Posts Tagged ‘The Americans’

Emmys 2017 Predictions: Who Will Win, Who Should Win

September 11, 2017

Best Actor in a Drama
Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us
Anthony Hopkins, Westworld
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul
Matthew Rhys, The Americans
Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards
Milo Ventimiglia, This Is Us

WILL WIN: Here’s a Drama category in which the absence of Game of Thrones actually doesn’t wreak havoc, since HBO nominates everyone from Peter Dinklage to Kit Harington in the Best Supporting Actor slot. Plus, last year’s winner – Mr. Robot‘s Rami Malek – isn’t even nominated this year, so the field is wide open. Our guess is that the mass appeal of This Is Us gives the excellent Sterling K. Brown an edge over the star power of Anthony Hopkins on Westworld, whose show has plenty of other opportunities to take home trophies.

SHOULD WIN: Matthew Rhys and Bob Odenkirk are both plumbing such depths of unhappiness on The Americans and Better Call Saul that their performances should come with an antidepressant prescription; we’d give either of them the gold, particularly over such “well, we’ve got to nominate these guys again, I guess” choices as Schreiber and Spacey. Let’s go with Odenkirk, thanks to his material’s higher degree of difficulty this year.

ROBBED: Rami Malek won the Emmy in 2016 for his indispensable work on Mr. Robot; this year he wasn’t even nominated. The yeoman’s work that Justin Theroux has done on The Leftovers for years deserved recognition. And while we realize the networks decide which actor is submitted for which character, it’s nutty that Jeffrey Wright got tapped for Westworld‘s Best Supporting Actor and Sir Anthony got Best Actor, rather than the other way around. But tops on the list is Michael McKean on Better Call Saul, delivering a performance of such profound misery that you’ll forget Spinal Tap and Laverne & Shirley within minutes.

The tradition continues: I took a stab at predicting the outcome of all the major categories at this coming Sunday’s Emmy Awards for Rolling Stone. I have no truck with awards shows as barometers of quality, but they can be a lot of fun to analyze like a sport.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Thirteen: “The Soviet Division”

May 31, 2017

SPOILER ALERT

“The Soviet Division,” as the finale is called, ends with Elizabeth insisting that they can’t return to the Soviet Union as planned. Philip’s intel about Kimmy’s father, who’s slated to take over the titular branch of the CIA, is too valuable for them to retire now. Philip himself seemed to realize this when he brought it to Elizabeth in the first place, instead of simply discarding the recording that revealed it as was his original instinct. People will see this as an enormous anticlimax, and they may even be right—I certainly double-checked the time stamp on the episode just to make sure this really was the end of the season. But never believe this season of The Americans had nothing to say. It may have been more discursive and elliptical than previous efforts, likely a result of its first-ever guaranteed subsequent season. But what a menacing statement it makes about how much we rely on our family, and how willing we are to distort and destroy it to get what we need and want.

I reviewed the unusual season finale of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Twelve: “The World Council of Churches”

May 26, 2017

Elizabeth Jennings can quit anytime she wants. No, really, she means it this time. She’s had enough of the lying and fucking and killing, nevermind that the last bit wouldn’t even have happened had she not voluntarily stepped in and pulled the trigger last time around. She’s ready to quit the spy game go home, honest. Any day now. Until then, though, there’s appearances that have to be maintained. She’s got to fish her daughter Paige’s discarded crucifix out of the trash and give it back to her—not because she worries the kid is rejecting something important to her just to please her atheist parents, but because her Christian mentor Pastor Tim hasn’t quite been shipped out of the country by their paymasters yet and until that happens the lie must be maintained. She’s not a spy. She’s an addict.

