Tag Archives: The Americans

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2014 Edition: 3-1

10 Apr

Finally, we’re here. The top three. All entering these heights for the first time, all in their second seasons or earlier. One on broadcast, one on basic cable, and one on amazon. Let’s do this.

Intro here and 43-40 here and 39-36 here and 35-32 here and 31-28 here and 27-24 here and 23-20 here and 19-16 here and one-offs/shows ineligible for the list here and 15-12 here and 11-8 here and 7-4 here.

3. Transparent – 2013: Not Eligible

Transparent

I watch a lot of pilots. Most I dismiss out of hand. Some I consider, but eventually decide another episode isn’t worth my time. Some are borderline. Some I choose to watch another episode based on one or two aspects that strike my fancy. Some are solid. And very, very few inspire me, after simply one episode, to feel like I absolutely know I’m starting on a great show. Obviously you can only put so much material in one episode, so there’s at least a little bit of feeling and hunch that goes along with that distinction above and beyond what’s actually in the episode. Transparent had it though. Immediately, I know there was something there, and I hungrily devoured the remaining episodes in the course of a weekend. It’s a truly great show, and a great show in an area that hasn’t been covered much on TV lately. It’s about a family, and the hook is that the patriarch is coming out to his children as a self-identified female. That’s important, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Transparent is simply a transcendent family dramedy that makes you immediately want to watch the next episode regardless of any big plot points. The actors are great, the story is great, the characters are great.

2. Hannibal – 2013: 8

HannibalSeason2-1

Hannibal has absolutely no right to be as good as it is. More or less, on paper, it’s a cop show, about an FBI agent who chases serial killers, often for an episode at a time, but sometimes over the course of several episodes. Hannibal is his mentor slash nemesis, manipulating him and befriending him at the same time. And yet Hannibal is so much more than that. The depth of Hannibal and Will’s relationship defies easy categorization. No show delves deeper into the depths of the human mind than Hannibal. Crimes, murder, in Hannibal, are about understanding, yearning for someone to figure out if anybody really knows anyone else. No show is more visually stunning than Hannibal; taking place as if in a dream world, which disturbingly blood and visceral displays of dead bodies that are troublingly startlingly beautiful. Hannibal’s cooking looks so delicious I want to eat it even knowing what went into it. The world of Hannibal is so much more than the sum of its parts, and there is no other experience like it on TV.

1. The Americans – 2013: 9

The Americans

When everything is working, everything is working, and The Americans was simply on fire in its second season. When The Americans started, I worried I’d tire quickly of its high concept premise, and get frustrated in particular having to root for monstrous characters who kill and maim and torture all in the service of an ultimately fickle and pointless cause. And on paper that still sounds right. But that’s not at all how it feels watching the show. The Americans is dynamic, and for all the killing and wigs and spy missions, the show is about family at least as much as it is about spies. The complicated cold war premise is a brilliant mechanism for discussing issues of secrets and lies, family and love, togetherness and loneliness. The layers of secrets and lies that run through The Americans is staggering. The season long plot unfolded brilliantly – and while the show can admittedly be somewhat on the nose, it’s so well done, and the characters are so fully formed that it entirely doesn’t matter. The Americans does something great shows do; it takes what start as side characters, and quickly makes them fully evolved; look at the FBI, or the Russian Rezidentura, which have become rich settings of their own right, not just merely in relationship to Elizabeth and Philip. A stunning finale capped off the season, with a twist that felt surprising but also well-earned and dealt with the season’s concerns while moving right into next season’s.

And there we are. Congrats, The Americans, congrats 2014. I’ll have a recap of the list up shortly.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 8-5

10 Feb

Three dramas and an 11 minute comedy, one of the dramas a debut, and the other two a couple of veterans of the top of these rankings. 8-5 coming up.

8. The Americans

They're really Soviet!

The incredibly strong freshman drama crop of spring 2013 strikes again on this list. The Americans was a revelation, a show that was a must watch almost right out of the gate. The way Hannibal belied my tiredness of cop-genius shows, The Americans belied my tiredness of shows set in the past. Two deep cover Soviet spies conduct missions while living a life as an ordinary family with kids who know nothing of who their parents really are. Their neighbor is an FBI agent working to expose Soviet deep cover spies with no idea that a pair of spies live next door. There’s so many layers of subterfuge, both literally and figuratively; it almost seems like it could be too much and too on the nose, but it works. There are great and sometimes funny action spy set pieces which bring you in but underneath it’s a show about identity and relationships and truth and lies and the wide ground between. Get on the bandwagon now.

