hand, the show has always been careful not to use sex simply for glamor and wish-fulfillment. (Nor for one-sided male fantasy: Philip has to trade his body for secrets as much as Elizabeth does, and last season’s striking 69 scene between them emphasized how sexually egalitarian the show is.) And as suburban parents, the duo have much more prosaic lives than Emma Peel or James Bond.

From the get-go, it’s been clear that sex in the line of duty is work–both for him and her–and messy, complicated work at that. Targets are used sexually, killed and packed into suitcases. In the pilot, we see that Elizabeth’s initiation into the program included her brutal rape by a KGB superior. Their own marriage begins as a sexual and romantic sham, one that isn’t entirely free of acting even as they’ve grown close to each other. Sex here comes with entanglement and suspicion–as in the second season, when a jealous Elizabeth asked Philip to have sex with her the way he does with his deceived wife Martha.

But none of this approaches this season’s storyline in which Philip is expected to “cultivate” Kimberly, a 15-year-old fan of weed and Yaz whose father is a valuable CIA target. It’s disturbing, to us and to him, not just because Kimberly is underage and vulnerable, but specifically because she so recalls daughter Paige, whom the KGB also wants to develop as an operative. When he scrupled at seducing her in last week’s “Dimebag,” saying “We’ve never used someone this young before,” the double meaning was not lost on anyone.

There’s an air of corruption around the whole operation, of youth being exploited cynically by the old. (And not just by spies or the Soviets; “Dimebag” included an actual Love’s Baby Soft ad, debuted in the 1970s, that depicted a woman as a “baby that grew up sexy,” sucking a lollipop and staring vacantly at the camera. If the KGB doesn’t get the kids, capitalism will!) As Gabriel (Frank Langella) advises/cautions him, Philip has a conscience; but he must never forget that the people he deals with (has sex with, considers adopting children with…) are secondary to the mission.

With that setup, Philip’s “date” with Kimberly in “Salang Pass” is one of the most unsettling sequences so far, in a season that has already included the aforementioned suitcase-packing and a DIY tooth extraction. It’s unsettling as much for what doesn’t happen as for what almost does, if the two weren’t interrupted by someone coming home. Hanging out in front of the TV, trading bites of rocky road ice cream, having a Jiffy Pop fight in the kitchen, they could be father and daughter having fun on a weekend night.

They could, that is, be Philip and Paige. (Even Kimberly, who in her adolescent confidence is sure she knows what she wants from “James,” transparently yearns for a father, someone to hold the big rake.) Philip carrying a stoned Kimberly up to her bedroom is a positively paternal sight, until she wakes up and kisses him. And he kisses her back.

It’s disturbing. It should be. It’s disturbing because of they way she’s being used, of course, but also–even though he’s the adult here–for the way he is, by his homeland. All this is underlined later when Philip comes home to Elizabeth and brings up their “training”–specifically, in faking sexual pleasure, “making it real”–and flashes back to coupling in a spare room with women, young and old, and a man. “It’s probably different for a man,” Elizabeth says. And probably it is–we still remember her rape at the beginning of the series.

But still, “Salang Pass” shows, the strain of keeping up multiple lies–each of which involves a convincing emotional investment–has utterly drained Philip, who walks through the episode like a zombie, aching at the faint memory of authentic life. Philip and Elizabeth both have given themselves to their country. All of themselves: their bodies, their emotions, their sexual volition. And with it, they’ve given up a sense of identity, even in their most private intimate moments. “Do you have to make it real with me?” Elizabeth asks. “Sometimes,” he admits. “Not now.”

If it weren’t already clear, The Americans is no shagadelic spy fantasy. In bed or out, there is always the awareness, as Gabriel says, that the person is secondary to the mission. When the mission is done with them, will any of the person be left?

TIME

The Americans Showrunners on That Shocking Death From Season 3’s Premiere

Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg on why the reaction to the graphic scene reminded them of their responsibility as writers

Spoilers for the Season 3 premiere ahead

The Americans returned with a bang on FX last night. The first episode of the third season ended with Russian operative Annalise being strangled to death while having sex with Yousaf, a foreign intelligence operative, and her target. Fellow spy Philip enters the room too late to save her but then begins brokering a deal with Yousaf to cover up the incident. It was a reminder to audiences that the plot about Russian spies hiding in 1980s America continues to pack a punch. But it was also a reminder to the writers of the real impact of their fictional show.

Before the premiere, several secret screenings of the episode were held around the country. Showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg monitored the reaction to these events on Twitter and noticed that several people were tweeting about a certain screening where a few men in the audience began laughing during the horrific death scene. The inappropriate reaction ruined the screening for many.