I reviewed this week’s tense penultimate episode of The Americans Season Five for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Eleven: “Dyatkovo”

May 17, 2017

I marvel at Irina Dubova, the actor who plays the ill-fated “Natalie Granholm,” whose sad fate occupies the final reel of the episode and whose hometown, “Dyatkovo” gives it its name. The weight placed on this guest player’s shoulders, to bear the brunt of the hatred and horror and violence that has been brewing for episode after episode all season long. The need to lie convincingly, and then lie unconvincingly, and then tell the truth unconvincingly, and then tell the truth so convincingly it tears your goddamn guts out. “Natalie” was once someone else entirely—a teenage girl whose family was murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, the roving killing squads responsible for conducting the Nazi Holocaust on the move throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. She was gang-pressed into working for them afterwards, you see. And worse than accepting her punishment from Elizabeth and Philip, tasked by the Centre with executing her for the crime, is the idea of this happening in front of her American husband. “Please don’t hurt him,” she says. “Please, he doesn’t know,” she says. “He thinks…I’m wonderful,” she says. Christ.

“There was no reason,” she says of her survival among the Nazis, when her husband has returned home and finds himself at the mercy of the Jennings alongside her “Nothing made any sense. They give me food. I was obedient, helpless.” Quite suddenly and quite unexpectedly, I found myself crying over this woman, along with this woman, a minor character we’ve never seen before tonight and, as was becoming increasingly apparent, would never see again. “The first time,” she continued, “they gave me so much to drink I could barely stand up.” Thinking that I knew where this was headed, I started crying harder. “The first time…?” one of the Jennings asks—at this point my notes begin breaking down too—and Natalie-not-Natalie replies “…that they shot them,” and my understanding of the horror reverses course yes, but it deepens as well, as does my sobbing. That the Nazis assaulted her, violated her person, seems drearily likely. But they forced her into complicity with their violation of others, too—countless others, vast unmarked graves full of others. This is what she decides to tell her husband and her killers about in her last minutes on earth—what she did, or was forced to do, to others, not what others did to her.

I reviewed this week’s devastating episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Ten: “Darkroom”

May 10, 2017

“The badly knitted flank might not have caused an accident in and of itself, but further weakened by the frailty of the competitors it set a scene for death on an unprecedented scale.”

—Clive Barker, “In the Hills, the Cities”

I reviewed this week’s episode of The Americans, in part by leading with a quote from Clive Barker, because I can, for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Nine: “IHOP”

May 4, 2017

The Americans is no stranger to boredom. Boredom is the flipside of the danger and glamour that are Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ nominal stock in trade. It’s the constant travel to decidedly un-exotic destinations like Topeka and Harrisburg, the endless surveillance and reconnaissance details, the dull dinner dates with uninteresting people they only pretend to like, the logistics and mechanics of spycraft which are so often no more thrilling than what an HVAC technician might do. But “IHOP,” this week’s episode, pushed the tedium envelope farther than ever. It showed Philip and Elizabeth doing jobs—listening to untold hours of recorded office chatter on the one hand, sitting around watching late night television while waiting for their teen-spy “son” Tuan to return home on the other—that are boring not just by their standards, but by ours. If you’ve ever sat in on a lengthy conference-call meeting or killed time until a delivery guy showed up, you know their pain. Almost, anyway. You never had to worry that you might need to kill someone at the end of it all.

Watching this episode, I was struck by just how exhausted everyone looks and sounds. Some of the characters are quite vocal about it, in fact; the language of enduring, or failing to endure, is everywhere. In a well-intentioned but poorly received attempt to check up on an asset who gave everything for the cause, wittingly or not, Gabriel tells Martha (Alison Wright, returning for a second welcome cameo this season) that he retired because he was just “done.” The late Frank Gaad’s widow tells Stan Beeman, making a parallel visit, that everything’s been so quiet since her husband’s funeral. We finally get to see the CIA bigshot father of Kimmy (Julia Garner, another face it’s good to see again), and he looks like a fatigued middle manager rather than the heroic hard-charger Kimmy and Philip’s conversations had conjured. The priest-slash-spy who reports to Philip in Gabriel’s absence suggests that he pray: “It is a great solace,” he says, “especially when you live this kind of life.” In a particularly unpleasant heart-to-heart, Oleg’s father bitterly describes decades of life with his mother, a changed woman after her experiences in a prison camp, as a sort of jail sentence itself. Tuan schleps all the way to Pennsylvania to surreptitiously call his former adoptive family back in Seattle, whose six-year-old son is suffering from leukemia. Philip half-suspects Tuan wanted to be caught doing this in order to get sent home, “pulled out of this shit, start over.” “It’s not who he is,” Elizabeth says, disagreeing. You have to wonder who she’s trying to kid.

