PULP IS DORK CODE FOR ENTERTAINING–ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER
Tomorrow night’s episode of The Americans (Joe Weisberg, creator) has the potential to be a legendary episode of television. I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as possible: we’re at the midpoint of season four, and a long-running character has just had several revelations dropped on her head and is in mortal danger from one set of characters, is possibly a high-value asset to another set (but she might in danger from them too), and her fate will most likely be determined by the conflicted loyalties of the protagonists. Last week’s episode ended with her literally running away on her own, setting up a possible episode where everyone will be chasing her. Every scene could be an escalation, every scene could be life-or-death, and best of all, this can all be completely plausible. We could believe all of it. And I just don’t know if The Americans will go there.
What’s been set up here is only possible in television. Movies can do this kind of exciting sequence, but it’s hard to sustain it for an entire hour because that takes up half the movie. The bigger problem is plausibility; movies just don’t have enough time to set all the pieces and characters in place for this kind of drama. That’s the great advantage of television: the long-running story and wider cast of characters allow the showrunners to move things into place over literally years. When they get to the big scenes and the big episodes, all that plot can kick in at once and the result is devastating, past any kind of critical response, the visceral, emotional pull of great drama.
The shows that have gone there, that have truly used the medium of television to its fullest potential, are Lost, Angel, Justified, occasionally Breaking Bad, and of course The Shield. On that list, only Breaking Bad gets considered a “prestige drama,” and that tells us something about the limitations of the genre. In our time, prestige drama has really become its own genre, not an evaluation; it has its own rules and expectations. Put simply, prestige dramas sacrifice drama for prestige, and that’s been the problem with The Americans from the beginning. It keeps going against what it is to become something it’s not.
The problem became clear a few episodes into the first season. The Americans, set in the early 1980s, tracks two deep-cover Soviet spies, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell). They came to America in their early 20s, are married, and have two children. (The show gets a lot of mileage out of its near period-perfect detail.) They have an FBI agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), living across the street from them, and they regularly fuck and kill as part of their tradecraft. They have to deal with the challenges of maintaining their cover, dealing with orders from Moscow Centre, raising children, an amazing amount of wigs, disguises, and hair care, and in the first season, falling in love.
All of this seems like a setup for an absolutely breathless pulp thriller, a kind of Cold War-era Alias. (That Keri Russell was essentially playing the lead of Alias in J. J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible 3 makes this comparison unavoidable.)
HERE BEGIN THE SPOILERS
The pilot episode was strong and with the fourth episode, “In Control,” it seemed like everything was ready to go. Weisberg pulled a great historical move, setting the episode on the day President Reagan was shot, and having both the FBI and Moscow Center suspect each other–the former suspecting an assassination, the latter afraid the assassination would get pinned on them and considering going to war over that. Elizabeth and Philip get caught in the middle, trying to defuse both sides without giving anything away. It made for good television, but here’s the thing: it should have been great television. Weisberg had the opportunity to deliver the kind of story where every action sets off about three more actions, where every scene raises the stakes and brings us closer to full-on disaster. The model for this episode is The Shield’s “Of Mice and Lem,” but the middle of the third season of Angel (“Loyalty”/”Sleep Tight”/”Forgiving”) and Justified’‘s “Decoy” came pretty close to this kind of thing too. The Americans got about halfway there, creating a respectable, fairly tense episode but not a devastating one.
That problem has continued. Every time The Americans seems ready to break out into something relentlessly fast-paced, it slows down and backs away. We really saw this in the third season. The second season ended with some devastating blows: a Russian informant (effectively a double agent) for the FBI, Nina (Annet Mahendru), was arrested by the Russians and the last we saw of her was riding away in the back of a limo; and the Jennings’ handler, Claudia (Character Actress Margo Martindale), revealed Moscow Center’s plan to eventually recruit their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) as an agent, a “second-generation illegal.”
In the show’s biggest misstep, Nina remained as a character in season three, largely moping in a KGB prison and with the promise of freedom offered to her if she used her feminine wiles on a Russian Jewish scientist. This had exactly nothing to do with the main plot, and didn’t seem to have any dramatic purpose beyond keeping an attractive woman on screen and on the payroll. (The Shield solved this problem by paying an actor for a season when his character wasn’t part of the show anymore.) A few episodes back, Nina took a bullet to the back of the head, something that seems to have shocked a lot of viewers and TV critics but which struck me as both completely predictable and 15 episodes overdue.