“Then a couple people tweeted that after the screening, some women in the audience really took the guys to task for laughing during that scene,” Weisberg explains to TIME. “It was a really interesting reminder to us as writers of what powerful material we’re trafficking in. People have reactions after watching it—maybe some of those people aren’t mature enough to watch it. I’m not trying to shame the guys who were laughing, but maybe because someone told them off, it was a chance for them to learn from that experience.”

In short, he concludes: “These aren’t just dumb TV shows. It means something to people.”

Fields added that they look at sex and violence on the show as a way to reveal something about their characters and deepen their stories, not as a ploy. “The greatest surprise in that scene is what develops between Philip and Yousaf when Philip comes into that room,” Fields says. “They both brought such pain and realism to that loss that they were both responsible for.”

The creators say Philip and Elizabeth will continue to face even stickier situations this season. That’s bad news for the Russian spies, but great news for viewers.

Read Next: The Americans Puts Mother (and Father) Russia to the Test

TIME Television

Why The Americans Still Resonates Decades After the Cold War

THE AMERICANS -- "EST Men" Episode 301 -- Pictured: Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: Michael Parmelee/FX
Michael Parmelee—FX Keri Russell stars as Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans

The FX drama, which returns Wednesday night, is one of a growing number of shows to smartly address identity and assimilation in America

In the second season of The Americans, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) pulls into his driveway in a brand new Camaro Z-28, rock and roll blasting through the open windows. His wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell) looks on, incredulous. The car was an unnecessary splurge, given that their previous ride ran just fine, and Elizabeth expresses her dismay later that night.

“Don’t you enjoy any of this?” Philip asks, admitting that despite his commitment to Communism, a touch of capitalist excess here and there isn’t so bad. “That’s not why I’m here,” she says, and walks out.

The Americans, which returns for a third season Wednesday night, is about a lot of things: loyalty and deception, ideology and sacrifice, marriage and, increasingly, parenthood. But at its core, the show is about identity — the tension between the false identity on display and the true identity within. The name of the show, itself, is a play on this tension: “The Americans” are who Philip and Elizabeth pretend to be, but not who they really are. Their struggle to conceal themselves without fundamentally changing themselves — hence Elizabeth’s side-eye at the new car — is what propels the drama forward.

For those who haven’t been following along: Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are KGB operatives living undercover in Falls Church, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., in 1981. They’ve been stateside for 20 years, in a professionally-arranged but not loveless marriage that produced two children. The Jenningses’ ability to fulfill their responsibilities to the motherland hinges on their blending in seamlessly with their neighbors — any hint of an accent, or a too-enthusiastic reaction to a taste of Beluga caviar, and their cover could be blown.

The tension between their real and fake identities plays out most dramatically in their relationships with each other and their children. It’s palpable in Elizabeth’s disapproval of Philip’s assimilation, her fear that his fitting in so well isn’t just a professional strategy, but a weakening of will. And it’s apparent in both parents’ regret that their children — unaware of their own Soviet heritage — are growing up with the exact system of values Philip and Elizabeth risk their lives daily to topple. Having children was, initially, just one more item on their checklist of playing a believable American family. The result, though, was an actual American family.

What makes this show so resonant today, despite the fact that the Cold War has been over for as long as Taylor Swift has been alive, is the framework it provides for the issues of identity and assimilation that have only intensified in the intervening years. There’s something universal about the way Philip and Elizabeth maintain public and private personas, struggling to hold onto their ideals in a hostile environment. Participation in many of this country’s institutions requires assimilation; assimilation requires compromises some people are unwilling to make. When these quandaries extend to raising children, who are more susceptible to the influence of peers and advertisers than their own parents, the stakes only get higher.

The Americans isn’t the only show on TV right now honing in on the complicated nature of layered and conflicting identities. Blackish, Transparent and Fresh Off the Boat are just three recent (and, in the case of the latter, forthcoming) shows that place identity — not identity politics, but the thorny web of actual lived American identity — at their centers.

There is no singular process by which the characters on these shows attempt to reconcile their identities. In Blackish, patriarch Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) redirects his frustration at being commodified at work — named vice president of his advertising firm’s “Urban Division” because he is perceived, despite his affluent suburban lifestyle, as “urban” — into an overzealous attempt to steer his son away from traditionally non-black pursuits like field hockey.

