Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Americans season 3

A change-of-pace entry: a season of a show that I didn't particularly care for. If you'd rather read about seasons I lavish with praise, feel free to check out Bewitched Season 2, Knots Landing Season 3, Cold Case Season 4, Rhoda Season 3 and Gilmore Girls Season 7.

The internet turned rabid this past summer when The Americans received its annual Emmy snub. (It received only two nominations: Best Writing for a Drama Series and Guest Actress in a Drama Series.) The Broadcast Television Journalists Association had already voted it Best Drama of the 2014-15 season (the Television Critics Association would follow suit a few weeks later), so their outrage was particularly heated: they took it personally. Sample headlines:

"The Americans' Emmys Snubs Are Getting Ridiculous" -- Variety
"The Americans is TV at its subversive best and its Emmy snub is inexcusable" -- New York Post
"Eight reasons The Americans deserves all the Emmys" -- BuzzFeed

There was the usual carping that members of the television academy are out of touch with viewers, and yes, academy members have been out of touch for years, but as far as I'm concerned, the "snub," if you can call it that, was justified: this past season of The Americans, its third, simply wasn't very good. (Sometimes the academy members, despite themselves, get it right.) Critics were so focused on True Detective's dip in quality this past season, they should've been paying a little more attention to The Americans. I can't think of the last time a one-hour drama kept its showrunners and writing team pretty much intact from one season to the next, but took such a creative tumble. (I might need to go all the way back to Dallas Seasons 10 and 11.) Eight reasons it deserves all the Emmys? Really? I can't imagine it deserving eight Emmys. This past season? I'd give it two Emmys, tops, and neither would be for Best Drama.

So: The Americans. It's all about Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, deep-cover KGB operatives posing as a married couple in the DC suburbs during the Reagan administration, and Stan Beeman, the FBI counterintelligence agent who lives across the street. It's a cunning premise, but as cast, it's also a lopsided one. Matthew Rhys (Philip) is a warm actor; Keri Russell (Elizabeth) is a cool actress. (People forget that there was a reason for the outrage when Russell cut her hair during Felicity. It's not just that the long curls defined her; they softened her.) It means they're perfectly cast: Rhys as the agent led by his heart, whose prearranged marriage has become more than just a cover; Russell as the icy partner whose devotion to cause and country trumps affection. But because Rhys is a far more expressive actor than Russell, able to juggle multiple emotions (whereas she typically parcels them out one at a time), any time there's an altercation, you side with him. Could the show's creators have anticipated how casting to type would throw the show off balance? It's hard to imagine they thought Philip would prove as sympathetic as he did, given that he's, you know, a killer and a spy, but Rhys's open face and emotional accessibility make him terribly appealing, especially when the alternative is Russell's chilly restraint. (Ironically, the show might have been better served with a cooler actor as Philip and a warmer one as Elizabeth.) And the show's premise compounds the imbalance, since for most of us viewers -- the great majority, one presumes, without any particular connections to the KGB -- a man pining for his wife is nearer to our hearts than a woman fighting for the Motherland.

For a lot of Season 1, he's the longing husband, and she's the wife who keeps shooting him down -- and there are a lot of soap opera tactics employed to keep things in high gear. (Every time one of them says, "I feel I can finally trust you," you know that trust will be broken by episode's end.) But by the end of Season 1, Philip and Elizabeth are partners in life as well as in crime, and that's when the show gains traction. With the couple working in harmony, the imbalances disappear; the scripting becomes more compact and more impactful, and the result is Season 2, a superb season that was indeed Emmy-worthy. And then Season 3 hits, and Philip and Elizabeth reach a new impasse -- and the show once again tilts and founders.

In Season 3, Philip and Elizabeth find themselves at odds, and once again viewer empathy falls to him: more so than ever, in fact, because this situation involves a family crisis, and Philip takes a protective stance whereas Elizabeth adopts a political one. (In one episode, Elizabeth goes behind his back and betrays his trust, and then you really hate her.) And they're not helped in Season 3 by being stuck with a new handler, played by Frank Langella, who adds nothing to the series. In the first season, their handler was played by Margo Martindale, who -- with limited airtime -- gave the impression of so many secrets, such fierce yet mixed emotions about her job, so much self-doubt beneath the threats and bravado, that she kept Philip and Elizabeth off-balance -- and the actors on their toes. Margo Martindale worked as a handler because Philip and Elizabeth questioned her motives -- she gave them something to play; her youthful replacement early in Season 2 worked because they questioned her competence -- would she unwittingly place them in jeopardy? Langella, who comes aboard at the top of Season 3, is pretty much a sounding board -- that's it. He brings nothing to the proceedings except a good ear, a few tepid threats and a scrabble board, so suddenly the scenes between Philip and Elizabeth and their handler -- one of the staples of the storytelling -- go limp. Did the showrunners, creator Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, not see what a hole that leaves in the series? I don't fault Langella, although I don't particularly care for him as a performer. He does what he's asked to do; he just isn't asked to do anything particularly interesting.

