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The Americans: Now's Breaking Bad



First off, this period FX spy drama, The Americans, has more than the usual share of sex, and occasional violence. Bears have their own ideas about one, and enjoy the other, even if it is a bit tame. You know your limits. The Bear will say far more people are seduced by the Russians than are killed.

(Kostya just typed: "больше медведей с медом." More Bears with honey. Thanks. Misha will take it from here, if that's okay.)

Philip and Elizabeth seem like typical Americans: two-story house in the suburbs, two kids, and a midlife crisis car. Little does anyone know -- especially their FBI counter-intelligence neighbor, Stan -- that they are actually KGB agents. "Illegals," as they are known.

(Slava just said he loves this show, but Keri Russell is too thin.)

The pilot features a long chase and beatdown to an extended version of Fleetwood Mac's thumping "Tusk." It is epic. However, the sequence does not set the tone for the series, other than its 80s setting. The Americans is more of a slow burn. Operations take time. Sometimes the KGB officers come to care for their assets. What the show is really about is the psychological toll the constant deception and seductions take on the two heroes, Philip and Elizabeth. Elizabeth is far more gung-ho for the Motherland, while Philip's conscience seems more tender. Both are hopelessly morally compromised, which they realize from time to time. This bleak moral landscape should be familiar to Breaking Bad fans.

However, it lacks the quirkiness and occasional dark humor of Breaking Bad. The only humor the Bear can remember is in season one The young son is fascinated by a moon Landing. Elizabeth points out that the Soviets first put a man in space, and that is something, too. The Americans is a dour show of unrelieved lies and deception, professionally and personally.

Philip and Elizabeth were paired by "center" when they were young. Their marriage is a cover. Yet they care for each other and even have moments approximating love. Of course sleeping with other people in service to their country is not healthy for their real marriage. Their roles as parents eventually become complicated, as well.

Another level of intrigue exists between the KGB officers in the Soviet embassy and the FBI counter-intelligence office. More is going on than just Philip and Elizabeth's operations. We also meet their handlers: older agents who sometimes serve as surrogate parents. (Sometimes abusive parents.) It all seems realistic enough, even boring, at times. 80s history provides the background for operations: the Soviets in Afghanistan, stealth technology, and central American surrogates are just a few of the issues that call for Philip and Elizabeth's skills.

This is not your standard spy fare. The higher-ups on both sides are usually in the dark, although the FBI seems unusually inept. There are few shoot-outs or car chases. It is inevitable that the FBI is going to get suspicious about Philip and Elizabeth. The tension is in that waiting. It isn't a noose slowly drawing tight. It's more waiting for a trap to spring.

If there is a better psychological drama on the air, the Bear does not know about it. The writing and acting is top notch. Keri Russel occasionally manages to let us glimpse Elizabeth's vulnerability behind her cold, professional exterior. Most of the action takes place behind the eyes of the characters.

It's the closest thing we've got to Breaking Bad at the moment. You'll find yourself rooting for the Soviet spies despite yourself, just as you probably did for Walt in  Breaking Bad.

Comments

  1. Bears and guys like shows like this. I find life enough of a psychological drama that I can't watch this stuff. I'm down to one or two channels and those mostly show religious programming or old Reba's.

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    1. Pete at Et Cum Spiritu Tuo used to write about it quite a bit. Mrs. Bear enjoys it, but we just sort of look away during the sex scenes. (And Slava's right: Keri Russel is pretty skinny.) The Bear has noticed that the show's "thing" seems to be the human derriere. Another show the bear watches is Nurse Jackie, but he is still waiting for consequences to start showing up for her drug use (which doesn't seem to be an actual addiction, oddly, because a real addict will tear their house apart if their last pill isn't where they thought it was) and adultery. The Bear is getting kind of a creepy vibe heading into season three.

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    2. I realized last week I've been neglecting the show on th blog. I have been watching, just not blogging. The sex is back. It really took a sabbatical last year and early this year. The whole show is a SLOW BURN. Stan's stupidity and the slowness of the FBI make me scream. He and his wife were never united as Phillip and Elizabeth are. Hey, I did post something related today. Will Pastor Tim break down Elizabeth's defenses in some way? He's reaching her humanity a bit. I wonder how long Henry remains in ignorance...or is he really wiser than every one has thought. Will Matthew hit on Paige...get her drunk to do it? Henry would find his friendships spoiled.

