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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

TV guide: suburban Soviet drama

In the wake of “Mad Men’s” critical success, period pieces on TV became en vogue faster than Don Draper could throw down a bottle of scotch. This wave is fairly ironic considering the paltry but devoted viewership “Mad Men” garners.

This year, the trend continues with FX’s “The Americans” as the most recent program to throw its hammer and sickle into the historical TV landscape. Set shortly after Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency, the show revolves around Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two ex-KGB agents posing an American married couple.

Portrayed by Keri Russell of “Felicity” fame and Matthew Rhys, the dynamic between this arranged marriage helps drive the emotional aspect of the pilot. Thrown together by Mother Russia, it’s fairly apparent this relationship is rife with different priorities and issues. Elizabeth clearly devotes her entire livelihood to their ongoing mission while Philip has wholeheartedly invested himself in the family they’ve created together.

The brilliance of “Mad Men” is that it never relies on history as a crutch. It deftly introduces historical events when necessary (the Marilyn Monroe death is a prime example) but also lets the characters remain the main impetus for ongoing storylines. Avoiding the pratfalls of a show like “Copper” that focuses more on world-building than the hollow characters that populate it, “The Americans” keeps the macro-level events on the backburner in favor of creating small scale character-based tension.

The conflict stems from Noah Emmerich’s Stan Beeman, a recently transferred FBI agent who has conveniently taken up residence across the street from your friendly neighborhood Soviets. This alarming new addition to suburbia felt like the most contrived portion of the pilot, but the superb acting helps the tense scenes between Beeman and his Soviet counterparts feel more organic than artificial.

With a pulpy quality reminiscent of 80s TV shows that populate its universe, “The Americans” treats violence and action scenes with a tone that’s both refreshing and disturbing in its rhythmic cinematography. FX’s new drama is layered with intrigue expanding far beyond the basic examination of loyalty amidst U.S.-Soviet paranoia, and it’s this dense construction that makes “The Americans” look like the season’s best new show.

Shifting focus from newbies to veterans, as “The Office” marches towards its impending series finale Greg Daniels has introduced the documentary crew as integral to the show’s final chapter. Sparking controversy and criticism, the clean cut boom mic operator Brian has emerged as the plot device to finally inject some tension into the Jim-Pam marriage that evolved from adorable to absolutely unbearable.

I’ve long been a proponent of creating trouble in paradise over the past few seasons as Jim and Pam’s marriage became as interesting as watching the paint dry on Pam’s recently defaced mural.

The producers have tried in seasons past to keep the heart of the show compelling. Pam’s brief stint at art school and possible courting by Harry Crane in season five seemed interesting, but with a relationship still in its honeymoon period, fans may have mutinied had the producers expanded this conflict.

Last season featured Cathy Simms, the temp who randomly appeared as the character hoping to lure Jim away from Pam. In the worst season of the show, this reveal was literally the only time I remember being immediately interested in watching the next week’s episode since season four.

In its best years “The Office” always understood when to accentuate humor and when to utilize the emotional resonance that made it one of the best shows on TV. This was not one of “The Office’s” best years however, and Cathy disappeared nearly as fast as her forced storyline appeared. In one of the most uncomfortable episodes in the series, Cathy makes ridiculously overt advances towards Jim who appears equally as queasy in spurning her. It was an embarrassing moment for a show that handles the minute steps on the path to love so carefully.

Brian the boom-mic operator is merely the newest plot device the producers are trying out. The issue with introducing the documentary crew is twofold. First, not one fan cares about this crew since they’ve never mattered in the last nine seasons of the show. Secondly, this opens up a Pandora’s box of questions that fans have been able to easily ignore before this point.

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For starters: Why would this documentary still be filming a show about a middling paper company in the first place? Was it awkward to voyeuristically examine every intimate moment between Jim and Pam? Did they realize Robert California was the most asinine, hideously instituted character on TV?

Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski did some of their best acting in years over the phone in their fight the episode Brian first emerged. The look of confusion, sadness and resolve to not break down on camera by Pam was the most real that character has been since season two. That moment could have simply lingered, instead some dude dropped his mic and told the cameras to quit rolling. Daniels should be confident enough in the characters he helped create; distance is a legitimate enough barrier for a marriage.

I don’t need Jim and Pam’s relationship to reach Walter White levels of depression, but even these small conflicts have made their characters the most interesting they’ve been in a long time. I just wish they didn’t use some random boom mic guy to get there. 

Any thoughts on shows, new or old, good or bad? Talk shop with Adam. Send him an email at arparis@wisc.edu.

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