I reviewed this week’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Eight: “Immersion”

April 27, 2017

Watching and reviewing Better Call Saul and The Americans on consecutive nights for weeks at a time has made me realize something: I want a television of and about and for the Soft-Spoken Man. I want Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Frank Langella, and Brandon J. Dirden to record ASMR YouTube videos for me. I love those Quiet Boys, man. Love ‘em!

“Immersion,” this week’s episode of The Americans, has plenty to love on that score, made easier to notice since the plot’s in a bit of a holding pattern. Langella, granted, is gone, with his character Gabriel returning to the motherland and his peer (and one-time flame) Claudia stepping back into his shoes as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ handler.

But Emmerich and Dirden work wonders in a storyline that’s been kept at such a low simmer you’d have to check to make sure the stove was even lit. Their FBI agents Stan Beeman and Dennis Aderholt are continuing to work their extremely jittery, extremely sweet-natured potential informant among the Soviet delegation in D.C., walking her up and down a museum’s lengthy rectangular gallery while getting an earful of her hopes and dreams (she just wants her son to be able to go to college and to pay for a nice house for the two of them to live in; she loves eating pizza and will earnestly do her best to convince her coworkers that’s all she’s been spending her lunch break doing). Stan and Dennis have such a curious chemistry as partners—a good cop/good cop rapport that feels sort of like if, I dunno, Hal Linden and Alan Alda were the stars of Miami Vice. They care about their work, care about each other, care about people. This makes them almost singularly unsuited to their task, but what are you gonna do? They end their storyline for the night by planning to scoop their informant off the street before she’s even started to inform—that’s how sensitive they are to her nervousness, and how worried they are it’s justified.

Don’t believe the anti-prestige-TV hype part 2: I reviewed this week’s fine episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Seven: “The Committee on Human Rights”

April 20, 2017

The Americans is a great show for faces. Most great TV dramas are, of course—to name two currently running examples, if you can think of Better Call Saul without mentally counting the crags in every Jonathan Banks closeup or talk about The Leftovers without describing the way Carrie Coon choreographs her eyes and lips and brow in a complex dance of grief, just go ahead and delete those shows from your watchlist. But those shows’ warm and expressionistic lighting transforms those faces into works of art. The Americans is all about the gray-white light of a suburban afternoon or the harsh fluorescents of official spaces. Faces here look raw, inseparable from the physical reality of the human beings beneath them. When Paige Jennings tears up in “The Committee on Human Rights,” this week’s episode, because she’s dumping her boyfriend, it’s an action she doesn’t really know how to do, over reasons she doesn’t really know how to explain to herself much less to him. In those moments, her baffled but resolute face is recognizable to anyone who’s shared that terrible into-the-void pain. When Matthew Beeman stares at her, eyes growing dull with confusion and shock as he offers to do basically whatever she wants to keep the relationship going, you recognize that too. When Stan Beeman’s face lights up because his friend’s life has been spared and his boss has unexpectedly gone to bat for him, you really do see a guy who just got good news at work. Does this make sense? There’s something unadorned about The Americans’ faces, is what I’m getting at. They’re not staged for us. They feel more like something we’re peering through a window to see.

Which brings me to my favorite face of all. Matthew Rhys is such a pleasure to watch in this thing. Counterintuitive, I know, given that his job requires him to look constantly miserable. (It’s what made his cameo as a sleazy hotshot novelist during the final season of Girls such a perverse thrill: Finally, we get to see him enjoy doing terrible things instead of moping about them!) But within that range of facial expressions that stretches from exhausted to nauseated he’s able to locate so many variations and nuances. Other actors are a 12/3/6/9 wall clock with an hour hand and a minute hand; he’s able to pinpoint fleeting emotional beats to the millisecond.

