Why FX’s THE AMERICANS May Feature the Most Compelling Romance on TV

Why FX’s THE AMERICANS May Feature the Most Compelling Romance on TV

nullThe rise of the antihero in American dramatic television has been nearly fifteen years in the making. Since Tony Soprano revealed a gangster as touching as he was menacing in 1999 (those ducks!), television has introduced programming with a level of thematic and ethical complexity at a consistency never before achieved in the medium. A glimpse at the major award circuit in the past half-decade reveals not only a critical interest in this turn, but a popular one, as well. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and most recently, Homeland are just three shows that have achieved widespread recognition for their presentation of morally compromised protagonists.

nullFX, known for its “There is no Box” brand, is no stranger to this breed of conflicted character. Its breakthrough program, The Shield, was a benchmark in the era of the antihero, considered by many to be an answer to HBO’s oft-discussed flagship. But where Tony Soprano was already a ringleader in an entrenched system of corruption, Vic Mackey was a crime-fighter, one of the good guys. Yet, in his Machiavellian lust to thwart baddies, we witness him torture, blackmail, plant evidence, and murder. In that sense, The Shield can be seen to usher in what has become the current antihero paradigm: where moral ambiguity abounds in spaces beyond the expected arenas of gangsters and thugs—among doctors and high school teachers, ordinary people.

It’s fitting, then, that FX is the first network to attempt a redirection of this trend in its newest drama, The Americans. Though it is as flush with moral ambiguity as its predecessors, Joe Weisberg’s creation offers an altogether different breed of protagonist. Some antihero dramas attempt to portray the slow degradation of character (Breaking Bad), others show us how obsession deepens madness (Dexter, Homeland), and others still allow the vicarious experience of power and its consequences (Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire). What separates The Americans is its foregrounding of the simplest device in the history of narrative: love. In effect, The Americans is an extended remarriage plot. Sure, it’s replete with the trappings of espionage, but all the mad chases, brutality, and political intrigue function in service of its romantic core. What leaves viewers clinging to their armrests in these moments of pulpy thrill is the underlying terror that, at any moment, the fledgling relationship between protagonists Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), will suffer a blow—whether physically, emotionally, or both—that it cannot survive.

nullDiscussion of The Americans, thus far, has been largely centered around its relation to Showtime’s Homeland. However, the shows bear little resemblance to each other beyond their basic conversation about what it means to be a double agent, or, in a broader sense, to lead a double life. Homeland is sparked and sustained by a central terrorist plot. The romance that springs up between Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison and Damian Lewis’s Nicholas Brody is, if a bit predictable, a delectable garnish. Specific motives correlate to known and desired effects (how will sniffing out a new piece of information help Carrie & Co. develop more effective counterterrorist responses?), and these propel the show. But neither Elizabeth nor Philip has a specific agenda—in typical Cold War style, there is no clear, overarching object—so the long-form conflict that emerges is largely character-driven, supplemented by action.

In this way, The Americans bears a closer likeness to HBO’s Deadwood, a show more interested in how communities are constructed than in marinating in its own conceits. But where Deadwood’s magic lay in its expansive cast, The Americans’ charm is in its limited focus; there’s something intoxicating about its tight ecosystem of quiet moments, its emphasis on the accumulation of gestures in meaning-making. If anything, a discussion of lineage is important here in a global sense; there’s a certain degree of predictability to any show, but after over a decade’s worth of writers willing to put their darlings through the ringer, we know better than to let ourselves get comfortable when things appear to go well for Mr. and Mrs. Jennings. In the episodes following the emotional high of the pilot’s climax, we see the two confront past and present infidelities (Philip’s sexual manipulation of the assistant to the undersecretary of Defense to ascertain information, Elizabeth dealing with her years-long love affair with a “co-worker”), professional dilemmas that generate disputes that feel more personal than political (the Reagan assassination attempt is used to great effect here in underscoring their differing loyalties), as well as a new boss (played by Margo Martindale) who informs them that work is about to become even more life-threatening than it already was.

nullA romance is only as good as its obstacles, and, as aforementioned, we find no shortage of obstacles in The Americans. If anything, the degree of coincidence incorporated in creating these barriers has been, for some viewers, the show’s primary shortcoming. But when coincidence deepens conflict instead of helping to resolve it—imbuing a certain degree of inevitability rather than deus ex machina—most are quick to forgive. So, when CIA agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich’s savvier analog to Breaking Bad’s Hank) moves down the street from the Jenningses, we’re more interested in the “loaded gun” stress this generates than decrying its improbability. In the end, we don’t want Philip and Elizabeth to have an easy go until they’ve really earned it, and we’re rewarded amply for our masochism.

