Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Should the ACE Be Restored?



We have the new Emmy nominations, and like last year, I didn't see a single nominee in either Outstanding Drama or Comedy series.  In the case of the former, it would be pretty difficult to, given I don't have HBO and rarely watch much on cable/satellite.  Out of the six nominees for Best Drama, only ONE is broadcast on non-pay television (PBS' Downton Abbey).   The others are all cable programs: Breaking Bad and Mad Men (AMC, once known as American Movie Classics...which kind of went by the wayside, hasn't it), Game of Thrones and True Detective (HBO, a premium cable/satellite channel, which has a separate subscription fee from that of regular cable/satellite subscriptions), and House of Cards (Netflix, which isn't even an actual channel but a video rental service that now has original programming). 

In the Comedy series, only two (The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family) are available to all.  The others (Veep, Louis, Silicon Valley, and Orange is the New Black) are all available only to those who have cable/satellite or Netflix subscriptions.

For those of us who don't have HBO or Netflix, why should we care about the nominees, let alone the winners?

Now, I am not saying that none of these shows or their nominees aren't worthy of nominations.  They may be great programming.  However, I am now wondering whether Cable/Satellite, once basically banished from Emmy consideration, has now so dominated the awards that regular network programming has been pushed out.



I look for example, at Elementary.  Despite excellent work from its leads (Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu) along with excellent guest starring performances from Natalie Dormer, the show has earned only two nominations in minor categories (Outstanding Main Title Design and Main Title Theme in 2013, losing both to Da Vinci's Demons, which is on Starz).  If we look at the Outstanding Lead Drama Actor nominees, not one is from a network television program.  In the Comedy side, only one Lead Actor is from a network series (The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons), received a nod.  Seriously, who watched Derek

Lead Actress in Comedy and drama has more a more even split between network and subscription with two in Comedy (Melissa McCarthy in Mike & Molly and Amy Poehler in Parks & Recreation) while Drama has three (Scandal, The Good Wife, and Downton Abbey).    However, neither The Good Wife or Scandal, despite their praise and popularity, are in the running for Series, and that goes for Mike & Molly and Parks & Recreation too.  Does this mean the performances in the shows are good, but the shows themselves not? 

Compare to a mere ten years ago, when the Lead Actress and Actor: Drama had only ONE non-network nominee each (Edie Falco and James Gandolfini in The Sopranos, with the winner being Allison Janney on The West Wing and James Spader in Boston Legal, both network) and the Drama Series having one non-network nominee (The Sopranos, which was that year's winner).  Comedy had three non-network actors/actresses (Lead Actress winner Sarah Jessica Parker for Sex & The City and nominees Larry David for Curb Your Enthusiasm and Tony Shalhoub for Monk), and two series (Curb Your Enthusiasm and Sex & The City, which both lost to FOX's Arrested Development).   

How to explain the rise of Cable/Satellite and the fall of Network?  I don't think network programming has gotten worse or even that cable/satellite has gotten better (anyone seen last season's Franklin & Bash?). 

I would argue that there is a wild disconnect between popular shows and shows that win Emmys.  NCIS, a perennial Top Ten show, has in its eleven seasons received a total of FOUR nominations, and only one for acting (a Guest Actor nomination for Charles Durning).  Under the Dome, a freshman hit, received none this year (though perhaps it aired too late to qualify).  Blue Bloods, another highly successful and popular show, has in four years received one nomination, again in a minor category (Stunt Coordination I believe). 

On the other hand, shows like HBO's Girls, which has 12 nominations and one win in its three years (one year less than Blue Bloods), has far fewer viewers* (800,000 for Girls, 11.52 million for Blue Bloods).  Elementary has a total viewership of 8.79 million viewers.  Breaking Bad (4.32 million), Mad Men (2.49 million), True Detective (2.4 million).  Is there something in the Television Academy that makes it gravitate towards shows few people watch while ignoring the popular ones?

I feel I've wandered off a bit from my original subject, so let's go back to it.

The rather clumsily titled Cable ACE Awards (or Award for Cable Excellence, making it officially the Cable Award for Cable Excellence Awards) ran from 1978 to 1997 as cable's answer to the Emmy Awards, which stubbornly refused to allow cable shows to be nominated until 1988.  Since then, cable/satellite and now Netflix (which I wonder, does it count as a network of any kind?) have now so dominated the awards show circuit that network programs are now getting squeezed out.

