TV Club

Defending The Americans and hailing Halt and Catch Fire.

In defense of The Americans.

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans.


Dear Willa, Todd, and Tara:

Oh, man, am I really the designated defender of The Americans? I was the only one of us to put the show in my top 10 this year, and I placed it there unreservedly. (I should note here that I am the host/producer of The Americans Insider podcast, for which I spend a good chunk of time at the showrunners’ and writers’ offices and occasionally on set, and when you devote that much time to thinking and talking about a quality work of art, it would be weird and sad not to hold it in very high esteem.) Still, I understand why Season 5 was less beloved than its predecessors.

I knew when the premiere featured a 12-minute hole-digging sequence that it would be a divisive season—it was definitely long on psychology and short on plotting, and that’s not for everyone (although it’s probably more for viewers of The Americans than for anyone else). And, really, I wouldn’t trust any other scripted drama to teach me something practical like how to dig a grave (in shifts) or how to hide a message in a rock. (First, find a fake rock.) But I was utterly transfixed by the portrait of Philip Jennings as a true believer losing his faith, a maestro finding himself unable to play the simplest tune, and the ways that added to Elizabeth’s already ridiculously heavy burden and also just plain disappointed her. I found it straight up heartbreaking. In some ways, Philip’s sudden loss of spy skills may have been the hardest pill to swallow. The one thing that unites television’s criminals, cops, doctors, politicians, spies, and jury consultants is unerring competence. As you said, Todd, The Good Doctor happens to be about a moral person. Television has never insisted on that, but you can bet that any show with that third word in its title is going to be about a hell of a physician.

But the truth is, I would love The Americans anyway, because it repeatedly does something I just cannot resist: It makes me feel like the characters I see every week are part of an entire world of interconnected people going about lives that I see only a fraction of. In any episode, someone we haven’t seen in three or four seasons might show up out of the blue, remind us of their existence, and make us believe that they’ve been seeing Philip or Elizabeth or Paige or Stan or Claudia every week without us knowing it. I realize this may seem slightly, well, bonkers, but every time a forgotten character shows their face, I cheer a little. When Martha appeared in that depressing Moscow supermarket, I squealed with genuine delight—I experienced more joy at that reunion than I have in a lot of real-world encounters.

The pleasure I take in being fooled in this particular way also explains another aspect of my fondness for Line of Duty: Although the seasons display that frustrating British brevity—just five or six episodes per year—figures from the anti-corruption unit’s previous cases often reappear to bollix up their current investigations. I can’t explain why I enjoy feeling the cops’ annoyance—vicarious frustration is still frustration, after all—but I do. So, yeah, TV people, if you want this particular viewer to sing your praises, just stay on good terms with the actors you hire for short arcs. (And, yes, of course my favorite character on The Good Place is Mindy St. Claire, perpetually marooned in the mostly unseen Medium Place, alone with her extensive porn collection.)

Shows don’t have to bring back long-neglected characters to impress me with their world-building, though. The fourth and final season of Halt and Catch Fire wowed me despite a small cast, no bring-backs to speak of, and a plot that was rendered stakes-free by our sure and certain knowledge that search engines triumphed over directories in the early days of the commercial internet. But by focusing on the ways the relationships of a once-married couple—divorced parents and their kids, those kids and their parents’ friends and frenemies, and longtime friends and co-workers, some of whom really don’t like each other—changed over the course of several years, the creators of Halt and Catch Fire made other TV shows’ efforts to represent friendship, family, work, vocation, love, and all of life’s big questions seem utterly futile.

Halt and Catch Fire’s Joe MacMillan was a douchey blowhard (albeit one who was redeemed by his ability to love), but he ably encapsulated my own philosophy of TV entertainment when he said, “It was never about how it ended up. It was about how it felt.” I felt Joe’s, and Cam’s, and Donna’s, and Haley’s, and Joanie’s sadness when Gordon died. Similarly, my favorite thing about Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It was that the challenges of being a black woman in America, of being an artist in a city that’s organized for the convenience of the very rich, and of being respected and heard as someone who is all of those things made me feel lightheaded and swoony and not myself but Nola Darling—at least for a few hours over Thanksgiving weekend.

As with Claws, the parts that interest me least about She’s Gotta Have It are Nola’s relationships with her lovers (including the impossibly perfect Opal). Of course, I want Nola to be loved and to have fantastic sex, but that particular quest is her own. The search for meaning and recognition and self-expression is one I want to engage with more—why not through a bunch of beautiful, smart people in a neighborhood not too far from my own, especially when everything is in very loose conversation with another piece of art I first experienced 30 years ago? (And, given what I wrote a few paragraphs earlier, you know my head almost exploded when DeWanda Wise and Tracy Camilla Johns embraced at Nola’s opening.)

Willa, all I can say to your absolute rogering of Friends From College is that sometimes bad is better than good. (That made me think of Billions, which I’d forgotten all about—and soon it will be back, which is the greatest thing about television. It just keeps coming at us.)

What’s on next?