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.

WHY I NEED ROCK AND ROLL (Session #4)

First two songs that feed each other:

The O’Jays “Love Train” (Television Performance)

The O’Jays “Backstabbers” (Television Performance)

Then on to things that feed only themselves:

I have to confess that what is now called “serious” television tends to leave me cold. I’ve taken various, multiple shots at letting The Sopranos and The Wire and Deadwood and Breaking Bad, among others, into my brain and basically come up with some version of “life’s too short” after half an hour or so each and every time.

The one show of this high-falutin’ sort that I have occasionally managed to sit through entire episodes of is Justified. No idea why. I’m not a hater–like I said, life’s too short–so I only have three basic, if rather wide-ranging, reactions to any sort of art and those are basically as follows:

“This is great!”

“This is fun.”

“Meh.”

Somehow, Justified, like a lot of things Elmore Leonard has been involved in since he left westerns (where he was sometimes great and nearly always fun–or at least unpretentious), occasionally nudges over the line from the upper reaches of “meh” to the lowest level of “fun.” And Justified manages to do that even though its white trash chic (an approach that usually has my one and only deeply felt, bound-to-take-it-somewhat-personally version of “meh” encoded in its DNA–ask anybody who has ever lived among “white trash” and we/they will tell you “yeah I/we know somebody like that,” all the while wondering–like every other tramped-on “out” group–why it’s only the fools the rest of ya’ll are interested in).

So once in a while when I’m clicking around and nothing else is on I find myself watching all or part of an episode and this week the one I stopped on featured one of those “hey, let’s play a cool tune everybody knows as the soundtrack for some gruesome violence” scenes. In this case it involved the O’Jays’ “Love Train” playing behind a scenario where an assassin was trying to beat some information out of a dopey-looking deputy sheriff who was (surprise, surprise!) tougher than he looked and (shock and awe!) somehow managed to get hold of a weapon and slay his deadly tormentor.

To be fair, at this stage of civilization’s devolution it’s pretty hard to write scenes the world hasn’t seen a hundred times before and this one was done about as well as a complete non-surprise can be. But it was the choice of music that woke me up enough to start me thinking.

I have no idea what thought process went into having “Love Train” play behind the scene and I honestly didn’t even catch whether the music was actually being experienced by the characters (on the radio perhaps) or was being used as background “scoring.”

Perhaps it was meant ironically. Watch the meanie beat the tough little deputy’s teeth in while “People all over the world, join hands” sings along. That sort of thing.

Or possibly it just fit the rhythm of the beat down.

Or maybe it was just catch-as-catch-can on somebody’s Ipod and seemed like it would get the job done.

Who knows?

I certainly don’t. But I found myself caring a little bit because the song took me out of the scene. And if I had to explain why, I’d probably say it was because every other scenario in which I’ve ever been likely to hear the song–on the radio in some free-form oldies’ or R&B format where America always seems like a very big place indeed; on the O’Jay’s own great Backstabbers LP; on the various AM Gold or Gamble and Huff comps that are scattered through my record collection–is part of a bigger, better, living, breathing, world than the one Justified’s creators keep trying to convince me they have a real handle on.

I made it through the rest of the episode, but the game was up. Either deliberately or otherwise (one problem with the nihilism-is-the-coolest-thing-going game is that you never can tell what’s deliberate–even the creators themselves aren’t that far inside) the show’s decision makers had made the mistake of pointing up their own phoniness.

I’m not saying I won’t watch Justified again. If it gets late enough and my brain has been reduced to crawling I’m sure there will be some night or other when it’s still the best thing on. It ain’t that hard to beat Erotic Shop commercials and CNN.

But there had been moments previously when the night-crawler part of my brain thought it might actually turn into real fun.

To quote another vintage prophet who had to compete with folks like Gamble and Huff on the radio back in the day and therefore didn’t have the option of wallowing in his own occasional tendency to make music that could be played without irony during a teeth-kicking if he wanted to keep up:

“Won’t get fooled again.”