1. THE AMERICANS (FX)
The most striking thing about The Americans, from its crackerjack pilot to its inevitably tragic close, is all things it didn’t need to do. It didn’t need elaborate action sequences to get our blood pumping (or more frequently, run cold). It didn't need to juice its body count to find new ways to torment its characters. It didn’t need to feed big speeches to the actors to explicate the conflict between its guarded, unsentimental characters, not when Mathew Rhys and Keri Russell (and Noah Emmerich and Frank Langella and Margo Martindale and Alison Wright and Costa Ronin) could communicate worlds of devastation and longing and resignation in pained looks. It didn’t need to weigh us down with mounds of exposition before dropping midstream into a new elaborate espionage operation with a new mark and phony identities. It didn’t need to make Stan a complete dunderhead to draw out the tension over whether he will figure out that the sleeper agent he’s been hunting for 5 years is living across the street. It didn’t need to make Philip and Elizabeth’s espionage antics ahistorically earth-shattering to feel like they had real consequence. It didn’t need to force a car chase or a gunfight into every episode to maintain our interest, if it felt a quieter, more character-driven avenue would be more interesting that week, and at the same time it didn’t need to give filler storylines to the children and spouses of the leads when they ceased having direct bearing on the plot.
|"And next week we have a high chance of wheel-spinning in the A plot, |
which may turn to pretentious bullshittery overnight..."
I kind of get why it happens, but like with bad weather, understanding how the storm forms does little to alleviate the burden of living through it in real time, and that experience can be either a brief annoyance or a prolonged catastrophe. Some bad subplots are single episode tangents that never manage the feint at a larger relevance. Some eat up huge swathes of a season with ludicrous contrivances or dull, pretentious non-incidents. Sometimes they form because the show is grasping so desperately to reheat a stale characterization that it lands on something entirely out-of-character, sometimes it is just the strained belaboring of a forgone conclusion. In the worst cases, it feels like the writers are chafing at the confines of the narrative boxes they created for themselves in the first place, and so they just hijack the pieces of the show the audience actually gives a shit about in order to inflict their ersatz versions of Ibsen upon them.
For prestige TV junkies, this can be especially painful because you develop a sense for spotting the formations of a pointless subplot before it has even begun to disappoint. The brow furrows at the focus suddenly shifting to an ensemble player, or (shudder) the teenage child of a lead, out on their own. A new character pops up with a suddenly intense or deep-but-never-before-alluded-to connection to a lead, and you flinch (cruelly, such characters often appear wearing the skin of an over-qualified character actor who you would actually be a great fit for the show if they received real material). An established character is discovered to have a secret talent, through which they start stumbling into a new profession, although that resides at a considerable remove from the main focus of the narrative, and irl said profession is highly competitive to break into even for those with ability, experience, intentionality, and the requisite degrees on their side.
|"You're a radio DJ now, why not?"|
|"And you're a staffed comedy writer, sure. No one else is in LA is trying to do that anyway."|
|"Hung out with a journalist once? Guess you're a reporter now."|
The Americans, though, had a real knack for making its subplots feel meaningful. Some were more impactful than others, certainly, but none of them felt truly superfluous. Part of that is the good sense not to walk into certain traps; to not impose Aderholt’s home life upon us, or force poor, oblivious Henry to carry his own subplots when they would be so vestigial to the body of the show. But a lot of it also flowed out of the basic premise. So many shows, especially once they have burned through a first season of planned arcs, struggle to contrive ways to place the characters into unfamiliar settings that will challenge them in fresh ways and reveal some new aspect of their personalities, and those shows suffer when those settings stray too far from whatever basic dramatic nucleus they have established. By contrast, The Jennings’ espionage activity required them to constantly contrive to place themselves into such situations, and so they always fed naturally back into that fundamental nucleus of the drama rather than feeling like a retreat from it.
Because of this, storylines that would have the highest potential for tedium became some of the strongest in the series. Far from becoming the narrative orphans that other teen daughters of antiheroes like Meadow Soprano, Kim Bauer, or Dana Brody became in their shows later seasons, Page Jennings only became more central and interesting as she was exposed to more of her parents’ secrets. A slow-burning subplot about hardened killer Elizabeth learning to draw from a terminally ill artist sure sounds like the worst, most indulgent thing for the show to be wasting time on in its home stretch. But because it was always directly tied to the espionage, it gets to mine the subtle character-building pathos of the situation without it ever feeling cloying, or like it was just marking time to pad out the episode count, or as though the writers were looking down their noses at the genre elements of their own premise as they indulge their frustrated pretensions at arthouse verite'.
[OKAY, SERIOUS AND HIGHLY SPECIFIC SPOILERS FOR THE FINALE NOW]
The Americans was not always my favorite peak TV drama, but for five years it remained as harrowing and unpredictable as any of them, while being the most understated. And it somehow managed to craft an ending that maintained that understatement while also being suitably climactic. To get back to the theme of things the final season didn’t need: it didn’t need more than a single scene of Stan confronting his neighbors with all the cards finally on the table to feel like it paid off all those years of deception fully. And it didn’t need any of them to kill each other to pay it all down. Nor did it need to kill Oleg to underline the magnitude of what his conscience cost his whole family. It didn’t need to send the main characters to jail to “punish” them properly. It didn’t even need to destroy their marriage, even after a masterful misdirect of a storyline that set up a seemingly-inevitable schism and spy-vs-spy conflict between them for the show’s endgame. On paper, the final resolutions for the characters may look like a series of pulled punches, but it’s not because the show went soft on its leads as antihero dramas are prone to do (something even an all-timer like Breaking Bad couldn’t entirely resist). It could be as cruel as any similarly intense drama, but it was never, ever wanton. Could the ending have been more explosive? Surely. But The Americans was never concerned with explosiveness, only with weight. And for as light on violent death as it was, that finale was heavy, man.
I don’t want to discourage any other shows from going out with the biggest bang possible, as I think the impulse to swing big should be encouraged when crafting an ending, particularly in an age where longform storytelling is becoming so defined by soft-headed indulgence of the audience and the increasing inevitability that anything mildly successful will be subjected to reboot/revival/resurrection in 5, 10, or 30 years. But I hope the people crafting those endings will also study The Americans, and how it managed to surprise us with the final content of the butcher’s bill, even as that bill was presented with the muted authority of someone with nothing to prove.
Watch It For: The 80s deep cuts, which like so much of the show, were rarely obvious and always perfect.