      Oh, there was an anachronism last week I think I screamed it out. There were no 911 calls in 1983. The Bell System was intact for another year, with the divestiture being complete for 1984; the antitrust settlement was announced in 82. 911s got off the ground in the 90s.

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    3. The consequences for Nurse Jackie are coming. You have to finish it.

      Seattle Kim, R.N.

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    4. @Pete -- Henry will surprise us yet. And is Elizabeth seeking comfort, or more security regarding that tape? It is hard to imagine them just forgetting about that.

      Like Philip with EST, Elizabeth is admitting to herself that she is broken, or at least bent. Still not convinced she is not planning a seduction of Pastor Tim Tom, though. I fear Pastor Tim Tom and his wife's Character Death Clock are running. Maybe they'll introduce Paige to wet work.

      The irony is that in "Dinner For Seven," Stan's hanging out in his favorite place with his only friends, the KGB officers' house, and his hackles only raise when he learns Pastor Tim Tom is an SJW. LOL So now he probably has Philip and Elizabeth pegged as pinkos.

      I was a little disappointed in Elizabeth leaving a witness. She could have easily run down the perv and ripped his spleen out and gotten away with Paige. Hope that doesn't come back to haunt them. The identikit sketches are stacking up.

      Ah, Oleg. I'm so disappointed in you. You're just an American wannabe. But how many people there know about this operation? Older Love Interest is movin' on up. They are the only two, besides P&E and Gabriel that know about it. Shouldn't be hard to figure out, and I see Oleg confessing because he's Really Unhappy and Disillusioned. Or can he find out about their illegals?

      Also, how long to connect the dots of all the people, including P&E, who knew John Boy was going to Thailand? Is no one even investigating this?

      Can't wait for next epi. About time for a payoff for all the buildup. Preferably to an extended cut of Tusk.

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    5. Lots to consider as I haven't blogged much this year. Been really busy. Now kids' baseball season. Oleg and his new love are interesting. Will she betray him? Is she spying on him, discovering his disillusions?

      Paige is pretty good but uncomfortable in her role as handler. Pastor Tim got a good laugh w/E about the FBI neighbor dropping by all the time. Will Paige tell Matthew? Will Pastor Tim tell Stan? How long is Stan so stupid and stuck in his head about Sandra or whomever at this point? Why should he feel guilty about Oleg? For gosh sake, as John Boy reminded, don't be naive about who those people are. When is Stan going to do his danged job--decently!??

      I hope there's some sort of pay off. It's getting annoying. Yes, E's attachment to her Korean friend who scoffed at Am culture would have been great to keep around. I bet she would have worked w/E on some level. And don't forget E finally killed that Boeing lady from AA whom she'd been working. I guess that loose end had to be dealt with...though there are few Boeing plants in DC...but there are lots of govt relations and defense IT contractors in DC.

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  2. Fantastic show. One of my favorites. If it weren't for the number of, and editing of, sex scenes, it would be much higher. You can go four weeks without any, then bam!, right after your cornflakes.

    I can keep custody of my eyes, but it requires vigilance so much that I wouldn't let my young adult son and daughter watch it, even with my hand on the edit buttons-- unlike some other shows. I get the presence of the seduction technique in such a show. And sometimes, it actually seems necessary for the moral point or character development. But usually not.

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    1. I hear you. They're just hairless primates to the Bear, but he can understand the concerns. If there's any redeeming quality it is that the psychological corrosion and self-loathing is an ever-present theme. In one recent episode (that did not quite involve a seduction) Elizabeth feels so guilty she asks Center to terminate the operation. And both Philip and Elizabeth have developed feelings for assets (Martha and Gregory, respectively). The Bear thinks their cover is about to start fraying, and the last two seasons are going to be very good.

