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Josh Reviews The Americans Season Five

After the end of The Americans season four, it was announced that the show was being renewed for two additional seasons that would wrap up the story.  I love that, in today’s television landscape, more and more serialized dramas are being allowed the time to end their stories properly, on their own terms.  (Yes, of course great shows are still cancelled before their time, but let’s focus on the positive of the minor miracle that this terrific show, which nonetheless has a relatively small weekly audience, has been allowed to tell a complete story over the course of six seasons.)  If there is any downside of this final two-season extension, it’s that season five has a ton of setup for the final season that hasn’t paid off yet, whereas most earlier seasons felt more complete to me.  That being said, this was still a tense, nail-biting season that I thoroughly enjoyed, and I cannot wait to see how this all wraps up in the final season next year.

We’ve seen plenty of collateral damage before from the work of Soviet spies Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell), but season five of The Americans dug deeply into exploring the impact their work has had on the children in their lives.  Paige (Holly Taylor) has lost her innocence and her sweetness, spending much of this season in something resembling a shell-shocked daze.  (The revelation that she spends many nights sleeping on the floor of her closer was horrifying.)  The episode “Darkroom” showed us plain as day the permanent damage that Pastor Tim was convinced Philip and Elizabeth had done to their daughter.  Meanwhile, after a while in which Henry (Keidrich Sellati) had almost completely dropped out of the show, the character popped back into the foreground this year, suddenly seeming to be far more put-together than his older sister, who previously had always been the best student and the most responsible one.  But looming over all those scenes of a happy Henry, who was excelling in school and finding a great relationship with his friend Chris, was the Sword of Damocles represented by his parents’ secret.  It’s hard to imagine Henry’s life not being destroyed by whatever goes down in the show’s final season.  Then there is Philip’s Russian son Mischa.  The first half of the season spent a lot of time with lonely Mischa’s desperate quest to find the father he never knew, an effort thwarted by Gabriel and the Centre.  This season also introduced us to the young Korean agent Tuan.  At first I just pitied Tuan for all the time the poor, lonely kid had to spend all alone in that house, with his fake parents Philip and … [continued]

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The Top Twenty Episodes of TV in 2016 — Part Three!

My list of my Twenty Favorite Episodes of TV in 2016 continues!  Click here for the beginning of my list, numbers twenty through sixteen, and click here for part two, numbers fifteen through ten.

Let’s continue as we enter my Top Ten!

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10. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” (season one, episode six, aired on 3/8/16) – I vividly remember the events of the O.J. trial, and at first the idea of a TV dramatization of those events didn’t hold much appeal for me, but like everyone else I was blown away by the riveting ten-episode The People v. O.J. Simpson.  I was incredibly impressed with the way the show humanized so many of the men and women involved in the trial, even those who at the time I saw as villains or cartoons.  The show’s greatest triumph was its complete redemption of losing prosecutor Marcia Clarke, who was brutalized by the media and much of the public at the time.  This incredible episode of the show shines a spotlight on this particular issue, showing the many ways in which Ms. Clarke was run through the public ringer as she attempted to prosecute the case.  The show, and this episode, hold out Ms. Clarke as a hero, someone attempting to navigate the impossible collision of prosecuting a hugely public case while also attempting to maintain a private life and be a mom to her kids, all the while going through a nasty divorce (and the way that divorce was thrust into the public eye), as well as incredible sexism and judgments about her appearance (her outfits, her hairstyle) made by the general public and colleagues alike.  We see Ms. Clarke forced to grin and bear snide comments not only from Judge Lance Ito but even a nameless check-out clerk when she’s buying tampons.  It’s heartbreaking.  This performance was a triumph by Sarah Paulson, who was able to bring Ms. Clarke to life with enormous dignity and grace, and who with just a tiny movement or look could bring the audience right into Ms. Clarke’s heart and mind.

