One for the motherland: Sam Lim and I discuss the pilot episode of FX’s The Americans

theamericansLast year, Sam Lim and I had so much fun dissecting the minutiae of Showtime’s captivating Homeland series that we decided to fill in the gap until the next season’s premiere with a new show. As it turns out, The Americans, which airs on FX, also deals with spies, espionage, and double agents. But the premise is quite different and, at least through the first episode, so is the quality.

And we’re off…

Jay: Hey Sam,

So I just finished the series premiere. Excited to be doing this again! Here we go:

I don’t know if I’m just really nitpicky, if I have an incurable contrarian streak, or if I’m actually right, but I thought last night’s pilot episode of The Americans was problematic on a whole, heaping bunch of levels. It’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll check off a few random issues that bothered me the most.

First, more than anything else, this episode felt remarkably contrived. Everything happened just as we might expect them to happen on a network TV show, but I was hoping this would be better. Obviously, while watching the show, I couldn’t resist mentally making the inevitable Homeland comparisons, and in that light The Americans‘ first episode looks even worse. The most glaring example is the Jennings’ next-door neighbor Stan, the FBI agent. Halfway through the episode, when the Jennings were beginning to worry about the curious timing of their new neighbors’ appearance, I thought, “I really hope the show ends up revealing that the FBI has already suspected this couple to begin with, and that the new neighbors were not a coincidence” — because, if not, there is absolutely no plausibility to the idea that Stan would immediately suspect Philip and Elizabeth of being somehow abnormal.

But given Stan’s conversation with his wife in their kitchen, it appears that is simply not the case. His backstory, going undercover with white supremacists, is not a particularly convincing reason to go all renegade and start snooping around the Jennings’ garage. Which brings me to a second point, which is that it is absurd for Philip to not only agree to lend Stan a jumper cable, but then to motion for him to follow him into the garage while he takes it out from under their hostage. There were a million better, and far more obvious, ways to avoid that scenario: telling him he didn’t have the cable, asking him to wait in the living room, and so on. Again, this was one of just many ways in which the episode felt like it was intentionally fabricating made-for-TV moments that make no sense in the real world.

The dialogue, too, was pretty spotty. Basically any time Elizabeth was explaining her loyalty to the Soviet Union, I wanted to laugh. Same with Philip arguing that living in the US was actually pretty decent: “America’s not so bad…Yeah, electricity works all the time. Food’s pretty great.” This is then followed by Elizabeth asking: “Is that what you care about? Not the motherland?” Nothing about that conversation felt real, but it seems certain to appeal to a very provincial and binary mindset in which capitalism/America = good and communism/Soviet Union = bad. I know The Americans is a period drama, but it feels more at home as an actual contemporary show airing in the 1980s than it does as a retrospective series. On the other hand, I did enjoy Elizabeth’s snarky little asides any time her children mentioned how awesome the US was: “You know, the moon isn’t everything. Just getting into space is a remarkable accomplishment.”

I’m going to do a U-turn and head back to some of the more improbable plot points. How about starting with the Jennings having sex in their car at the very location where they’d just dumped the KGB defector’s body? As if that weren’t bad enough, what was the deal with that child predator at the department store? It makes zero sense for Philip to go berserk on him, especially now that he’s under even more pressure than usual not to make a scene or stick out like a sore thumb in the US. I really hope this doesn’t turn into one of those alcoholic-ex-Marine-has-an-eerily-prophetic-premonition-that-Brody’s-a-spy plots (or, for that matter, a Mike-has-the-same-premonition plot), in which Mr. Skinhead becomes a consistent thorn in Philip’s side or something. But if that really is the only episode in which that dude appears, what was the point of his entire storyline? That Philip likes thrashing people and then eating their barbecued food?

Last whine: what’s up with all the music? I think that’s one of the things Homeland does pretty well: there’s some soundtrack music here and there, but it’s organic and serves well in the background. Music in The Americans was overly obnoxious and distracting: it didn’t add anything to the story, but it definitely divided my attention a few times.

OK, so I’m being a bit harsh because I still can’t stop comparing it in my mind to Homeland, which got off to a much, much better start. The bottom line is, I still plan to keep watching.

What did you think?

Sam: I could not agree more: I thought the episode was entirely contrived. Too many story angles seemed unconvincing, and the details just silly, starting with the ending of the episode (which you nailed already). Perhaps my views — like yours — are overly colored by our obsession (?) with Homeland. I mean, sure, even if Stan had his suspicions about Philip, would he really sneak into his garage almost immediately after he met him?