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  3. Game of Thrones. As long as we're talking about TV. Plodding, over-rated too many characters and plot lines to keep track of. You can go several episodes without even seeing your favorite character. Way too much gratuitous nudity. (Who knew brothels would be such great places to hang out and talk with people?) The quality is really uneven, depending largely on which characters are included in an episode. Although the Bear does think Pope Francis look-alike Jonathan Pryce was deliberately cast for the High Sparrow religious leader. Mainly, characters travel around and talk, until some random act of violence occurs. We're all just waiting for Danearys Stormborn to swoop in with her barbarian army and dragons and defeat the white walkers and take the throne. Two more probably shortened seasons. Disappointed; could have been so much more, but the Bear thinks they're milking it.

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    1. Game of Thrones is good but not great and the MA content often detracts more than it helps. It has good potential, but Owl fears that the story-line has gotten away from the author and is now more controlled by the studio. Fantasy book series have a tendency to never end so Owl thinks that Danearys Stormborn is not the grand savior to which the original story was building. I do think that there is a morality to the story, not that I can binge watch this, and it is "bad things happen to good people but worse things happen to bad people."

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    2. I believe they have out-run the books now, but having never read them, I can't say for sure. I have the impression that the project is well-nigh unmanageable at this point. That's what it looks like. Writing is sloppy. DId NOT like the end of the last epi. Can we just fast-forward to the part where Khaleesi Danny and her barbarian horde and dragons kill all the white walkers and takes the throne? But they wouldn't be that obvious, would they? And soooo tired of Ramsey Bolton, who is a caricature of Evil Psycho.

      What do you bet Aria finds the Rude Political Performance theater troupe and they take care of her?

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    3. I think Danearys's story is the most interesting. She has gone from a pawn of psycho brother to a commanding presence negotiating a tricky moral landscape, learning the Law of Unintended Consequences. She's cold, though. I think she has a bit of the Mad King in her. Doesn't seem to bat an eye at incinerating people. Her arc could end any number of ways.

      Natural Born Killer Aria is the only interesting Stark left. Sled boy, whatever. Jon Snow, too pretty and earnest (his face only makes one expression). Sansa, just pathetic. I can't even imagine how her character can ever be more than the little princess who always tries to do the right thing, but trusts the wrong people, viz. sending the raven to Littlefinger (you know that's where it was going). She is going to stab Jon in the back -- you know it.

      ex-Hobbit Dwarf Jon Snow doesn't have the gravitas to carry on the Stark name. Aria is the last Stark with a personality. She's got moxie. My money is on her. (Although I think there's yet another little Stark boy we haven't seen in like three seasons. Gah!)

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    4. Ugh--my college age sons watch this. I wish they didn't. Way too embarrassing and scandalous for me to watch with them. I refer to it as the naked medieval show.

      Seattle Kim

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    5. Even though I don't approve of the show, I tried to be a nice mom one year and made my son a Ned Starke birthday cake. You take a cake pop and draw a face and hair on it and affix to the cake with a shishkabob skewer.

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    6. Damn it tat was me Seattle Kim.

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    7. I watch GoT on DVD from the library so I am not on the current season.

      Danearys' character is suffering from over powered hero syndrome. An author writes a hero character but writes them in such a way that they quickly become too powerful that nothing in the world is a threat. An unskilled author just resets the character back to zero to keep the story going, in part because the character has gotten beyond their control and in part for the sake of writing another book (or having another season). Got has done this several times with other characters as well. That HBO GoT would kill off Stannis is also an indicator that the character has gotten out of control and they wanted to reset the field to keep the story going on and on.

      I agree that Danearys has a bit of the Mad King in her. This is part of why I think that her arc ends prior to the ending to the story.

      Jon Snow isn't a Stark rather probably a Baratheon, so his destiny is elsewhere besides Winterfel.

      Most of the characters are standard fantasy tropes -- wizard, dwarf, thief, warrior, princess, etc.

      My money is on the youngest of all the families being the ones who make it to the end and they are left in charge. Aria is the thief character, her arc is the shadows.