I reviewed this week’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. Writing this review helped me push past some internal obstacles to my work lately, and I think it shows.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Six: “Crossbreed”

April 13, 2017

It’s weird to spend this much time concerned about Philip, in a way. Even though he’s long been the conscience of the couple—the show began with him trying to persuade Elizabeth to defect, remember?—he’s spent most of the past few seasons worried about others: his duped “wife” Martha, for example, and his daughter Paige most especially. But Paige has worries all her own. I’m still wrestling with that odd scene where she and her mother talk to a Mary Kay sales rep at the front door. Paige seems delighted, but Elizabeth is disgusted, and even if the Mary Kay lady is too seasoned a pro to acknowledge it, that disgust shows. “You weren’t very nice to her,” Paige tells her mom afterward, perplexed. “Well, we weren’t gonna buy anything,” Elizabeth says. “Being nice would just be a waste of her time.” Indictment of how capitalism commodifies time and human relationships and objectifies human beings? Yes, as Paige’s late-night readings of Marx would help her understand. Indictment of her own mother’s instrumentalization of other people based on whether or not they suit the needs of the moment? Also yes, as Elizabeth’s instruction to hide Capital among other books so as not to arouse suspicion from outside observers would help Paige understand in turn. There’s something awfully ugly about that scene, short and subdued and murder-free though it may be.

I reviewed this week’s quietly disturbing episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Five: “Lotus 1-2-3”

April 5, 2017

“I’d like to lay a little bet / That you don’t even know the meaning of regret / And if I’m even just a tiny bit correct / I doubt that you would ever think to pay your debt / I’m suspicious / Suspicious of you.”—Psychic TV, “Suspicious”

“Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.”—Nirvana, “Territorial Pissings”

“It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”—Joseph Fouché, frequently misattributed to Talleyrand

“Lotus 1-2-3,” this week’s episode of The Americans, had me reaching for my mental quote book. (Not many physical ones contain Psychic TV.) It’s hard to narrow down which of the above phrases best encapsulates what went on here, so we’ll take them one by one.

We’ll start with the last, though it’s a quote I’ve always hated. No, actually, a mistake is not worse than a crime. A crime is bad enough in and of itself. This is the sort of blustery self-justifying bullshit that enables bad actors in political conflicts across the centuries to push morality to the side as, if not entirely irrelevant, then at least incidental to the allegedly more important practical considerations. You’ll recognize this mentality from the 2016 presidential debates, perhaps, when Donald Trump responded to a question from a Muslim member of the audience with his usual senile-dementia neofascism about evil Islamic fundamentalists, only for Hillary Clinton, the supposed avatar of American progressivism, to say that no, actually, we need to be good to Muslims…so that they’ll serve as our eyes and ears among the aforementioned evil Islamic fundamentalists. The idea that fomenting Islamophobia is itself evil, that it’s bad in and of itself, that it’s morally wrong and therefore curtailing it requires no practical justification, was nowhere to be found.

This week Philip Jennings shoots this whole way of thinking down with a sardonic facial expression and a flatly incredulous sentence. It turns out that their investigation into American attempts to destroy Soviet crops was completely off-base, and that the virulent strain of midges they’d discovered is being used to make wheat more resistant to pests. This means that the lab tech whose spine he snapped in Kansas for the crime of looking the other way had really done nothing wrong at all. “That guy in the lab,” Philip says to Elizabeth, as they sit wearing the clothes and wigs of fake people in a fake house. “That can’t happen ever again.” “We’ll be more careful,” Elizabeth reassures him. “ ‘More careful’?” he repeats, the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice making his concern and contempt clear. To Philip, who says he’s been having problems with the wetwork they’re required to do for a long time, “careful” doesn’t enter into it. The problem wasn’t that they were sloppy, it’s that they murdered an innocent man. It was worse than a mistake, it was a crime.

Gonna hazard a guess that my review of last night’s fine The Americans for the New York Observer is the only one out there that quotes Psychic TV.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Four: “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”