Then again, perhaps him recognizing the model and make of the car as the one the FBI had been tracking gave him such cause, but then that gets to your point about Philip telling Stan to follow him into the garage. C’mon! You couldn’t just offer him a drink inside and say, “Let me go grab it from the garage real fast.” Or better yet, just tell him you don’t have one, since you obviously have no problem lying about most everything else in your life. But I digress.

On an acting level, I felt like Elizabeth was the weakest of all the main characters we met. As you noted, her loyalty to the Soviet Union was laughable. Even after her unfortunate incident with her captain (whom she so desperately wanted to murder in the garage), she still has such love for being a KGB officer? I will say though that the kids were at least normal, unlike the absurdly annoying Dana and seemingly oblivious Chris in Homeland. I say this now, but who knows, perhaps they’ll devolve into moody teenagers as well.

I also didn’t understand the whole predator storyline either. If anything, it seemed like a weak play at trying to show how Philip (and by extension, Elizabeth) have to keep their trained assassin skills under wraps — and perhaps to show off their diverse collection of costumes. But you’re right, where that’s going, I have no idea.

What struck me the most about this show is the attempt to portray how these Soviet Union spies might have thought about living in America or how everything relates to the Cold War. Then again, seeing as how I might have just been transitioning out of diapers when the Berlin Wall fell, I might just be utterly naive about how the 80s were. But it just almost seemed too much. Nearly everything the kids said was somehow turned into a subtle (or not so subtle) jab at how the Soviet Union is better than the US. You noted Elizabeth’s thoughts on space travel, etc. I couldn’t help but laugh when the daughter said she was learning about the Russians cheating on arms control in social studies and the son saying they launched a rocket in science.

Finally, I couldn’t help making a mental note of all the improbabilities I saw. You mentioned a few, but the ones I saw: Fighting with Timoshev and punching his head through a wall in your garage doesn’t wake the kids up? Hmm…I think I’d hear if my parents were duking it out with some guy in my garage and generally making a racket — and head downstairs to the garage to ask them what was going on. Their kids must be heavy sleepers. Also, wouldn’t you handle Timoshev’s body with gloves at least?

The one that caught my eye the most though is a rather silly one and really has nothing to do with anything. When Elizabeth pulls out the brownies she baked from the oven, I assume the baking sheet was hot. She did use a towel after all. But when she picks up the knife, stares at it, and finally drops it back on the counter, her wrist hit the corner of the baking sheet. Silly, I know, but her reaction (or rather, non-reaction) suggested the baking sheet wasn’t very hot.

I plan to keep watching as well, but I really do hope it gets better and that the story angles become less contrived and predictable. They need another layer or two of complexity to this show. But then again, it’s only been one episode.

This is a tough question, since we’ve only seen this pilot episode, but what predictions do you have for next week on The Americans?

Jay: I’m secretly glad you had similar reactions to the pilot episode. I was worried it’d just be me, especially after all the reviews started coming out and they were almost uniformly positive. By the way, I’m pretty sure you win Episode 1’s Most Observant Moment Award for noticing the thing with the baking sheet. That would never, ever have crossed my mind. The Timoshev fight in the garage, however, definitely did, so I’m glad you brought that up. Just not believable.

The good news is, I think reviewers often receive the first two or three episodes all at once, so if they’re all this positive about the show, I’m guessing it gets better within the next few weeks. But even if so, there are certain problems that I’m worried won’t be so easily resolved. One is, as you mentioned, Elizabeth’s character. She’s way too one-dimensional and black-and-white. I’m guessing that’s mostly the fault of the writers, but maybe it’d take a better actress to really sell it too. The jury’s still out on her.

This has already been brought up elsewhere, but there’s something fishy about this couple, who have been married for a decade and a half, only now somehow coming to grips with their conflicted emotions about both their jobs and their marriage. As in, she’s still not sure how she feels about him — after 15 years or so? Similarly, would she really be that shocked that he wants to defect? The general she meets late in the episode mentions that she’d brought up Philip’s hesitance in the past, so she can’t be all that surprised that he wants to defect now, right? It’s also inconsistent that she’s so adamant about fighting for the “motherland” for the entire episode, and then decides at the end not to mention her husband’s desire to defect. Just too many stretches.

If I had to guess, we’ll start to see more of the family life (a development I’d rather not take place, but it feels inevitable). I’m guessing we’ll have the kids almost finding things out in the next few episodes, etc. For the record, and this is more of a side note, I can hardly think of a single TV show or movie in which main characters’ family lives are portrayed in an interesting or relevant way. Even on The Wire, when they show Kima’s or McNulty’s or Lt. Daniels’ home lives, I just want to hit Fast Forward.