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    8. Littlefinger just reminded Sansa that Jon was her "half-brother." What makes you think he's not a Stark? Interesting theory about Danny. I think she would crucify half of Westeros if it served a "higher" end. She feels entitled and nothing will stop her.

      But I think she will have trouble controlling her unstoppable army of castrati and horse barbarians. Oh, and dragons. She's an autocrat, but is untutored on the intricacies of spies and backstabbing in the Seven Kingdoms. But I still think it's going to take dragons to defeat the army of undead.

      Bran is a virtual non-entity (if he's the one I'm thinking about, the youngest male). Sansa is just sad. Aria is the survivor. The Lannister boy has potential, with a clever queen and the Pope on his side to cut out his pervy momma and daddy.

      I see growth in Jaimie. He will die well, I think. I like the Hound, and think his and Aria's destinies are still interwoven. Tyrion -- gosh, when's the last time we saw him? Another guy who's grown. (No joke intended.)

      Must die: Littlefinger; House of Black and White chick; Ramsay Bolton (at the hands of the Greyjoy fellow, who pretty much got what he deserved, though); Walder Frey (soon, I think); Cersei. Did I miss anyone?

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    9. Ian McKellen recently caused a stir when he mentioned that his new character dies. He said, "F-ing fans need to get a life. It's a show about t-ts and dragons." Probably the wisest words ever spoken about Game of Thrones.

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    10. I watch the seasons only when they get to DVD ..so not yet current.

      Jon isn't a Stark. It is highly implied in the first season that he is Robert Baratheon's illegitimate son. Baratheon's have black hair, that is why we know Joffrey is not his. Season 1 also has the Lannisters hunting down other illegitimate black haired sons. Thus he is Roberts. But this is probably a red herring, as it is too early in a multi-book's narrative to so clearly broadcast a plot point.

      Yes Danny isn't what she is cracked up to be. That GoT is based partially on the historical War of the Roses, it is multi-generational story. Thus, the ending pieces on the game board are not the starting pieces. Thus the resolution to who sits on the Iron Throne isn't a starting main character. Now that HBO GoT is different than the yet to be finished books, Danny could endup being the ultimate heroine but that seems unlikely and overly "modern" for the nature of the book's story.

      Bran is the second youngest and can "warg". He is off doing part of the religious "old gods" stuff that seems to be largely dropped from the HBO GoT. He is definitely going to warg into a dragon for the final battle with the white walkers though. Or the Night King. Richon is the youngest and I haven't read the books so I have no idea.

      Yes, Sansa is Sansa. She is the arrogant princess that gets shown a thing or two. I don't like the actress and think that she will not be good at portraying the wiser older iron lady that Sansa seems to be headed to becoming.

      You are right about the Lannister boy. That story line reminds me of some of the intrigue that went on with young Roman Emperors and their manipulating mothers. Love the actress for Cersei.

      Jaimie really is a changed man -- for the better. Tyrion is fantastic and so is the Spider...forgot his name.

      You missed a ton. The story does have a morality....really bad things happen to bad people. But I don't expect Theon to be the one who kills Ramsay. The house of the flayed man will have a bad ending and it won't be quick.

      Most will die, the wheel will turn, some will rise, some will fall, new evils will take the stage. There is no wrapping everything up into a bow or sunsets at the end of this story. The Iron Throne really does belong to the Targaryen, so it should end with them regaining the Throne, but not Danny.

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    11. Well, apparently people think Jon's a bastard Stark, at least by adoption. Who, then was the bastard that Lady Kat was talking about then? Did I miss a bastard LOL? And why did he get a dire wolf cub if he wasn't a Stark? (Although Theon got the runt, IIRC.) Certainly he is identified as Sansa's "half-brother" by Littlefinger, but he could be lying. Make that probably is.

      I don't dislike Sansa, but she is damaged goods and untrustworthy. Possibly one of the most pitiful characters. Maybe Theon could hold Ramsay down and Sansa could kill him. I don't think she is ever going to learn much from her travails. I'm sure being left to fend for herself as taught her to trust anyone who flatters her -- like Lord Balish.

      RIchon is the kid I couldn't remember. Two more shortened seasons if they're going to make anything out of him. Can't have too many Starks given their... bad luck.