March 29, 2017

I’m concerned about Renee. You know, Renee—Stan Beeman’s beautiful blonde gym buddy and new girlfriend, played by ex-Walking Dead lead Laurie Holden? The woman whose magnetism ate up a ton of Stan’s screentime through his descriptions of her to his buddy Philip Jennings and his partner Agent Aderholt alone, even before she made her on-screen debut? The woman who, during a double date with Stan and the Jennings, provides the kind of highly detailed backstory that we’ve learned from experience with our Soviet spies in this very episode (“What’s the Matter with Kansas?”) is just the sort of bubbe-meise secret agents concoct for their false identities? The woman who elicits weirdly stiff smiles from Philip and Elizabeth, implying that they sense something is off, but without the show ever confirming that implication by having the Jennings say something like “Wow, that was weird, wasn’t it?” during the car ride home or whatever? Yeah, that Renee. The beautiful thing about all this is that it all works no matter what pans out. Maybe we’re right to be suspicious and this person is up to no good—KGB, CIA, or some other alphabet agency seeking to compromise one of the FBI’s best and brightest. Or maybe our years-long immersion into the lives and lies of Philip, Elizabeth, Stan, Oleg et al have us jumping at shadows. Either way, you couldn’t ask for a finer demonstration of The Americans’ power to generate paranoia.

I reviewed this week’s oddly worrying episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Three: “The Midges”

March 24, 2017

“Why are we looking at this for so long? Ohhh, that’s why.” The Americans loves to set us up like this, drawing out scenes and storylines for as long as it can before pulling the trigger on our understanding of what the show is doing and why the show is doing it. “The Midges,” this week’s episode, features what’s bound to be one of the most talked-about examples of the technique yet. As KGB agent and reluctant CIA asset Oleg Burov exits the Soviet supermarket he’s investigating for corruption, the camera follows him through the aisles for a while but eventually allows him to exit the store alone. While he leaves, it stays behind, watching the shoppers browse the sparse shelves. Most prominent in the frame is a woman in a headscarf, one of many in the store. But the shot lasts too long for her to be just another extra. Is she a spy sent by the US or the USSR to keep tabs on Oleg? Is she about to do something unusual or unpleasant, or is something unusual or unpleasant about to be done to her? Wait—is she…familiar looking? Her face turns toward the camera just as the scene’s focus on her becomes impossible to ignore. Behold: Martha, Philip’s wife and asset and victim, going about her new life in the country that took away her old one. “Is it hard, pretending to be other people?” Paige asks her parents elsewhere in the episode. Philip tells her yes, it is. Martha could no doubt do the same.

I reviewed this week’s typically strong episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Two: “Pests”

March 15, 2017

When Philip and Elizabeth Jennings take a trip to the local Bennigan’s for a family dinner, they don’t come alone. Yes, they bring their fake adopted son, secretly a Vietnamese spy, and the family of their target, a Soviet defector who claims to be working for the Department of Agriculture but seems to be part of a bioweapons program. But they, or more accurately the filmmakers behind their show The Americans, also bring a lingering shot of the bustling salad bar…accompanied by the sound of people coughing and sneezing. You can’t see the culprits, but they’re there, somewhere, and their bodies are coating the food with filth.

I reviewed this week’s paranoiac episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. By the way, I have a crazy theory about where it’s all headed: Paige kills Stan.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode One: “Amber Waves”

March 9, 2017

The Americans likes to let it linger. Ever since the show hit its stride toward the end of its second season—before then it was a perfectly fine spy thriller with sexy leads and a killer soundtrack rather than the prolonged moral autopsy of patriotism it became—it has specialized in letting both storylines and individual scenes simmer, or perhaps fester, for longer than most would dare. On a macro level, the revelation of undercover KGB agent Philip Jennings’s true identity to his duped “wife” Martha and her reaction to it spooled out over the better part of two seasons. Last year, his real wife Elizabeth maintained a friendship with her charming South Korean immigrant target Young Hee for episode after episode before the series revealed her intentions. And on a micro level, the show has specialized in rubbing its viewers’ faces in the horrifying nature of the Jennings’ trade for minutes on end. Think of Philip shattering the bones in the nude corpse of his informant and lover so that he and her killer could stuff her body in a suitcase. Think of Elizabeth having a heart to heart with the kindly older woman who ran a repair shop she’d infiltrated, both of them knowing all the while that death was on the way. Think of the necklacing of the apartheid-era South African enemy agent they helped capture, of how he screamed and sizzled during his seemingly endless immolation.

“Amber Waves,” The Americans’ fifth season premiere, closes with another case in point.

I reviewed the season premiere of The Americans for the New York Observer, where I’ll be covering it all season. Let’s just say that contra some other takes you might have read, it doesn’t make me pine for the so-called simpler times of the Cold War.

