The Cold War may have ended with a clear winner, but you can't say the same thing about the first season of FX's The Americans — unless you count the audience, of course. The story of two crazy Communist kids trying to make a marriage work in Reagan's America — while also attempting to destroy Reagan's America — The Americans quickly established itself as the best new series of 2013. With one season down and another on the way in early 2014, co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields joined me in a Manhattan studio for a full post-operational debrief. Nothing was redacted and little was confidential, from Joe's own history as a CIA trainee to the time Joel wouldn't let either of them eat lunch until a particularly bothersome edit was completed. It was a fascinating conversation; I was surprised to hear how Keri Russell ended up snagging such a surprising role, the real-life reasoning behind Martha and Clark's fictitious marriage, and, at long last, the true story behind the secret advances in Soviet wig technology. Spasibo, comrades! A glorious future awaits us all!
Plenty of people like to say "TV is the new movies." It's meant as a compliment: Look at all this great writing and non planet-exploding storytelling! But more and more it's starting to appear accurate in a less positive light. Though plenty of excellent, intricate character-based dramas remain, increasingly it seems that The Shield creator Shawn Ryan's words to me two years ago were prophetic: The huge debut of The Walking Dead was television's "Jaws moment," a ratings smash so huge it doesn't just change the bottom line for a network, it moves the goalposts of success for an entire industry. On most channels — including AMC — the age of auteurism is over, replaced with a potentially more stable slate of preexisting properties and pre-sold genre indulgences. Cable had its decade run of chasing gold statues. Now it's mostly chasing gold.
Earlier this week I wrote about how Sundance Channel is attempting to counterprogram this rising tide of Blockbusterism with an indie sensibility. But it's also worth keeping an eye on television's smartest executive, John Landgraf, who has built a remarkably successful record for himself at FX by both beating his competitors and joining them. When I recorded a podcast with Landgraf a few weeks back, he brought up The Walking Dead twice without any prompting. The first time it was in reference to current shows he had some regrets about passing on — though his reason for doing so, that he couldn’t quite "see" where nihilistic zombie slaughter could go as a series, has been justified creatively if not financially. The second and more interesting reference was to shows he'd like another crack at: Again he mentioned The Walking Dead.
The last decade of great television dramas has primarily been about pushing willing audiences past hoary storytelling signifiers like "good" and "bad." Over the past several years, we've cheered for serial adulterers and empathized with homicidal gangsters. TV has become a museum of masterpieces, nearly all of them painted in varying shades of gray.
The Americans, which features sworn agents of the "Evil Empire" as its protagonists, fits right in amid this gunmetal gallery. But for those living in its fictional 1981, that sort of nuance is a hard pill to swallow. It's a world of troubled G-men and sympathetic Soviets, but the one thing the two sides share is an overwhelming desire to conform to some type of moral binary. We hear it most plainly in the slurred speech of Stan Beeman during his after-hours visit to Philip in the latter's lonely Motel Шесть. Through the beers, Stan lauds his deceased partner as "a good guy," before quickly adding "not like me." To Stan, a good guy is a man without secrets, which suggests that, in Stan's mind, a good guy is also a unicorn. Never mind the fact that Amador's death happened precisely because he was harboring a secret: his off-the-clock surveillance of Martha. When Philip meekly asks who was responsible for the killing, Stan doesn't blink: "Bad guys," he says, either unaware of or embracing the irony. "And we're gonna find ’em."
Everyone takes their work home with them. How could we not? Especially these days, when the demands of a high-maintenance boss can buzz in your pocket from miles away. But cell phones have only taken something universal and made it immediate. There's never been an emotional car wash to run through on the commute home, no way to scrub the dozen little frustrations and indignities from your memory, no possibility of corralling the accrued stress and locking it in your cubicle overnight. The borders we try to construct in our daily lives to keep our families safe and our selves sane are ultimately as futile as the wire mesh and concrete the Soviets once used to divide a city. You can't build a barrier big enough. Things have a tendency of spilling over.
Last week, John Landgraf took the biggest risk of what has been a remarkably successful career full of them. From a well-lit stage in New York he announced the upcoming split of his network, FX, into a trio of complementary siblings: FX (unchanged), FXX (FX on Red Bull) and FXM (FX on chamomile tea). The day after the big reveal — and the subsequent, star-filled network party at a Manhattan bowling alley — Landgraf joined me in the studio to discuss the thinking behind the big move. What followed was a fascinating, considerably wonky conversation about TV as seen from the executive suite. Landgraf was forthcoming — and, it must be said, quite confident — about his decision-making process: why (and how) he empowered Louis C.K. to make Louie, the thinking behind hits such as Justified and The Americans, and why he missed on shows like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. (And yes, fellow diehards: I did get him to publicly admit to being "the asshole" who canceled the wonderful Terriers.) With its new suite of networks and its ambitious upcoming projects, FX is making a strong play to define the future of television.
