Tag Archives: The Americans

The Americans

A little while ago I did a list of my favourite TV series of all time, which was clearly a project of mammoth significance. And now it needs to be revised. The reason is that one of the rules I set for myself was that I needed to have seen the whole run of the series, because there are all too many shows that started out great and then Lost-ified themselves.

Last week, The Americans aired its last episode, I will miss it greatly, and it probably deserves a spot in that top 5. I’m going to write about it a little more today. Obviously there are spoilers below, and if that bothers you, I would suggest not reading further, because you should really give The Americans a shot. You’ll be in for a treat.

The concept of the show was a reasonably interesting one – deep-cover KGB agents in 1980s America – and that was what got me to originally give it a go. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, probably hoping for something that would at least be a decent action-y drama. That’s not what I got. What I got is what I think is one of the best written TV shows I have ever watched.

One of the great strengths of the show was that the writers were pretty good at doing things you didn’t expect. They would foreshadow things that never happened, and refused to follow what people will say are basic storytelling conventions. This past season, Elizabeth was issued a cyanide suicide pill to prevent her being captured alive. I read a lot of speculation of whether she would take it, or someone else would, or it would be used to kill someone, or as evidence of her KGB work – there had to be something, because ‘Chekov’s Gun’, after all. The cyanide pill ended up getting dumped in a hole in the woods, unused, as the Jennings’ fled America. It’s just one example of how you could never really know for sure where the show was going to take you. That was a lot of fun.

The thing that impressed me the most, though, was that where a lot of stories these days present an array of characters who are all basically unlikeable, The Americans did the reverse. Philip and Elizabeth do lots of horrific things in service of the KGB, and yet they’re still very easy to like. It would also have been very easy to make the FBI agents chasing them (essentially, the show’s antagonists) into some kind of vile caricatures of government agents, but that’s not the case. Stan Beeman is another genuinely easy to like character who, despite some of the fairly awful things he does at times as well, we also want to see end up all right.

Watching the finale was suspenseful in a bunch of ways, but the largest way for me was that the Jennings’ subterfuge is finally collapsing, Stan is closing in, and I wanted, somehow for both the Jennings and Stan to be ok when it all shook out, some kind of obviously impossible quantum state where the Jennings both were and were not captured, I guess. As it turns out, instead of getting both those things, the audience more or less gets neither. Every beat of the final hits super hard because you care, very much about all the imaginary people you’re watching it happen to. That’s what this show did really well.

The story of Philip Jennings was amazing to watch. From Season 1, he was clearly far less ideologically-committed to the espionage work he and his wife were asked to do, but keeps doing it because she is his wife and he needs to support her. It all grinds him down as the seasons wind on, through one of my favourite scenes (mentioned earlier in this blog) where he tells an asset simply “I feel like shit all the time”, because this is one of the very few people in the world he can afford to be somewhat genuine with. He goes on with it, still primarily because the idea of not supporting his wife is unbearable, until he simply can’t any longer. Philip tries to quit. Finally, he is drawn back in one more time, again because he knows Elizabeth is probably dead if he doesn’t, and it crushes him. The end of their mission in America would surely have been some kind of relief, if it wasn’t that it also meant the end of the pleasant life he had wanted so badly for himself and his family. In the end, everything Philip was trying to accomplish, and all the horrible shit he did trying to do it, ends up being for nothing at all. It was brutal to watch. It was great. That was just one character. We could run down the whole cast and get basically the same impact for nearly all of them.

I think the fact that the characters were so well done is the main reason why I liked the whole arc of the show, and its really very bleak ending, despite my preference for a positive ending, these days. Look, a happy ending wouldn’t have fit very well with the overall themes of the show, which often painted the Cold War in great swathes of grey, but I have haven’t enjoyed many a bleak story, even though the darkness may have made sense. The difference is that in this one, I was interested enough in the people to want to see where their dark paths led them.

In terms of authenticity, the writers and showrunners for The Americans got a lot right. They reproduced 1980s places with fantastic detail; the final episode gave us an entire McDonalds set that reminded me of car trips as a kid. They got Russian-speakers to do the Russian dialogue, leaving scenes between Russian characters subtitled rather than doing them in cheesy accents. I have also read commentary from more than one intelligence professional saying that The Americans got much of the tradecraft for their spies more or less correct. That was fun to know, but these details aren’t really why I loved the show. Ultimately, the show was great because of the characters, and how well and believably they were all rendered, and how very much the show made you want to follow them around and see what happened to them.

I continue to believe that this is what will always separate a good story from a truly great one. They’re all about people in the end, just as The Americans was, when you boiled it right down to the core, just really about people. I loved every bit of the journey as a fan, I think I learned a lot as a writer, and I will miss the show very much.

Thanks for reading.