7. Mad Men

Don Draper, Rainy Day

This was probably the weakest season for Mad Men, at least in a while, but that being said, it’s still Mad Men, and it’s still pretty great. The weakness was largely the fault of Don’s plotlines, which felt repetitive, treading ground we’ve tread before, but slightly worse, and Matt Weiner seemed hell-bent on sending him lower than he had ever been before, which would be fine if it wasn’t simply not particularly gripping. Luckily, everyone else’s plots were there to pick us up. Peggy had a fantastic season, Betty actually became a real, interesting character, rather than a caricature, and Sally continued to develop, and had a couple of really powerful moments to shine in the second half of the sesaon. Likewise Roger and Pete, who I felt bad for for the fist time in the series, which is an impressive achievement. New characters Ted and Jim were welcome additions. An absolutely surreal episode broke up the season, and while I’m not sure how I feel about it overall it contained a Ken Cosgrove tap dance which made the episode worthwhile in and of itself. I say it again. Even non-vintage Mad Men is very excellent TV.

6. Eagleheart

Marhsal Chris Monsanto

The weirdest and almost certainly least watched show on my list, Eagleheart is a show I’ve desperately tried to convince every single person I run into to watch. Like Venture Bros., it’s absolutely not for everyone, but anyone who has any taste for absurdist humor should get on board immediately. Eagleheart is far an away the most absurd non-animated show on TV, making something like Childrens Hospital seem like The Wire in terms of reality in comparison. Chris Elliott plays US Marshal Chris Monsanto, and well, it’s just nuts, trying to attempt to explain any of the best episodes might take more than the 11 minutes the episodes take to watch. The best Eagleheart episodes change plots three or four times per episode. While normally Eagleheart episodes are disconnected, the third season was loosely strung together in an arc called Paradise Rising. The first two seasons were great, but this may be the best yet. My favorite episode Spatz, is mind-bogglingly ridiculous and equally wonderful and hilarious.

5. Justified

Raylan Givens

If it’s not already obvious, we’re getting to the crème de la crème here. Justified warmed up in its first season, hit some serious heights in its second, suffered a small comedown with its third season and followed that with an absolutely exemplary fourth season. Everything that makes Justfied work was present in the season; Timothy Olyphant’s suburb portrayal of Marshal Raylan Givens, a character that could easily become an anti-hero caricature if not played and written exactly right. The season features fantastic Elmore Leonard-inspired settings and crackling dialogue; Justified is a funny show, and a hit parade of idiot criminals and witty retorts by the more competent among them keep it crackling. The season long plot was compelling and fascinating and guest stars were spot on, including dramatic turns for comedians, which Justified does better than anyone, including Patton Oswalt and Mike O’Malley and stellar work from underrated character actor Jim Beaver. That fourth season for me elevated Justified to a near-certain TV hall of famer in my mind.

End of Season Report: The Americans

29 May

Two Americans, Two Soviets

The Americans has been one of the most rewarding new shows of the year, cementing the very solid FX brand name by putting a season together more than worthy of the promise shown in the first episode.

A quick caveat before I begin:  I understand this show could potentially pose a problem for people who prefer likeable protagonists, and even for some that can tolerate somewhat unlikable protagonists, but have a limit.  While main characters Elizabeth and Philip are not necessarily unlikable personality-wise or in their behavior towards their family, they are agents working for the Soviet government against the United States, and they not only spy but commit violent acts, sometimes against innocent victims.  Unless you’re a hardcore ol’ Commie, you’re not going to be rooting for them to succeed.  That said, if you can get used to having a complicated relationship with the protagonists, rooting for them in limited circumstances, while against them in others, you’ll do just fine, and I think that attitude is necessary to fully enjoy several excellent TV shows that have appeared over the last decade.

Elizabeth and Philip were sent to America as mere teenagers to build a fake life as a cover story so that they could spy for the USSR and commit all sorts of espionage without being discovered.  Of course, it’s hard to build a really convincing fake life without building somewhat of a real one in the process, a new problem created by the existence of longterm undercover agents.  Elizabeth and Philip love their kids, and their kids, a responsible teenage girl and a younger boy, love them back. They don’t at all, as far as we know, suspect anything about their parents true work (the parents claim to work together as travel agents), which if they ever found out, would probably drive them to decades of psychiatry or violence or, well, who can know just yet, and maybe we’ll find out.  Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage is tested over the course of the season, but their mutual devotion to their kids remains constant.  This devotion tests their loyalties to their country.  They, or at least, Philip, kind of like it in America, and as much as they feel a responsibility towards their jobs, there may be limits in how far they’re willing to go for work, in order to keep their kids safe and in the dark.

