Tag Archives: FX

The Americans: The Complete Series

“When a person is born, he can embark on only one of three roads of life. If you go right, the wolves will eat you. If you go left, you will eat the wolves. If you go straight, you will eat yourself.”

-Anton Chekhov, 1878

We’ve become accustomed to television series that end in ultimate victory, ultimate defeat, or some combination.   Most of the time, this takes the form of tying up loose ends in a clearly defined and satisfying manner.  The Americans does not end neatly.  It was never about tying up loose ends.  It was about the lies the characters tell themselves and each other.

The Americans has one of the strongest pilots and series finales of any great television drama. The pilot works because it sets up everything that the show will become best known for: suspense, car chases, 80’s musical cues, and tensions within and without the Jennings household. The pilot sets up a world and makes the viewer want to keep visiting it.

Right now, its last episode feels like the best conclusion of all time, although I’m sure some of that luster will fade as time goes by.  Or maybe not.  Philip and Elizabeth escape, but lose their children, and part of their souls, in the process.  We, the viewers, might seek justice for all of the horrible things these two have done in the name of Mother Russia, but dishing out cosmic punishment was never The Americans’ game.  No, the real enemy was never the KGB or the FBI.  The real enemy was always the enemy within.

Elizabeth was ever the zealot, and at times, purely evil.  She may have done one good thing by icing Tatiana, but does that make up for everything else she has done?  There is a brief dream sequence in the finale that serves the purpose of showing that, in the end, Elizabeth has given up on and destroyed herself in service of a lost cause. She ends the series alive, but filled with regret.

Philip was never as committed to the spy game as Elizabeth.  He seemed to fall into the life by inertia – it gave him an outlet for his violent anger and an excuse to leave a bleak future in Russia.   He experiences more character growth, and with it growing guilt, than any other character on the show. The guilt may come crashing down on Elizabeth in the very last episodes of the series, for for Philip, there hasn’t been anything else for a long time.

Stan is a more sympathetic character, but far from perfect.  After all, he killed a Russian agent in cold blood back in the first season amd destroyed the lives of both Nina and Oleg.  In the end, he’s left with the guilt of not finding out about the Jenningses sooner, and suspicion that his wife might not be who she says she is.

The Jennings children fare better in the end, especially Henry, who by all accounts will be able to move on with his life if he chooses to do so.  Paige may have a harder time, but there’s not proof that she knows much of anything or that she was training to be a spy herself.  All Stan knows is that she knows, he doesn’t know the extent of her actions.

The Americans wasn’t a perfect series. Like most dramas, it had its weak points. Season five was a let down, although it certainly wasn’t bad. Indeed, almost every great drama has a weak season or two, oftentimes the second to last one.

Still, by dwelling in the dark corners and avoiding spy versus spy clichés, The Americans started and finished better than arguably any other show. The show had its share of climaxes and showdowns, but not at the end of the day. No, in the end The Americans wasn’t about the wolves eating or being eaten. It was about the wolves eating themselves.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe

Music Television: Why “Atlanta” Succeeds and “Vinyl” Failed

FX’s “Atlanta” is one of the best new shows of the year.  It’s received critical acclaim, solid ratings, and that all-important social media buzz that separates the wheat from the chaff.  After watching the first couple of episodes (I’m not caught up, so no recaps I’m afraid), I can see why it has become so popular, so fast.  It’s a funny, thoughtful, and well written show about starting from the bottom in today’s music industry (among other things).  It also happens to be the brainchild of one of the most talented people in entertainment – Grammy nominated musician and acclaimed actor Donald Glover.

Meanwhile, last spring, HBO introduced us to a show called Vinyl.  Like Atlanta, it is also about the music industry.  Like Atlanta, it had some heavyweight creative power behind it (Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Terrance Winter).  That’s where the similarities end.  Unfortunately for HBO and the two hours of my life I wasted on the pilot, Vinyl went straight to the discount rack.  And not the nice, record store discount rack – I mean the one at the gas station off highway 95 in the middle of Jersey.

For two shows that have nothing in common other than the music industry and creative talent, it’s useful to compare them.  Doing so sheds a light on why some TV shows succeed and others fail.