      Warging a dragon is a pretty awesome idea.

      I like alcoholic and slightly chastened Cersei better. She dominates every scene she's in.

      The big thing to keep in mind is that winter is coming, and people are going to have to drop their plans and work with people they hate. It is going to become a very different show. That's why more of the action shifts to the Wall and beyond, although in true GoT fashion, they have to drop major plots entirely from epis to make room for other major plots. Sometimes I wonder what drives the writers -- the necessities of narrative or rotating characters in and out to keep everyone happy. Sort of like LOST where one epi would be Sawyer-centric, and the next would be Hugo-centric. Only without LOST's discipline and well-planned narrative. (Joking.)

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    12. HBO GoT is shot as a mini-series, I believe, so all principle photography done at once rather then per episode where actor's contracts can dictate screen time. Thus, the narrative should drive the events of each episode. I am afraid the tenancy of studios to want to keep the fans happy is going to cause problems now that HBO GoT has diverged from the books. George RR Martin will just kill off characters and do other horrible horrible things because of the story, but the writers of HBO might choose paths that serve viewership over story.

      I don't think there is time for "let us stop our squabbling and band together and fight the white walkers". There is also no precedent for alliances working in a show that is largely about political intrigue and backstabbing. The Iron Throne is the defeated swords of all the kingdoms brought to heel via the strength of the Targaryen who then ruled for 300 years of relative peace. So if everyone (who survives) s united through force by the Dragon Queen, this setsup a battle of Titans between two unstoppable preternatural forces. Narratively, is this not boring? Tolkien didn't stop Sauron by might. JMS didn't end the Shadow War with the Vorlons and Shadows actually clashing. Luke didn't kill the Emperor. etc. So I tend to think that the narrative will end by thinking its way out of the White Walker problem rather than a giant massive battle to end all magical battles.

      I don't like the actress who is playing Sansa -- she seems to only have "spoiled brat" as her emotional range. She was dreadful in X-Men Apocalypse. Sansa is interesting. I hope, but doubt, that her end will be happy.

      (Lost was great. I got the ending. However, the ending pretty much ruins the entire show. Knowing that it (and much of the last half of the last season) is what is waiting for you makes it very painful to rewatch the show. As much as I would like to. grrrr.)

      Jon came up with the idea to spare the dire wolf cubs because there were five of them. One for each of the Stark children. Ned took this as a sign from the Old Gods and spared the cubs. The albino runt was discovered later after Ned had agreed. In the book (the end of this chapter is as far as I got), Jon is aware of the 6th cub and is hiding it so the 5 cubs for 5 Starks works. If I am remembering this right.

      Ned told everyone that Jon was his illegitimate son. HBO GoT goes out of its way to indicate that Ned cheating on Kat is completely out of character. Ned is the man of honor who dies because of it. I trust Ned's honorable character rather than anything any other book character says.

      One of the things that I think will hurt the show in the last few seasons is the initial design of the show excising much of the religious elements. The Old Gods and the New Gods were poorly introduced (intentionally to make the HBO GoT more real life and less fantasy) but that is Bran's story arc -- he is the wizard / monk archetype -- also following the rule of "the more crippled, the more powerful". (This holds true for other characters). HBO GoT is getting more comfortable with dealing with the religious elements, but I fear that they didn't build the foundations strong enough to handle Bran's story arc, which will directly tie to the final confrontation. Then again, I like religious elements in my fiction.

      N.B. I have a tenancy to watch the behind the scenes on DVDs especially anything to do with creating the narrative or the visual elements.

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  4. I have heard good things about The American. I will move it up on my watch list.

    Breaking Bad is fantastic, though I never rooted for Walter. Jesse yes. BB is one of those shows where the writing is sooooo good that it makes everything else on TV near unwatchable.

    A great crime drama out there is Bosch on Amazon Prime. Slow and hard boiled. MA content, but that is expected given the nature of the crime.

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    1. The Americans is not as good as Breaking Bad. It takes itself far more seriously than BB did, which was one of the latter's charms. Kind of like this ephemeris, although I don't know how charming people find it.