I now make a Modest Proposal.



It may be time to have TWO Emmy Award presentations: one for Network Programming, one for Non-Network Programming.  My reasoning is that because there is such a fight for few slots, opening up the categories to separate network from non-network will allow for greater recognition of programs.  If we slip all the Lead Actors in Drama to their Non-Network Programming Category, it will allow for other actors in the network programs to be allowed a chance (Bryan Cranston tends to bust all comers, even perennial loser Jon Hamm).  In the same way, with three non-network Lead Actresses, Bates Motel's Vera Farmiga (who scored that show's only nomination last year) gets shut out in the furious race for few places.  I can't find an argument that says Farmiga couldn't have taken the place of Claire Danes in Homeland or first-time nominee Lizzy Caplan for Masters of Sex (and ironically, while Caplan got a nod, the Masters to her Johnson, Michael Sheen, didn't get nominated.  I guess her Johnson was better than his...). 

We have, in my view, gone from one extreme (leaving out all cable programming) to another (thinking only cable programming is worthy of recognition).  It is time for parity between the two.  It might be time to have separate Cable/Non-Cable Categories, so as to recognize quality work in these two distinct areas without having to struggle to give both sides an even shake.

Either that, or just bring back the Cable ACE Award and let the Emmys go to judging only network programs.

I wrap this up with this.  The Tony Awards are still being broadcast on CBS, but it's a safe bet few people watch.  Why would someone who hasn't been to New York, let alone Broadway, care about the winners for Best Revival of a Musical?   Once they did, because they were exposed to Broadway hits on The Ed Sullivan Show.  Now, with no point of reference, the Tonys are nice but almost irrelevant to almost all America.  The Tonys thought that by bringing in major stars they would get higher ratings and more ticket sales.  They didn't. 

Same with the Emmys.  There is a hard-core group that worships Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, but I think more people care about what the Reagans on Blue Bloods are doing than on which of the Lannisters in Game of Thrones has murdered, been murdered, or committed incest.  

It's either splitting the two, or watching fewer and fewer people care about the Emmys.

* Numbers courtesy of TV Series Finale.com and Nielsen.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Spywork Is No Family Affair


THE AMERICANS: COMRADES

After the great success that was the first season of The Americans, one wonders how they could possibly bring the complicated lives of KGB sleeper agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) into more complicated and brilliant stories.  Leave it to Comrades, the second season debut story, to give us one of the most thrilling, shocking, tense, and tragic hours I have seen so far on this series. 

Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) has recovered from her injuries and is home, just in time for her son Henry's (Keidrich Sellati) birthday.  Her daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor) is equally thrilled to see her mother back, as is Philip (Matthew Rhys).  Elizabeth and Philip appear to have reconciled, and while Henry might not be thrilled to hear that they are going on a date, Paige finds the prospect of her parents getting back together a joyful matter. 

Of course, Elizabeth and Philip didn't go on a date, well, one might call it a double date.  More spywork, this time with Emmett and Leanne Connors (Jeremy Davison and Natalie Gold), fellow sleeper KGB agents who are about the closest thing to social friends the Jennings have.  They not only can mix Socialism with socializing but can talk about their kids and the difficulties of raising them. 

As the Jennings start healing (and Paige finds that her parents really are back together, in 69 ways), things appear to be getting better.  As both a treat for Henry and Paige, as well as to do more work with the Connors, Philip and Elizabeth take the family to an amusement park in Virginia.  As everyone is having a good time, Emmett gets notice that some information is being delivered to them.  He can't do it, so he asks Philip to take it from someone passing by, but with a catch.  Philip has to be accompanied by Henry.  Philip at first immediately says no, telling Emmett the children, neither his or the Connors, are ever used for work under any circumstances.  However, there's no time and Philip is immediately dragged into this, and he in turn drags an unwitting Henry.

Things appear to go OK, until Philip and Elizabeth make a horrifying discovery when dropping off the material at the Connors' hotel room.
 