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9. Black Mirror: “San Junipero” (season three, episode four, released on 10/21/16) – I rejoiced that Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s marvelous British anthology series exploring the dangers of technology, was resurrected by Netflix for a third season.  This new season didn’t wind up matching the greatness of the first two seasons, but one standout was this episode, “San Junipero.”  In the 1980′s, we follow the gentle story of the flowering relationship between Yorkie (The Martians Mackenzie Davis), a tentative young woman first taking ownership of the idea that she is a lesbian, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Americans Season Four

June 20th, 2016
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While there are many shows that take a while to find themselves, The Americans was strong right out of the gate.  I was hooked very quickly in the first season, and the show has continued to develop and deepen.  The recently concluded fourth season was superb, very possibly the show’s strongest season ever!  (It’s hard to say for sure, because in this era of Peak TV — a term popularized by Hitfix’s amazing television critic Alan Sepinwall — there is so much great TV out there that it is incredibly rare that I have a chance to watch anything twice.  This makes it a lot harder for me to compare and contrast different seasons of shows, because without having an opportunity to re-watch things, it’s harder to remember the specific details of individual episodes or seasons.  Ahh, the curse of too much great TV!)

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For those of you looking to be kept completely spoiler-free, let me just say that this was a terrific season of a terrific show.  If you’re looking for a new dramatic series to watch, I highly recommend The Americans.  For everyone who is looking to dive into my analysis of The Americans season four: onward!

Last year’s terrific third season of The Americans focused on Paige and the question of when/how Philip and Elizabeth would reveal the truth to her about their identities, and if/when they did, whether they would permit the Centre to begin to develop her as an agent.  I expected that story — and the repercussions of the season three cliffhanger in which Paige spilled the beans to Pastor Tim — to be the main driving story-line of season four.  And so I was surprised — though very pleasantly so! — that, instead, the first half of season four focused on the endgame of Philip’s long relationship with Martha.

Back in season one, the Philip/Martha story-line was my least favorite aspect of the show, mainly because I felt it stretched the boundaries of my plausible belief in the show beyond what I was comfortable with.  I just didn’t understand why Philip and Elizabeth’s kids didn’t question why their dad didn’t come home for multiple nights every week.  As the show developed, and in particular as I was won over by Alison Wright’s tremendous work as poor Martha, I engaged more fully with this story and with Martha’s plight.  Back in season one, I had expected Martha to get killed off or written off fairly quickly, because how long could this story possibly sustain?  But by now, I had been lulled into believing that this status quo would continue until the show’s end.  That, plus the season three Pastor Tim cliffhanger (which made … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Americans Season Three!

March 7th, 2016
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I loved season one and season two of The Americans, so of course I had to continue ahead with season three.  I am thrilled to have caught up with this great show in advance of the start of season four, which begins soon!

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One of my favorite story-lines from the end of season two was the suggestion that The Centre wanted Philip and Elizabeth to bring their daughter Paige in on their work as spies.  That gave the final episodes of season two a wonderful tension, and I was thrilled that this continued as a major story-line in season three.  With Elizabeth in favor of the idea and Phillip horrified at the notion, this provided a great, natural source of tension between Philip and Elizabeth throughout this season.  It was also nice to see a spotlight shine on Paige (Holly Taylor, who has grown into a terrific young actress).  (Poor Henry didn’t have much to do yet again this season — other than play Strat-O-Matic football with Stan and look at a secret hidden photo of Sandra Beeman — but I’m OK with that.)

When the moment finally arrives late in the season (in the episode “Stingers”) that Paige learns the truth about her parents, it’s a shocking moment, a thrilling turning-point that gave the show with an extra boost of narrative energy that shot it right through to the finale and the delicious cliffhanger with Paige on the phone with Pastor Tim.  The only bit of weirdness that jumped out at me in those final episodes was that I wondered why we never saw Philip or Elizabeth actually take the time to sit with Paige and explain WHY they are spies (that is, why they think the Soviet Union is a better country with a better system than the capitalist United States) and to answer the million questions she seems to have.  Wouldn’t have have been more effective than letting her just stew and wonder on her own?  (It reminded me in a not-great way of Lost, in which the show constantly prevented the characters from taking a minute to have the normal conversation that any rational person would have in those moments, just because they wanted to keep information away from certain characters and the audience.)  But I love that we are now deep enough into the life of The Americans that we can start to see the show upending some of its status quo, most notably the dramatic revelations this season to Paige and Martha.

We’ve seen Elizabeth and Philip do some nasty, nasty things in this series so far, but that didn’t make Philip’s assignment to seduce young Kimmie (the daughter of the head of the … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Americans Season Two!