Philip and Elizabeth suffer in Season 3 because their inability to communicate throws the show off-balance, and because their handler is a wet blanket. Stan, the other lead character, has an equally dismal third season. At one point last spring, Joel Fields told the New York Post, "If you know anything about Stan, you know that he's got pretty good radar." Right: except for the KGB operatives living across the street. Fields seems to have a skewed view of Stan, but he also doesn't seem to have much of a handle on the guy who plays him, Noah Emmerich, a pale actor painfully out of his league. Stan's backstory, spelled out early in Season 1, is that his years undercover have closed him off from this family (it's the old "I did things/I've seen things I can't talk about" excuse), and his new FBI job further isolates him, but none of that turmoil reads on Emmerich's face. Nothing much reads on Emmerich's face at all. In Season 1, he seems distant, not anguished -- he never once gives the impression that he aches to reconnect with his wife and son. With his blank-slate expressions, you're left to judge him solely by his actions, so for most of the first season, as he leaps into an affair, he just comes off like as asshole who's cheating on his wife. And to make matters worse, you have Matthew Rhys across the street, silently conveying every bit of longing and self-loathing, making Emmerich look even less sympathetic by comparison.

Emmerich gets lucky: early in Season 1, he's paired with the dynamic Annet Mahendru as KGB-operative turned FBI-informant Nina Krilova, and the more time she spends with him -- the more twisted their relationship becomes -- the more she enlivens him. One of the main stories in Season 2 is: will she turn him? And it's this storyline that not only gives much of Season 2 its charge, but justifies Emmerich's casting: the actor's blankness -- our inability to read him -- works to the show's advantage. By the end of Season 2, you really have no idea, based on what you've seen on his face (or more to the point, haven't seen) if he'll succumb. It's one of the best cases I've seen of using an actor's weakness to power a story. It's a sensational plot-line: the FBI agent, the one who's on "our" side, is being played by the KGB, but the more he gives in to temptation, the more watchable he becomes. What do we prize most: national security or an increasingly interesting character? Watching Season 2, I hoped for the latter. The problem with the end of Season 2 -- which extends all the way through Season 3 -- is that once Stan doesn't turn traitor, what's left to do with him?

In Season 3, with Nina shipped back to Russia, Stan is back to all the things Emmerich does worst: pining over his ex-wife, bemoaning his relationship with his son, mourning a former colleague. (I grew weary counting the times in Season 3 they held a close-up of his face and asked us to imagine his pain; I have a vivid imagination, but not that vivid. Joe Weisberg is a former CIA officer turned TV writer, so maybe it's unsurprising that he hasn't learned one of the key rules for any headwriter: see what your cast is good at, and adjust accordingly.) Finally, as if desperate to recapture some of the subversive energy that charged Stan in Season 2, Fields and Weisberg have him go full-on rogue. But it's not the kind of slow-boil storyline that ultimately rocked Season 2; it's a choppy, careless plot about Stan and KGB operative Oleg Burov trying to rescue Nina. It's a plan pretty much devoid of logic, but the showrunners know we're so anxious to see Nina return, and so grateful to see Stan do something active on her behalf, that we'll put up with anything. Stan and Oleg's scheming appears in fits and starts throughout the season, and because Emmerich can't sustain a storyline unless he's actively discussing it, you keep thinking -- anytime Stan and Oleg aren't front and center -- that the storyline has been dropped. (A lot of plots get summarily ditched or delayed throughout Season 3 -- it's another of the season's flaws.) It's full of the sort of shorthand scripting that substitutes hunches for actual deductive reasoning, and it's followed by a caper that's about convincing as Ray and Debra Barone returning Marie's canister. And ultimately, it's all a bluff on the part of the writers: not only do Stan and Oleg not end up rescuing Nina, but then Stan, facing termination and litigation, ends up being saved in a deus ex machina twist.

The way Fields and Weisberg keep "rescuing" Stan, season after season, makes you realize that for a series that's ostensibly so ruthless, The Americans is gutless when it comes to its cast; the headwriters keep running their actors into dead-end story-lines, then seem afraid to pull the plug. Most shows, after dispatching Nina to Russia at the end of Season 2, would have written her off (it would have left a void, but they'd have found a way to fill it) or used the time-jump between seasons to prep her return to the Rezidentura. Fields and Weisberg strand Nina in a Russian prison for Season 3, and seem to pride themselves on properly "following through." It's like a dull tutorial: "Here's what happens to someone sent back to Russia to face trial." Nina in prison, cut off from the principal cast, does little for the character, the actress or the show; her ruthless efforts to get her sentence reduced reveal nothing of Nina we haven't already seen, except here she's doing it in a vacuum. Around the time Stan goes rogue -- which is when Season 3 basically devolves into desperation -- the showrunners drag in two minor characters from earlier seasons to play opposite Nina, as if to assure us, "See, she's not compartmentalized -- now she's playing opposite people you know!" Note to the showrunners: when you've written a popular character into a corner, drop them. Pick them up later if you can. But no one is grateful to see a favorite actor marginalized for an entire season (or more) just so they can remain on the show.