They go inside to find that not only Emmett and Leann have been shot point-blank in the head, but their daughter Amelia (Gracie Bea Lawrence) has been killed with them.  Only the Connors' son Jared (Owen Campbell), who had gone for a swim, manages to escape the family slaughter.  Philip and Elizabeth are stunned and horrified by what they see, and immediately both panic.  If someone was willing to kill Amelia, both Paige and Henry were also in immediate danger.  Elizabeth races back to the park in a desperate search for their children, while Philip quickly gathers what he needs from the room and leaves, passing an unsuspecting Jared, who comes in to this horror.

Elizabeth quickly finds Henry but Paige has wandered off.  Her panic growing more frantic, she is relieved to find that Paige is alive.  In what must have been a ghastly vision for her, Paige had her face painted in the same way Amelia had been painted when she was killed.  Elizabeth does not reproach Philip for having involved Henry, realizing that he didn't have time to think.  However, both of them are now fully aware that their children are vulnerable to danger.

Meanwhile, their unwitting nemesis, FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) has problems of his own.  His marriage is hanging on by tenderhooks, while his mole/mistress Nina (Annet Mahendru) is still playing him in a game of her own making.  He tries to please Nina by getting a pirated video cassette (which I imagine some viewers have never heard of) of The French Lieutenant's Woman, but she finds the main character stupid.  As Stan does appear to try to make his marriage to Sandra (Susan Misner) work, she invites him to join her friends for a movie.  Guess what movie she picks? 

As Stan watches the Meryl Street/Jeremy Irons feature, he too finds himself oddly moved by it all.


Comrades keeps the metaphors down to one.  In the opening, Elizabeth nearly runs down a family of deer, and they do have that deer in the headlights look.  Here, I think we see what the season will involve: more danger coming out of nowhere, which may leave them paralyzed.   Joel Fields and The Americans creator Joseph Weisberg give us all the elements that make a great action drama (the opening with Philip masquerading as a Texan who kills mujahedeen representatives fighting the Soviets at a restaurant in the States is exciting).  However, Comrades also has a great deal of heart.

When Elizabeth and Philip are sharing a tender moment, I can honestly report that I was really happy for them.  It's almost as if these two, despite themselves and their cover, have become what so many people fail to be: a happily married couple.  Seeing them share an extremely intimate moment, with Paige as the unwitting witness, was both slightly amusing and shocking.  However, not as shocking as what would come right after.

We also see that they are parents above all else.  Seeing the horror of seeing their 'friends' killed along with their unknowing daughter must have not just come as a shock, but must have stunned them into the realization that their children, whom they genuinely care about, were also in great risk. 

Again, I don't think viewers of The Americans will ever really get over the shock of seeing Amelia shot through the head, her face paint still on her, or what must have been the horror of Jared coming upon this nightmarish scene.  We don't see Jared go into the room, but remembering what we had seen, we can only imagine the horror of Jared coming from a happy holiday to see his father, mother, and sister all killed, and worse, with neither Jared or Amelia ever knowing the real reason for the killings.

While it was unspoken, the impact and almost cruel irony of Elizabeth coming upon Paige with the same face paint she had just seen Amelia with must have shaken Elizabeth to the very core of her being.  The twisted irony of seeing her happy and unwitting daughter almost dressed up like the innocent dead girl must have pained the hard Elizabeth in ways unimaginable.

In this hour, I don't think I have been as moved, as shocked, and as involved as I was watching the Jennings at work and play.  With now both Paige and Henry getting slowly drawn into the dangerous work Philip and Elizabeth are in, the question becomes will Philip and Elizabeth be parents first, or agents?  Are they willing to pay the high price the Connors paid? 

We are on tenderhooks to find out...



10/10

Next Episode: Cardinal

It's A Snow Train Coming


SNOWPIERCER

I was persuaded to watch Snowpiercer thanks to wildly positive word of mouth.  Longtime readers know that I have a particular antithesis to Chris Evans, whom I find to be a terrible actor except in one role (yep, he makes a good Captain America).  Snowpiercer may be some of his best work where he goes for a full-fledged performance, and he is much better than someone like Channing Tatum (who doesn't even have a career-defining role like the Cap to fall back on). 

To combat global warming, nations released a chemical CW-7 to reduce the Earth's temperature.  As usual in cases when the cure is worse than the disease, the world went from global warming to global freezing.  The entire planet was turned into a block of ice, killing billions of people almost instantly and making the world inhospitable for living.  The only survivors are aboard a special train that is perpetually in motion, circling the globe all year round.

