At every turn I sense potential in The Americans, always untapped, for a smart sitcom.
By Harvey Blume
The third season of The Americans (on FX) has begun. This is the much-touted show about Soviet agents secreted into the United States who did, mostly, as per the historical record, hardly anything at all. According to one report they dedicated their lives to reading American newspapers. This series, though, imbues their lives with violence, melodrama, sexual magnetism and other such stuff.
As a friend suggested, The Americans could instead, have been quite a comedy.
Soviet Agents tucked into the heartland (or at least Washington D.C.) and what do they do? They read the papers and dig the comics. They can’t get over “Dagwood Bumstead.” They transmit the news that unless the commissars can come up with an answer to “Pogo,” “Fearless Fosdick,” “L’il Abner” etc., the fall of Communism is assured.
That comedic direction is, alas, not the one The Americans takes.
Critics from Allessandra Stanley in the NY Times to Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker esteem The Americans as an emblem of the new television, television 2.0, tube to be proud of watching, no resemblance to a wasteland.
I agree completely that there is such a thing as new television and that it is breaking new ground. Maybe the Sopranos is to network TV as film was to theater. Or maybe that’s just my way of saying how much I like a lot of cable — from The Sopranos to The Wire to Breaking Bad, and a lot of internet TV as well, including Orange is the New Black. I am a fan. The genius of American film has for sure migrated to other media. But the progress of such media is not helped by how little it takes to get critics to applaud.
Back to The Americans: as it happens, these Soviet spies live right next door to an FBI agent doing domestic surveillance. Doesn’t that make you want to watch, oh, basketball instead? How much contrived coincidence is a new tube enthusiast supposed to stand?
Then there are the little children. The kids birthed by these Soviet spies are mostly vague and indistinct. How they’ve survived for years while being parented by a mother and father who spend much of their time garroting, shooting and seducing in the interests of the Soviet Union is something best not to dwell upon .
But one child becomes an Evangelical Christian, which truly upsets her militantly atheist mother, who decides, after first grounding her daughter and attempting to confiscate any copies of religious literature she can find in her room, to instead accompany her daughter to prayer meetings. This is rich. At every turn I sense potential, always untapped, for a smart sitcom.
Before I leave the subject of new tube I want to say something about a discrepancy I’ve noticed between acting and plot. The acting can be compelling in, say, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Empire. The characterizations, the racial mix of the cast, compels attention. But
all this strong acting is put in the service of plots that reduce these shows to Wasteland 2.0.
Harvey Blume is an author — Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo — who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.