In Transparent, Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) conceals his true identity as a woman until he finds the courage to reveal it to his children, beginning to match his outward appearance with his inner life. As Maura, Tambor’s character trades the privilege of her former maleness for the freedom of true self-expression. She achieves a more harmonious relationship between the once-clashing dual identities of physical appearance and gender, but the reaction of the outside world is not unanimously kind.

How Fresh Off the Boat will tackle its young protagonist’s identity as the Taiwanese-Chinese-American son of immigrant parents remains to be seen, as the show doesn’t premiere until Feb. 5. But based on tidbits from Eddie Huang, on whose memoir the show is based, it will, among other things, depict the ways in which the dominant culture made a young Huang feel “almost shamed into assimilation.”

The crucial difference between these shows and The Americans, of course, is that Philip and Elizabeth are white and cisgender; the very identity they assume, even if it causes them distress, is one that affords them great privilege. Unlike Andre or Eddie or Maura, the identity they present to the world isn’t met with racism, commodification or bewilderment. It is not subjected to pressure to assimilate, because it already is assimilated.

Still, Philip and Elizabeth struggle with their identity, because they look — and act and dress and eat — exactly like their white, middle-class neighbors. Where Eddie and Andre want desperately to be seen as they are, Philip and Elizabeth are trying desperately to keep it concealed. And unlike the characters in those shows, the Jenningses’ double lives are ones that they chose. There’s an out for them, even if it means giving up everything and moving to Lichtenstein. Their ideology and national allegiance might feel as much a part of them as the color of their skin, but ultimately, it’s not immutable.

The Americans isn’t about assimilation in the same way that those other shows are, but they all reflect a growing desire among viewers to engage with the question of what it means to be American: how many different ways there are to be American; how we transmit these to future generations; how many questions there are to ask ourselves about what we’re willing to do for a sense of belonging, and what we expect in return.

The dualities of our lives — whether we choose or inherit them, confront or ignore them, benefit or suffer from them — are a huge, and universal, part of the human experience. It’s no coincidence they make for great TV.

TIME Television

Review: The Americans Puts Mother (and Father) Russia to the Test

One of TV's best dramas returns, focusing on an unusual parenting challenge.

Throughout its spectacular second season, The Americans (FX, Wednesdays) built on its theme of marriage as a working partnership, and as work. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, KGB agents posing as a travel-agency-owning couple in 1980s Virginia, just happen to have a more challenging family business than most.

In that season’s gut-punch of a finale, the Jenningses handlers proposed expanding the family business. They were interested, as part of a larger KGB operation, in recruiting daughter Paige as a “second-generation illegal”: new agents, born as citizens in the United States to operatives, who could pass in the country with even greater ease and less suspicion.

Beyond the initial shock of the state claiming a child like the god of Abraham, the proposal drove into a long-existing fault line between Elizabeth and Philip. She, the more ideologically dedicated of the two, thought the idea was worth considering–after all, Paige was already becoming politically active on her own. He, the more assimilated, wanted Paige kept safe and separate from her parents’ bloody work (and any knowledge of it).

As season 3 debuts, it becomes plain that the question is not going to go away–not least because the KGB won’t let it. In the season premiere, the Jenningses meet with KGB handler Gabriel (Frank Langella, stepping into the space left by Margo Martindale), an avuncular old friend who assures them he understands their concerns–but that “this is time to start laying the ground work” anyway.

As the pressure rises, The Americans, already one of TV’s most astute shows about marriage, also becomes more and more a show about parenting and how parents invest themselves in their children. Yes, there’s still a split between Philip and Elizabeth, which gets more intense as he begins to suspect her of being secretly eager to recruit Paige, and she suspects him of insufficient committment.

But it becomes clear it’s about more than that: Paige is a teenager now, she’ll be an adult soon, and each parent is concerned about losing her, not just physically but emotionally. Paige is growing and becoming her own person–she’s still involved in her church group, which neither parent likes–and both Philip and Elizabeth are going through the uncomfortable process of seeing themselves in her while also seeing what she chooses to keep and reject of them. As the new episodes unfold, they’re jockeying for influence–her appealing to Paige’s idealism, he to Paige’s Americanness–but they’re not competing with each other so much as each is simply fighting not to lose her.

Indeed, as the new plots and subplots unfold–the season’s larger thriller story involves the increasingly disastrous Soviet war in Afghanistan–The Americans keeps its story complex by showing that it’s not becoming an Elizabeth-vs.-Philip story. They disagree, yes, but as partners and colleagues, and they’re also fiercely dedicated to each other. (There’s a scene in episode 3 in which Philip has to give Elizabeth an improvised medical treatment, and it’s both gruesome and deeply, even romantically intimate.)