The third season also suffered from losing Martindale as Claudia and replacing her with Frank Langella. Given the challenges of producing long-form television, this isn’t an entirely fair criticism–actors take other roles or are otherwise unavailable–but it’s a necessary one. Martindale is an effortlessly great actress, like Philip Seymour Hoffman or James Gandolfini, the kind who embodies every role down to the level of stance, breathing, and gaze. Her Claudia was warm, grandmotherly, and as homicidal as Mags Bennett and you knew that at every moment. In a drama, it’s necessary that all threats to our protagonists have equal weight, so all their options are equally impossible, and Martindale was the immutable presence of Moscow Center’s threat at all times. As their new/old handler, Gabriel, Langella brings more prestige to the role but less talent, or possibly less interest. He’s not bad in the role, but he doesn’t have the threat Martindale did. (Gabriel offers you tea? No problem. Martindale offers you tea? RUN.) At his best moments, he conveys a sense of resignation, of “the bosses have decided so there is no point in any of us caring now.” Martindale brought the feeling of Moscow Center on the screen, Langella keeps it remote. It’s good, but it’s only good enough, and it’s not drama.
All of the third season had that feel of opportunities for drama lost. Another particularly glaring example was the (currently) abandoned subplot that had Philip seducing a teenager in order to plant and maintain access to a bug in her house. (The hairstyles and home décor were another case of The Americans getting the period detail exactly right.) In a season where a dead woman’s body got folded into a suitcase (every bone break was audible), this was easily the most disturbing element. It was what The Americans and drama could be at its awful best: people we care about doing horrible things. Philip stopped short of having sex with her (statutory rape seems like a bright line at FX’s Standards and Practices department) and after two, maybe three visits to her house, we haven’t heard anything about her. It did give us one funny moment of Philip and Elizabeth stoned and giggling about the whole thing, but overall it felt exactly like the Kevin Spacey/Mena Suvari relationship in American Beauty: moral titillation without moral challenge. (What I’m saying is, if you’re gonna ruin Yaz’s “Only You,” you had better have a damn good reason for doing so.)
Of course, all of this can be defended, and defended well. People always shift in and out of our lives; threats don’t always appear as threats; conflicts sometimes just go away without resolving. Also, a slower pace gives us more time with the characters and lets us see how they act in everyday life; it allows for richer portrayals than the kind of show where every scene has to advance the plot. Keeping a character like Nina away from the main action can create interesting thematic parallels between the different worlds of the show, and certainly a TV series gives you enough time and space to do that. All of these things are characteristic of what we now call prestige television.
Considered as a genre, prestige television is literary rather than dramatic, doing its work with theme, allusion, image, dialogue, rather than the fundamental dramatic element of action. (I discuss this idea more fully here.) Literary works are aimed at readers, not audiences; the single perceiver who can move back and forth in the series at will and who has an external perspective on the characters. They sometimes feel to me like a conversation between author and reader behind the back of the characters. All of this goes in opposition to dramatic works, which depend on the identification of the audience with the characters, not the distance between them. Unsurprisingly, literary television has been hugely successful with critics (really, that’s what makes it prestigious), as criticism has taken its standards from literature since roughly the 1800s.
Contemporary prestige television begins with The Sopranos; I’m sure cases can be made for other shows but this one feels like the consensus choice. We probably have yet to figure out the entirety of its influence. One aspect has been the male antihero protagonist; a lot has been written about that and some of the writing is even good. A less acknowledged influence, though, has been its approach to character and action, what could be called the Lives of Quiet Desperation model. The basic storytelling principle of The Sopranos was that there were incidents, but really no story, because no one could ever change. Everyone was static and oh so doomed, which can be used to make an excellent broader point about American life (and many many critics have made that point) but is fundamentally undramatic. Right to the famous finale, David Chase continually and deliberately defused and avoided real confrontation or real change. The Sopranos set in place something that has continued to this day: prestige dramas are prestigious to the extent that they are not dramas.
Probably Mad Men most successfully used the prestige-drama genre. Although there were dramatic arcs and moments, the overall effect of the show was to check in and hang out with its characters at different points in their life journeys. Unlike The Sopranos, change happened, but more through growth than confrontation. (Also, unlike The Sopranos, Matthew Weiner didn’t hate his characters.) Mad Men incorporated literary devices–flashbacks, allusions, ironic counterpoint in the soundtrack–in a way that illuminated who the characters were, and were well suited to the slower pace of the show. It’s the best example of the literary power of television.