Season 3 doesn't serve Elizabeth or her handler well; it doesn't serve Stan or Nina well. But worst of all, it's built on a shaky premise. Season 2 resolved a strong season-long murder mystery with the revelation that the son of Philip and Elizabeth's KGB colleagues (well-played by Owen Campbell) had been recruited. And the grace note was that the KGB now wanted to recruit Philip and Elizabeth's daughter Paige. That's the dominant plot in Season 3: that the KGB believes that someday Paige could be a good spy. And yet there's nothing we've seen in Paige's demeanor to suggest that: in fact, so many of her character traits -- in particular, the fact that she seems easily manipulated -- suggest quite the opposite. Yes, she's a first-generation American teenager born to KGB spies; is that really their only criterion? Is there not a desired talent set, a preferred personality profile? (The show worked overtime this past season to suggest that Elizabeth and Paige might be cut from the same cloth. There was one portentous camera shot in which Paige and Elizabeth were framed and held in silhouette, and you were meant to think: like mother, like daughter? You were meant to think that, but you didn't.)

So you build a season on a faulty premise and run with it – but then you compound the lack of logic once Philip and Elizabeth open up to her. Because after the big reveal -- "we're spies, Paige" -- Philip and Elizabeth sit in their car, in the garage, and wonder if Paige will safeguard their secret, and Philip declares, "We can trust her." And that's a dumbing down of Philip and Elizabeth that's unforgivable. Nothing about this teenager who runs off on a whim, who ambushes her parents on her birthday, suggests that she can be trusted. Nothing about Holly Taylor's performance as Paige has ever suggested that she has the maturity, intelligence or discretion -- or the cunning and willfulness -- to keep a confidence of that magnitude. Philip and Elizabeth should have known better: in fact, they did know better. Early in Season 3, Philip stresses that Paige finding out that her parents are KGB agents "will destroy her," and Elizabeth has characterized her daughter as "delicate somehow." (Their youngest child, Henry, is more adaptable, Elizabeth notes, but Paige needs special handling.) When did Elizabeth forget that? Late in the season, Elizabeth and Paige visit West Berlin, and as they stand in the street, Elizabeth seems oblivious to her daughter's struggle. But as Holly Taylor plays her, Paige seems so distraught, so crushed by the weight of her secret, you wonder why half of West Berlin isn't rushing out of their homes to comfort her.

Most of us are nearsighted when it comes to our own lives, so it's not unreasonable to suppose that Philip and Elizabeth have a blind spot where their eldest child is concerned – but it's a little convenient that they grow distracted at the very moment they need to be at their most vigilant. The writers seem determined to get us to that cliffhanger when Paige (presumably) outs her parents, but ultimately, it's a situation that could have been avoided early on if Philip and Elizabeth -- upon learning of the KGB's interest in recruiting their daughter -- had marched into their handler's home and asked the questions that were on all our minds: "Paige? Really? Have you met her?" (On a list of fictional teenagers cut out to be KGB operatives, I'm pretty sure Paige Jennings falls just south of Harriet the Spy.) And admittedly, it's not like the KGB is saying, let's send her out on missions, but they are pushing for Philip and Elizabeth to come clean with her -- and there's nothing to suggest that Paige is adult enough to handle that revelation. And they do propose she'll someday be valuable in a government position, leading a double life – and there's nothing to suggest that Paige, the pouty product of a privileged lifestyle, would be capable of that. Owen Campbell's sad-sack looks belied a nervous, twitchy intensity; it made sense when his character was exposed as a KGB recruit. Holly Taylor is a modest actress with a pretty face -- she's the kind of doe-eyed talent you'd expect to see peddling lasagna in commercials, as in fact she currently is. (I laughed heartily this past season reading posts where people talked about her "knocking it out of the park." I was reminded of young actresses over the last 30 years who did just that -- from Tonya Crowe and Holly Marie Combs to Michelle Trachtenberg and Sofia Vassilieva.) And maybe at some point Fields and Weisberg will persuade us that Paige has the makings of a great spy – but right now, it seems like a fool's errand. Listening in on her parents' phone calls and going through their things doesn't make her a spy; it makes her a teenager. As scripted and played, Paige may be curious, but it's curiosity without hunger; she's rebellious, but it's rebelliousness without guile. Paige has the bland petulance of a typical suburban kid. Spies aren't born, they're made, but are they made out of nothing?