That’s one irony of the Jenningses’ double life: as dangerous, compromised, and ruthless as it is, the side effect is that it gives them one of the most intensely connected marriages on TV. Even Paige picks up on this, noting that, unlike many parents (on TV and real life) their relationship hasn’t become solely about their kids. ““You guys look out for each other, you and dad. More than us,” she says, and when Elizabeth looks stricken at this, Paige reassures her: “It’s a good thing.”

A good thing, maybe, but a hard thing too. As in The Americans‘ earlier seasons, the conflict here is a heightened version of one in many families: being torn between wanting your child to be secure and wanting her to fulfill her identity, which may not be the same thing. This comes out as the two argue in the second new episode: “What do you want, Philip?” Elizabeth asks. “A guarantee that life’s always going to be easy?” “For my daughter?” he replies. “Yeah.”

It’s an easy comeback, but The Americans suggests there’s no easy answer here; both parents believe they’re acting in Paige’s best interest. For Elizabeth in particular, the decision brings up difficult memories of her own mother, who lived through the WWII era of Soviet sacrifice and encouraged Elizabeth to go into service, not only out of duty but out of love. (The early episodes of this season focus more on Elizabeth’s history than Philip’s–maybe because his resistance to a dangerous KGB life for his daughter is more naturally sympathetic to an American audience.)

As the season unfolds, the tension in the Jennings household echoes in the espionage stories, which in various ways also involve parents and children, the choice between security and idealism, between loyalty to family and loyalty to the larger cause. In its melancholy way, The Americans seems to be speaking to today’s America and its generation of helicopter parents, who often find out that as hard as it is to take care of children, it can be even harder to let them find their own way.

So it is across generations, across oceans, across ideologies. “Parents are always trying to understand our children better, to do what’s best for them,” a new character says in the second episode. “It’s our great misfortune.”

TIME Television

Americans Producers on Russian Spy Ring Bust: ‘They Must’ve Been Watching’

speaks onstage during the 'The Americans' panel discussion at the FX Networks portion of the Television Critics Association press tour at Langham Hotel on January 18, 2015 in Pasadena, California.
Frederick M. Brown—Getty Images Creator/executive producer/writer Joe Weisberg and Executive producer/writer Joel Fields speak onstage during the 'The Americans' panel discussion at the FX Networks portion of the Television Critics Association press tour at on Jan. 18 in California.

The timing of the arrest could help the FX show's ratings

Life imitates art, which imitates life.

“Truthfully, our first question [after Buryakov’s arrest] was, we wonder if they were watching the show,” Americans executive producer Joel Fields tells EW. Adds the show’s creator Joe Weisberg: “They must’ve been watching the show. They had to be.”

The series stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as undercover Russian operatives living in the United States, though the show takes place in the ’80s during the height of the Cold War. The timing, the producers say, couldn’t be better for the arrest.

“Are those guys, in their cell, saying, ‘Look, Wednesday night, we have one request’?” Fields jokes, implying that Buryakov hopes to watch the season 3 premiere. “That’s what’s going to get them to talk, I think. Maybe that was why they arrested them before the premiere, because they knew they’d have that leverage over them.”

In truth, the timing of the arrest could help the FX drama in the ratings. The acclaimed series debuted to 3.22 million viewers back in 2013, but subsequently dropped below 2 million viewers throughout its first and second seasons. Its season 2 finale drew a modest 1.29 million viewers and a 0.5 in the coveted 18-49 demographic.

The Americans returns Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

This article originally appeared on EW.com.

TIME Television

Watch Keri Russell Crush Jimmy Fallon at Flip Cup While Wearing Giant Inflatable Suits

The talk show host does not mess around when it comes to games

Jimmy Fallon never takes it easy on the celebrities that stop by The Tonight Show. Whatever game he has put together — be it arm-wrestling with Liam Neeson, playing Catch Phrase with Jennifer Lopez, waging a Water War against Chris Hemsworth or squaring off against Emma Stone in a Lip Sync Battle— Fallon is in it to win it.

It was no different last night when Keri Russell stopped by to talk about The Americans, her FX show that begins its new season Jan. 28 . Fallon challenged the actress to a round of frat house favorite game flip cup, but there was a twist. The two faced off over a row of beer-filled party props while wearing inflatable suits, leaving nothing but tears and a trail of flipped cups in their wake.

Russell was determined, but Fallon has a competitive streak.

TIME Television

Here Are the 10 Best TV Shows of 2014 (So Far)

HBO

The shows that already made a big impression in 2014 (by June, at least)

Correction appended June 3, 1:20 p.m.