In our real lives Chris Ryan and I like to talk about all sorts of things: movies, the weather, how Domonic Brown is going to win the Triple Crown this season. But when it came time to record this week, the only topic worth discussing was one dear to my professional heart: television. This is one of the busiest and best weeks I can remember on the small screen, filled with the return of old favorites, the escalation of new flings, and the arrival of one very intriguing surprise. But first I had to give Chris the rundown of my time with the FX network last week. In town to announce its cellular split into three distinct networks, the channel gathered all of its stars — and its stars' interesting hair — in a Manhattan bowling alley to celebrate.
At a certain point we don't even have to question why Anna Kendrick does the things she does, because the net profit of Annadorable Kendrickulousness leaves us with no complaints. Here is a video about Kendrick flying to Seoul to join K-Pop girl group f(x). Is Anna Kendrick a big f(x) fan IRL? Is f(x) member Krystal Jung really a big Up in the Air fan? Is there going to be a Korean remake of Pitch Perfect? (That would only be fair.) Stop asking questions. You know you want to see Kendrick dolled up in a pink wig "like [she's] in Cloud Atlas."
Looking back, it was easy to spot the signs. It started with the wild binging on the first-run rights to Hollywood movies, an exercise in quality-irrelevant hoarding not seen since Billy Bob and his terrifying tsunami of plastic toys. Then there was the subtle transition of the little-watched Fox Movie Channel to the marginally more-watched FXM. Finally, in January, Broadcasting & Cable spilled the rest of the unverified beans: FX was considering splitting itself into two, an act of media mitosis that would potentially segregate the network's comedy from its drama and leave its best show — the hilariously sad Louie — in genre limbo.
I should have known better than to assume that FX president John Landgraf — the man who empowered Louis C.K. with a six-figure check and a Steadicam in the first place — would ever do anything quite so timid. This morning in Manhattan, in addition to unveiling a new network slogan borrowed from the applications to be Ryan Murphy's assistant ("Fearless"), Landgraf confirmed the scuttlebutt: A new channel, FXX, will debut this September, with a focus on the much-coveted 18-34-year-old demographic. As expected, fratty stalwarts It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League will migrate to the new network (both were also renewed through 2014) along with a second season of Legit and the pleasantly surprising Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, which will be expanded to five nights a week. But Landgraf went to great lengths to explain how this split differs from the two established models for multiplicity in broadcasting, the "plex" strategy used by the hundreds of HBOs and Showtimes and the "sister/lovers" policy Turner employs with its temperamentally distinct offspring TNT (drama) and TBS (comedy).
There’s no word for “Decoy” other than “awesome.” It plays off all of the plots from this season so far, sending them colliding in a story that pulls together almost everything we know about Harlan County, Kentucky. It’s a great character piece, it’s a genuinely thrilling hour of action, and it deepens the themes the season has been building all along. The second season of Justified has taken on an almost mythic status in my mind, as a season of TV that took a good show and made it into a great one by tapping into all the things that were unique about it in the first place. It was the season of Mags Bennett and “it was in the glass” and the complicated story of poor, orphaned Loretta McCready. It was the season that took Justified from a show I watched to a show I was obsessed with.
And if the final two episodes are anywhere near as good as last night's, Season 4 just might end up being better.
Nothing brings a couple closer together than distance. We've all been there, right? Last night's fight still lingering in the air on the way to the train/bus/space station. The sour inevitability of the parting made even more bitter by a few final recriminations. Anything to fill the silence, or at least keep it at bay until the car door closes. Anger can be as effective as love when it comes to chaining two people together.
