Is 'The Americans' TV's Best Drama?

For its brilliant third season, FX's cold-war thriller ups the stakes and makes a run at the title

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in 'The Americans.' Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

Admittedly, there is no right way to roll a joint for a teenage girl. But when you're a suburban American dad in the early 1980s (except you're secretly a Soviet spy)? And you're posing as a shaggy-haired sleazebag in order to get way too friendly with the troubled teen daughter of a CIA honcho? And you roll up her weed stash while she hits "play" on her boombox and dances to the same album you bought your own troubled teen daughter? That is most definitely the wrong thing to do. And you can see it in the man's eyes — he's done a lot of loathsome things in the name of Mother Russia, but he knows he's really hitting a new low this time. But he just keeps rolling that joint.

The Americans has to be the greatest drama on TV right now — what's the competition? Nothing else on the air these days is aiming so high and bringing it off. With Breaking Bad gone, Mad Men at the end of the road, and once-hopeful contender Downton Abbey gone off the rails, The Americans is looking like the last standard-bearer for the prestige-drama glory days. The new season began with a bang — both the sexual kind and the violent kind — and it just keeps cranking up the intensity week to week, combining Cold War-espionage suspense with scenes-from-a-marriage heartbreak.

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are superb as the Soviet spooks Philip and Elizabeth, posing as a regular suburban couple. They bring all their gamesmanship to their sex life as well as to their battle over the future of their teenage daughter, who has gotten into Jesus. Mom wants her to go into the family business as a teen KGB agent. ("At least she'll know who she is!") Dad wants her to assimilate and grow up to be a nice, normal, law-abiding citizen who never learns to snap men's necks like graham crackers.

Rhys looks miserable wearing the tie-and-cardigan combo that screams, "I am lost in the Eighties, and I cannot freaking wait for this decade to end." The Reagan-era atmosphere is brilliantly evoked, from the way he pervs out watching a creepy ad for Love's Baby Soft ("Innocence is sexier than you think" — eeeew) to the even creepier EST-training seminar.

The whole season is taking audacious dramatic risks — like the instant-classic tooth-pulling scene. Russell's Elizabeth can't go to a dentist, because she happened to injure her teeth while kicking the holy hell out of a couple of feds and the FBI is hunting for a woman in need of oral surgery. So Philip has to pull out her tooth — and the DIY-dental-work tableau is unbelievably violent, sexual and repulsive, just one of the many hideous secrets these two share. The next time we see this couple, they're sitting in a parked car at night, listening to a surveillance wire. He casually asks, "How's your mouth?" She says, "Fine." They go back to surveilling in silence, and somehow that moment feels even more disturbing than the actual tooth-pulling.

The entire cast keeps excelling: Frank Langella is chilling as a paternal KGB handler. Annet Mahendru's Nina languishes in a Russian gulag (where she's made a connection with the underground lipstick supply), while Noah Emmerich's FBI agent mourns losing her. All the adults on The Americans live with the nuclear clock ticking to doomsday and nothing but guilt over the future they're building for the next generation — despite the fact that their kids are just assets to be exploited in a geopolitical struggle. One of The Americans' achievements is that you empathize with the despair of the adults, even as they gamble with the fate of the Earth. You wonder if any of their kids can grow up halfway sane. And then you realize: Oh, yeah. None of them did.