Saturday, 23 May 2015

FX's THE AMERICANS : One Black Widow after another

A glimpse at the red on Natalia Romanova's ledger in all it's harrowing detail.

FX's THE AMERICANS is destined to be a classic in retrospect. With all due respect to MAD MEN, in terms of domestic thriller it is really the closest current equivalent to THE SOPRANOS. I really envy those who will be able to watch this one day end to end without interruption.

I  watched the pilot last summer, couldn't believe how little attention it had got, showed it to someone else, and we then burned through two series in the next seven days.  As good as any classic cold war spy tv I've ever seen, including THE SANDBAGGERS and the BBC Le Carre adaptations, and at the same time a brilliant period drama (Reagan America) that rivals MAD MEN for capturing the real mood of the time the period. I bought 3 boxed sets of this show for friends last Christmas.

The pilot sets up the premise with KGB efficiency.  Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), are two KGB sleeper agents in early 1980s Washington, forced to live in an arranged marriage for twenty years who suddenly find that after having a family together - and quite a lot of other stuff they have in common - they've grown to actually love each other for real. The tragedy is they must make this and their family work in a world in which they both constantly lie, seduce and murder in the service of a ruthless foreign power. By the time the first series ends creepily to the tune of Peter Gabriel's 'Games Without Frontiers' (scariest music ever written about a BBC light entertainment show?), this show is totally addictive and really gets in the way of doing anything else

It has the best depiction of the period, early 1980s America, I've ever seen on the small screen. Most 1980s set dramas rely on the same John Hughes box of cliches - bright colours and teen angst. This show really recaptures the decade that was one faulty command decision away from the extinction of the human race. It is shot like gritty like grey sandpaper, so toned down colour pallet is virtually black and white. Alec Guinness's George smiley could walk in from the BBC version at at moment withut a shocking change in lighting or clarity. This is why they don't use stills as promo shots - this is the era we associate with DALLAS, but shot like CALLAN. It is Spielberg in negative.

So it is just a spy show in the 80s? No. Like TRUE LIES - but taken seriously  - this brings the  Cold War paranoia right into the domestic environment. Sometimes in THE AMERICANS the Iron Curtain cuts right across the dinner table. The 3rd Season particularly invades the home of the characters, as the domestic front starts to crumble when KGB Central asks the couple to recruit their own daughter to the cause.

The obvious advantage would be that a second generation KGB agent would be liable for high security defense jobs in the Pentagon. The obvious disadvantage is of course that the girl, played with incredible confidence and grace for a teenager by Holly Taylor, has not been through the Red Room process (or it's real world equivalent), and in total ignorance of her parents real identities has discovered religion via college.

How they expect to train what has become a young committed Christian to perform the acts required of Phillip and Elizabeth would be worthy of entire comedy series all on it's own - if we hadn't seen the shocking first attempt to recruit a second generation  spy at the climax of Season 2 (Spoiler : it didn't go well). The sheer impossibility of this is apparent to her parents, who are blinded both by love for their children and the unflinching Stalingrad like devotion to the cause.

A British version of this would stray into comedy at virtually every turn. The brilliant capacity for un-sneering sincerity in US drama is really shown in the sub-plot with Martha, Philips other wife. Martha is a lonely female employee at the FBI duped into marrying and spying for someone she thinks is working for FBI internal investigations. By the time she realises the truth she is in too deep emotionally and professionally to escape.

In a British show Martha would be a sad joke, but here, played with heartbreaking engagement by Alison Wright, she is almost the centre of the human tragedy taking place. The scene in which she thinks she marries her husband (known to her as Clark) while Clark/Philip's real wife Elizabeth is forced to attend as his "sister" is quite emotionally brutal all round - especially when it it revealed that as part of the KGB selection process, which led to a twenty year marriage with two kids, Elizabeth and Phillip never had a marriage ceremony themselves.

As a 'Black Widow' played for real, Keri Russell is terrifying, and  as hard as nails discovered in a tin at an abandoned camp during the Siberian winter. Infinitely more convincing a product of The Red Room as anything in the world of Marvel, you would hope writers working on any further iterations of The Black Widow in AGENT CARTER or the movies storyline are watching 'Elizabeth Jennings' religiously.

Good as the actresses are in this, it would probably be unwatchable without the restraint and humanity of Matthew Rhys who is the heart of the show. He has the seemingly impossible task of of engaging audience sympathy in a family of KGB murderers and with their mission. Core credit must of course go to the writers lead by showrunner Joe Weisberg - who virtually every episode prompts the thought "How the hell will they get out of this - and why do I care so much?".

One of the left field shocks is Richard Thomas, still best known to British viewers from The WALTONS, playing reptilian FBI supervisor Frank Gaad as if he had just walked off the set of the V alien invasion mini-series briefly popular at the time.

A constant pleasure is the almost Scorsese-like eye for brilliant period music. None of it obvious, a lot of it is British - such as Peter Gabriel, Fleetwood Mac. One whole episode is devoted to the release of a Yazoo album!

Rhys and Russell are a real world couple now apparently, and I can't say I'm surprised. The chemistry between the two is immediately evident in the pilot. You wonder if the meta levels of role playing and acting in the THE AMERICANS make it easier for the performers to lift themselves out of the roles and get the downtime they deserve. Is this an actors dream - playing virtually every scene as a different character? Russell comes off worst here as most of her roles are utterly ruthless manipulating vamps that even HYDRA would think twice about employing.

Those Marvel fans who want an idea of the Black Widow's 'ledger' of previous crimes teased in Captain America : Winter Soldier and ignored in Age of Ultron? should watch "Elizabeth Jennings" at work in THE AMERICANS. It would be fascinating to watch how a character as committed to the cause as this, to be able to commit acts of that, ultimately chooses to retire to hang around with the likes of Tony Stark. I can just about imagine respect for Steve Rogers getting under the skin of Keri Russell's monster, or Banner, for obvious reasons, but likely she'd gut, skin and mount Stark first chance she got (though probably in  a different order).

So if it is so good why is THE AMERICANS so unknown in the UK?  Right now you can't even get to the official website from this country.
ITV bought it up. 
ITV showed two seasons of THE AMERICANS and dropped it like a stone. Those X Factor repeats are so much easier to sell when your overall share of the UK viewing audience drops by 5% every year. Maybe ITV would be more comfortable remaking THE AMERICANS themselves with Ant and Dec playing the Elizabeth and Philip?

1 comment:

  1. Awesome review of the Americans and its most compelling character.