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Season four of 'The Americans' – how historical shows can draw or repel viewers

The newest season of the well-received Cold War drama 'Americans' premieres on March 16. The show stars Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as KGB agents living in America.

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    Keri Russell stars in 'The Americans.'
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The acclaimed FX Cold War program “The Americans” returns for a fourth season on March 16.

“Americans” stars Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as two KGB agents living in America in the 1980s who pose as a married couple. The two have been under cover for quite a while and have two children (Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati). 

The show debuted in 2013 and has been critically acclaimed, with several critics selecting the program as one of the best of 2015. 

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Actor Dylan Baker of “Selma” is appearing in the new episodes and executive producer Joel Fields revealed Baker’s role in an interview with the Examiner. “He's going to be a important part of the season," Mr. Fields said. "He's a new illegal whom Phillip and Elizabeth will be working with over the course of the season and he's the vector of some really deadly stuff.” 

Fields also said that storylines put in motion in past episodes will now be paying off.

“This is a season in which things are coming to a head," he said. "We like to try and make [each] season different, for ourselves if nothing else, and I think one thing that happened this season that we haven't done before is just kept going from last season. We were able to follow the rocket that was this story.”

Actress Holly Taylor, who portrays Philip and Elizabeth’s daughter, Paige, told USA Today that the show addresses themes with which any viewer can connect. 

“There are so many connections in the show as to family conflict: between spouses, between parents and children,” Ms. Taylor said. “It’s just that ‘The Americans’ heightens it to an extreme level, because not everybody’s parents are killing people and fighting for their country during a war.” 

“Americans” is one of several period dramas on cable right now. Other cable programs set in times other than our own include HBO’s 1970s-set show “Vinyl,” the Showtime 19th-century show “Penny Dreadful,” AMC’s Revolutionary War show “Turn,” and Starz’s 18th-century program “Outlander,” among others.

There are a few on broadcast TV as well, including ABC’s new Biblical program “Of Kings and Prophets” and the network’s 1980s comedy “The Goldbergs” as well as the CW’s “Reign,” among others.

Deadline writer Christy Grosz noted recently that there has been a “surge in historical dramas.” 

“Downton Abbey” producer Gareth Neame credited an acclaimed AMC drama with this resurgence in an interview with Deadline.

“America has not been a country that’s as comfortable and quite possibly as obsessed with its past as the British are,” Mr. Neame said. “Why it’s changed is that storytellers have started to comment on the 20th century. With ‘Mad Men,’ looking at this extraordinary 15 to 20 years in modern American history allowed audiences to think it’s okay to look back.” 

However, the time period depicted may make the program difficult to watch for some, particularly if historical events are portrayed in a certain way. Salon writer Sonia Saraiya wrote of "Americans," “It’s a hard show to love, but in some ways, that’s the point. None of this, the show seems to say, gesturing at the world in 1983, is particularly easy. It’s a reminder of the worst part of humanity, and a memento of a terrible time in history – when a pointless struggle between two ideas of nationhood killed thousands of people and ruined the lives of many more … But what I struggle with in particular is the show’s lack of hope, in the midst of so much horror.”  

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