We saw it in full force last night on The Americans, too. In the moments before Philip walked to his train, he and Elizabeth sparred so convincingly you'd never know their original meet-cute was directed by a five-star Stalinist, not Nora Ephron. "It's a mission, not a getaway," Philip snaps. "Oh, you're soooo sorry to go," Elizabeth sneers. But as soon as he's riding the rails, she's mooning about their house like a housewife in a vintage laundry commercial, sniffing Philip's shirts and making googly eyes at the phone. (The shirts, by the way, probably smell like a musky cocktail of witch hazel and caviar.) It helped — or hurt, depending — that said mission involved collaborating with Irina, the true believer Philip left behind on the other side of the Iron Curtain. That was her face on the photo he nervously tore up back in the pilot, just before his first, awkward tea time with Elizabeth. And it was her face, again, that loomed large over all of Elizabeth's pining. There were years — entire decades — when she barely thought of Philip at all, when she preferred playing dress up with Gregory to playing house with her husband. But losing Philip to Irina now would be a defection worse than the one he rashly suggested back when Elizabeth's rapist was still hog-tied in the trunk. Lovers and antagonists are nothing without their other halves.
“Get Drew” is the Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird of Justified episodes, and I mean that largely as a compliment. It’s an episode where everybody pairs off to haul in Drew Thompson (whom I’m going to call "Shelby" in this review for old times’ sake), while Shelby and Ellen May make a break for his escape route. The episode does a surprisingly good job of getting us to a place that’s inevitable — Shelby in U.S. Marshal custody — while making it not seem like an inevitability that we’ll end up there. This is a tough thing to do, particularly in Episode 10 of a 13-episode season, and the end of “Get Drew” sets up some great cliffhangers for everybody going forward. Boyd is out of money and has angered the mob. Johnny has finally succeeded at foiling one of Boyd’s plans. And Raylan and the other marshals have to get Shelby (and themselves) out of Harlan alive.
Hey guys, are those a bunch of nails on your floor, or are you just happy to see us? On this week's pod, Andy and I discussed the most recent, very provocative episode of Girls (1:15), and that show's blindingly good, digressive, weird second season. We then moved on to the Best New Show on Television, The Americans (15:35), with a little chatter about Justified's subtly strong fourth season. We also talked a bit about how every great show needs an "Oh shit!" moment that makes you realize you are cooking with some high heat.
We bring things down to a simmer with a discussion of The Walking Dead (32:45), wherein we celebrate what was possibly the show's greatest episode ("Clear") and bemoan its return to regularly scheduled programming. Come on and join us. Q-tips are totally optional.
Ever since American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy said he'd be dropping hints regarding the subject matter of Season 3 into the latter episodes of Season 2, fans have been all over the witches tip. After all, two straight weeks of witchcraft-themed songs ("I Put a Spell on You" and "Season of the Witch") played on the Foreshadow-Matic jukebox were pretty good indications. Still, "Witches" is a big bin, and speculation turned to what kind of witchcraft we're in for. The Salem Witch Trials? A more Anne Rice/Mayfair Witches kind of thing? Stevie Nicks in California in the 1970s and '80s?
Well, today, in an interview with ET Online's Jarett Wieselman, AHS regular Frances Conroy gave us what we like to call a "location spoiler" (pardon our insider jargon):
This isn't the first and it certainly won't be the last time I reference a lousy Sting song in these recaps, but after the knockout that was "Trust Me," I feel I have to dream the Dream of the Blue Turtles once more. "I hope the Russians love their children, too," sang Gordon Sumner, cloyingly, on the chorus of what remains the 636th-best-selling single of all time in France (thanks, Internet!). Last night, we got the strongest proof yet that the answer is an unequivocal "da." Keri Russell's Elizabeth prides herself on being a Winter Palace of repressed — she'd say "controlled" — emotions. But the sight of 100 purloined photos of Paige and Henry hit her a thousand times harder than the samovar she'd taken to the face just minutes before. It sounds so trite and, y'know, American to say it, but forget work/life balance: Last night's vicious mole hunt was proof that people — sleeper agents and/or yuppies — aren't lying when they say that family really is the most important thing. Last night we learned that, for Elizabeth Jennings, being a mother comes before Mother Russia.
Perceptive commenters all over the Internet have been guessing that Sheriff Shelby was Drew Thompson for a while now, and they won me over to their point of view a couple of weeks ago, so much so that I found myself actively hoping the show was going to swerve and reveal the seemingly obvious Shelby foreshadowing was an elaborate red herring to keep viewers off the track. But last week’s episode just ladled on the “Shelby is Drew” hinting — what with that whole conversation between him and Ellen May about how if you wear somebody else’s clothes for long enough, you just might become somebody else — and this week’s seemed to all but confirm it, with Shelby insinuating himself into every bit of Drew business yet again. And then he got into the back of the car with Hunter and had a conversation with him that confirmed Shelby was Drew. (To be honest, the fact that the show brought back Brent Sexton’s first-season sheriff character should've been another big hint, though I didn’t cotton to that one.)