THE AMERICANS….WHERE IT’S ALWAYS WINTER, WHETHER OR NOT IT’S EVER AMERICA (What Impressed Me This Week)

The Americans: Season Three

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For those who aren’t familiar with The Americans, now entering its fourth season on FX, it follows the lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, both superb and now married in real life),  an attractive, All-American couple living in Falls Church, Virginia, in the 1980s. They have a travel agency, a lovely house in the suburbs, two kids and every outward appearance of respectable normalcy.

They’re also deep-cover Soviet spies.

As I’ve mentioned before here (often, on the order of a broken recorrd), I haven’t kept up with much modern television. Generally speaking it’s just too much time and money for too little reward. Among those who do keep up, several whose opinions I respect, including Steven Rubio, count The Americans as one of, if not the best, shows going.

I can believe it.

For starters, it doesn’t have any major weaknesses, something I can’t say for 24, Deadwood, Justified or even Homeland (to mention the “serious” shows of recent vintage I’ve seen at least a fair amount of…you can catch my various thoughts here, here and here) and can’t imagine ever saying for The Sopranos, The Wire or Mad Men (all of which make my ears bleed and eyelids droop whenever I try to attend them for more than five minutes). The casting, acting, writing, direction, visual style, story, conception and just plain Zeitgeist in The Americans are all compelling and have sustained beautifully throughout three full seasons, with some key elements actually improving over time. I don’t know how the show would fare on a revisit–I’ve basically binge-watched each individual season after it became available on DVD–but on first acquaintance it has the additional pull of being a thriller that is actually thrilling. A near disastrous cock-up at the end of Season One might be the most gut-wrenching “action” sequence I’ve encountered on-screen, movies included, because, for once, the danger is both palpable and personal. It wasn’t until that very moment I admitted to myself I didn’t want the protagonists, who are, after all, cold-blooded killers working for a monstrously evil cause, to be caught–not a common reaction to a car-chase.

Having scaled that height, it seemed almost inevitable that a drop-off would follow.

Instead, the series has only gotten better and better. Every potential trap that has snagged other similarly compelling sympathy-for-the-sociopath narratives around the ankles at some point has been avoided. That’s in part because somebody on this show–presumably creator and overseer Joe Weisberg–has a real feel for narrative structure which, remarkably, has not so far given way, even for an instant, to the usual crippling demands of cliffhanger plotting. It’s also in part because the cliffhanger plotting has not been undermined, even for an instant, by the considerable demands of the narrative.

Pulp narrative to be sure. This ain’t War and Peace. But true narrative just the same.

I can’t say how rare this actually is in television. I simply don’t watch enough to know.

But I can say that, until I encountered The Americans, I didn’t think it was possible at all on television, where too many cooks–producers, writers, directors, stars, show runners, network suits–are forever spoiling the stew. For me, part of the tension that set in around the middle of Season One, when I had accepted the far-fetched elements of The Americans as part of a legitimate really-no-stranger-than-life vision (much like 24, which, albeit in often entertaining ways, began falling apart almost immediately thereafter, with only Season Five managing any kind of transcendence), was in wondering just how and when it would all go wrong this time.

It hasn’t. And, after three seasons of what is apparently going to be a five-season run, I’m now convinced there’s a real chance it won’t.

One of the very smart elements that has given the show this kind of space–the key element I think–is the extent to which, in a show called The Americans, America itself is felt in every frame while being barely glimpsed visually, and then in only the most obvious and superficial ways. Since the protagonists are the spear tip of a sleeper cell which has essentially infiltrated the American security state and, with the Cold War raging under Reagan, are under intense pressure to act, the audience is drawn into a claustrophobic world which really does present itself as the unseen reality while everything going on around it, including what’s beaming forth from the ubiquitous televisions playing in background after background, is reduced to a series of illusions.