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So, About that Top 5

The other day my friend and fellow writer Brandon Crilly and I were hanging out and, perhaps inevitably, got to talking about writing we’ve enjoyed, and that got us to talking about TV shows we’ve both enjoyed, and we both mentioned shows that ‘would be in our Top 5’. That of course got me thinking about what my actual Top 5 would be, and I didn’t have a topic for the blog this week, so here we go.

My main criteria for picking anything here was that I couldn’t pick and choose parts of a series. So, for example, much as I love the first few seasons of X-Files, it was never going to make this list because it really dies hard in the later seasons.

Bear in mind that I haven’t actually seen every show ever, so if your favourite isn’t here, that may well be why.

Bear in mind that you can also just fight me.

I think these are in order? Maybe. I guess there may be spoilers.

Battlestar Galactica (2004 Series)

Right out of the gate we’re probably in trouble. I know a lot of people didn’t like where this series ended up, but I thought it was perfect. Yes, even the last episode. I can’t really think of another series that gave me so many characters that I genuinely cared about, did character development as believably and well as this did, and went to some dark and difficult places without ever quite turning the light out entirely. None of the characters were two-dimensional. Starbuck is still my favourite.

Person of Interest

I wrote about this series once before, so I’ll just briefly reiterate – this seemed as though it was going to be the most procedural procedural that ever procedured. It wasn’t. Person of Interest turned out to be really thoughtful SF about AI and a surveillance society, and the ethics of both. It also had really, really good characters, and really, really good performances again. Michael Emerson is good in everything I see him in.

Fringe

I came into this show thinking, as I think a lot of people did, that it was basically going to be an X-Files knockoff. For a couple episodes it kind of was an X-Files knockoff. Then it took a huuuuge left turn and never looked back. It ended up being nothing like any other show on TV. It was hilarious, it was disgusting, it was genuinely disturbing, and like BSG, it made you care. It had tremendous sustained performances from Anna Torv and John Noble. Even crunching the timeline of the series down by several seasons, it told its story well and ended it on just the right note. Absent everything else, ‘White Tulip’ is a fantastic SFF story. Fringe did not get nearly the attention it deserved, and it was some of the best SFF television we’ve had.

Orphan Black

I didn’t even really know what this show was going to be about, I just kept hearing ‘man you’ve gotta watch Orphan Black‘. I finally did. Holy crap this show was good. So much of it hinged on the amazing performances of Tatiana Maslany in pulling off portraying all of the various Leda clones, but the story being told was genuinely original and genuinely very well done. Again, they gave us amazing characters that you couldn’t help but get invested in. The transformation of Helena from an almost Michael Myers like threat into a beloved ally was beautifully done. The writers introduced a cold, manipulative villainess in Rachel, got you to care about her, and then got you to buy her as a villain again. Orphan Black wobbled just a little in its last season, but it was still so so good.

Doctor Who

Ok this one was a little tricky to leave on the list, because honestly, if you look at the whole immense size of the series, you’ve gotta say that the quality is more than a little uneven. There are, I will admit, some truly awful episodes in there. I’ve talked before about how sometimes the special effects, well, they reflect the budget the show had at the time. ‘Continuity’ is a very vague sort of concept for the show at all, by this point.

And yet. When I think about the TV show that probably has more to do with me being a fan of SFF today, and someone who writes fantastic stories, it’s Doctor Who and it isn’t close. I was never that into Star Trek (sorry), and my Star Wars fandom came a little bit later. I started out watching shows from before I was born on PBS Sunday afternoons, and just got terribly, terribly hooked. Tom Baker will always be ‘my’ Doctor, but I truly like them all and I like all the various eras the show has gone through. It wins huge points for longevity and for continuing to find new stories to tell about an itinerant busybody alien and the people who wander around time and space with them. I forgive it its misses because among the hits are things like ‘the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alters their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit the views’, which is really very good. And also ‘You know, I don’t think these cows know anything about the time scanner”.

Doctor Who is good.

Missed the Cut:

The Americans: This was very, very, very close. I love this show and I love the writing on this show. Partly I cut it because this is otherwise an SFF list and I like that, because ‘genre TV’ tends not to get the same critical respect as other shows do. Also though, as much as I adore the main storyline, in the last couple seasons there have been some plotlines I am not spellbound by. Watch The Americans, though.

Stranger Things: You know I love this show. It didn’t quite make it because I feel like I need to see more of the story the Duffers are creating to really evaluate it yet. Season 1 was damn near perfect, but now they’re working on a bigger vision that we haven’t had fully revealed yet. Maybe this one gets shuffled up in a few years.

Both Jericho and Deadwood were series that I thought had very nearly perfect first seasons, but didn’t maintain that quality throughout. Lost was a series I thought was awesome out of the gate and then by the end was watching out of spite. I’m still kind of bitter. I thought the writers of Terminator: The Sarah Connors Chronicles were trying to do some genuinely bold and interesting stuff, but they had some really heavy misses and then the show got cancelled. One day I’d like to pick the writers’ brains about what they would have done. Before you ask, I haven’t had a chance to see Westworld yet. I hear it’s very good. I also haven’t seen The Wire.