Repression and the unspoken form the dramatic fulcrum of The Americans. Much in the way that 1960s gender roles cast character conflict in Mad Men, the Jenningses’ employment as spies operates as a sort of de facto silencer. Like all effective period dramas, this speaks both to the ethos of the 1980s—the carefully constructed veneer of safety in spite of deep-rooted anxieties—and to the current post-9/11 zeitgeist. So, when Philip approaches Elizabeth about defecting to America in the pilot, we realize that multiple layers of psychological maneuvering are afoot. Though they’ve duped everyone around them—their children included—they’ve always known that their marriage is just a vehicle for their true marriage to the KGB; it’s their cover in American suburbia. The moment it gets in the way of a mission is the moment it loses efficacy. As such, when Philip pushes for defection, Elizabeth is not only confronted with deciphering his intentions—he could be on a private mission from headquarters intended to test her loyalty—but navigating the undercurrent of his now apparent feelings for her (particularly in light of the emotional distance she’s cultivated with anything related to her American life), how to respond to his eroding patriotism (her training would dictate she report him to headquarters), what this dichotomy will mean for them, and lastly, having been pitted between the two most important things in her life, negotiating her own feelings for Philip.

Moments like this are hardly isolated. In some way or another, paranoia looms behind every action taken, every choice made. Unlike the usual tropes of romance, Philip and Elizabeth already have all the physical manifestations of domestic bliss: the house, the car, the kids. They’re older. They’ve lived past the age of youthful naivety and impulse, and, because of their work, they understand the fragility of life. At the same time, these are also two people who made the decision to dedicate their lives to country as teenagers—not to mention the fact that they’ve spent years kidnapping and murdering—and their emotional self-awareness suffers commensurately. Their silence isn’t just professional. Love necessitates vulnerability, and, particularly for Elizabeth, whose loyalty to “the cause” has been unflinching, this is an unbearable idea.

nullWhich maybe helps explain why the romantic moments we see unfold here are more touching than just about anything else on television. The premium channels seem to have adopted a per-episode sex quota, and meanwhile, The Americans encapsulates passion in handholding, meaningful looks, and veiled apologies. And the moments of spillover, whether pronounced or Victorian, are downright gut-wrenching. We know what’s at risk, what makes it so difficult for them. Once we understand the kind of traumas (emotional, physical, self-inflicted) Elizabeth has suffered, for instance, no amount of nudity, one night stands, or marital harmony elsewhere can better capture our affections than when, in spite of a seeming incapacity for tenderness, she reaches out and puts her hands on Philip’s shoulders. Sometimes, these romantic moments converge with violence, as in the pilot’s climax, and the effect is so powerful that it manages to transform Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” into something anthemic, hard-hitting, and steamy.

If, under the lens of perspective, we suspend the remnants of latent anti-Communism, we come to realize that Philip and Elizabeth may in fact be the worst antiheroes ever written insofar as being antithetical to heroism. That may sound semantic, but the pair is principled, in some respects similar to Vic Mackey. But unlike Mackey, it is absolutely clear that neither relishes in harming others; even if their capacities for love and violence can seem disturbing at times, we also see an underlying desire to do good. In a sense, this show lets us eat our proverbial cake: we get the grime and complex ethical scenarios, but we can root for our heroes the way we might those in classical epics.
 
As we’ve witnessed over the past fourteen years, television is an incredible medium for portraying slow deterioration. But The Americans reveals that television is equally capable of showing the opposite: the precarious steps we take to build community, how we maintain in the face of obstruction, and how we teach ourselves to love and be made vulnerable in a world that knows exactly how to exploit and destroy us. In the course of Breaking Bad, Walter White becomes the self he is apparently always capable of being, and we watch how his obsessive pursuit of power brings his whole life—and with it, any true sense of fulfillment—crumbling around him. In The Americans, though, Philip and Elizabeth begin from a place of alienation and move toward redemption, just as their world becomes an even more dangerous place.

The best art is that which both imitates life and helps us to escape it. Within exotic, exciting, and fantastical contexts, we still crave reflections of ourselves and the worlds we inhabit. The Americans is a show about dealing with the consequences of the choices made in youth, about trusting intuition and loving in spite of fear, about accepting that what we love most in each other is also what we can come to most hate or fear. Even for those of us not steeped in a paranoid existence, the world can at times feel like a hard, lonely place. With the inescapability of our mortality, the best we can hope for is true human connection while we still have time for it. That kind of redemption, which The Americans seeks to offer, is a rare beacon—something, without realizing it, that we’ve been desperately waiting to see.

Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American
Experimental Writing
(Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison,
WI.

The Fuzzy Logic of WILFRED: How FX Turned a Dog Suit Inside Out

The Fuzzy Logic of WILFRED: How FX Turned a Dog Suit Inside Out

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While as viewers we tend to focus on the exceptions rather than the rule, many television programs do, in fact, get precisely the level of attention and admiration they deserve. Now and again a promising young program may be prematurely scrapped because it costs too much to produce or garners a devout but too-narrow viewership—Rome is a good example of the former phenomenon, Firefly the latter—and certainly there are many programs more beloved than lovable (e.g., How I Met Your Mother), but these days it’s rare for a program of sterling imagination and craftsmanship to disappear into the ether before its time. Finely-calibrated shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Sons of Anarchy are enjoying long and well-deserved runs on American television sets, and Americans are the better for it.

At first blush, Wilfred seems another success story of this sort: It has generally impressed critics; viewers like it (Season 1 was a top-ten cable program); the show stars the lead actor of one of the highest-grossing film series in history (Elijah Wood); it airs on FX, a channel whose programming is considered among the best this side of HBO; it’s based on a foreign series that won three AFI awards between 2007 and 2011 (AFI being the Australian equivalent of the Emmys); it features the sort of irreverent humor preferred by American advertisers’ most-coveted demographic, the 18-to-49 set; and not for nothing, it’s presently the preeminent high-concept program on American television, doing more per minute to subvert viewer expectations than Lost ever did. Yet despite being so intellectually and emotionally challenging, Wilfred has gotten not even a fraction of the buzz afforded Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Sons of Anarchy. Why?

nullOn closer examination, chinks in the armor are evident: Wilfred is a program without a genre, as it’s nominally a sitcom but offers no laugh-tracks, studio audience, or stable points of reference (think of the reassuring, character-based through-lines of a sitcom like Friends or Seinfeld). Its titular character, the show’s costar, never appears outside a man-sized dog-suit, just the sort of visual quirk likely to squelch speculation of serious artist intent. It’s neither properly episodic nor properly serialized, as individual episodes both do and don’t depend upon episodes preceding and following. Wood, the show’s most conspicuous setpiece, plays the straight man to Jason Gann’s Wilfred so convincingly, it’s maddening. Certain scenes (such as one in which Ryan is forced to prostitute himself to eliminate a debt, or one in which Wilfred attempts to kill Ryan’s sister while under the influence of demonic possession) are among the most psychologically upsetting accessible on cable; there are entire sequences of episodes in both the first and second season of Wilfred that are gripping but almost entirely devoid of humor. And the series as a whole lacks a plot—unless you count as plot a man’s psyche slowly circling the drain.

For all that, Wilfred proves to America’s TV-watching audience something innovative fiction-writers (e.g., Robert Coover and John Barth) and poets (e.g., the Russian Metarealists of the 1970s and 1980s) have known for some time: Metarealism offers a more rigorous and exhilarating brand of social commentary than realism ever has or will. We can enjoy watching the decline and fall of anti-heroes like Don Draper (Mad Men), Walter White (Breaking Bad), or Jax Teller (Sons of Anarchy), but ultimately we learn more about ourselves and our sometimes maddening environs when the environs we see on our television screens are fabricated entirely from whole cloth.

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At its best, television improves our emotional intelligence. Bearing witness to the psychic detritus of fictonalized characters, be it a drunken cop-prodigy (Jimmy McNulty of The Wire) or a salty space-captain (Malcom Reynolds of Firefly) or a shifty saloon troll (Al Swearengen of Deadwood), helps us understand why and how the vagaries of the human condition often lead to conflict and tragedy. But we’d hardly call most of our favorite television shows mimetic—they don’t remind us, in intimate and exacting ways, of our own lives and shortcomings. Their focus is usually on the social sphere, or, at best, on how social spaces help shape psychic spaces. The result is that they’re far more likely to educate us about how to be happy social animals than how to socialize the animal within us all.

Wilfred is undoubtedly this second sort of animal, a television show with little interest in depicting civil society and heavily invested in overturning rocks most of us habitually leave undisturbed. It pushes, with each episode, not only the boundaries of good taste, not only the boundaries of which questions television can ever ask or seek answers to, but of whether, far from being merely imitative, television must acknowledge any relationship with reality at all. In short, Wilfred stakes its claim upon two audacious premises that could affect the future of television programming in America: One, that metarealism has become a more relevant critical mechanism through which to view American culture than realism has been or can be; two, that if we wish to minimize Americans’ penchant for escapism—and the use of television as a fetish for doing so—it’ll take, paradoxically, just the sort of high-concept Art Wilfred offers.