Seventeen years later, in 2031, the train is segregated by class (or rather, by one's ticket).  First Class ticket holders have plush living areas, while those in the back of the train live in squalor and eat manufactured protein bars that make Soylent Green look like caviar.  Among those living in this misery are Curtis (Evans), the de facto leader of the train's 99 Percent, the wise old leader Gilliam (John Hurt), and Curtis' little buddy Edgar (Billy Elliot, I mean, Jamie Bell, and BTW, that was not a Jamie Bell short joke).  The train's One Percent, embodied in the form of Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton, looking eerily like Ayn Rand) tells them that it is the natural order of things that some be at the top, while others on the bottom.  Having this scum at the head of the train is like having a shoe on top of their heads.

However, the people will no longer, after all these years, put up with this injustice of living in perpetual squalor and darkness.  Curtis launches a revolution to take the train and meet its engineer, the mysterious Wilford.  They have to cross train car after train car, where in the course of the film, they capture Mason, we see many die, and when Curtis, aided along the way by a drugged up locksmith they revived named Namgoon (Kang-go Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sun Ko), reaches the engine, where Curtis reveals horrifying secrets of his life and learns the truth about the train.  In the end though, Namgoon causes an explosion that derails the train, but Yona and a child taken from the back, Timmy (Marcanthonee Jon Reis) venture into what was thought was an uninhabitable world, to see a polar bear and thus, a sign of life.

And Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand so far away...

I could argue that Snowpiercer has a lot of logic problems (apart from the idea of a perpetually moving train around the world, though the film did provide an answer to how that was possible).  I find it difficult if not impossible to believe that in seventeen years, in a train car(s) where people are living in poverty, things like births and deaths wouldn't be noticed by those in the 'upper' cars. Children would need food other than protein bars to keep going (which somehow is important to the higher-ups) but from what I saw those bars were the only things going. 

Furthermore, given that in these seventeen years the First Class (and maybe Second Class, because I think that was mentioned) passengers, who supposedly had never seen Steerage, didn't really give a second look or react with any sense of panic that 'the hordes are invading' is similarly ridiculous. 

However, I don't think that was the point of Snowpiercer: to be 'logical'.  It is an allegory about economic equality, on how there are those who have so much and who are keeping it from those with so little.  IF you look at Snowpiercer as a form of allegory or fantasy, where we accept the fantasy world we're given (even if it doesn't strictly make much sense), then Snowpiercer can be quite entertaining and visually arresting.

The action scenes whenever Curtis and his group are taking the train car by car are well-shot and build to a strong tense feel.  Sometimes the action scenes did appear to be a bit silly (the school car being where I laughed at the machine-totting sweet teacher) but I also thought that it was meant more for representation about ideas than to be taken literally (the symbolism of the Wilford worship and crediting him for everything was more a mockery of the cult of the Kim Family Dictatorship of North Korea).

In regards to the action and story, Snowpiercer has done better than most in terms of both showing (and in one scene, not showing) violence and in using allegory to present a viewpoint. 

In terms of the acting, there isn't much negative in it.  Bell was the only one I didn't care for, finding his Edgar hopelessly annoying.  However, perhaps his ever-chatty Cockney was suppose to be that way, so I'll grant a little leeway.  The others made this rather madcap world believable.  Evans in particular did his best work: his monologue about his actions in the early days of the train showing he's at least trying to develop as an actor.  I don't think he is quite there yet, but I respect him making the effort.  Swinton, the oddest actor working today, was brittle and curt as Mason, in turns whimpering and malevolent. 

On the whole Snowpiercer is not as intelligent as it thinks, and the allegory of a 'people's revolution on a train' isn't as clever as it thinks either.  However, as entertainment trying to do something, as a visual ride (no pun intended) and one where one is interested in what happens, Snowpiercer does an admirable job. 

DECISION: B-

Monday, July 28, 2014

This Movie Has 'Limitless' Possibilities


LUCY

Lucy is silly, sometimes flat-out laughable, but by goodness is it never dull.  Did I enjoy it?  If I didn't think much on it.  Is it a good film? 

Well...