In our Second Golden Age of Television, the age of the prestige drama, television has expanded its resources. In one way, the expansion is quite literal, as widescreen TV sets has become the new standard. TV dramas have expanded their budgets, their casts, their photography. It’s no surprise, then, that prestige has become associated with literary devices, because with literature, more is better: more detail, more psychology, more incident. The First Golden Age of Television didn’t have these things and thus it was more suited to drama. It’s no surprise that the great works of the First Golden Age were televised plays, because drama is a subtractive genre: everything that does not advance the action needs to be removed.
The subtractive nature of drama helps to clear up a misconception: a drama needs to be plausible, but it does not need to be realistic. Dramas are not representations of life, but of action; Aristotle said that in the Poetics and it’s worked pretty well these last 2500 years or so. A drama consists of a series of incidents that have been constructed in order to bring the characters into an elemental conflict with themselves. They are not accurate representations of a particular time or place, which is why dramas have a life and matter beyond a particular time or place. Hamlet may or may not accurately represent early-last-millennium Danish politics; Antigone may or may not accurately represent ancient Greek burial practices; Long Day’s Journey into Night may or may not accurately represent the life of retired actors and heroin addicts circa 1900. None of these things make a difference to the drama. It only matters whether the actions in the drama’s particular world are plausible and necessary.
J. J. Abrams’ Alias had very little in the way of realism; it was an adventure- (and for Jennifer Garner, hairstyle-) of-the-week show featuring lots of zany gadgets and multiple Giant Spheres of Doom. It’s not the sort of show that could ever be considered prestige television, and it still generated some strong drama. Abrams has called his storytelling model “realistic characters in unrealistic situations,” and at his best he brings that off. For all the madness of Alias, it was anchored first by some great performances, mainly by Victor Garber and Lena Olin, playing a husband and wife who have betrayed each other and occasionally tried to kill each other but never stopped being in love. Ron Rifkin as the full-series Big Bad was up there too, an amazing combination of true believer and sleazy boss. The other anchor for the show was the plotting. Team Abrams lost its way in later seasons, but at its best (the second season, aka The Season Where Lena Olin Owns the Shit out of Everyone) it was relentless, escalating nearly every scene.
Often, dramas get classified as “character-driven” or “plot-driven,” and that distinction rests on a misconception, or at least a different definition. Works like Mad Men or The Sopranos, which don’t focus on confrontation, show a lot about how its characters live their lives, the everyday detail of a person. However, that isn’t character but personality. In our language, we speak of a display of personality. It’s something that we show to the world, all the time. On the other hand, we say how something (an event, an action) reveals character. Character is a thing concealed, and you don’t always know what yours is until you’re tested. In a drama, the plot is that series of events that reveals character, so there is no distinction between character-driven and plot-driven. The plot results only from who the characters are, and the characters are revealed by the plot.
There’s a safety in staying away from plot-driven drama. Drama, as much as possible, puts everyone in the same place: creators, performers, audience. The plot only goes forward, and once something’s done, everyone has to live with it. If plot is a mechanism to reveal character, once you’ve gotten to the reveal, there’s no other place to go. That’s the reason classical drama ends with the act of recognition, that elemental act of self-knowledge and completion. A plot that’s spinning its wheels is a plot that isn’t revealing anything about the characters. Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy ran into this problem. For the first two seasons or so, it had a tight dramatic structure (Sutter started his show at about the same place The Shield was at the beginning of its fifth season) and a well-developed sense of a unique place and social order. After that, though, Team Sutter ran out of plot and had to keep inventing more and more things to keep the series going. (Alias had this problem too, although there were fewer gougings, blindings, tongues bitten off, and torture sequences set to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) That’s one solution to the problem of keeping a TV series going; the other is to stay away from confrontations that might irrevocably change things. That is, stay away from drama.