1. Focus, People!

Maybe Vinyl was trying to be chaotic, but it came across and an unfocused mess.  It was trying to tell a story about too much at once, without stopping for a moment to think about why a story about 1970’s rock and roll could be relevant.  It just assumed that the time period and industry were inherently interesting without bother to focus in on any particular characters or storylines long enough to, you know, actually be interesting.

Atlanta is quite the opposite – it’s focused like a laser beam on Earn (Donald Glover), his family, and his attempts to help his cousin, Alfred aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) make it in the music industry.  The clear writing, real life situations, and humor allow the audience to connect to this story without trying too hard.

2. Show in the Show/Music in the Show

Comparing these shows in some ways is like comparing “30 Rock” to “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”  Both shows premiered in the same year, on the same network, and they were about the exact same thing, a late night, SNL-style variety show.  The comedy succeeded.  The drama failed.

Fast forward ten years.  No, Vinyl and Atlanta aren’t about the exact same thing, but the comedy works and the drama did not for similar reasons.  Like “Studio 60,” Vinyl tried so hard to convince us that the bands/music were good without, you know, actually being good.  30 Rock and Atlanta succeed because they make the show and music take a backseat to the interactions between the characters.

3. Gimmicks

Finally, I want to take some time to talk about TV show gimmicks.  The first two episodes of Atlanta are refreshingly free from gimmicks.  The writing is strong enough that gimmicks are unnecessary.

What do I mean by gimmicks?  How about pointless musical cut-scenes?  How about bad impressions of historical figures like John Lennon, Robert Plant, and Andy Warhol?  How about sex and drugs for the sake of there being sex and drugs? How about every single moment of Vinyl?

Conclusion

Come to think of it, the only funny thing about Vinyl was how much of a ridiculous caricature it was.  Anyway, Atlanta and Vinyl are both about people trying to make it in the music industry.  Atlanta is a good show.  Vinyl was a bad show.  Above are some of the reasons way.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

 

 

Fargo – Season 2 – Top Ten Most Bizarre Moments: Part the Last

After a stellar first season, I had high expectations for the second season of Fargo.  I’m happy to say that this season surpassed my expectations.  The performances were top-notch, maybe even a bit better considering we were without Martin Freeman’s Kermit the Frog impression/accent.

The second season was strong thematically as well.  As institutions changed to become less personal, failures of communications and feelings of unnamed dread were revealed.  The characters grasped for straws to try and make things “like they were” or “like their best selves” when the solution was far simpler than that.  They just needed to listen to each other.

Anyway, final top ten:

10. Ed Died as He Lived

Surrounded by meat products.

9. I Want a Nice, Sunny Jail

Apparently Peggy never heard the song “Folsom Prison Blues.”  Two counts of kidnapping and two counts of felony murder (when people die while you’re committing another felony) should keep her hearing that train a comin’, a comin’ round the bend for quite some time.

8. Montage of Gerhardts

It should be pointed out that none of the Gerhardts were actually killed by the Kansas City Mob.  Instead, they died due to a combination of their own hubris and events largely outside of their control.  Their Rome was going to burn to the ground eventually, the role of the KC group served only to accelerate the inevitable.

7. And the Bad Guy Gets Away

How bad was Hanzee though, really?  Sure he caused a lot of people to die, but most of them were assholes or criminals.

6. Hank = Tolkien

Creating your own language is ambitious, just ask the great novelist and linguist J.R.R. Tolkien.  We all thought Hank was going a little crazy, and it turns out he’s one of the sanest people around.

5. Flash Forward

Great use of cameos from the cast of Season One.  It’s a bit of a Tolkien reference itself.  In The Lord of the Rings, Faramir gives an account of a recurring dream of a great wave, washing over trees and green fields.  Faramir fears the downfall of his people, and Betsy fears that the future she sees will not come to pass.

4. Camus is Do-Do

Betsy’s right about one thing though.  That Camus was full of crap.

3. Mike Milligan is the Czar!

Mike fashions himself a cruel, but fair, monarch.  From his throne in the Dakota badlands he will rule an empire of crime with an iron…

2. There is no Czar!  Only the Party!

Or not.  Instead he gets “promoted” into a role as a corporate worker-bee with a 401K and a 9-5 office job.  His dreams of being a brutal tyrant are crushed by the massive weight of the collective machine.  The machine has no name, has no face, and cannot die, in theory, anyway.