Add to that a nuanced view of the KGB which never devolves into romanticism, or lets us forget that some secret police forces really are worse than others, lots of first-rate acting (this is the kind of show where even Frank Langella doesn’t stand out), and an editing style that actually creates its own tension (any scene you enter might last thirty seconds or ten minutes and, unlike any other show I’ve actually watched, there really is no way to predict) and you can maybe begin to understand why this highly praised show has a lot of frustrated followers, now including me, who feel it hasn’t been praised nearly enough. It’s just possible that, narratively speaking, it asks too much of a world which has been preconditioned, especially and specifically in the matter of narrative, to accept much, much less from shows that rate far more chatter.

By way of example, we need only examine the element in that narrative that was most fraught with peril, which is the character development of the Jennings’ daughter Paige, who is first drawn to, then immersed in, evangelical Christianity.

Normally, even a hint of Hollywood using evangelicalism as a plot device just makes me sigh and roll my eyes. I’ve never seen anything remotely resembling a fair or accurate treatment of the world I grew up in on screen, and, to be clear, that’s not exactly what happens in The Americans either. If the show does have a weakness it’s in the portrayal of “Pastor Tim” (Kelly AuCoin). He’s a kind of reformed hippy type which was, in fact, pretty common in evangelical churches during the seventies and early eighties. But either the casting or the conception is off base. As played by AuCoin, Pastor Tim is pretty much a Hollywood idea of the type. He has none of the charisma or feral intensity (often fueled by self-doubt which was not infrequently compensated for by the loudest “halleluahs” and “amens” in the hall) that was typical even for youth ministers and choir directors (the more common positions an ex-hippy was likely to hold), let alone the occasional leader of a flock.

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This fly in the ointment is redeemed, however, by Paige Jennings’ own character and the remarkable performance of Holly Taylor who has caught, or perhaps just embodies, a certain fresh-faced American type–so at odds with her cynical, devious parents and with the ridiculous parodies of teen angst that have frequently undermined narrative in 24 and Homeland–to a tee.

For all she talks about Pastor Tim, it’s pretty evident Paige is really caught by the message, not the messenger (in that sense, Pastor Tim’s drab qualities may be a narrative strength, though I have to believe it’s accidental). Since Christian ethics are the elephant in the room in the fight going on at the heart of The  Americans, the never-to-be-admitted, two-thousand-year-old reason why some secret police forces are better than others even if it all leads to the same place in the end, Paige’s ever-greater certainty that something is rotten in Falls Church (and the KGB’s nagging insistence that her parents start training her as a second-generation agent, which presumably will mean subjecting her to the same soul-killing horrors they endured during their own “training,” of which the show offers occasional chilling flashback glimpses), it’s hard to believe this is merely a plot device. It might have started out that way–but it hasn’t stayed that way.

And so, as I watched Season Three, it became more and more evident that Paige was coming to represent something more than youthful innocence. I have to admit that, based on the seeming superficiality of the “Christianity” on display in the first two seasons, and the show’s usual concessions to graphic sex and violence (tame by modern standards but still plenty strong enough to offend what’s left of the church crowd), I assumed some serious missteps would accrue.

Not only did that not happen, but the handling of the Paige element made an already strong show measurably stronger. I won’t give away the details–no spoilers–but seeing an American teenager presented so ably and credibly on American television (let alone a devout Christian, let alone one who is now in a place where the moral shield of her faith is likely to invite real physical peril, let alone in a show that takes place in the eighties and is very definitely about the way we live now and how much cultural time has stopped and stagnated since the period in question) is refreshing to say the least.

The quality and quiet depth of Taylor’s vulnerable performance, though, presents another possibility, one that will have me on the edge of my seat a year from now when I catch up with Season Four. I don’t want to oversell the likelihood of this happening, but I wouldn’t be caught entirely by surprise if the resolution of Paige Jennings’ character arc were, at some point, to match the power and poignancy of Judith Hutter going among the British at the end of The Deerslayer, or Caddy Compson being glimpsed among the Nazis at the end of the revised edition of The Sound and the Fury.

The Americans is that good. And that unexpected.