February 8th, 2016
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After hearing rave reviews for The Americans for years, I was pleased to finally have a chance to watch season one a few months ago.  I thought it was pretty great (click here for my review) and so didn’t waste too much time before moving on to season two.  The continuing story of Philip and Elizabeth, Russian spies posing as a normal suburban American family in the 1980’s, remains twisty and thrilling and thoroughly enjoyable.

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Season two of The Americans succeeds in addressing my main complaint about season one, which was the ups-and-downs of Philip and Elizabeth’s constantly shifting relationship.  (In season one that relationship felt like a crazy pendulum, with Philip in love with Elizabeth but her hating him in one episode, and then in the next swinging around to Philip hating Elizabeth but her in love with him, and back and forth and back and forth.)  Here in season two, there is still tension in the relationship (which makes sense, as a source of drama for the show), but it felt to me like it unfolded far more smoothly over the course of the season.  It’s also fun, and interesting, to see Philip and Elizabeth in the type of real, emotionally-involved relationship that they both (at different times) seemed to want in season one.  It’s a nice progression for these characters.

In this post Breaking Bad world, many shows have adopted that show’s groundbreakingly speedy way it burned through plot-lines.  For years I was often frustrated how TV shows would generally stick to their status quo, long-past the point when it made sense based on all the stories that had come before.  That’s not much of an issue for most TV shows today, and The Americans is one of the more successful examples of this.  There’s not a lot of fat in this thirteen episode season.  Events unfold fast and furious.

Even so, the show surprised me by how quickly the Nina Sergeevna/Stan Beeman story-line unraveled in the latter half of the season.  I enjoyed the introduction of Oleg Igorevich Burov at the start of this season as a new challenge for Nina and, eventually, a third player in her complicated romantic relationships.  Once he started blackmailing Stan, it felt like that brought new life to the Nina-Stan story-line, and so I was surprised by how quickly that plot moved forward in the latter half of the season.  That’s not a complaint, it made for exciting TV.  Once Stan got backed into a corner, I think he made the only choice he could, and so I guess there wasn’t much farther that story could go.  Still, I love Nina — she might be my favorite character … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Americans: Season One

December 2nd, 2015
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I’ve been reading praise for The Americans for several years now, so I’m glad to have finally found the time to dive in myself with their first thirteen-episode season.  The Americans stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a husband-and-wife pair who own a travel agency and who live with their two kids in the suburbs of Washington, DC in the early eighties.  Except that Elizabeth and Philip aren’t actually the average American suburbanites they pretend to be.  They are Russian moles, deep-cover secret agents who have been living a lie for twenty years.

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The Americans is every bit as good as I’d heard it would be.  The series is a great nail-biter of a suspense tale while also being a wonderful character study of these two fascinating people, spies who have been living a lie for most of their adult lives.

Having just finished a long project of watching Breaking Bad from start-to-finish (click here for my review of Breaking Bad’s final season), I was taken aback when the pilot episode of The Americans seemed to set up a premise remarkably similar to that of Breaking Bad.  When FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his family move in right across the street from the Jennings, I felt like I was right back to watching Walter White’s cat-and-mouse game with DEA agent Hank Schroeder.  Luckily, after the pilot that sense of familiarity faded as The Americans took its story in different directions.

I’ve never watched Felicity, Keri Russell’s breakout TV show, though I’ve enjoyed her work here and there (in films like Mission: Impossible III and Waitress and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).  But I’ve never seen her as fiercely inhabit a character as she does here with Elizabeth.  She is dynamite in the show, beautiful and complex.  It’s as much fun watching Elizabeth kick ass as it is to watch her struggle with her conflicted feelings towards her undercover “husband” Philip and her occasional beau Gregory (Derek Luke, written out of the series far too soon for my tastes) and fence verbally with her KGB handler Claudia (Margo Martindale, absolutely wonderful).

I wasn’t familiar with Matthew Rhys prior to watching this show, but he’s terrific, every bit Keri Russell’s equal.  I love watching these two characters together.  The best scenes of the show are when these Elizabeth and Philip are together — either working together or bitterly tearing each other down — which is why The Americans works as well as it does.  I am fascinated by the relationship between these two characters.  In this first season, the show dives deeply into the complex relationship between Elizabeth and … [continued]