Friday, December 23, 2016


In years past, I collaborated on a year-end Best Of list with various other luminaries from  Now that I'm on my own, the list will be more unfiltered and nonsensical, and also separated into individual entries. Oh, and it's scripted TV only (it's simpler that way).  The ordering of said list is largely arbitrary, but if strict quantification of artistic merit makes you feel safe and aroused, consider this #6.


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No show on television delivers a surprise death like Game Of Thrones.  With its voluminous cast deployed across its sprawling narrative landscape like bombs, exploding with a frequency that is consistent, but whose patterns are unpredictable.  By contrast, no show on TV wields the threat of death with a more devastatingly steady hand than The Americans.  It can be difficult for a show to deal in constant life and death stakes with a core cast as small as it has, but with fewer of Hitchcock’s proverbial bombs lying around, creators Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have resisted the temptation to pad out that cast with sacrificial lambs masquerading as characters of significance (see: Sons Of Anarchy’s periodic influxes of redshirt prospects/charters, probably The Walking Dead, going off some of the griping I’ve heard about it).  The result is that when season four runs out the long-running fuse on a couple of those narrative bombs, you suddenly realize how disciplined the show has been about playing the “shocking death that changes everything!” card. 

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That’s not to say that character deaths are just a cheap shock tactic (indeed, a properly deployed one is as expensive as shock tactics can get), or are not a necessary aspect of this type of storytelling.  If those stakes are going to remain at that heightened life and death level, the piper must periodically get paid.  This is just to point out how The Americans may seem to fit in the same mold as a few dozen other antihero dramas on the cable dial(/malfunctioning streaming service), but as befits a show about asymmetric warfare, it is playing that game in different, subtler ways.  And so where the children of the antihero are frequently flavorless obstacles to be navigated around, the best thread of season 4 involves daughter Paige’s struggle to adjust to the world-shattering news that her parents are Soviet spies (a revelation itself that most contemporaries would save for the final stretch, rather than the halfway point of the series).

While Keri Russell and Mathew Rhys continue to give hands down the best dramatic performances on television, and ringers like Frank Langella, Dylan Baker, and Character Actress Margo Martindale (whose cold-blooded Soviet spook is somehow her second most frightening appearance on this year’s list), it was Holly Taylor that really stepped up to deliver the most memorable moments.  In a season with potent chemical weapons on the loose and shocking deaths rearing their heads, Paige took the cake with her first, deeply conflicted forays into grooming assets. When she has her first kiss, we can tell that even she is not sure if it’s because she likes the boy or to set up a honeypot scenario.  And I still can't even decide which would be worse.  It's not shattering in the same way the death of a beloved character is, but the weight of the blow lands all the same.

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And I haven’t even mentioned Martha.  Poor, poor Martha.  With its pressure-cooker intensity and apparent impossibility of anything but the bleakest of conclusions for all its players, The Americans is not the easiest show to watch week to week.  But like the work of its protagonists, it is smart, cold, and devastatingly effective.

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Watch It For:  Hands down, television's best wig game (pictured).

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