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is a party girl in Taiwan who is pushed by her latest one-night (or one-week) stand, Richard (Pilou Asbaek) into delivering a package to a mysterious Mr. Jang (Min-Sik Choi).  Richard is immediately killed, and Lucy is forced into being a drug mule, who along with three other unwilling mules, has CPH4, a new drug, inserted into their bodies to smuggle to Europe.  One hitch in the plan, though.  A thug who wanted to rape Lucy instead beat her, breaking the package inside her and releasing it into her bloodstream.  As a result, the CPH4 is now making her use more than the 10% of the brain people use (which is an urban myth, but go along with it).  As her mental powers increase, she becomes more and more powerful, having the ability to control objects mutant-like, even the ability to change her physical appearance a la Mystique.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) is lecturing about the possibilities of expanding mind power to use more and more of our brains.  What would happen if a person reached full 100% mental capacity?  He admits he has no idea.  Lucy, using her growing powers, manages to manipulate electronics from Taiwan to Paris and tells Professor Norman she's heading to Paris for his help.  She also contacts French detective Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), telling him who the other mules are and to capture them so he can give her the CPH4 they're carrying. 

The Taiwanese mobsters are not pleased by all this, so now they race to Paris, where the mules have been brought together after two arrive in Berlin and Rome to recapture the mules and take the drugs from them.  In almost every turn, Lucy, along with a slightly befuddled Del Rio, stop them through remarkably supernatural means.  It ends with Lucy going to full 100%, which if I understand makes her almost God-like, being able to travel through all time and space, even pausing to meet "Lucy", the first human.


As Lucy goes on, it does become more and more outlandish.   It isn't helped by director/writer Luc Besson's somewhat heavy-handed style (as Lucy is about to be taken, the scene is intercut with footage of cheetahs hunting down gazelles).  Why exactly he opted to put in all these visual metaphors instead of trusting we would 'get it' is beyond me.

Other parts, such as having Mozart's Requiem play as Lucy, in full bad-ass mode, is about to take down the Taiwanese thugs who put the drug in her, might be playing to Besson's strengths in the visuals department, but it does become more bizarre (apparently, the more brainpower one has, the greater physical abilities you have, like Lucy being able to perform a Vulcan mind-meld to find out who the other mules are). 

Still, on the whole, while Lucy is silly, it is by no means terrible.  It helps to have someone like Johansson (who is now a full-on star thanks to this of all things) anchor the project.  She is purposefully robotic as she gains more and more mutant-like powers (she can alter her appearance!  she can levitate thugs!).  At a certain point, while she is sipping champagne, she sees that she is physically deteriorating.  While this plot point isn't followed through (how she got out of this is pretty much left to the imagination), her panic makes the scene appear as real as it possibly can be.

As for everyone else, they pretty much are there for either information-dumping (Freeman) or as some sort of thwarted love interest (Waked, who is obviously Arab but is made into this bizarre Franco-Spanish mix of "Pierre Del Rio").  The movie even has Lucy comment on this when she kisses Del Rio.  When asked why, she says it's to remind her of humanity, or something like that.

There are a few good things in Lucy.  Johansson takes all this seriously, which at least adds some kind of realism to all this nonsense, and some of the visuals are intriguing (though I confess to laughing out loud when the CPH4 is entering her bloodstream).  It's a strange irony that while we are asked to take this seriously, as some sort of meditation on the power of the human mind, it soon slips into more and more ridiculousness. 

Still, if one goes into all this with a certain sense of humor and can laugh not mean-spiritedly so, one can love Lucy.

She was funnier...


DECISION: C-

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Whoever Has Jeff Ears, Them Them Hear



Longtime readers know that I am a proud season ticket holder for the El Paso AAA Baseball Team.  Longtime readers also know that I detest the name of the El Paso AAA Baseball Team.  So great is my loathing for that name that I have refused to say it.  It is so strong that even when I look up information online, I will type "El Paso Baseball" or "El Paso Baseball Team" rather than the name.  My brother Gabe has kept a count of the number of times I have slipped and uttered the name, and I'm up to four.

However, for full disclosure I have warmed up to the EP Baseball Team Mascot, Chico. 

In any case, I can say that I am a fan, even though I'm not the most well-versed baseball fan.  I couldn't keep track of all the statistics of who does what and when.  Therefore, I can't answer in-depth questions about all the players.