Brandon tells me these blog entries are too long. I’m stopping. Thanks for reading. Come fight me in the comments if you want.

More importantly, go check out Brandon’s blog and work here.

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Dialogue

I have recently been struggling a bit with the current WIP (which, yes, still lacks much in the way of a title), to the extent that I described myself as ‘mired’ to a friend the other day. After some thought – along with certain other things – I decided to go back to one of the things that had gotten me excited to write a story set in Victorian London to begin with: the TV Series Ripper Street. I admit to approaching Ripper Street a bit dubiously, and I’m not sure that it’s an immortal achievement, but I do like a lot about it.

One of the things I like very much is the dialogue. The writers for the show have a very clever turn of phrase and obviously love their words. Basically all of the characters speak in these very elaborate, eloquent, complex sentences which I enjoy very much. (My love of a long twisty sentence is something any of my editors or Eager Volunteers can attest to) Now, I also doubt very much that real Victorians spoke this way, and doubt even more that the residents of impoverished Whitechapel spoke this way, but Ripper Street’s heavily embroidered dialogue nevertheless somehow, for some reason, works (at least for me), both because I enjoy the word craft and also because it somehow conveys a sense of the different mannerisms and etiquette of the late 19th century. Or so I reason, because even though it probably doesn’t make any sense, I still sit there thinking ‘this is awesome’ rather than ‘well, this is probably overdone’.

It’s a similar situation to another show I loved a while ago, the rather-more-famous Deadwood, which also put amazingly ornate dialogue in the mouths of characters who would certainly not have spoken that way. It worked, both because it was a joy to listen to and (I think) because the eloquence was a contrast to the gritty, brutal setting of the frontier town and the gritty, brutal people who inhabited it.

Anyway in the short term, watching Ripper Street worked pretty well and I’ve been back plugging away at the WIP. I also tackled a scene that I’ve been struggling to figure out how to make work for what feels like roughly forever. I’m not sure it’s exactly good, but it is written and I can move on from it. (This kind of loops back to earlier blogs in that I need to remember that not every scene needs to be the best scene I’ve ever written. Sometimes, there just needs to be a god damned scene.)

In the somewhat longer term, this all got me thinking about dialogue and how it works. It isn’t, of course, quite as simple as fancy dialogue always being better. There are plenty of times when ‘less is more’, and another of my favourite TV shows frequently serves up great examples of that. The Americans is, I think, genuinely one of the best shows on television and one of my favourites of all time, and they really know how to write over there.

One of my favourite moments was from Season 3. Philip, deep cover KGB agent resident in the U.S., spent most of that season doing increasingly awful things (which, if you’ve seen the show you will remember, and if you haven’t, I’m not going to tell you about because you should go watch it) and eventually, he’s talking to one of his assets and breaks off in the middle of trying to justify everything they’ve been doing. All he says is “I feel like shit all the time”, and you absolutely understand the amount of pain he’s in, and the toll everything is taking on him. Similarly, last episode (minor spoiler here, but whatever) Philip and his wife Elizabeth discover they killed someone who was completely innocent; Philip is once again devastated (Keri Russel’s Elizabeth has thicker skin about these things, apparently) and Elizabeth offers to leave him out of future missions that may require killing. Philip replies with “No, no. It’s us. It’s us.” Again, you completely understand that even though he hates what he’s doing, he can’t contemplate making his wife do it by herself.

Now, a lot of the effectiveness of both those scenes (and, a lot of what works on The Americans, and indeed any TV show or film) has to do with the delivery and performance from the actor. Matthew Rhys sells both those scenes tremendously. However, he’s working with what he’s been given and somehow that extremely minimal dialogue conveys a tremendous amount, in context.

So in trying to think about this in terms of ‘what makes good dialogue’, I’m not immediately left with anything too useful. Sometimes, arguably over-written dialogue is great. Sometimes, extremely minimalist dialogue is great. I suppose one might argue that context is, as usual, king in all this: some settings and characters call for one, and some for the other. Probably in some or even many cases, you don’t want to be on either extreme, but something in the middle.

The thing is that I imagine it depends very much on the author in question, as well. Some authors know how to write in the style for Deadwood. Others know how to make less words say more. I would guess that trying to do one when you’re really good at the other doesn’t produce good results.

Unfortunately what I think I’m coming away with, having spent the last couple of days thinking about dialogue, basically comes down to two things. One, that having excellent dialogue can absolutely make a piece of writing just as much as bad stuff can kill it. Two, there probably isn’t

And isn’t that insightful.

It has given me something to consider as I continue work on the WIP; I need to choose my characters’ words, and the style of those words, very carefully indeed. Since I do tend towards long, complicated sentences, I’m probably likely to stray more towards the Ripper Street end of things, but it’s valuable to remember that in some circumstances, a very few properly chosen words can say a ton.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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