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Television John Doyle: What’s the creepiest show on TV? The Americans

There's a passel of shows on TV that aim to creep you out.

Watch The Following (Mondays, Fox, Bravo, 9 p.m.) and you can be made queasy by the sadistic nihilism of the followers of serial killer Joe Carroll and the various offshoots of his cult. They target innocent people, torture and murder them with relish and walk away, delighted. On a recent episode a character was captured, paralyzed and then had his limbs dislocated to contort his body into a tiny box.

On Bates Motel (Mondays, A&E, 9 p.m.), viewers recently had the squirm-inducing experience of watching teenage Norman cuddling his distraught mother Norma in Norma's bed. The episode opened and closed with that perverse variation on a Pieta-like tableau. On CSI: Cyber (Wednesdays, CBS, CTV, 10 p.m.), a person can get killed because somebody hacked a cellphone. On a recent Criminal Minds, the case in hand was three women killed; their wrists were tied to the bed with scarves and they were sexually assaulted before being strangled.

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All nerve-wracking, fear-inducing or just gross storylines.

However, the series that is the creepiest thing right now is none of the above. It's The Americans (Wednesdays, FX, 10 p.m.). In this, its third season, the series has wandered into territory that makes viewers truly, viscerally uncomfortable. And there is no torture, little overt violence and no serial killer on the loose. Everything is about the exploitation of two teenage girls. Note – if you haven't seen this season yet, go read the horoscope or something right about now.

We are in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan is the president of the United States. And in Washington, we follow the activities of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), a very middle-class couple with two kids. They allegedly operate a travel agency. But we know they are KGB spies. They manipulate, lie and sometimes kill for their Soviet masters.

What's unfolded this season hinges on two requests – orders, essentially – from their masters. (Frank Langella is superb as the icy boss who controls them.) One is that their teenage daughter Paige (played by Nova Scotia-born Holly Taylor) be recruited into the ranks of Soviet spies. Paige is, naturally, unaware of her parents' true roles. Philip is outraged. He's made his anger crystal-clear. He wants his daughter to grow up and live happily, free of the burden of being a Soviet agent. But Elizabeth sees the logic of the request. She has begun, subtly and secretly, to mould the innocent Paige into a spy.

At the same time, Philip has been requested to get close to the teenage daughter of a senior CIA figure. The young woman, Kimberly, is 15 years old (she's played by Julia Garner, who is 21 but looks a very plausible 15). She is, as Philip describes her, a raging mess of hormones. Philip has assumed the persona of a cool dude with access to excellent pot. He's made friends with Kimberly and she's made it clear she wants sex with him.

Anyone watching these storylines unfold is made to feel deeply troubled. There is a magnificent, terrifying symmetry to it all. On one side, a mother, the more hardline of the two spies, seems willing to exploit her daughter horrendously. Simultaneously, her husband, the father of a teenage girl, is being asked to seduce a 15-year-old, if that means getting the information he needs to please the boss.

Meanwhile, adding to the awfulness, a victim of exploitation by both U.S. and Soviet espionage forces, the former Soviet embassy worker Nina (Annet Mahendru), sits in a Russian prison and is being asked to prise information from her cellmate, a young woman who landed in jail thanks to a boyfriend who exploited her.

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The layers of deceit are breathtaking. The emphatic theme of young women being taken advantage of, in multiple scenarios, is repulsive. But it serves a serious purpose. We are made aware that the worst crimes are not necessarily committed by psychopaths and crazed killers. We are creeped-out by the mundane level of evil that is at work. There's no gore. It's much more terrifying than that.

Airing Tuesday

Married at First Sight (A&E, 9 p.m.) is back and caused a wee fuss during its first season. The gist is this – blind dating is taken up a notch to blind marriage. "A team of experts combine their research with the hopes of matching three couples to get married at first sight. The experts have narrowed down the pool of participants to just six singles, who they will research and investigate further and match with their ideal partner. Once the matches are made, the couples will have just 10 days to prepare for their weddings without knowing anything about their future spouse, not even their names." Oh, sweet St. Patrick, yes that is the gist. Compliments of the day to you all. If you tipple, don't topple.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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