PULP IN EXTREMIS (Monthly Book Report: April, 2015)

As I suspected, my reading pace has picked up enough to justify going back to a monthly report…so, until the next set of existential crises comes along at least, I’m doing just that. For starters, a month dedicated to John D. MacDonald (who will probably be a heavy presence here for the next quarter or so)–the first three in the Travis McGee series (all re-reads) and an initial visit with Cape Fear:

The Deep Blue Good-By (John D. MacDonald–1964)

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I haven’t visited with Travis McGee since the mid-eighties, when I probably read the entire series in about a month. I’m attempting to read them in order this time around and, having gone from my mid-twenties to my mid-fifties the meanwhile, I’ve long since learned not to take what MacDonald did best for granted.

What he did best was…move.

He knew how to plot. He knew people (this book alone, the first in the series, is full of thumbnail sketches that leave indelible impressions from across the social strata). He knew how to write action (a genuinely rare and under-rated skill).

And he could write a passage like this:

P. 85 (McGee): “A very deep tan is a tricky thing. If the clothing is the least bit too sharp, you look like an out-of-season ball player selling twenty pay life. If it is too continental, you look like a kept ski instructor. My summer city suit was Rotarian conservative, dark, nine-ounce or long looking somewhat but not too much like silk. Conservative collar on a white shirt. Rep tie. A gloss on the shoes. Get out there and sell. Gleam those teeth. Look them square in the eye. You get out of it what you put into it. A smile will take you a long way. Shake hands as if you meant it. Remember names.”

I’ve never managed to catch a single episode of Mad Men…but I’d be surprised if an entire series could say more that’s worth knowing about the folks it was spying on.

Given all that, I’ll readily forgive the fantasy-romance aspects that were the one area where the series dragged a bit. And it’s especially easy to take here, at the beginning, where it all leads to something virtually unheard of in pulp: genuine heartbreak.

Cape Fear (John D. MacDonald–1958)

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The first non-Travis McGee MacDonald I’ve read. Expert enough, though every change they made for the 1962 film version (including the title, which was originally The Executioners) improved it and, unlike his contemporary MacDonald (Ross), he didn’t see the sixties coming (at least not here where he doesn’t see them coming the way a deer doesn’t see a truck).

As great as this MacDonald was at pinpointing the soft places where civilization no longer suffices, this book provides no hint of any notion that the coming return to the primitive would be led by the children of the suburbs playing in the sunlight, not the Max Cady-style monsters crawling through the night.

And lest we start thinking it was all wine and roses back when deer couldn’t spot trucks (i.e., that ignorance was bliss), here’s a passage from near the end of the book, after the fear is gone (but rather typical of what evidently passed for truly blissful marital by-play back on the other side of the modernity divide…I warn you it’s not pretty):

“I was cheated,” he said somberly. “When I bought you at the slave market in Nairobi, the auctioneer said you would work like a dog, from dawn to exhaustion. You seemed firm of flesh, clear of eye. You had all your teeth.”

“The price was right,” she said dreamily

“But they cheated me.”

“You remember the sign. No merchandise can be returned.”

“I’m thinking of selling you.”

“Too late. Years of slaving for you have turned me into a hag mister.”

He sighed theatrically. “I suppose I can get a few more years use out of you.”

“Ha!”

“Don’t go ‘Ha.’ It’s impertinent.”

“Yes, master.”

It was the sort of gentle game they had played all of their married life.

If that’s what passed for contentment in those sunlit suburbs, I reckon the sixties couldn’t happen soon enough.

Nightmare in Pink (John D. MacDonald–1964)

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Second in the McGee series and the second verse was hardly the same as the first. This time our hero starts unraveling the threads of a looming dystopia and keeps pulling until the threads are laid quite bare:

P. 26–27 (McGee): “New York is where it’s going to begin, I think. You can see it coming. The experts have learned how it works with locusts. Until locust population reaches a certain density, they all act like any grasshoppers. When the critical point is reached, they turn savage and swarm, and try to eat the world. We’re nearing a critical point. One day soon two strangers will bump into each other at high noon in the middle of New York. But this time they won’t snarl and go on. They will stop and stare and then leap at each others’ throats in dreadful silence. The infection will spread outward from that point….”