What do you think is on the way?

Sam: The few reviews I had read were pretty positive as well, so I was truthfully a bit disappointed with the first episode. But you’re right, it has only been one episode, and hopefully we’ll see better story angles develop.

I also thought Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship a bit odd. When they first moved to the US (and stood in front of the A/C unit together), she had said she wasn’t ready to fully embrace their couple status yet. The way she continues to act, despite having two kids, seems somewhat out of place (read: contrived) given Philip’s cheery nature.

As for the show focusing on their family life, the only show that I can think of off the top of my head is Modern Family, but that’d be a totally strange mix for a show like The Americans, even though I love Modern Family. 

My thoughts on what’s coming: Stan will inevitably find another reason to go snooping in the Jennings’ garage, after another strange and contrived encounter. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Elizabeth and Philip get trailed by other covert KGB officers, particularly after Elizabeth’s latest conversation with the general. Sure, she may have convinced him that Philip’s okay this round, but Philip’s bound to have another “America’s not so bad” moment that’ll just piss Elizabeth off.

I also feel like we might see something happen between the Jennings’ daughter and Stan’s son. The way they looked at each other when their families met seemed like too obvious an opening for a developing relationship. After that brief focus on how they looked at each other in the episode, I’d almost be disappointed if they don’t get together (and create a strange tension within the Jennings’ household that will trigger red flags in Stan’s household), but that right there is exactly why I’m disappointed in this show. The story seem too obvious and simple. Or it may just turn out to be another odd tangent like the child predator dude.

Either way, I’ll be interested to see what happens in the next episode, but I can’t honestly say I’m excited to watch it. I’ve actually developed more of a liking to other new shows like 1600 Penn, even though that has its own share of contrived ridiculousness too. At least, it makes me laugh for being a political comedy. The Americans just makes me laugh for being overly implausible.

 

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Big Brother is watching you, from 17,500 feet up

The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal has more:

One thing to note is that a drone can just hang out at 15,000 feet over a small city-sized area (roughly, half of Manhattan) and provide video surveillance of the whole thing. The other thing to note is that they are running machine vision on the moving objects, which means they are generating structured data out of the video, not just displaying the pictures.

I won’t get completely into the legal details, but what if some branch of government or a corporation (maybe not Google, but maybe Google) set one of these guys up over an American city. They say that Big Data analysis has told them that criminals (or consumers!) display certain types of behavior that can be spotted at that distance, helping them deploy police (or marketing promotions) on the ground more effectively. And the rest of the city’s citizens? Well, they’re collateral data.

Obama hearts guns

From New York Magazine:

Ever since President Obama awkwardly insisted to The New Republic last weekend that, “Yes, in fact, up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time,” media fact-checkers (including our own DI Dan) combed through every bit of White House photographic evidence for even a single snapshot of the president in the gun-toting act. Sensing that the ensuing SkeeterGate was getting out of hand, White House officials released the above photo to theofficial White House Flickr stream this morning. “For all the ‘skeeters’,” tweeted White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, “POTUS shoots clay targets on the range at Camp David on Aug. 4, 2012.” Yet we can already predict the obligatory conspiracy theory backlash, noting that there’s not a clay pigeon in sight. Apparently we’re not the only ones thinking this. As newly-departed White House Senior Adviser David Plouffe tweeted soon after: “Attn skeet birthers. Make our day – let the photoshop conspiracies begin!”

Perhaps this is actually a brilliant strategy: depicting Obama shooting a gun is probably the only way to get Republicans to start banning them.

Lindsey Graham precisely proves Chuck Hagel’s point.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qh2A7BR1PZc]

Is there a greater moron in the United States Senate than Lindsey Graham? (OK, yes, actually. But he certainly seems to be gunning for Idiot in Chief here.)

The decline of Boston sportswriting

Alan Siegel explores the reasons for the plummeting quality of Boston’s sports scribes:

The Boston sports media, once considered one of the country’s best and most influential press corps, is stumbling toward irrelevance. The national media not only seems to break more big Boston sports stories than the local press, but also often features more sophisticated analysis, especially when it comes to using advanced statistics. To put it bluntly, “The Lodge”—as Fred Toucher, cohost of the 98.5 The Sports Hub morning radio show, mockingly refers to the city’s clubby, self-important media establishment—is clogged with stale reporters, crotchety columnists, and shameless blowhards. Their canned “hot sports takes” have found a home on local television and talk radio, but do little but suck the fun out of a topic that’s supposed to be just that. And we haven’t even gotten to Dan Shaughnessy yet.