Next door neighbor Stan Beeman is an FBI agent with a background in counter intelligence, having gone undercover as an Aryan radical before relocating to DC to help fight Commies.  He’s undeniably skilled at his job, and his instincts often prove correct, including when he suspected Elizabeth and Phillip as possible agents right away, before cooling on them when they were able to diffuse his suspicions just in time.  However, his abilities are compromised by his emotional vulnerabilities and damaged family life.  His wife, tired of his late work hours and endless devotion to the job over his family, turns away from him, and at the same time, he begins an affair with his charge, a Russian agent he was able to turn.  The joke’s on him later in the season when the Russian agent turns back and becomes a double agent, using Stan for information, but he’s too emotionally compromised and invested to see it.  She may have turned against him due to finding out he killed an innocent, or as innocent a Soviet agent who works for their spy agency can be, Soviet in cold-hearted revenge and frustration from the death of his FBI partner.  The spy game is an endless cycle of people using one another and it’s very difficult to develop genuine emotional bonds when they’re formed out of manipulation and the mutual need for information.

The Americans pays close attention to the value of loyalty, to both family, and to country, and to what happens when they collide.  Loyalties more than directly conflict, they get tangled up in complicated webs.  When Elizabeth and Phillip were assigned to be a couple as teens in the USSR, they didn’t love each other, it was part of the job.  Years later, they have kids.  Is their loyalty to their kids more important than country?  It seems to go back and forth a couple of times during the season.  Historically, eunuchs were highly trusted by leaders because they could never have kids, their loyalty to whom would preempt their loyalty to the state.  The USSR had no such plan.  Early in the season, it seems as if Philip is ready to defect, and the only factor preventing him is his love of his wife, who is far more devoted to the cause.  Her devotion is tested throughout, most explicitly, when Soviet agents kidnap and torture Philip as a test, but also when she feels like she is frequently being used her handlers for missions which present an unreasonable level of risk, potentially endangering her children.

The Americans is packed with layer upon layer of deception. Philip and Elizabeth are constantly disguising themselves for their job, but correspondingly separating themselves from their identities as well, offering them a chance to play different roles.  When your primary identity is based on a lie, maybe it’s not necessarily truer than any other disguise.  Is Philip more real than Clark, the guise he takes in order to seduce and later even marry a lonely FBI employee who proves an important source? Neither is his actual name.  The source loves him, for real, and more or less unconditionally, compared to Elizabeth, with whom his relationship is far more complicated, but more honest as well. Halfway through the season, Phillip meets up with an old flame from the homeland in New York, and has a brief affair with her.  This is the last straw that drives him and Elizabeth apart for the remainder of the season, especially when he lies about it.  Between the deceptions and the lies, it’s not hard to see where both parties are coming from.  Philip has been far more devoted to the relationship for years and, after learning that Elizabeth may have been more in love with American left-wing convert Gregory for years, he feels like he’s tired of giving too much.  Elizabeth in her own time, is finally coming around to have genuine feelings for Philip, and just when these feelings are starting to coalesce, her belief is broken by not just his affair, but by his lying to her face about it.  It’s hard to have trust in a marriage between spies whose job is to lie for a living, not to mention have sex with other people, or even longer-term affairs, as Philip does as Clark.  They’re also constantly subject to manipulation by their superiors – it was their handler that let Elizabeth know that Phillip was cheating, and it becomes ever more difficult for everyone in the show to tell what’s true and what’s not.  Constantly at issue is who can be trusted, and why, and not just among the main characters.  There’s Gregory, a true believer, whom Elizabeth believes is trustworthy because of their relationship, but about which others disagree. The spies rely on men in gambling debts and other misfortune, with whom they have leverage to prevent them from going to the authorities.  Elizabeth’s devotion, as mentioned earlier is absolute at the beginning, but begins to waiver.

There’s plenty of action and suspense as well.  This is a spy show, after all.  There’s plenty of chases, lots of cool spy gadgetry and some exchanges and secret rendezvous.  Of course, the majority of these are on behalf of the red menace against the United States, but that doesn’t make them any less cool.  There’s more wigs and costume changes than a Nicki Minaj concert (Hey oh!).  Some borrow from some of the famous spy operations of the past (the poison umbrella tip borrows from a famous assassination of a Bulgarian journalist), and some are wholly invented by the writers, which can detract from the story in some instances, but in this instance I’m willing to grant some leeway from exact reality for the purposes of plot.  Also, I’d like to give a shout out to the solid period soundtrack, which doesn’t simply overuse the songs from the time which are most well known now, picking solid second tier hits like “Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash.

I think the first season of The Americans accomplished a lot.  I look forward to see what Joe Weisberg and crew can do with the second.  I think there’s plenty of places to go both plotwise, and exploring a lot of the issues and characters that have made the first season such a fun ride.