However, there are many players that I like and like watching.  There's Jake Lemmerman, who got an amazing walk-on grand slam, bottom of the ninth and whose jersey I was desperate to win in an auction (I didn't, since even I wasn't about to spend $200+.  Budgets and all..).  There's Cody Decker, bon vivant and Whovian who has done the impossible and made being Jewish even cooler than it already is (and who is unafraid to color-coordinate his wardrobe, down to the bow ties, because bow ties are, well, you know...).  There's Reymond Fuentes, who I think has the best walk-out song (even if no one seems to know what it actually is).  There's Jonathan Galvez, who made it to the Minor League All-Star Game.  All great ballplayers. 

Then there is Jeff Francoeur, lovingly known as Frenchy. 

Now, Frenchy has incredible skills (though Gabe is right in saying that he is trigger-happy when on bat, with a bad tendency to swing instead of measuring whether he can hit that particular pitch).  Francoeur has been called back up to the San Diego Padres, and while I and all of El Paso are sad to see him go, I and all of El Paso are also glad to see him go (if that makes sense). 

Jeff Francoeur was the subject of an epic prank by his teammate Cody Decker.  Decker, along with other EP Baseball players, managed to convince Francoeur that another teammate, Jorge Reyes, was deaf.  Somehow, they kept this going to an oblivious Francoeur for a whole month.  The experiment was filmed and we now have On Jeff Ears.




Personally, far from thinking less of Francoeur, On Jeff Ears makes me love him more.  Granted, Francoeur's obliviousness to how Reyes wasn't deaf is funny and does make him look a bit dim.  However, I also have to look at how Francoeur went out of his way to welcome Reyes.  Frenchy spoke openly about his admiration for his deaf teammate, and while the prank is funny, I think it reveals something about Jeff Francoeur.

Jeff Francoeur is a really nice guy. 

He may be a great baseball player and I wish him all the best, but beyond that, he's also a real nice guy.  Maybe not the brightest bulb, but I think his character really came across in On Jeff Ears: that of an earnest, sincere fellow who works well with his teammates and embraces all those whom he thinks are different.

In fact, of all the interviews I have seen from his teammates, I don't think I have heard anyone say anything negative about Francoeur as a person, or a player (apart from the trigger-happy bit, with which I concur on Francoeur). 

Learning that Francoeur is also an unabashed born-again Christian (if Wikipedia is to be believed) to me, solidifies my view that Frenchy lives the life he proclaims.  There are many people who claim Christianity but whose lives give little evidence of it.  Francoeur, though clueless about how Reyes obviously was not deaf, showed that he indeed is one who does.

A great ballplayer.  A great person.  A bit dim.  A real good guy.

On Jeff Ears, therefore, should not be seen as making Jeff Francoeur look as if he were completely stupid (and I don't think Decker or anyone else thinks that).  The fact that Francoeur can laugh about it too shows that while he wasn't in on the joke, he at least is good enough to appreciate it. 

Truth be told, I love Francouer and Decker.  Who couldn't love two great ball players, one of whom can laugh at himself, and one who recognizes the genius of Doctor Who (though sorry, Marshall, your views on Gone With the Wind are completely wrong: it ISN'T a KKK recruitment film, but the Citizen Kane of Epic Films.  You may love movies and knock them out of the park, but I'M the film critic in EP). 

On Jeff Ears, if I were to rate it, would earn a B- from me.  It's funny and endearing too.  However, it's no Gone With the Wind, that's for sure...  

Cody Marshall Decker, you've been a naughty boy...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Portrait of an American Marriage via the Soviet Union


THE AMERICANS: SEASON ONE

It took a while, but The Americans Season One has been completed.  All I can say is that few television shows have built a world that is nostalgic, exciting, a bit comic, and above all else, a story about a marriage. 

The story of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings is not just about KGB agents on their various assignments (though certainly it is about that).  It is also about balancing work and family, those issues that in any era, but especially so in the booming 1980s, was becoming more and more relevant.  Philip and Elizabeth work together as both spies and as their cover of travel agents, and the KGB has assigned them to be a married couple, so they dutifully produced two children: Paige and Henry.  As such, we can imagine they spent almost all the time together.  Any relationship that has become so insular, with few if any actual contacts on the outside, must be extremely difficult for them.