Ah, Dan Shaughnessy. Someday, when I have more time, I’ll devote a longer post to the enormous pile of rubbish that constitutes his writing portfolio. I just don’t have time today.

Stop politicizing everything? As if.

Michael Moynihan seems to have woken up on the wrong side of his bed. (On Monday, that is. At 4:45 AM EST, when his article was posted. So maybe he didn’t sleep at all.) In a rambling complaint about people who complain about movies and TV shows for various reasons, Moynihan wrote:

There is a simple lesson in all of this: if you are trawling for readers, they can be reliably attracted by accusing films and televisions shows (Argo, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, Girls, The Daily Show, American Idol, The Muppets, Homeland, The Help—a depressingly long list) of encouraging torture, war, anti-capitalism, Islamophobia, sexism, and racism. An accusation precipitates a flurry of tweets and blog posts (“I can weigh in on this; I’ve seen that movie!”) followed immediately by mainstream-media reports on the roiling “controversy.” Everyone gets provocative headlines; everyone gets page views; everyone leaves unsatisfied.

Despite a column headline that name-checks Django Unchained but then fails to mention the movie anywhere other than in the above-quoted parenthetical, and despite the fact that this very same parenthetical — consisting of a litany of film and TV titles that mostly go unmentioned for the remainder of the article — quite conveniently doubles as SEO-bait itself, the only real common thread uniting commentary on Lena Dunham’s Girls and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is that both are well-publicized pieces of entertainment whose content inspires both slavish devotion and vehement disgust.

In other words, they’re popular. Other than that, there’s not much of a similarity, despite Moynihan’s increasingly strained attempts to prove the contrary. The primary critique of Girls, to which Moynihan devotes a significant portion of his article, relates to the series’ unapologetically white, bourgeois sensibilities — with plenty of twentysomething angst and daddy’s-girl entitlement syndrome to go around.

Like Moynihan, I find some of the more common criticisms of Girls to be repetitive and uninspired (a characterization, incidentally, I’d apply in good measure to the show itself). The cries of “where are the black girls?” sound a lot like “concern trolling” to my male Caucasian ears, but then…exactly. Who knows? As I see it, it’s Lena Dunham’s show, it’s Lena Dunham’s friends, and if they all happen to be white, well…it’s probably because that’s a pretty realistic portrayal of how middle- to upper-class cliques work in real life.

They’re also caricatures of whiny, self-absorbed, only-child, Upper East Side self-actualizers whose endless navel-gazing manages to stir just enough stale air to create a mildly entertaining storyline with enough awkward sex to compile a “Best Of” YouTube hit by now. In other words, if you’re going to ask about the racial component, you’ve got to start asking about everyone else the show is ignoring too. Which, as far as I can tell, is pretty much all of us.

Zero Dark Thirty — which, I must here disclaim, I have not watched — is something very different. And that Moynihan can’t distinguish between the two types of critiques is worrying. The film’s detractors are not, as his headline declares, “politicizing everything.” It’s simply mind-boggling to me how a movie that depicts a narrative beginning on September 11th and more or less ending with Osama bin Laden’s capture, interspersed with generous helpings of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other such light-hearted curiosities, could ever not be political.

In fact, Moynihan’s frustration brings to mind that of the Second Amendmentists, those last remaining bastions of valor in the face of government tyranny, who — with the onset of each successive mass shooting: oh look, there’s another, and oh look, cue the gun rights violins at the Newtown hearings — unironically proclaim that gun control advocates are politicizing a tragedy.

Well, torture, too, is a tragedy. It is a tragedy on a small scale, in that it doesn’t work. But it is also a tragedy on a large scale, because it is a betrayal of values that rise above temporal considerations, like efficacy and practicality, and that represent the core of a society’s priorities. This is precisely why Zero Dark Thirty is, for many, a film worth complaining about. For all the caterwauling over Lena Dunham’s Girls, the show is ultimately a reflection of the creative energies of one particularly privileged 26-year-old. (And, by the way, my callous dismissal of both the show and its critics can itself be justifiably subjected to rebuttal on political grounds.) Zero Dark Thirty is a film that, as has been well-documented, was marketed as quasi-journalistic while its director simultaneously fended off accusations of inaccuracy by insisting that a portrayal of torture is not equivalent to endorsement. (Never mind that the portrayal itself did not comport with reality.)