1. The Works of Anton Chekhov

This theme of Russian history leads me into the final point I want to make about this season.  The second season of Fargo has much in common with the works of Anton Chekhov with its themes of family, miscommunication, and dread.   Specifically, Chekhov posits:

Nature’s law says that the strong must prevent the weak from living, but only in a newspaper article or textbook can this be packaged into a comprehensible thought. In the soup of everyday life, in the mixture of minutia from which human relations are woven, it is not a law. It is a logical incongruity when both strong and weak fall victim to their mutual relations, unconsciously subservient to some unknown guiding power that stands outside of life, irrelevant to man.

The second season of Fargo certainly demonstrates that the strong and weak are subject to the power of forces outside of their control. It goes one step further and tries to provide an answer.  There can be order in the chaos if we just stop and listen.  We may always be subject to the chaos, but we don’t have to despair in it.  We can understand each other if we try.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Fargo – Season 2 – Top Ten Most Bizarre Moments: Part the Ninth

Let it not be said that the Sioux Falls Massacre didn’t live up to its name.  The buildup to the climax of the season, only mentioned in whispers in season one, was almost as perfect as the execution of the scene and the setup for next week’s season finale.  Anyway, top ten:

10. Peroxide and Super Glue

Ouch, that looked really painful.  Also, it’s probably still infected – those scissors were certainly not clean.

9. More Dumb Cops

Especially the big, dumb “my way or the highway” cop.  He wasn’t just dumb, but belligerently dumb.

8. True Crime Stories of the Mid-West

More on the voiceover later, but get a load of that book.  Those drawings were fantastic.  Also, it was kind of cool to see the phony-baloney “this story is true” opening in book form.

7. Low Level Enforcer?  Ouch!

Milligan is only a “low level enforcer?”  And here we were thinking he was a force of nature akin to Malvo.  A pity really.

6. Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold

Revenge for what exactly?  Decades of casual racism?  Hanzee’s motives are left open ended, but he seemed to take sadistic joy in stabbing Floyd.

5. Peggy is Realized

And she like her chips!

4. Bear Attack!

It was kind of crazy when Bear mauls Lou.  Sure we know Lou survives, but he still hasn’t injured his hip yet so it looked like this was the moment.  Turns out that’ll happen next episode.

3. Well, that was a Freebee

Milligan may have gotten a deep burn from the narrator – see above – but it must be satisfying to come to a location and see your enemies laid to waste and your job essentially done for you.

2. Lester Nygaard Returns!

Sort of.  The voiceover was provided by Martin Freeman.  Usually I don’t care for voiceovers in movies or TV shows (even documentaries), but this was one time the device was well utilized.

1. UFO!

Speaking of creative devices, a UFO?!?  It was set up a few times before though so it wasn’t totally out of left field, just far enough out of left field to make a statement on the bizarre and random events of this season.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Fargo – Season 2 – Top Ten Most Bizarre Moments: Part the Eighth

Okay – NOW we only have two episodes left.  This week was basically a bottle-episode with Ed, Peggy, and Dodd.  Three unpredictable, miserable idiots in one small cabin, what could possible go wrong?  Anyway, top ten:

10. Wheelin’ Out

Apparently Hank wasn’t feeling too badly, since he was a part of the raid later in the episode.  Still, one can’t help being concerned about the guy, bizarre drawings and all.

9. Reagan!

He’s back – in WWII B-Movie form!

8. No One Believes Me!

How many times does the same guy have to call a house before someone with actual power answers the phone?  You’d think Floyd would have just picked up on a whim.  Oh well, on to Mike Milligan.

7. Milligan Likes Your Style, Ed

But what style is that exactly?  What does Milligan actually know ?  Hmmm.

6. Hamburger Helper

In this context – yick!  Yick, yick, yick!

5. Check Yourself, Dirtbag

This is why racist scumbags should check their asinine comments.  You never know when you’re talking to an unstable maniac who’s about to shoot you.  I mean look at Hanzee – doesn’t he just look completely insane?  Idiots.

4. Gas Stations

Gas station attendants have a rough go of it in Coen Brothers movies, especially No Country for Old Men (2007).   Hanzee lets this one off easy.   Speaking of which, there have been plenty of homages to the Coens this season, especially with the music.