This brings us back to The Americans. Make no mistake, it’s a good show but it could be a great show if it wasn’t trying so hard to be a prestige show. So strange to see this happen on the FX network, because it’s always been the home of dramas that were least concerned with prestige. Starting with The Shield and then moving on to Sons of Anarchy (I can’t imagine Sutter working anywhere but FX. In fact I can’t imagine anywhere but FX that actually lets him past the front lobby), Damages, Dirt, Justified, Lights Out, Tyrant, The Bastard Executioner, FX has been the home to bloody, pulpy entertainment. Even Fargo, although it had a dreamy, elliptical, cinematic style, still has a lot of blood and masculinity to it. (The first season in particular explored a broad range of men and how they lived in its characters.) These shows range in quality from “outright awful” to “greatest drama in the history of television,” but they are all unquestionably dramas.
The Americans has a recurring pattern of setting up confrontations and then not going through with them and of slowing the pace when drama directs it to speed up. Again, there’s an entirely reasonable justification for that: spying, especially if you’re a sleeper agent, involves a lot of waiting and not confronting things. The problem there is that The Americans already signaled at the beginning there would be a lot of conflicts, killings, and improbable escapes; there have already been too many broad-daylight murders for the show to be considered realistic. (Really, having the premise be “FBI agent moves into house across the street from covert KGB operatives” already pretty much kills the idea of realism.) One can combine genres, but that risks getting something that fails at two things.
The Americans has all the base ingredients for a great dramatic show. The direction has been consistently strong, giving that shadowy feel of the world of espionage. Historical details get sparingly worked into the action; it’s effective, never overbearing. (The third season ends with Reagan’s Evil Empire speech, and it’s a strong touch to see the effect it has on Elizabeth and Philip.) Most of all, the acting is some of the best you’ll currently see on television, which these days means it’s the best you’ll currently see. Keri Russell gives Elizabeth a will and lack of compromise that feels distinctly Russian, something born out of centuries of suspicion of the West. Matthew Rhys works the blessing of his dorky appearance so well here; you know he’s a great spy because he doesn’t look like one. In fact he comes across more than anything as Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy, Secret Communist! (Actually, if Phil was a sleeper agent, that explains a lot.) Both of them have been playing all the way through the “character question” set up in the first episode: what are the highest loyalties of Elizabeth and Philip? So far, it looks like the Soviet Union for Elizabeth and the children for Philip; one of the best scenes this season had Elizabeth offering her blessing to his loyalties. If I die, she said, take the kids and live as Americans, that’s what you’ve always wanted. That’s what we need more of.
The supporting cast is uniformly good, even touching, with two standouts. As Martha, a secretary at the FBI that Philip secretly marries in order to maintain her as a source, Alison Wright could have been stuck in the comic relief role. Early episodes treat her that way, but Wright kept pushing through that, making Martha a full and heartbreaking person. You can see how much she wants to believe what Philip tells her; she’s deceived but not duped. Philip revealed who he was in another of The Americans’ great scenes at the end of last season, and she’s been close to breaking all through this season, and now she’s gone on the run.The other great actress here is Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings. The wheelspinning of season three finally stopped in the tenth episode, when Elizabeth and Philip came home and Paige confronted them, knowing they weren’t a normal family. It was the best moment of the series to date, because it played by the rules of drama, not prestige. (One rule of drama: pull the trigger on your conflicts sooner than we expect.) It’s comparable to the moment in Mad Men when Don confesses to Betty, and by “comparable” I mean “better than.” Taylor plays all the shifts of a teenager so well, sliding between certainty and confusion and always keeping the same kind of desperation as Wright just under the surface. In this scene, she gave that exact feeling of drama: this is the necessary thing that has to happen. (Russell and Rhys killed it, too, with Rhys letting a touch of Russian accent into his voice for just a moment.) Wright and Taylor have been driving this season, giving us the feeling that something awful could happen at any moment. Now that moment is here.
All The Americans misses is a commitment to its premise, the willingness to go all in on its drama. At its heart, it’s Alias, not Mad Men, a great pulp thriller, not a character study. Going all in might make it unrealistic, but so what? Look at Sophocles, Homer, Shakespeare, or Eugene O’Neill and realize that none of them gave one fuck about realism or restraint. The great, thrilling, and over-the-top dramas are the ones that have lasted through time. (David Fincher said that when we remember the films of 1982, it’s The Road Warrior and not Gandhi that comes to mind. I’d be equally willing to bet that Mad Max: Fury Road will be the film that viewers remember in 2050, not Spotlight.) The Americans has always been good. Tomorrow night it has another chance to become memorable.