Wilfred is, depending on your view of the “reality” (if any) it depicts, either a show about a living man, or a dead man; a show about one living man and one dead man, or a show about one living man and one ghost; a show about one living man and one living dog, or a show about one living man and one dead dog; or a show in which none of the actors are presently living. Somewhere in the mix is an insufferable sister, a mentally-ill mother, a chipper girl next door, Chris Klein of American Pie, endless bags of weed, two stuffed animals that may or may not be sentient and/or sexually insatiable, and an entire dog culture invisible to human eyes and ears. 

By pushing to the margins most of the setpieces we’d expect to find in a primetime sitcom, Season 1 of Wilfred finally seems more like a play—a morality play—than anything else on television. If the brief description of the show provided above seems coy, it’s only because Wilfred is one of the first shows ever to appear on American television screens (Lost is another) in which nothing that occurs on-screen may “actually” be happening, and the central mystery of the series is the presence or absence of a stable reality. This isn’t to say Wilfred takes place in a perpetual dream state, though portions of certain episodes definitely do, but rather that Wilfred offers viewers several layers of reality, or metareality, to choose from, and individual scenes—indeed, individual shots within scenes and individual lines within dialogues—cycle so rapidly between these layers of reality it’s often impossible to pin down what’s actually happening, or when, or why.

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The first level of reality: Ryan Newman is an attorney who retires from the legal profession in his late twenties. The reasons for this retirement are unclear, though there’s much in the air implying a dark secret surrounding the decision.

The second level of reality: Ryan kills himself in the first scene of the series. The fact that the series doesn’t stop after the pilot implies Ryan survives the attempt. However, by beginning with an attempted self-expurgation, Wilfred throws the reliability of everything we see thereafter into a state of perpetual turmoil. Is Ryan dead? Is the series merely an allegorical post-mortem?

nullThe third level of reality: Wilfred appears on Ryan’s doorstep with his “owner,” Jenna. As the series progresses, all options remain equally possible and equally unpalatable as to who or what Wilfred is. A dog, a man, a ghost, God, Satan, Ryan’s id, Ryan’s ego?

The fourth level of reality: Ryan and Wilfred smoke pot incessantly in Ryan’s basement; Ryan’s high for most of each day. How much does he see through the haze of THC? Is Wilfred (is Ryan’s life) a drug-induced hallucination?

The fifth level of reality: Ryan has a family history of schizophrenia—an ailment that began to manifest in his mother when she was exactly the age Ryan is at the start of Season 1 of Wilfred. Ryan’s also been the victim of several childhood traumas. The entire series is symptomatic of schizophrenia, and each episode appears to reenact a trauma Ryan has previously experienced.

The sixth level of reality: Wilfred often moves in social ecosystems separate and distinct from Ryan’s, begging the question of how these systems are constructed and who’s constructing them. Ultimately, Gann offers American audiences the best depiction of dog logic—in human terms—in the history of film or television. Were it nothing else, Wilfred would function as a startling exposé of the cruelties endemic to the animal brain: Cruelties to which the human brain is, of course, heir.

The seventh level of reality: After-school-special-ready platitudes precede each episode of Wilfred, offering a thematic framework for each scenario and suggesting that the plotlines of Wilfred are merely moral allegories with no greater affiliation to reality than, say, the Bible.

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We all do things we’re not proud of—and when we’ve harmed ourselves or others with sufficient gusto, we usually don’t just repent, we wish to undo. Yet sometimes our errata permanently transform us in a way we can neither alleviate nor avoid, and it’s out of these sorts of tensions Great Art is made. It’s in such moments that we ask ourselves, “Am I man or animal? What sort of man would persist in this course of action? What sort of impulse drives these thoughts, what sort of thoughts these actions, what sort of actions this life?”

Invariably, we answer these questions in a vacuum: The vacuum of our own sum-totality. Whereas shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy allow relational logic to resolve questions of cause and effect, Wilfred puts the most dire human struggles and initiatives into an abstract framework that permits neither escape nor the comfort of familiarity. It puts questions of perspective and first principles in play, and in doing so makes navigation of the Big Questions—the nature of evil; the circularity of reason; the degradation of the human spirit over time and trials; the impossibility of replicating or representing individual experience—next to impossible. In other words, it’s unrelentingly lifelike. On its face, it’s the least plausible thing on television; at its core, it’s at once the most essential and most mimetic.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.