3. Dodd Humiliation #3

Getting stabbed in the foot and shot in the face is the most humane thing done to Dodd in the cabin.

2. Dodd Humiliation #2

Let’s just drape a pillowcase over his head – hide that ugly mug while we spoon.

1. Dodd Humiliation #1

Honey – you gotta stop feeding him our beans!  We need those beans!  Also, quit stabbing him already!

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Fargo – Season 2 – Top Ten Most Bizarre Moments: Part the Seventh

There’s some creepy shiz going down this week in the Upper Midwest.  The key difference between this season and last season is that the first season of Fargo had two villainous focal points – Lester (Martin Freeman) and Malvo (Billy-Bob Thornton).  Season two has only a sense of dread, a nameless, external Sauron-esque nightmare descending upon our characters.  Anyway, top-ten:

10. Runes?

I think that our Sheriff friend has either 1) a bizarre hobby or 2) an unfortunate mental illness.  The latter might explain why he bailed on Peggy last week without “checking on her.”

9. The King of Breakfast

Liquid breakfast too!

8. I’m No Rat, But…

Here’s all the information I have about my enemies.  Also, let my kids get away with previous murders, thanks.  I’m still not a rat.  Look at me smoking my pipe.

7. Ricky from Buffalo

Buffalo, New York I assume, although there is a Buffalo, Minnesota.  Interesting fact, Buffalo, New York is a Anglicization of the Old French “Beau Fleuve” or “Beautiful River.”  Buffalo, Minnesota is named for Buffalo Lake, which likely refers to actual bison (just a hypothesis).

6. Window-Washers

They were really committed.  They were doing a great job, then boom – murder.

5. Well if John McCain…

Thumb screws suck, don’t get me wrong.  But I think that’s a central theme of this season – medieval torture has nothing on slow, inner decay.

4. The Undertaker – Ooooo, Scary!

Obvious Mike Milligan didn’t think so.  That escalated quickly.

3. So Long Adrianna…er…Simone

Spoiler alert!  Well maybe not, if I don’t explain the context, but fans of a certain critically acclaimed drama will know what I mean.  Lots of parallels there.

2. The Butcher

Ed is now like, “fuck this, I’m going to be a criminal.”  Might as well at this point.

1. You’re a Shit Cop, You Know that, Right?

Best line of the season so far!

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Fargo – Season 2 – Top Ten Most Bizarre Moments: Part the Sixth

So apparently I was wrong in my previous post – this season of Fargo is ten episodes like Season One.  Yay!  Instead of getting into a reasonable explanation for my snafu, let’s get right into this week’s top ten:

10. So the Kid’s Not Dead

Good for the kid.  Bad for everyone else.  Except for Karl (Nick Offerman) who gets two clients in one day.  Yay!

9. Bro Fight!

After bro fight, you get the belt, apparently.  Ouch.

8. Look at our Convoy!

When you’re engaged in a vicious mob war, it might not be the best idea to roll unnecessarily deep when trying to spring an injured youth from the pokey.

7. Run Ed, Run!

I have a feeling that he’s not getting very far.

6. Why, Peggy, why?

That’s a good question.  She doesn’t seem like a moron (although Hank (Ted Danson) finds her “a little touched”).  So why didn’t she just call the police?  Her explanation is perfectly weird and circular.

5. Where’s that Meat?

I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you all that the corpse of Rye Gerhardt is currently in someone’s hamburger.  I think someone will, at some point, eat that hamburger.

4. Emancipated?

That’s interesting.  Maybe a little too interesting for a throwaway detail on the butcher shop receptionist.

3. Best Lawyer in Town!

Hear him say cool things like “the jackboots are upon us!”  See him drink himself silly!  Smell him soiling himself at the sign of danger!  He’s the only, and therefore best, lawyer in town!

2. The Jungle of Magazines

The mom-jeaned jaguar stalks her prey in her jungle of hoarded magazines.  The unsuspecting goons are caught unaware.  We’ll see the aftermath next week I suppose.

1. Jabberwocky

Speaking of aftermaths – gunning down your enemy’s stronghold usually has a big one.  Mike Milligan is one scary dude.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe