All of the Best Dramas on TV are back after some alarmingly long hiatuses (both “Homeland” and “Fargo”) skipped 2016, something most people wish they had the option to do. Sure, you may ask about more popular behemoths like “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead” or something else in the fantasy, horror, sci-fi genre but these are the best Dramas on TV for adults, and only adults, and yet I can’t help but feel we’re missing something. None of these is exactly where they should be, and I’m sincerely worried the rich, dramatic highs of “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “The Shield,” and more recently “Breaking Bad” may be gone for good.
The Americans…This one perhaps troubles me the most because it can’t reboot itself like an anthology series (if “Fargo” has a bad season, the next one has nothing to do with it) or one where the cast largely changes from year-to-year like “Homeland.” And “The Americans” doesn’t really have an excuse for being in a horrible rut since unlike “Better Call Saul” it’s not a prequel trying to pull off the tricky balancing act of getting us to a predetermined destination while trying to surprise along the way with some characters we’ve already seen die.
In other words, “The Americans” could go anywhere and should feel richer since we’ve been following these characters for five seasons rather than a few episodes, but it just doesn’t. This is often called the most underrated show on TV, and I felt that way after season one, but where have we really gone since then? Paige’s relentless whining, a four-season-long momentum-killing existential crisis with no real payoff in sight? Next-door FBI agent Stan being the “Leave it to Beaver” of espionage work? Old man Gabriel exhausted and eating cold soup? Even when “The Americans” does something right like finally bringing back Margo Martindale’s interesting Claudia, they still show Gabriel in Russia because we haven’t got enough of him telling us he’s tired for two or three seasons. Most of the changes since season one—deporting Nina, killing off Nina, a larger focus on Oleg, Martha moving to Russia, killing off Gaad, Gabriel, a larger role for Paige and (sigh) Pastor Tim—have made the show less compelling. While Philip and Elizabeth’s roles have been clear since the pilot episode: he’s conflicted and tired of the spy game, while she’s a die-hard true believer. I’m ready for next year’s final season, and it seems as if the show has been for years. Grade for this Season: C
Better Call Saul…What “Saul” is doing is a mixed-miracle. It’s taking characters we’ve already seen die (like aging hitman Mike or disguised drug lord Gus, not to mention the extended Salamanca family) and making us feel genuinely invested in their suspenseful moments on a weekly basis. It’s an exercise that doesn’t hold up well when you really think about it (a season two cliffhanger was whether Mike would shoot a character we’ve already seen die years later in “Breaking Bad”) but “Saul” is frequently enjoyable even if never getting close to “Breaking Bad” levels of suspense and character study. So far, the most well-developed new character is Jimmy’s loathsome brother Chuck McGill, who thinks he’s a noble man but is really just driven by jealousy of his brother that’s near Biblical. He fits in nicely with the “Bad” universe’s exploration of characters with dual identities from Heisenberg to Gus’s public facade, but “Saul” would be wise to not take this Cain-and-Able duel much further. While Mike is usually doing something interesting, Jimmy and Chuck are acting out a bad “Frasier” episode played as Greek tragedy. Let’s not forget that this is a series about a shady lawyer, and we haven’t actually seen Jimmy/Saul take any criminal cases since season 1. The recent episode saying Jimmy can’t practice law for a year’s suspension is not encouraging. Grade for this Season: B
Fargo…Season one of “Fargo” was terrific mostly for Billy Bob Thornton’s near-mythical villain, a nefarious hitman called Malvo ripping his way through the Upper-Midwest. Season two had more going for it in general, with an overarching allegory about Big Business squeezing out mom and pop through the corporatization of crime. It captured a specific moment when Reagan’s income-inequality 80’s swallowed up the anxious, fraying late-70’s of Jimmy Carter’s “hopes and dreams” America.
So far, it’s unclear if Season 3 is more Season-1 character study or Season-2 “Big Story,” combining a Cain-and-Abel story of two dueling brothers (both played by Ewan McGregor) with a possibly larger story of dirty money (represented by David Thewlis’s confounding and repulsive villain V.M. Varga) becoming clean during the recession. It’s all been intriguing, but not exactly gripping. It may be revealing that the best episode of the season so far has seen Carrie Coons very Minnesotan homicide detective be a fish-out-of-water in Los Angeles, a largely standalone episode that has no larger place in the story. Grade for the Season so far: B
Homeland…The only show with a completely finished season so it can be properly judged, and that’s a good thing in this case since season 6—set in NYC following the transition of power to a President-elect the intelligence community doesn’t fully trust—started somewhat slow but eventually became Homeland’s most thoughtful season yet, and the second-best all around after Season 4 set in Afghanistan. “Homeland” has never made the growing military industrial complex its main plotline before but this pivot away from terrorism feels tonally different from season’s past at the exact time most shows are getting stale. By exploring social media propaganda farms, false flag attacks, and a growing police state, “Homeland” has crafted “The Parallax View” of the new millennium. Season 6: A-