Roush Review: The Americans Kills, Happy Valley Chills, and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders Lacks Thrills

Matt Roush
The Americans
Patrick Harbron/FX

Our resident TV critic shares his thoughts on three shows premiering in early March.

The Americans: Spies Who Love

A deadly poison has seeped into the world of The Americans, FX's brilliantly suspenseful Cold War espionage thriller that seems destined to land on my annual Top 10 list for a fourth consecutive year. Metaphorically, the poison is a cancer of the soul that comes from living a life built on lies constructed by Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (the fantastically chameleon-like Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), Soviet spies camouflaged by their seemingly all-American two-kids-and-a-sedan 1980s family.

Their charade has never faced a crisis as severe as the fallout from letting their idealistic teenage daughter Paige (a soulful Holly Taylor) in on their terrible secret, which she promptly spilled to her spiritual advisor, shaggy Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin). Now Paige is infected with fear and guilt. "Is it dangerous?" she keeps wondering, more freaked than ever when her parents leave her on her own, supervising clueless younger brother Henry (Keidrich Sellati).

"There are no good choices here," concedes the spy couple's mournful handler, Gabriel (Frank Langella, a master of solemn gravitas), as Philip and Elizabeth weigh their options. Do they kill Pastor Tim and his gossipy wife? Try to turn them? Or maybe just flee? Ironically, it's true believer Elizabeth who argues for staying put to preserve "everything that we've built here."

More Roush Reviews: See What Matt Thinks About Other Shows

But she doesn't have a fake spouse like Philip's clingy Martha (poignant Alison Wright), the duped FBI secretary, to contend with. She's possessed of new levels of festering paranoid hysteria after learning Philip—or, as she knows him, husband "Clark"—killed to protect her. And now that co-worker Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who's also the Jennings' neighbor, is beginning to suspect Martha's up to something, the screws are tightening for everyone.

Perfect timing, then, for the latest mission to involve a toxic hot potato—a biological weapon "that is to meningitis what the bubonic plague is to a runny nose"—a vial of which no one can is able to dispose of over several episodes. The fear of contagion ultimately lands Philip, Elizabeth and Gabriel in quarantine with a sardonic scientist (Dylan Baker), who declares, "Nobody sane would do this work."

And you'd be insane to miss The Americans, operating once again at the highest level of dramatic intensity.

Happy Valley: A Valley of Intrigue

Happy Valley

Ben Blackall/Netflix

Happy Valley

Whether tracking a serial killer through the British countryside or comically wrangling a scruffy posse of drug-addled sheep rustlers, the tremendous Sarah Lancashire wastes no time reminding us why police Sgt. Catherine Cawood is one of the greatest lady coppers since the glory days of Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect). Tough, blunt, weary and wonderfully wry, Catherine doesn't have much to smile about in the ironically titled Happy Valley, back for a second season of highly recommended binge viewing on Netflix.

Early on in the first of six taut new episodes, she discovers a murdered corpse whose identity puts her on a collision course with her nemesis from the first season: jailed and vengeful Tommy Lee Royce (Grantchester's James Norton, shattering his leading-man image with this sniveling, glowering psycho). The bad blood between these characters is epic: Tommy raped and impregnated her daughter, who later committed suicide after giving birth to the adorable little boy Catherine is now raising, and she's desperate to protect the lad from the influence of the menace behind bars.

With bosses watching her every move because of her fractious history with Tommy, Catherine juggles a full plate that includes harboring a Croatian human-trafficking refugee with the help of her recovering-alcoholic sister, Claire (Siobhan Finneran, who has left all traces of Downton Abbey's scheming O'Brien behind). While Tommy plots to ruin Catherine's life from behind bars, her serial-killer investigation is muddied by the desperate antics of a hangdog detective colleague (Kevin Doyle, also a world removed from Downton's beloved Molesley) who's trapped in a Fatal Attraction spiral. Life in this not-so-happy Valley is grim and gripping, and you'll be rooting for Catherine even at her most scathing.

Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders: The Spinoff Zzzzone

Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders

Richard Cartwright/CBS

Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders

"Why do humans always find new ways of hurting one another?" wonders Clara, the beautiful cultural anthropologist/crime consultant (Alana De La Garza, most recently of Forever) who joins the globe-trotting International Response Unit early on in CBS's dutifully formulaic Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. Maybe this is news to Clara, but longtime viewers of the Criminal Minds mothership (now in its 11th appalling season) know there to be infinite varieties of torture and mutilation, and the new spinoff seeks to reassure us that such carnage is apparently a universal language.

Recycling a lead from another franchise spinoff, CSI: NY's Gary Sinise furrows his brow blankly as Unit Chief Jack Garrett, somberly leading his generic team to exotic lands to rescue hapless travelers who've run horribly afoul of local maniacs, including a kidnapper in Thailand, an organ harvester in Mumbai, a phantom of the opera in Paris (OK, I made that last one up).

A sign of Borders' lack of dramatic intuition: One of the cast's few bright spots, Tyler James Williams (The Walking Dead, Everybody Hates Chris) is stuck back home each week in the thankless role of tech wiz and comforter of fretful family members. It's understandable if you're more concerned over his lack of frequent-flier mileage than anything happening overseas in these sadistic yet pat and predictable manhunts.

Kudos, though, to the production designers for creating the illusion of traveling to strange new lands each week. That distinction alone makes this a more memorable spinoff than 2011's Suspect Behavior, which mercifully tanked after 13 weeks.

The Americans, Season premiere, Wednesday, March 16, 10/9c, on FX

Happy Valley, Season 2, Wednesday, March 16, on Netflix

Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, Series premiere, Wednesday, March 16, 10/9c, on CBS


Questions? Ask Critic Matt Roush!

TV critic (and occasional TV therapist) Matt Roush answers viewer questions and concerns in his Ask Matt column each week. Wondering about plots, characters and twists on your fave shows? Submit your query to Matt via the form below: