Flipping Channels: The Americans — Cold War, Hot Sex

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FX doesn't get as much publicity or critical acclaim as its competitors HBO or Showtime, but a good case can be made that it has delivered just as many outstanding original shows as either.

Rescue Me certainly was a landmark program, and Damages excelled even if FX decided the ratings didn't justify its cost. (The verdict's out since it moved to the appellate court of DIRECTV.) Speaking of justification, Justified has been an instant classic since it started. And while others like Sons of Anarchy a lot more than I do, it has a faithful following.

Now FX has hit the jackpot again with The Americans, a program that neatly combines espionage, suspense and soap opera elements — not to mention some of the most explicit sexual content ever seen on network TV. It's set in the '80s, which is far enough back to present some degree of the past, but not so ancient that it bores the 18-49 demographic whose attention advertisers demand.

The show has reversed the scenario in terms of heroes and villains (though that's something of an oversimplification). The leads are Russian spies posing as a suburban couple in Reagan-era Washington, D.C. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell seem just like the folks next door, only they're working for the KGB. They've also raised children totally oblivious to what their parents are doing.

Over time the father has become enamored of capitalism and American values. He's also fallen in love with the woman playing his wife, only she's nowhere near as sold on either him or America. The plots cleverly juxtapose the mundane aspects of suburban life — high school, dating, nosy neighbors, etc. — with the high-stakes life-and-death brinkmanship the spouses play out in their secret lives.

A key to the show's success has been the guidance of creator/executive producer Joe Weisberg, an accomplished author who's also a former CIA agent. He's kept the realism level high — no small trick when the leads are karate-chopping foes and pulling off elaborate missions impossible. He's also moderated the romantic complications and minimized the more bizarre aspects (something the folks at Scandal might want to consider). The scripts retain ample drama and surprise, incorporating just enough shocks and twists to keep things intriguing without tilting into camp.

Escalating Cold War tensions, a suspicious FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) who's also a neighbor, and turmoil within the "marriage" have all had their impact over the course of the season. These and other complications bring things to a head in the May 1 season finale (8 p.m.).

The Americans is already set for a second 13-episode run, and looks to become another steady winner for FX.

That darn elusive Mentalist serial killer
After five years, it doesn't seem Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) is ever going to catch the serial killer Red John who murdered his family. Every time Jane and his co-horts at the CBI get close, witnesses die or disappear, clues dry up and promising leads prove unreliable.

So while the promos for Sunday's season finale (9 p.m., WTVF-5) of The Mentalist promise to identify the "final suspects," this will no doubt just set the stage for more futile efforts to capture him in Season Six.

In many ways, The Mentalist is most refreshing when it's not focusing on the hunt for Red John. Baker's Jane is a compelling, if at times irritating mix of sleuth and jerk, and he's never turned into some superhuman figure. He's headstrong, constantly disobeys his supposed superiors, and relies too much on his deductive abilities and intellect.

The show has managed to devise enough surprises thus far to keep viewers guessing, but it's another story whether it can keep stringing viewers along for another season in the vain hope of Jane triumphing over his arch enemy. Perhaps that will come as a series finale. Still, it's fun for now matching wits with The Mentalist.

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