Spring 2013 Review: The Americans

1 Mar

Johnny and Linda American

The Americans is about a couple of Soviet sleeper agents living in America, posing as a typically American family during the late cold war period.  I’ll get to more about it, I promise, but follow me for a minute as I take a diversion onto a more general point about the Cold War in pop culture, and then back to The Americans particularly.

I grew up too late to really experience the cold war.  I don’t really remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, and even if I did know it at the time, I certainly didn’t understand what it meant.  The Cold War itself doesn’t seem like a great time in which to live, but for movies and television it seems like a constantly underused time period, especially in terms of the use of Soviet antagonists.  While World War II Nazis are crazy super evil and immediate, reflecting the fact that World War II was a concentrated war centered on armed conflict, Cold War Soviets, at least post-Stalin, are less here and now evil and more mysteriously and michievously villainous.  Everyone knew the Nazis wanted to basically take over the world and kill all the Jews and Russians and whatever other ethnic groups, but no one exactly knew what the Soviets wanted or what they were willing to do to get it.  The beauty of the Cold War from a broad literary perspective is that neither side knew exactly what the other was thinking, and at anytime, one misplaced step could set off a chain reaction to mutual destruction.  And while, unlike in the third easily literarily interpretable international relations event of the 20th century, the Vietnam War, it’s pretty clear we’re the good guys in the Cold War, it’s not exactly clear how bad the other guys are (No one seems to do World War I or Korean War movies in America, aside from M*A*S*H; World War I just doesn’t have the same place in the American psyche as it does in the European, and no one knows anything anymore about the Korean War).

Thus, while World War II works best as a setting for sweeping large-scale action like in Saving Private Ryan or clear cut good vs. evil revenge like Inglorious Bastards, the Cold War plays best to sneaky subterfuge and taut suspense.  There’s a number of already-on-the-way-to-destruction movies like  Dr. Strangelove or Fail-Safe, but in terms of pre-nuclear destruction, The Hunt for Red October is one of the best examples of movies that follows these themes.

So, back to The Americans.  As per that deviation, The Americans fits that Cold War narrative to a T.  The series stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as the Soviet sleeper agents who have been in the US for a decade and a half at the start of the show, set in  1981.  Flashbacks tell us that they were chosen two decades ago to be married and infiltrate the US, and in the present day, they’ve got two kids who know nothing about their true professions.  They’ve started to become Americanized in their home lives while constantly executing missions for their Soviet overlords.  We learn in the first episode that Rhys’ Phillip is more loyal to his wife than to his country, while Russell’s Elizabeth would die before defecting.  It’s unclear whether that dynamic will reappear as a potential stress on the couple in later episodes, but it certainly seems possible.  In the pilot we also see their difficulties in maintaining a normal family life and carrying out these missions, as they get by a couple of very close scrapes in the first hour alone, and a Soviet superior tells Elizabeth it’s only going to get harder.

Across the street, new neighbor FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) moves in, completely coincidentally, but Beeman, who works in the counter intelligence department and recently relocated to Washington DC after spending three years undercover, immediately suspects something is off about Elizabeth and Phillip.  Initially, I thought the FBI was going to look pretty naive and incompetent in the show, and Beeman in particular seems bright eyed and bushy tailed, and when he introduces himself to Elizabeth and Phillip straight out as a FBI agent, it seems as if they can spy circles around this guy.  However, smartly, it seems like the FBI in general, and Beeman in particular, are more capable than we think and the episode ends with the FBI declaring war on these sleeper agents.  Shows and movies are almost always better with well-matched adversaries, rather than one  competent side and one incompetent.  Whether we end up rooting for the KGB agents or the FBI, the show has more long term potential if both are relatively capable.

The Americans looks like it will have all the hallmarks of Cold War fiction; simmering tension with punctuated burst of activity, and constant paranoia on either side; the KGB agents that they’re about to get caught at any time, and the FBI agents that KGB sleeper agents could be anyone and anywhere.  The show also reminds me of Breaking Bad in the sense that our primary protagonists are the ostensible villains (Walt, the KGB agents), while our secondary protagonists are the ostensible good guys (Hank, FBI agent Stan).  It’s unclear as of yet exactly how likeable or unlikeable the KGB agents will be as characters, and how they’ll manage to make the FBI-is-or-is-not-onto-them plot keep moving without stalling or engendering the concept of the show, but there are certainly enough possibilities out there to be worthy of seeing where the creators go with it.

It’s also worth noting that there is already some great period music, and hopefully will be more of it.  In particular, the show opened with Quarterflash’s Harden by Heart, which was already a great sign for my liking it.

Will I watch it again?  Yes. It wasn’t amazing or mind blowing (see: Homeland’s premiere) but it was definitely good enough to come back to.  Also, it’s worth noting that FX is creating itself quite a brand; recent solid-or-better dramas include this, Justified, and Sons of Anarchy.