Every year, I keep a running list of shows that amuse me, amaze me, impress me or depress me (in a good way). At the end of the year, I whittle that list down to 10, and I have my best-TV-of-the-year list. But it’s tough. I have to leave out a lot of really good stuff. And why should arguing over subjective choices come only once a year?

In that spirit, I give you my very provisional list of The Best TV of 2014 (So Far). But first, a few notes:

  • This list is only in alphabetical order, because I only rank lists if my editor makes me. (That said, I’m glad The Americans begins with ‘A.’)
  • I kept this list to 10 items, because you have to stop somewhere or you’ve got an “everything I like” list. There are a few others that came very close. I’m not going to tell you what they are, because that’s the road to madness.
  • That said, I reserve the right to put shows on my year-end list that I omitted here, because I changed my mind / considered new arguments / saw later episodes / suffered a blow to the head.
  • This may go without saying, but criticism is a snapshot: several of these series are currently airing, so they can always get better or worse.
  • I’ve seen six episodes of Orange Is the New Black, the entire season which will be live on Netflix June 6, and I would have put it on the list on the basis of those episodes except for the timing. If the rest of the season holds up, it’s a good candidate for my year-end list again.
  • There are many other shows critics adore but I somehow don’t connect with (Hannibal). There are shows that I love but just got crowded out at the moment (Bob’s Burgers). And there is one show that is obviously the best thing on TV now, maybe ever, and I just left it off because I am a biased idiot who should be fired (Your Favorite Show Here). Please, tell us about it in the comments!

And now, the Best TV Shows of 2014, as of very early June, according to some guy from TIME:

THE AMERICANS - Pictured: Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: Frank Ockenfels/
FX

The Americans (FX)
And you think you have work-life balance problems? KGB agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings tried to find the secrets of the Stealth program, their children struggled to find themselves, and this ’80s drama found a new gear.

Comedy Central

Broad City (Comedy Central)
Meet your new favorite two broke girls. Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson deliver the contact buzz of laughter in the weirdest, freshest, funkiest new comedy of the season.

COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY: More than three decades after the debut of
Fox

Cosmos (Fox)
Neil DeGrasse Tyson picked up his mentor Carl Sagan’s work (with the help of Seth MacFarlane), breathing new life into the ancient universe and making a passionate argument against the forces of anti-science.

FARGO -- Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo -- CR: /Matthias Clamer
FX

Fargo (FX)
This miniseries isn’t a remake of the Coen Brothers’ movie so much as an extended jazz cover of it — in an improvisatory yet deeply original string of riffs. It’s a bloody yet playful examination of the seduction of evil and the hard cold road of good.

HBO

Game of Thrones (HBO)
Like Daenerys’ dragons, this fantasy epic in its fourth season continues to grow in scale and confidence. But what makes it great is that it handles small conversational duels as well as its epic battles.

The Good Wife
CBS/Getty Images

The Good Wife (CBS)
For five years running, this sharp-witted legal drama has offered more pleasure per season than anything out there. Taking on love, politics, technology and (spoiler) death, it shows no sign of adjourning.

HBO

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)
The Daily Show alum’s blistering comedy-cast is very new, but it’s the most welcome addition in a year of late-night change. Reorienting the fake-news format toward world events and commercial culture, it’s becoming the go-to chaser to the stiff drink of Sunday-night TV.

LOUIE: Episode 8: "Elevator Part 5" (Airs Monday, May 26, 10:30 pm e/p). Pictured: Louis C.K. as Louie. CR: KC Bailey/
FX

Louie (FX)
The only predictable things about Louis CK’s show are that it will be unpredictable and that it will linger with you long after you watch. From philosophy to sex-toy jokes, vignettes to the equivalent of a full-length movie, this is TV that can be whatever it wants to.

Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), Betty Francis (January Jones), Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) - Mad Men _ Season 7, Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/
AMC

Mad Men (AMC)
We’ll see if the back half of the final season can close the deal next year, but this was a fine start. In seven often-haunting episodes, the age of Aquarius met the age of IBM, and it left us with a song.

's
HBO

True Detective (HBO)
Few shows have inspired so much obsession so quickly, and it wasn’t just The Yellow King’s magic. This one-season story (rebooting next year) dripped talent, from Harrelson and McConaughey’s testosterone-drunk performances to Nic Pizzolatto’s dirty poetry to Cary Fukunaga’s direction, in which you could practically see ghosts come alive in the postindustrial bayou air.

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the name of a character on The Americans. It is Philip Jennings.

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