P. 29 (Not McGee): “‘It’s very old money, and quite a bit of money. There are real estate holdings to manage, and quite a complex structure of holding companies, trusts, foundations, corporate investment entities, and several very active portfolios, of course. Charles McKewn Armister, the Fourth, as head of the present family, takes an active interest.’”

P. 177 (McGee) “I saw the paper where I had dropped it, just inside the door. I went over and got it and took it back to the bed. While I had been in the blurry world of induced dreams and visions, the other world had trudged its way along to another November Tuesday. Education bill returned to committee. Three injured in Birmingham bomb attack. Actress beats narcotics rap. Seven dead in Freeway collision. Park lands sold to campaign contributor. Truck strike in eighth week. Thirty-nine dead in jet crash. Model claims fractured jaw in divorce action. Disarmament talks stalled. Teacher accused of teen slayings. Earthquake in Peru. Launching failure. Tax cut stymied…

“…I was back in the sane, reasonable, plausible world.”

P. 195 (McGee): “Terry said, ‘I’ll be out the day after tomorrow to stay a few days, Charlie.’ She stepped to him to kiss him on the cheek. He chuckled, and before she could evade him, put his hands on her breasts and gave them a simultaneous squeeze like a clown honking a pair of rubber horns and, still chuckling, went out through the door Wad was holding for him.”

In a world that looks very much like the one we’re still living in–one that can be redeemed only by heroes dreamed up in books (which is to say one that can’t)–the story ends with Charles McKewn Armister, the Fourth, who has been missing in plain sight throughout, now safely back in the arms of his family and shorn of impulse control. These days, you could probably find him in control of the War on Terror, handed off as a vital, irreplaceable asset from one administration to the next, inoculated from any potentially unsettling results of those annoying elections that are held every so often.

Yes, there’s another of those dreamy, implausibly therapeutic romantic subplots MacDonald found it hard to live without in the McGee series (and to which the series probably owed a great deal of its commercial success), and it’s even more distracting than usual.

But it was surely plain that he was onto something.

A Purple Place For Dying (John D. MacDonald–1964)

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Busy man. He published four McGee novels in 1964 alone (this was the third) and it wouldn’t surprise me if he churned out one or two more on the side. The pace was starting to tell a little here. It’s more pure adventure, less socio-political dissection. Still, he always had his eye for character to fall back on:

“I could imagine her plodding around NYU in black stocking and short tweed skirts, arguing with a coffeehouse passion about abstract concepts, trying the painter loft sex and finding it overrated, trying the knock on the mescaline and finding it made her sick instead of exalted, signing up to picket this and that, sitting for hours of observation in the U.N., wearing barbaric jewelry designed by no-talent friends, painting stage sets for amateur productions–all in an intense, humorless, intellectual child, full of heavy dedications and looking for some shelf to put them on.”

And, a bit later (same character):

“Isobel, dear, you shouldn’t try to swear. You don’t do it well. You make me think of a little girl in her Sunday frock, trying to throw mud balls.”

Gee, I think she’s an assistant under-Secretary of State now, tasked with petting tigers. Good eye McGee. I had hopes you wouldn’t steal off down to the Keys with her after your Texas-sized adventure where you could have great sex and get her all straightened out into a proper woman who could stop assuming all men are rapists.

Alas, my hopes were dashed. Even as the sixties got under full steam and MacDonald the keen social critic started to see the future plainly outlined in the present, MacDonald the romancer was still blind in one eye.

Not to mention selling like hot cakes.

