It has been suggested that people who read fiction are more empathic, and maybe even more socially conscious, than those who don't.

I read a lot of fiction, so I endorse the idea. Because who doesn't want to be thought of as capable of imagining what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes?

But I also watch a lot of fictional television - it's my job and my joy - and wonder whether watching, and maybe feeling, the pain of chemistry-teachers-turned-meth-moguls, presidential mistresses, or outlaw bikers also conveys real-life benefits, and about where empathy should end and judgment begin.

Which brings us to The Americans.

The FX drama about a couple of Soviet spies living undercover in Reagan-era suburbia, with an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) as a neighbor, returns for its fourth season at 10 p.m. Wednesday, and, as usual, there's hardly a character whose point of view I can't at least occasionally see.

For those who've so far missed one of the best shows on television, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) are married Soviet agents who, in the course of their work, do outrageous things, often while wearing outrageous disguises.

They seduce, they betray, and they sometimes kill, all in the name of an oppressive regime to which Elizabeth feels more loyalty than Philip.

They love their children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), who truly are Americans. But now Paige, whom the KGB hopes to recruit, knows her parents aren't the people she had assumed them to be.

That this is both terrifying - because Paige told someone, and that's bound to have consequences - and yet typical of the disillusion any adolescent might experience is the beauty of The Americans, a show about lies that hurts the most when it tells the truth.

And because we're not the ones being lied to, every season, fans of The Americans become more complicit in the Jenningses' treachery.

We may have allowed ourselves to fall for these people, but they are capable of terrible things, even if we want to believe that they are not, in their hearts, terrible people.

Terrible people, after all, don't have the kind of conversation these two have this week as they dine al fresco and heavily disguised, discussing not the contact they're waiting for, but their son's "disgusting" cologne.

"It's poisoning the whole upstairs. I had to open up all the windows," complains Elizabeth.

"He doesn't need cologne," says Philip.

"He doesn't even shave," she replies.

Who can't relate to that? Or to Philip's search for meaning, one that continues to lead him to unexpected places?

There is little to say about the four episodes I've seen that wouldn't spoil something, except that The Americans remains as sick, and as seductive, as its secrets.

And, as much as I love it, I don't see how any of this can end well, or even what ending well might look like.

As relatable as they seem, in disguise or out, these people are armed and dangerous.

Approach with caution.

graye@phillynews.com
215-854-5950