No matter the show you watch, there’s always going to be elements of exploration of relationships, whether it be romantic, friendly, antagonistic, work-related, or whatever combination you can dream of. These relationships are the connective tissue to learning about specific characters and deepening our knowledge of them. Now each show is different of course, and carries their own variety or depth of exploring these relationships. A more action-orientated show like 24 will put less emphasis on the development of romantic or even casual relationships building because it is focused more on thrills and action. Of course, these developments will pop up, especially over the long run of a serious, but are infrequent and not one of the shows main tenants. Soapier shows on the other hand like Downton Abbey are built off of these webs of relationships, rivalries and family ties. The narrative itself is often spun out of these connections and establishes changing in character goals and often the shifting of paradigms. Procedural shows such as Law & Order and Numb3rs (a prime example I like to use for this) are always focused on a case-a-week type structure, but always have some tag or coda at the end, that is divorced from the case and reveals something about the personal life of a main character.
I bring this all up because balancing these relationships is hard to do and integrating it so faithfully that it plays intelligently off the narrative structure of the series is something hard to do. Action shows are mainly focused on thrilling, comedies have interconnected relationships but are mainly after the joke and soapier shows trend in the direction of putting these relationships at the forefront, but often end up being silly and over the top like soaps usually are. Applying the depth of relationship building of not only a family but also of a romantic idea and weaving that directly into the main plot of an overarching show is quite hard to do while giving equal credence to both sides of the coin.
The Americans, an obvious candidate for best show of the year, manages to be focused on its narrative plot of two soviet spies who pose as a married couple in the United States during the Cold War, and the familial ties that bind. On the face of things the show is billed and is primarily about these two married Russian spies, Elizabeth and Philip, who are intent on mining information from the American government in order to pass it back to their homeland in gaining the upperhand in the Cold war. The show is serialized, but has some elements of procedurals where one mission is the focus of an episode and is closed off, albeit with some loose ends to keep the overarching story forward. Now this would be a fine action thriller all by itself, but because of the unique dynamic of Philip and Elizabeth who were arranged and paired together and are forced to raise kids around this to maintain their cover, everything gets an entirely different layer. They obviously have grown together and grown a special sort of kinship over the years, having posed like this for so long, but the actual real depth of their love for each other is always fluctuating, if it even exists at all. It seems one moment they’re completely trying to make things work, with legitimate feelings, until Philip has to sleep with a government secretary to gain information, something that again unsettles Elizabeth into what if any their feelings and relationship to each other means. The added component of having to raise kids, and you know, do actual parenting shit like feeding them, getting them to school etc. etc. can’t be ignored. The unsettling of their relationship feeds into their “job” and how they work together, something never admitted by either side, but growing into their trials and tribulations in trying to complete missions.
Bringing this all around, The Americans works so well in establishing, breaking down and servicing both romantic and family relationships because it is tied so intrinsically to the main conceit of the continuing narrative. Their relationship quibbles and spats aren’t something that is secluded to one section of the episode and never brought up again, but rather more like a boiling pot of water that slowly simmers throughout a mission or event, and can boil over at any instance depending on their position with each other and causing the ability to compromise a mission. This is serious business for them, being an undercover Russian spy in the 1980s might be the worst job outside of facing the dynasty New York Islanders or Edmonton Oilers. Elizabeth becomes unsure of Philip’s commitment to the cause, him being more sympathetic to capitalistic ideas, causing her to think about turning him in and telling their handlers. Every single personal decision in the family or between them as a couple often has significant bearings on their professional life and by proxy the main narrative of the show. By embracing these aspects of relationships and directly injecting it into the “action” plot of the series, The Americans creates a new level of uncertainty and thematic depth to every action taken personally or professionally.