The Americans it the Direct Answer to the Great Male Antihero Show

6 Jul

The first generation of Peak TV was ruled, at the very highest levels, by the white male middle-aged antihero. Personified by three of the titans of the genre, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, these shows starred a singular man above (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White, respectively), one who was, for the most part, very competent as his work, while correspondingly often neglected his family. These shows were so good that they allowed all the lesser characters surrounding these leads to flourish as well, and the characters were complex and fascinating, the writing sharp and insightful, and the direction illuminating. That said, these three spawned imitators which highlighted their limitations of the mini-genre, and many, myself included, while revering the triumphs of these shows, tired of this formula centering around the difficult woe-is-me man who faces existential mid-life crisis problems.

After the end of Breaking Bad, the era sunsetted, and a number of other TV trends have dotted the landscape, on an entirely separate plane from that antihero model. A show like Orange is the New Black – a wildly diverse dramedy ensemble might be the most direct opposite of these show, or the biggest rebuke to what they represented. The Americans, however, starts with the male antihero formula and turns it inside out.

The stars of those shows – Soprano, Draper, White, are narcissists, who are volatile, can’t control their anger, and are uncomfortable being vulnerable or open about their emotions. They are usually selfish assholes who are charismatic but time and again make you angry that people constantly crave their respect and love. Don Draper, Walter White, Tony Sopranos are not good guys or good people; two of them work in illegal enterprises, and Don Draper cheats on his wife with abandon and doesn’t really understand how to deal with his children or coworkers. They’re larger than life, magnetic and we’re drawn to them in spite of their flaws. All three have family life on one side, work life on the other, and keep a firm separation between the two.

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings turn this dynamic exactly on its head. Like all three of those antiheroes, they have a hard line between their home and family lives. Unlike the three, their home lives are loving both between each other and their children. They’re model parents who put in all the time and effort we would expect and whose relationships with their children, work difficulties aside, resemble more of the family relationships in a laugh-tracked suburban comedy than a typical prestige drama.  The attention, love, and understanding for their kids, and really Paige in particular, is so much more intimidate than any of the parental relationships in those other shows.

On the flip side, what they do in their jobs is far worse. Philip and Elizabeth don’t merely commit crimes; they kill not only spies and other military figures but also many many civilians when they’re in the way of the necessary goals and objectives they’ve been given, and ruin many others’ lives with blackmail and manipulation.

That said, they’re not doing it for greed or for profit or for fame or their own self-indulgence and ego. To them, even these terrible things are for noble ends; they’re patriotic. More than that, and especially for Elizabeth, they’re altruistic methods whose ends justify the means. Not only are they for her country, but they’re for the world. She truly believes that Russia cares more about people than the US does, and helping her country helps the most people, in a John Stuart Mill utilitarian sense. They’re not profiting at all form their work; they live in relatively modest circumstances, and in fact it’s making life very difficult for them. They only do it because they believe it’s right, and in Philip’s case, out of love for his wife.

Philip and Elizabeth are incredibly likable doing incredibly terrible things, much more likable than Soprano, Draper, and White, while killing many more people and ruining many more civilians lives; which creates a set of scenarios which is so different from those of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, but with similar echoes, making The Americans one of the best shows of this second generation of peak TV.

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