Moynihan makes passing reference to the utter incoherence of his comparison:

The politicization of Zero Dark Thirty is understandable; it deals with a controversial policy furiously debated during the Bush presidency, after all. But a work of art needn’t be expressly political for the critic to bemoan its political failings.

What does it mean to not be “expressly political?” Is it not precisely into these subjectively-defined political vacuums that some of the most sinister ideologies calmly began their gestation? To get the inevitable Nazi reference out of the way, it’s not as if Hitler’s campaign against the Jews began at Auschwitz. Many unthinkable crimes spawned from the seeds of a seemingly benign origin. But if we are to take Moynihan at his word — and, I presume, to accept his necessarily arbitrary line separating “expressly political” works of art from all the rest — how will we then guard against the gradual incursion of bad ideas into our culture?

The short answer is: we can’t. But if the vitriol surrounding Bigelow’s movie is “understandable,” why bring it up at all as an example of the politicization of pop culture? Why, especially, bring it up as a supporting argument for the overemphasis on racism in our movies and TV shows? And, lastly, why compare the critiques of this film to those radically different ones of Girls?

Moynihan’s contempt for both brands of the pop culture commentariat is palpable: “And on it goes, with countless writers, most not long out of college, on the hunt for smelly little heterodoxies, demanding that art be deployed in the service of the people.” But it is his own nonchalance that allows previous political taboos to enter the mainstream. It’s too late to stop politicizing everything. But it’s even worse to sit out the debate.

Just say no to drugs

Jerry Saltz was taken aback by the new Henri Matisse exhibit at the Met:

Midway through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Matisse: In Search of True Painting,” I ran into the painter Alex Katz. He looked at me, agog, and said, “I thought I was going to faint when I saw these paintings.” He gestured at two Matisse still lifes from 1946. Already in a stunned state of my own, I followed his lead and gulped at the revolutionary pictorial power and radical color radiating off these two powerhouses, one dominated by a celestial red and an arrangement on a table. In the foreground were either a dog and cat chasing each other or a pair of animal-skin rugs.

Then I looked at the painting next to it. I saw the same still life depicted on the same table with the same vase, goblet, and fruit. But this version was totally different. Where the dog and cat were, there’s an ultraflat still life within the still life. It’s so categorically compressed that it looks less than two-­dimensional — maybe one-half-­dimensional. I thought I, like Katz, might pass out.

Pay no mind to the man behind the curtain.

The Guantánamo Bay trial proceedings for alleged terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed hit a speed bump on Monday:

The courtroom is set up so that spectators behind sound-proof glass can listen to an audio feed with a forty-second delay. As Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald describes it, “A red emergency light spins in court when a censor at the judge’s elbow hits the mute button to prevent someone from spilling national security secrets.” At just before 2:30 P.M., David Nevin, one of the defense lawyers, who was addressing a brief having to do with C.I.A. secret prisons, said he understood that “we are going to do this in a 505 and that some portion of this will turn out to be closed or secret.” As he pronounced “secret,” the light began to flash and white noise filled the audio feed, as if it had been a trigger word—even though neither the security officer or the judge had touched the button. That’s when the judge, James Pohl, realized that he was not, as he’d thought—given the trappings and the job title—running his own courtroom. Some unknown person in another room was, and was apparently able to turn the audio off or on, or, for all anyone knew, pipe in the soundtrack to “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Judge Pohl, who is also an Army colonel, was confused and angry.

“If some external body is turning the commission off under their own view of what things ought to be, with no reasonable explanation because I—there is no classification on it, then we are going to have a little meeting about who turns that light on or off,” the judge said.

David Brooks wakes up, smells the coffee

From yesterday’s column:

On the surface, Republicans are already doing a good job of beginning to change their party. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana gave a speech to the Republican National Committee calling on Republicans to stop being the stupid party, to stop insulting the intelligence of the American people.

Representative Paul Ryan gave a fine speech to the National Review Institute calling for prudence instead of spasmodic protest. The new senator for Texas, Ted Cruz, gave a speech to the same gathering saying the Republicans should be focusing on the least fortunate 47 percent of Americans.

But, so far, there have been more calls for change than actual evidence of change. In his speech, for example, Jindal spanked his party for its stale clichés but then repeated the same Republican themes that have earned his party its 33 percent approval ratings: Government bad. Entrepreneurs good.

In this reinvention process, Republicans seem to have spent no time talking to people who didn’t already vote for them.

One wonders where this suddenly reasonable columnist has been since last November 6th.