They are not American, and in fact they should be working to bring America down.  However, like in all good relationship stories, their individual views sometimes collide.  Philip is more in tune with America, and in the twenty-some odd years of being 'Philip' he has grown comfortable and even pleased by what he sees.  He is still loyal to the Soviet Union, but right from the start we see that Philip also enjoys a little impromptu dance with new boots at the mall, embarrassing Paige.  We see that Philip is the one who is not above killing people, but who come to understand Americans in a way Elizabeth hasn't. 

Take one of the best episodes, In Control.  Here, the chaos of Reagan's attempted assassination convinces Elizabeth that there has been a coup.  It is Philip who tells her that despite all their years of living and studying Americans, she still doesn't get who 'these people' are.   Americans, he basically tells her, don't do 'coups'. 


Philip and Elizabeth are also interesting in a different way.  They are parents, ones who despite themselves sometimes lose sight of what is suppose to be their 'covers' and react to protect their children above all other concerns.  When an older man makes advances on Paige, Philip appears to take the meek solution (soft verbal confrontation), but that guy didn't realize he was messing with a trained killer.  Philip's violent take-down of that man almost leaves one cheering, for one expects any father to lay the smackdown on someone who would go after his little girl. 

Elizabeth for her part, being the harder and more emotionally restrained of the two, has a harder time bonding with her children as opposed to the more easy-going Philip.  After all, when they tell Paige and Henry that they are temporarily separating, Paige especially is angry at Elizabeth, and while Philip is more openly affectionate towards them, Elizabeth's struggle to be a good mom (she is but not as good as her own standards will let her) is one of the issues The Americans presents.

In short, Philip and Elizabeth are good spies who also want to be good parents.  That balance, and the struggle to maintain that balance, is one of the best parts of the series.

We grow to like Philip and Elizabeth, even as their actions are brutal.  They kill, they hurt, they deceive others with more false identities.  The struggles to be true to themselves, to figure out who they really are and what they really are working for (home or Country), along with some really wild adventures, makes The Americans such a fantastic program. 


We also have to complement some extremely brilliant performances.  There are Rhys and Russell of course, who bring these complicated, conflicted, ruthless, efficient, and lovelorn characters to life.  There's Noah Emmerich as their unwitting frenemy Stan Beeman, Annet Mahendru as Nina, the FBI mole in the Rezidentura who is playing a complicated game that even she isn't sure about.  Above all else, there is Margo Martindale's Emmy-nominated performance as the Jennings' KGB minder Claudia, aka Grannie.  As this outwardly sweet old dear, Martindale revels in the darkness, even evil, lurking beneath the endearing exterior.  Only she would have a KGB's innocent and unsuspecting widow murdered and steal her baby to give to the KGB operative's parents, or enact brutal revenge on the man who ordered her once-lover's assassination. 

Seeing Martindale and Russell battle it out (sometimes literally, as when an enraged Elizabeth beats the living crap out of Grannie for torturing them when they suspected the Jennings were a mole) has been a personal highlight.

Now, as always we have the countdown of The Americans Season One episodes from best to worst.

Safe House: 10/10
In Control: 10/10
The Colonel: 10/10
Gregory: 9/10
Mutually Assured Destruction: 9/10
Only You: 9/10
Trust Me: 8/10
The Clock: 8/10
The Oath: 8/10
COMINT: 8/10
Pilot: 8/10
Covert War: 7/10
Duty and Honor: 7/10

Average Score: 8.5

That's higher than what I've given Sherlock so far (a show that is fiercely and fanatically loved by critics and Sherlockians, but which I, try as I do, cannot find worth all the praise). 

The Americans is about spies.  It's about family.  It's about how work and family conflict.  Yes, it's also about the bad wigs the Jennings are forced to don (which adds to the charm of the show).

It's also one of the best shows on television, one that simply needs to be watched.  With Breaking Bad and Mad Men ending, perhaps it's time to look over not one but two anti-heroes whom we hate to love. 



