How “The Americans” Became My Unexpected “Hate Watch”

By | May 31, 2017

I usually think of the term “hate watching” as applying to a show you hate yourself for watching usually involving the words “Housewives,” “Naked,” or “featuring [blank] Kardashian.” I’ve never really thought of the term applying to a series that is supposedly great quality and has a reputation for being underrated, yet you can’t help but hate what it’s become. Which is how FX’s “The Americans” became my unlikeliest Hate Watch, and I’m using the term less to say I hate myself for watching, than I reluctantly hate the series I’m watching.

“The Americans” has never had a large viewership, Emmy recognition, and it feels like I should be on the critical bandwagon of begging people to watch this series—which just concluded it’s 5th and penultimate season before next year’s (thank you God) finale—and I was after the first season, but things have gone very, very wrong since then. Things like…

5. The show mistakes “quiet” for “important.” I’ve enjoyed quiet slow-burns before—like pretty much any series AMC aired before “The Walking Dead” changed the network’s tastes—and I do like “Americans” quieter pace over, say, the already-obnoxious looking “Snowfall.” But “The Americans” also over-relies on scenes that are meant to be “quietly devastating” but are actually just anti-climactic. In the season finale, we were treated to such gems as Philip sitting in silence listening to a tape recorder, Paige helping out at a soup kitchen followed by her breathless “big reveal” that she enjoys doing it, Elizabeth having a quiet conversation with a distraught mother and sullen teenage asset, several monotone conversations about leaving the U.S. to return to Russia (shocker, they didn’t), Stan quietly contemplating leaving the FBI (shocker, he didn’t), Martha (a character we discarded a season-and-a-half ago) learning Russian and wordlessly contemplating adoption, and then the episode’s suspense tour-de-forces: a quiet lie detector test and Philip wordlessly thinking about throwing a tape into water (shocker, he didn’t). And I guess the episode thought the presence of Oleg—does anyone give a shit about this guy?—would’ve been too much excitement for this episode since they declined to show him or Gabriel puddering around Moscow in dreary-Russian-language scenes.

4. It fills like we’re watching filler. To me, it seemed like “The Americans” went downhill after the first two seasons, and we’ve mostly been watching “filler” material (there has been maybe one season’s worth of plotlines stretched out over the last three seasons) while waiting for the end game. In the episode description given in bullet point 5, you may notice that the entire episode save for a suicide-attempt revolved around characters thinking they’ll do something, and then changing their mind not to do it. This is often seen when series are running out the clock and don’t really want to take us in too many new directions, but aren’t quite sure how to fill the time either.

3. Paige. Another big change in season 3 was including more Paige (Philip and Elizabeth’s American daughter) and her finding out the truth of her Russian-spy parents. This has led to near-endless scenes of Paige worrying about the irritating Pastor Tim, his nosy wife Alice, their church, her “feelings,” her depression, paradoxically wanting to know more about her parents spying but having an existential crisis over each new bit she learns, her relationship with Matthew, and recently her getting more involved in her parent’s spying. This has led to such “Spying for Dummies” moments like last week when she asked her parents if they felt their cover names were their real names, and if it’s, like, weird befriending people under different names. If Google or Quora had been around in the show’s early 80’s period, you could almost see Paige looking up “What is spying like emotionally?”

2. Even the most realistic series have to be dramatically compelling. The detractors of what I’m saying will usually say that “The Americans” is beyond my understanding—as if something that moves at the speed of two snails fucking is hard to follow—because I just don’t “get” the more realistic approach to spying the series is presenting. And the problem with that is even the most realistic dramatic series still work as dramas, like even the wonkiest work of David Simon. I would argue “The Wire” and especially “Show Me a Hero” are actually much more realistic than “The Americans” and still more interesting, enjoyable, and even exciting to watch. In five seasons, I cannot remember a single time Elizabeth (a deceptively one-dimensional character) or the sour-pussed Philip have told a joke or said something genuinely funny. Even when Simon’s work was at its most pedantic, he included live-wire characters, genuine suspense, and, yes, comedy. “The Americans” feels like the work of an extremely limited creator (ex-CIA officer Joe Weisberg) who is not good at writing multiple voices, so all characters more or less speak and act the same, resulting in a long parade of humorless, stagnant scenes that stack up to one long anti-climax.

1. Nothing has really changed since the Pilot episode. What are the great arcs of “The Americans” spread out over five seasons? [And this is one of the last cable dramas still sticking to a 13-episode season established by “The Sopranos” and early FX favorites, to the series credit.] Every big thing that’s happened has only made the series worse: Nina’s deportation, Nina’s execution, the inclusion and expanded role of Oleg, Martha defecting, intriguing schemer Claudia (the great Margo Martindale) being replaced by Frank Langella’s insufferable Gabriel (recently gone back to the USSR to presumably sigh and eat cold soup), the death of Agent Gad, and Paige finding out “the truth.” What it really boils down to is several characters have come and gone, but we’ve essentially stayed stagnant since the very first episode: morose Philip is apathetic towards spy work and true-believer Elizabeth is rigid. What’s changed between that first episode and the 5th season finale when Philip became the first person in history to think moving back to Russia will improve his mood, and Elizabeth wants to keep their missions going?

I’m hoping “The Americans” will prove me wrong and pull out all the stops for an explosive final season, but the last time I was this dissatisfied with a long-running series’ creative direction it was “Dexter,” a show that infamously stunk-up the ending by having none of Dexter Morgan’s co-workers learn the truth about their serial killing co-worker. Will “The Americans” really have a finale that doesn’t include FBI neighbor Stan Beeman learning the truth about Philip and Elizabeth? I don’t think so, but like most of the “twists” on “Americans” (which Ray Charles could see coming, like last night’s suicide attempt) it wouldn’t totally surprise me either.

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