      Given the people he was going up against, yeah, I rooted for Walt, what with his girlfriend stealing his bazillion dollar invention, cancer, and having to be married to Skylar and all. You mean to tell me you wanted Mike to kill him downstairs in the lab that time when Jesse had to shoot Gale (?) in the face? I enjoyed Walt's smartest-kid-in-the-room schtick, maybe because you knew there would never be a happy ending for him. He certainly seemed t have no regrets in his last scene.

      But he did kill a bunch of neo-Nazis. So there's that.

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    2. Bosch, huh? What else was that guy in? I watched one episode. Pretty dark, if I recall. Another one I'll give a second chance.

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    3. Bosch ~ Gritty rather than dark. Well ok, they go to some places in the actual season. You can also tell by the script that it is based on a book series.

      BB - Walt THOUGHT he was the smartest kid in the room, but really wasn't. No I didn't want Mike to kill, him -- but that was because of the story not the plot. Everyone in that show is, more or less, a terrible person. They all "break bad". I agree that Wald died with no regrets or unrepentant and went direct to hell. The whole show is a great story of how sin, especially hubris and pride ruin lives.

      Talking about it makes me want to watch it again.

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    4. I think any time outside of a WWII drama, you bring in the Nazis is an indication of writers out of ideas. Fortunately, they waited until the end.

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  5. The Wire was fantastic. Breaking Bad replaced the hole left by the Wire. Justified was the best thing to take the place of missing BB.

    Justified has humor, is funny like season 1 and 2 of BB. A lot more light hearted in some ways buy that same tension. It was taken from Elmore Leonard stories, and eventually, they convinced him to write for it.

    The Americans is too depressing because it is clear now the Russians won after all. Neither if them is ever really redeeming, and and no, I've never rooted for them. Every time I might they do something so soul destroying to someone else. I didn't root for Walt either. I was waiting for theit comeuppance . But now that Putin's won, it won't really come.

    So if you haven't watched yet, the best completed show is Justified.

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    1. I was under the impression that justified was a bit lefty. Can't say why. I'll check it out.

      The Wire was great, too. I stopped watching during the elementary school season. Can't say why.

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    2. Can't think of anything lefty about it. They didn't throw a l-s-ian in just to please a certain lobby, as most do nowadays. It's not politically correct, except in how badly it portrays Kentucky, perhaps. The main character certainly is not paragon of virtue. He holds loyalty above many other virtues. As portrayed, few if any of the characters on the show would ever vote R. (Then again, maybe they'd vote Trump.)

      One of the great actors in the show is Nick Searcy, a very vocal conservative in Hollywood.

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    3. I didn't give it a chance. It seemed to me morally superior agent comes in to clean up your average southern town filled with klansmen and mouth-breathers. Always looking for something new after I'm done with a show. Thanks.

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  6. Still waiting for the neighor/FBI dude to get suspicious. I'm getting impatient. It's like Walking Dead or GoT..just goes on and on without going anywhere. What made Breaking Bad great is they didn't milk it. They knew where they were going and knew when to wrap it up.

    Americans still a great show. Agreed.

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    1. Yeah, I hear you. But I would argue that stuff is going on. Paige putting herself in play after all the heartburn that plan caused in an earlier season is a big deal.

      She has become quite the little KGB agent -- more so than her parents realize, I think. Her and Matthew? Like mother like daughter? If she's gonna be a playa mom and dad better start training her.

      Ice cold Elizabeth getting all weepy about her Korean girlfriend and wanting Gabriel to ask Center to abort the op? Paige seeing momma kill the street guy and realizing her parents are probably doing more than working for peace in Nicaragua? And now all Hell's going to break loose next epi when they go after bio-man, and probably catch Philip on videotape.

      I have been frustrated, too. But I realize it, like baseball, is a game of inches.

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  7. I just finished watching The 4400 on Netflix. I wish they'd bring that back.

    Seattle kim

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    1. We enjoyed the 4400 too. We DVRd it when it was on.

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  8. This is way more fun talking about tv than pope Peter Pan.

    Seattle kim

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