The 10 Best Musical TV Moments of 2016

December 20, 2016

Vinyl: “Wild Safari” by Barrabás
“Think back to the first time you heard a song that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” Richie Finestra bellows at his record-label employees. “Made you want to dance, or fuck, or go out and kick somebody’s ass! That’s what I want!” Vinyl showrunner Terence Winter had similar goals, but virtually none of the musical elements of his period drama clicked. This despite the imprimatur of co-creators Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, who know a thing or two about making magic with music, and supervisors Randall Poster and Meghan Currier, whose previous collaborations with Winter and Scorsese on Boardwalk Empire and The Wolf of Wall Street were all killer, no filler.

There was one grand and glorious exception, and it had nothing to do with Jagger swagger. Rather, it was the result of an unlikely alliance between demoted A&R doofus Clark Morelle (Jack Quaid) and his mail-room buddy Jorge (Christian Navarro). When the latter takes Clark to an underground dance club, they enter in slow motion to the ecstatic sounds of the 1972 proto-disco song “Wild Safari” by Barrabás. The killer clothes, the fabulous dancing, the beatific smiles on the faces of beautiful people, the irresistible rhythm, the rapturous “WHOA-OH-OH” of the chorus, the sense that an entire world of incredible music has existed right under his nose — you can feel it all hit Clark right in the serotonin receptors, and damn if it doesn’t hit you, too. Perhaps my favorite two minutes of TV this year, this sequence demonstrates the life-affirming power and pleasure of music.

I wrote about major musical moments in The Americans, Atlanta, Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones, Halt and Catch Fire, Horace and Pete, Luke Cage, Mr. Robot, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and (yes) Vinyl in my list of 2016′s 10 Best Musical TV Moments for Vulture.

“Westworld,” and When TV Uses Pop Music to Do Its Emotional Heavy Lifting

November 7, 2016

Maeve’s walk through the Westworld theme park’s behind-the-scenes house of horrors is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. It’s the instant in which one of Westworld’s unfortunate, unwitting robots receives undeniable, unforgettable confirmation that their life is a lie. It’s a crushing concept all on its own, and the guided-tour-of-hell structure of the scene adds to the pathos. By rights it should stand alone as one of the series’ most powerful moments.

And yet, Westworld’s treatment of it falls flat. Like park technicians fiddling with a host’s intelligence or empathy on their control panels, the show’s filmmakers artificially increase the sequence’s tear-jerking levels by soundtracking it with a chamber-music version of the closing track on one of the most acclaimed albums of all time: “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” the achingly sad conclusion of Radiohead’s electronic-music breakthrough Kid A. It’s not the first time the hyperactively overscored series has relied on the band, having previously gone to the Radiohead well with their suburban-ennui anthem “No Surprises.” Hell, it’s not the first time it did so in this episode, which opens with a similarly heavy-handed accompaniment by a player-piano version of the band’s ode to falseness, “Fake Plastic Trees.” But it is the show’s most egregious example yet of using a song with preexisting cultural clout to do its emotional work — a syndrome we’re seeing, or hearing, with increasing frequency as Peak TV prestige dramas attempt to cut through the clutter and grab viewers, or listeners, by the heartstrings.

Rather than let the power of the scene emerge on its own, Westworld leans on a preexisting work of art to doing the heavy lifting for it. It’s a cheat, a shortcut to resonance. That particular work of art has far more cultural purchase, impact, and history than a first-season TV show. Even if you don’t rate Radiohead, substitute the gut-wrenching classic-album closer of your choice — “Purple Rain” or “Little Earthquakes” or, to cite an artist Westworld’s already employed to dubious effect in that over-the-top orgy scene last week, “Hurt”— and you’ll get the point.

