Homeland stars Claire Danes, famous for her role in the teen drama My So Called Life, as a bipolar CIA agent that is caught in political subterfuge as she tries to suss out terrorist plots. The Showtime series has earned Danes some of the best reviews of her career.
The Americans stars Keri Russell, famous for her role in the teen drama Felicity, as a Russian spy who is embedded in the United States with her fellow spy husband and unsuspecting children. The FX series has earned Russell some of the best reviews of her career.
So, which shows uses political intrigue, espionage and its former ingénue to best effect?
Homeland is squarely in the present, with Danes' Carrie Mathison chasing down al Qaeda types and getting caught up in schemes by the U.S. government to get people into power in the Middle East who are more favorable towards Western interests.
The Americans, meanwhile, is a period piece, with the action taking place in early Reagan-era Washington D.C. The Cold War is still raging and being a Soviet spy on U.S. soil is still a huge deal… and thanks to the distance of time, the audience can now be sympathetic towards characters that were on the other side of the conflict between the super powers. They don't spend a lot of time giving a history lesson, but sometimes they'll weave in events that took place in the '80s.
Originally, Danes' character was slightly unhinged and trying to prove that recently rescued POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) was really a terrorist. By this past season, Carrie was pregnant with Brody's child and she was unable to save her baby's daddy from being publicly executed in Iran. A whole lot happened in between but it's so layered with double-crosses, double-agents, and duplicitous government types that it's not only hard to summarize, it can be hard to follow. The end of the last season had Carrie taking a position at a field office in Turkey, so presumably the show's fourth season will follow her there.
The Americans, on the other hand, is much more straightforward and subtle. The show focuses just as often on the home life of Russell's Elizabeth Jennings and her husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys), as they try to do their jobs of feeding information back to the Soviet Union, while raising their children (one of whom is suspicious of them) and trying not to draw any unwanted attention from their neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich), who works in counter-intelligence for the FBI. There are a lot of disguises and characters posing as other people — Phillip is also married to a FBI staffer as part of their mission — and the show doesn't shy away from violence when appropriate (in the second season premiere, Phillip shoots up a restaurant and another KGB spy family is murdered). What makes it fascinating, besides the various espionage angles, is watching Russell and Rhys try to sort out their feelings for each other — their marriage was mandated by the Soviets — and their children.
Advantage: The Americans.
Danes gets to play anxious and frantic a lot, which gives her plenty of showy scenes. Her Carrie is a mess most of the time. Despite being pregnant she goes on a bender and she gets prescription meds through her sister. The show started with her fresh off of a suspension for conducting an unauthorized operation in Iraq and the show plays a lot on her bipolar disorder, keeping things off-balance as to when she has good reason to be paranoid versus when she's just paranoid because that's just how she is. First she was trying to discover and thwart whatever plot Brody had been sent back to the U.S. to undertake. Then she tried to redeem and clear him, while also sleeping with him. It's almost hard to tell when Carrie's right for what she's doing — like intentionally sabotaging an operation to kill a terrorist because she thinks it's more important to capture him alive, for instance — or if she's just completely unbalanced.
Russell is all business. She leads a double life but for the most part she's completely under control. Russell is marvelous in using her facial expressions to give glimpses into Elizabeth's soul. Her character is more comfortable with the harder parts of her job, using her skills as a trained spy to get what she needs, than she is with the family that she was forced into. She wants to protect her children, but they're also just part of her cover… and she has a better handle on those feelings than she does about what she feels for her husband. They both can be sexy, but Russell's cool trumps Danes' crazy.
Advantage: The Americans.
While Homeland has the awards and has more freedom to do whatever it wants on premium cable, The Americans has quickly become the better overall show.