Next Episode: Comrades

Monday, July 21, 2014

True Spies



THE AMERICANS: THE COLONEL

As we close out The Americans Season One with The Colonel, we have stories tied up, some great final hurrahs, and an emotional and heartfelt reunions.  We got some brilliant twists and turns and at the end, when so many other programs would leave us with a cliffhanger, The Colonel leaves us with resolution.

The frosty relationship between Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell), both of whom are really KGB spies, has soften a bit.  While still not on the best of terms, we see that they do love their children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati).  One person they don't care for is Claudia, whom they nicknamed Grannie (Margo Martindale), their minder who has been reassigned.  However, she has to see their latest mission through: that of getting the colonel Elizabeth's operative Sanford (Tim Hopper) to meet with them and provide important papers on the Strategic Defense Initiative (which was later dubbed 'Star Wars' by the press). Elizabeth is still convinced that all this is a trap, especially since Sanford is in prison and the FBI holding him.  FBI agents Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and Gaad (Richard Thomas) have him, but they have a bigger trap set for the couple they are looking for. 

Using the bug they now know about, they intent to have some hot information for them, and wait until someone comes to pick it up.  Despite Elizabeth and Philip's misgivings on the Colonel, they make plans in case it is a trap.  One of them will flee with the children to Canada, while the other faces the music.  After a lot of discussion Elizabeth makes it Philip has to be the one to flee, while she will meet with the colonel.


Grannie meanwhile has her own scores to settle, but not with Elizabeth for once.  Posing as a slightly muddled sweet old lady, she manages to get CIA Director for Soviet Planning Richard Patterson to let her into his apartment.  After all, what harm could a little old lady do, right?  To Patterson's total shock, she paralyzes him and coldly informs Patterson that she and Zhukov had been lovers, having met in Stalingrad during the war, before coldly slitting his throat. 

A woman is not to be denied.

Despite Elizabeth's plans Philip has left early and left a note telling her she should leave with the children while he takes the meeting with the Colonel.  In turn, Elizabeth will collect the information from the Weinberger bug.  Nina (Annet Mahendru), who will be kept on in the Rezidentura, alerts the Soviets that the FBI knows something, but thinking it involves the Colonel, they send an urgent message to abort the meeting.  However, when Claudia gets the signal and interrupts, both she and Philip are puzzled as to why the FBI hasn't already come out after them.  Immediately they realize this isn't the trap, but that it's the one Elizabeth is going to.  Philip races to stop her, collecting her as she is within sight of Beeman, who while immediately realizing this is the same couple that kidnapped Patterson is completely unaware they are his neighbors/friends.  The FBI attempts furiously to stop them, but Philip's insane driving has them escape.  Elizabeth, however, is hit and is rushed to a safe house.  As she hovers between life and death, Elizabeth finally breaks down, telling Philip in Russian, "Come home".  Philip gives Paige and Henry (who have been staying with the Beemans while waiting for their parents) a cover story about Elizabeth having to care for an aunt who has taken a hard fall and staying with her while she recovers.

At long last with The Colonel we find that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have indeed formed a bond that neither of them intended.  We see in Russell's performance just how much she loves Philip, for in those simple words Elizabeth says so much.  The fact that she reverted to their native language and the fact that she meant it gives this such a powerful undertone of love and forgiveness. 

I also have to hold up Martindale for her performance.  She uses Grannie as a more complex figure, who is in many ways like Elizabeth: devoted to The Cause but who in this one case, like her frenemy, opts to enact a cruel revenge for her lost love.  She still is outwardly the pleasant figure of innocence, but within her is a cold and ruthless persona.  Elizabeth and Claudia are so much alike, with the exception that Grannie does not have children or a husband to bond with (as far as we know and certainly not in America). 

The Colonel is also thrilling in that it is completely cat-and-mouse, and Joel Fields and The Americans creator Joe Weisberg put the viewer one step ahead of the characters.  WE know what they don't, and the pleasure comes from the tension of when THEY will learn.  There is action (Elizabeth's rescue in particular being a highpoint), but within all that there is a true human core to all the proceedings, which makes both The Colonel and The Americans such a great experience.

The Colonel balances the emotions, particularly with regards to parental feelings over children, with the thrills of a good espionage story.  As a season finale, it closes a lot of storylines, gives us a few more (Paige's growing suspicion about her parents in particular) and has a great mix of action and emotion.



10/10

Season One Overview