Over at Vulture, I went long on how shows like Westworld, Stranger Things, and even The Americans have used preexisting pop music as a cheat code to score emotional points they haven’t earned. I also talked about shows that have done pop music cues right, from The Sopranos and The Wire to Lost to Halt and Catch Fire and The People v. O.J. Simpson. It’s basically a prose version of what Chris Ott and I talked about on his Shallow Rewards podcast a few weeks ago. I quite liked writing this piece and I hope you enjoy it.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode 13: “Persona Non Grata”

June 9, 2016

There’s a hole in the Jennings home. Literally: a big black circular void right up near the roof, presumably a window into their unlighted attic. You can see it plain as day in the center of the final shot of The Americans’ extraordinary fourth season, as Philip leads his recalcitrant daughter Paige back into their house’s cloying confines after catching her immediately post-makeout with the son of his FBI-agent neighbor Stan Beeman. “Don’t do this, Paige,” he barks at her of the potential teenage tryst. “You have no idea. No idea.” Meanwhile the black hole in the house looms like a gigantic zero, or an entry wound — an absence of visual information, in a show structured around the deliberate obfuscation of information, around hiding, lying, covering up, and ultimately killing to keep the truth from exposure. As season finales go, “Persona Non Grata” was not of the explosive variety, and nor was its Season Three predecessor; The Americans is not, or is no longer, that kind of show. Rather, it’s a story about the holes in things, including stories themselves. You never know what might leak out, or fall in.

I reviewed the season finale of The Americans for the New York Observer. An absolute marvel of restraint. While I’m skeptical of the notion that the New Golden Age of TV Drama is over — there’s still a shitload of great TV out there — I do view The Americans as part of a quartet of shows, along with The Affair, The Leftovers, and Halt and Catch Fire, that have a quieter, more intimate tone. If you like one, I see little reason you won’t like the others.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode 12: “A Roy Rogers in Franconia”

June 5, 2016

Paige Jennings may be broken, but she doesn’t break. After watching her mother Elizabeth stab an assailant to death and leave him for dead in a parking lot on last week’s episode of The Americans, the girl says she feels sick, but she doesn’t get sick. She asks her mother if she had to kill the man, and accepts that her answer is yes. Even when Elizabeth admits that she’s killed more people than she can remember — in self-defense, of course — her pacifist daughter simply asks if she was scared, not “how could you do that” or “how do you live with yourself.” Her primary concern appears to be that the dangerous nature of her parents’ work was kept from her, not that it’s dangerous, primarily to others, in the first place. The day after witnessing her first kill, she has her first kiss, barely breaking stride from the normal course of adolescent life; she keeps this a secret from her parents, but duly reports the latest batch of information gleaned from her new beau Matthew Beeman about the goings-on at the office of his FBI agent father Stan, and is taken aback when her folks discourage her from further fact-finding despite having pushed her in that direction with Pastor Tim and Alice. A lifetime of being lied to, and a year of being made complicit in the lie, has prepped Paige to contextualize her mother’s murder of a man not as a catastrophic breach of safety and morality, but a rung on a ladder leading her closer to the secret truth.

I reviewed this week’s The Americans, which recovered flawlessly from last week’s uncharacteristic stumble of a climax, for the New York Observer.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode 11: “Dinner for Seven”

May 26, 2016

Professional wrestling jargon is a gift to the thinking student of politics and pop culture. How could I understand Kanye West’s post-808s and Heartbreak career without the concept of the heel turn? How to comprehend the mutually beneficial feud between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Republican news network anchor Megyn Kelly withoutkayfabe? And how to get a handle on “Dinner for Seven,” the antepenultimate episode of The Americans’ fourth season, without attempting to answer the question: In the aftermath of her betrayal of Don and Young-Hee, is Elizabeth’s warming-up to Pastor Tim a work or a shoot?

I reviewed last night’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. I’m unsure about the ending, but there was much else to recommend it.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode 10: “Munchkins”

May 19, 2016

Every week, The Americans plunges its cold hands into my chest and squeezes my lungs a little tighter. For such a quiet show, the tension each new episode generates is simply remarkable; the tone, rhythm, and volume level may be totally different, but the series’ suspense is currently on par with the likes of Breaking Bad Season Four, and it’s closing in on the equally self-assured menace of late-season Sopranos to boot. All this from asking the same simple questions over and over, with absolute unblinking clarity: How long can Philip and Elizabeth Jennings get away with doing this, and how many people will they do it to along the way?

I reviewed the latest installment in The Americans’ historically strong run of episodes for the New York Observer.