Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Americans and First Seasons of Television

When I think about my favorite dramas of all time, it's rare that my favorite season is the first one.  Part of it is a personal thing, where I tend to find later seasons of shows more compelling because of my familiarity with the characters, even if the earlier seasons may be better in terms of writing and plot (prime example: I'm the only person in the world who favors season 2 of Downton Abbey to season 1).  Another reason is that, much like I pointed out with comedies in a previous post, dramas take a little bit of time to figure things out.  With comedies, however, it's more about giving the time to let the cast gel together and for the writers to find what is and isn't funny and tweak accordingly.  The slow start that dramas often face is more of a structural problem.  Despite the fact that it may not be the way that you or I consume television, shows are built upon the idea that viewers may not be tuning in every week or paying attention to every detail.

This is where the battle of serialization vs. procedural comes in.  How much serialization is too much at the outset?  If you have an overly serialized narrative right from the beginning, it's possible that the average viewer will be lost and never come back.  On the other hand, starting out with full-on procedural episodes will cause viewers like myself to get bored and drop the show.  Usually, a mix of the two elements is what new shows go for, and the difference is how each show goes about balancing the two.  There's the method that Joss Whedon seems to be fond of, where he starts out very procedural and sneaks a serialized narrative on you so subtly that you don't even notice.  Then there's the X-Files and Fringe model.  Both shows, the latter especially, became more serialized as they went along, but they still followed the format of switching between mythology-heavy episodes and monster/case-of-the-week episodes.

The Americans, FX's latest show about a couple of Soviets spies in the 1980s, is in the process of crafting one of the strongest debut seasons of a drama that I've seen in recent years, partially because of how effectively they've been managing to balance the serialized narrative and the weekly procedural stories.  Every episode has a singular objective, but these weekly missions or scenarios act as pieces that fit together to build towards moving the larger story forward.  This is an example of why I prefer the FX/AMC model of storytelling to HBO's model.  A show like Breaking Bad is heavily serialized, but it's also really good at making every episode have a clear beginning and end, a general goal that must be achieved.  On something like Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire, seasons are constructed like novels and each episode is merely chapter.  In the same way you're not going to remember what happened in chapter 13 of a book, you probably wouldn't be able to give an answer if somebody randomly decided to ask you what happened in the Game of Thrones episode "The Ghost of Harrenhal."  On the other hand, an episode like Mad Men's "Signal 30," which aired around the same time, is easy to remember because it can just be described as "the Pete Campbell short story episode."

Mad Men's episodes provide individual stories that differentiate themselves from one another while also contributing to the arc of the season, and The Americans is doing a similar thing in its construction of the season.  It'd be hard to confuse what happens in one episode with what happens in another because of the clearly delineated objectives in each, yet the show cleverly avoids feeling like a "mission of the week" show.  This is because every mission has direct implications for Elizabeth and Phillip and moves their relationship forward.  Strangely enough, the marriage/partnership between the two main characters is the serialized element of the show.  The state of their relationship is constantly shifting and reformulating, always being driven by the circumstances around them.

Having the show be as much about marriage as it is about being a spy is a really smart choice, allowing for there to be many parallels to be drawn between the two.  Marriage is built upon trust and honesty, two things that don't mesh well with being a spy.  The idea of two conflicting desires is one that drives many narratives, from Walter White's desire for power conflicting with his desire to protect his family to Amy Jellicoe's desire to be altruistic conflicting with her quest for revenge.  At its core, The Americans is about being caught between two poles.  Elizabeth and Philip's marriage is an arranged one, but over the course of their assignment there's a real affection that has grown between them.  They're devoted to each other, but they're also devoted to their duty and the goals of their nation.  "Which devotion is stronger?" looks to be the driving question of the season thus far, with the concept being literalized by introductions of Elizabeth and Phillip's past lovers.  There's been a constant building upon the theme of couples coming together and couples crumbling, as seen in the romantic troubles of Stan, an FBI agent and Elizabeth and Phillip's neighbor, who could cause problems for them in the near future.  "If all of these normal couples are falling apart," the show seems to be asking, "what chance do Liz and Phil stand"?  The decision that the two make at the end of last week's episode, to really put effort into making things work, is even more moving under the weight of this thematic portent.

If there's one flaw I could point out about the show, it's the "why now?" factor of it all.  Elizabeth and Phillip have been working undercover for 15 years, yet this discovery that they may have genuine feelings for each other is just happening now.  The alternating vulnerability and coldness that both Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys bring to their roles help make this easier to overlook; both of their killer performances just sell every moment and make anything believable.  As each episode progresses and is better than the last, I find that every element of The Americans is growing on me and being scratched into my soul.  I even like the opening credits, which many people seem to hate.  The blending of American and Soviet imagery until you can't tell what's what anymore is a great summary of a show that constantly asks just what is real and what is a cover. If The Americans continues its exponential improvement, it could quickly become one of my favorite shows on television.

No comments:

Post a Comment