Still, when he stuck to the other stuff, he could write tomorrow’s headlines with the best, like here, as McGee has the ways and means of high-stakes finance explained to him by a good ol’ boy who’s actually quite likeable for being a rapist and a swindler:

P. 143 (Not McGee): “’It could sting a little. It could cost me. I got me a great big packing case full of old records. I’ll drag it out long as I can, then when it gets real tight, I’ll all of a sudden find those records. A lot of them are correct and a lot of them are part correct and a lot of them have got nothing to do with anything that ever happened. By the time that stuff gets all hashed out they’ll start dickering toward a settlement. If I don’t like it, I just could find two more crates full of old records in a warehouse someplace. I can keep ten CPA’s and ten lawyers going for a long time. Maybe as long as I live. And then who gives a damn?’”

That’s straight from the Texas that was breeding Bushes in 1964, getting ready to crash world economies. But, lest anyone get all warm and fuzzy, it could have (albeit looking a little more like servile placeholder shadow-sleaze and a little less like business as usual among those really running the place) just as easily have come from the Arkansas that turned up the Clintons or the Chicago that turned up the Obamas.

Not to mention the wherever that’s now busy turning up whoever’s coming next.

Wow.

Can’t wait to see what a good mood next month’s gonna put me in!

Til then…

FOUND IN THE CONNECTION (Rattling Loose End #10…Here They Go Again Getting Confused About Elvis)

“Choosing to do an episode on the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination is a major undertaking. I’ve generally never had much regard for the idea that there should be more black people on Mad Men. But after last night’s episode, I’m very interested in what the show’s writing team looks like. I just didn’t really believe the non-hug between Dawn and Joan. It felt like didactic signaling. I also didn’t believe the widespread sympathy for King and his aims among virtually every white face. It was almost as if King was Elvis Presley, not a man who died fighting for the rights of poor black people and opposing the Vietnam War.”

(Source: Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic Monthly On-Line, April, 2013. Full post here.)

I want to be careful how I respond to this because TNC is a writer I respect, one whose blog is mostly dedicated to the very tricky and difficult proposition of discussing race in America, which he does exceeding well most of the time. In other words, unlike most of the mainstream commenters I take to task on occasion, he is not a maroon.

And, adding to that, I haven’t seen the episode of Mad Men he’s commenting on (nor indeed any other episode of the show, though I have a broad idea of what it’s “about”).

But if I read him right, he’s basically saying that Elvis Presley’s death had the same sort of universal effect in White America that Martin Luther King’s death had in Black America. Or, put another way, that there was “widespread sympathy” for dead Elvis “among virtually every white face.”

Not sure what evidence is behind this presumption, unless it’s the general notion that essentially all white people love Elvis (or always have, or did at the time of his death, etc., etc., etc.).

If I’m reading this right then–and I really can’t find any other way to read it–Coates is falling prey to the same dangers of generalization he generally (and correctly) warns against regarding White America’s assumptions about Black America (i.e, that those generalizations are usually both simple-minded and wrong).

Rest assured, there was/is a broad range of opinion about Elvis Presley even in the working class south that formed the core of his most faithful audience. And rest assured that range of opinion, especially among very mainstream intellectuals, very much includes a degree of outright contempt that can only be found for King among the hardcore racist right. That contempt–unique for an artist of Presley’s stature in its breadth, depth and persistency–is one of the things I routinely concern myself with on this blog.

But Coates’ comparison is shaky at best for more reasons that that.

Frankly, the part of White America that did not mourn King–inside or outside of what I take to be the Mad Men zone–was also the part that was least likely to mourn Elvis.

And the part that mourned (and still mourns) Elvis was/is the most likely to have mourned (and to still mourn) King as well.

So it’s unfortunate, though not surprising, to find even someone as generally thoughtful as TNC reaching for the always cheap and easy Elvis Card in the usual, devoid-of-fact-or-context manner (which, among the intelligentsia at least, now runs straight across political, racial and generational lines like virtually nothing left in American life) and deploying it in precisely the same way as those who populate the “Stupid Stuff People Say About Elvis” category.

[For my take on what we’ve chosen to forget about Presley’s actual impact on race and culture in the fifties, you can go here. For a take on a major professional risk Presley took in the wake of King’s assassination, you can go here.]