Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Americans

Remember the Nice Blogger Who Wrote About
the Americans Sometimes?

Back when life was simpler - i.e. Benedict XVI was Pope, if he still isn't (see?) - we official Catholic bloggers got to gather around the campfire in the clearing and chat about just about anything. One blogger friend, now retired from the game, used to occasionally write about television shows.

The Americans was one of the shows she followed on her blog.

The pilot of this drama about Soviet spies in '80s America hooked us with an extended cut of Fleetwood Mac's pounding TUSK as the score to a chase. It promised to be another excellent television drama in the tradition of Breaking Bad.

Up until the current season, it mostly lived up to that promise, although Bear thinks we could have done with less of Keri Russell and a whole lot less of a certain U.S. Special Forces officer in an alley, an episode that scarred poor Bear for life. He is still afraid of the dark.

The Americans is a good show. But it is neither the same show nor as good as the show promised in the pilot.

Lotus 1-2-3

But while the Bear has kept up with it, this, the penultimate season, has managed to make being a Soviet "illegal" - a fake American and real spy - look as exciting as running a travel agency. (They manage to do that, too.) The episodes have been excruciatingly boring.

Critics love it. Who knows? Maybe the kind of people who write reviews for Slate and HuffPost really know good television, and aren't just getting together in their Che tees and rooting for the Russians once a week.

But the FBI agent who has lived across the street from the spies through five seasons is just comic relief as he blunders through each episode without a clue. By now, no matter how The Americans finally ends, Agent Beeman collaring his friends across the street will seem to come from way out of left field. Whatever tension there is, it does not include the smallest worry our comrades will get caught before the series finale, if then.

Another hilarious character is Keri Russell's current sex-for-info wheat expert in Topeka who is so much like Owen Wilson's perfect ex-boyfriend in Meet the Parents both the Bear and Red Death burst out laughing every time he is on screen doing Tai Chi or making organic soup or saving the world's grain. But the best comic highlight comes when, after Elizabeth's success with her noble and sensitive hunk, Phillip must admit he got dumped by his source.

His time with the affectless Miss Lotus 1-2-3 may have been the only time he actually thought of Mother Russia.

He did score a bootleg copy of that program though. And that is the story of Philip's life. That and guilt over killing some innocent wheat farmer based on bad information from Center. He is not a happy spy, and neither he nor Center trust each other. Elizabeth, on the other hand is a true believer. (Oddly, even Elizabeth sounds less like a communist than the average American leftist of today. Writers would recognize how ridiculous it would sound to have characters actually talk like that.)

Real commies would not be impressed by our special snowflakes.

The Greatest Non-Entertaining Television Drama

Don't get me wrong. The Americans does the whole Serious Drama Thing very well. The exception is the entertainment option. This season had one episode where an inordinate amount of time was spent showing grim Russians digging a deep hole. We drink coffee. We dig. We drink more coffee. And then, we put coffee down, pick up shovel - mama's shovel from beet collective we brought from Soviet Union with us - and dig more.

It really made the Bear appreciate just how boring being a spy could be, by, well you can finish that one.

Now, you can praise it as a taut slow-burn drama, an accurate Polaroid of the 80s, or, for a few seasons, anyway, an artistic study of the nude female-ish form. But entertaining? Look, Bear is BEAR. If there is anyone who would like a Russian spy drama, it would be the national animal of Russia. (And let us not forget the deep debt he owes for last year's rescue from Istanbul by SPETSNAZ.)

Let's put it this way. If a forest fire were this slow-burn, Smokey would turn over and go back into hibernation.

So imagine the Bear's surprise when he actually enjoyed the late-season episode, Dark Room.

The Dramatic Payoff

After nearly a season of setup, we finally get some dramatic payoff. There is nothing wrong with setup. But occasionally, one conflict or another has to erupt. or at least move from potential to manifest, whatever form that may take. People doing stuff is not drama, even with Keri Russell's game face or Matthew Rhys with lava bubbling beneath the surface because he already knows being a Soviet spy sucks, and there is no way this ends well for the people he loves.

Here's an example. Their Viet Cong kid in one of their other families makes a mysterious bus ride to an I-Hop. He gets caught, then explains it away with a lame story. Twenty minutes of just some random screw-up by a high school spy? Or setting up the ultimate downfall of spy fake mom and dad? Who knows?

Love makes an not-entirely unexpected but welcome return in this episode. It is sweet - and completely ruined by the knowledge that "Center" now wants the couple to keep their sexual partners on the hook indefinitely. Operational necessity, or is Center peeling Philip away from Elizabeth  as the weak sister.

But most of all, characters are being forced to realize their work has put them into a "dark room." The episode was very thematic. Relations with their new-old handler could not be chillier. There are reasons to doubt the truth of what they are being told. Having sex with other people all the time and living at least four lives, by Bear's count, is getting old and beginning to interfere with their fake marriage. Complicating matters is Elizabeth sort of falling for idealistic bearded Mr. Tai Chi.

Daughter Paige has her parents' spy genes. This episode holds a mirror to Philip and Elizabeth in a shocking conclusion with their daughter. A conflict over several seasons has been whether to bring the girl into the family business. Philip is against the idea, Elizabeth is for it, Gabriel (the kindly old handler who returned to Russia for reasons unknown) is against it. Paige is a competent teenage mess, but naively imagines her parents are on remarkably heroic missions that must remain unsung.

Bear supposes when you have unlimited time, the temptation is to write setup-setup-setup with multiple plot lines and character arcs in far-flung settings while putting off all your big payoffs.

For awhile, the Bear was thinking that the modern network prestige television series - Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Americans - had become the ideal vehicle for drama. It had the production values of film, but instead of 90 - 120 minutes, Breaking Bad's "running length" was one day, 23 hours and 23 minutes!

A canvas that big leaves a lot of room for character development, complex plots and details by the truckload. But if you look back (or think back) you realize the best of them are not immune to forgotten plot lines, characters who do not earn their screen time, and the round-and-round of obsessing over the same issues. It's easy to lose focus, I bet, especially if you can do no wrong in the eyes of critics.

We sometimes forget series writers are making it up as they go along over years. The Bear does not believe that the network prestige dramas will replace film or novel as the best vehicles for drama. Its very advantages work against them.

And if you have watched all five seasons of The Americans, congratulations. You have spent two days and four hours according to the website from where you may learn such things.

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