Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Americans on FX: First Thoughts

Like millions of other people, I tuned into the new FX series The Americans last night. They had me at Cold War, Keri Russell, the 80s and Michael Rhys, but it was completely different experience than I expected.

In the last week, the United States lifted the ban on women on the front lines in the military. While the series doesn't exactly compare the two situations, the focus on Kerri Russell's character, Elizabeth (her American name), and her love of country versus Michael Rhys' character, Phillip and his love of family made the conversation a bit more interesting.

The usual rule is women and family, men and country. Instead, in Elizabeth we saw a young girl clearly betrayed by her country as a cadet at a very early age, yet still willing to lay everything aside for her love of and allegiance to the Soviet Union. Her family, at least until the pilot, was secondary.

Phillip, on the other hand, had found a soft spot for his adopted country. The food wasn't so bad, after all. He had raised his children as Americans. They had been living as Americans for 20 years. It was becoming difficult for him to see the benefit of being a spy when all that he loved was in the house he shared with Elizabeth and his two children.

It especially hit home when Phillip took his son to see the astronaut. His son was waving an American flag and proud of the accomplishments of America, not the Soviet Union. It's easy to see how confusing it would be to be fighting a war from within. He and Elizabeth vowed never to bring their kids into their world. How will they ever reconcile the truth with them? Will they forever be separated by the false lives they have created?

Would it really have taken 20 years for Elizabeth to see the love Phillip had for her? She needed the man who raped her to come back into her life and remind her of who she once was to bring back a flood of memories and for Phillip to put her first to understand how deeply engaged he was in them, not just the assignment they had set out to play. Twenty years is an extraordinarily long time to live with someone and never share your past, your real name, your history. I'm not sure I bought it, but I'll play along for the sake of beginning the series at a perfect point for historical reference.

As an added bonus, the Jennings family will now have to fight not only the Americans, but their own neighbors. With the heightened Cold War initiative and Stan, the counter intelligence FBI man moving in down the street, things are about to get even worse.

After the setup of the premiere, what I'm most excited to watch is the struggle between Elizabeth and Phillip as they marry up their American lives with their Soviet agenda. Given the first hour, I wonder how they've managed to do it so long without breaking. Elizabeth made several calls bringing Phillips loyalty into question, so they're on the Soviet's radar. How close with they become and toward what country will their fealty lean? Will they each be able to make a choice between country and family and which will it be?

The Americans was one of the most engaging pilots I've watched this year and Keri Russell's best since Felicity. I'll be tuning in every week.

PS - If any of what was written was based off of the experiences of real women, I think the United States need not fear the tenacity of women in a combat situation. While they may lose in hand to hand missions, they'll go the distance with their heart and minds.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

BBC America's Ripper Street. Worth A Watch?

Spending the holidays in England and away from my beloved US television winter finales and/or premieres did have a couple advantages. I saw Doctor Who HOURS before you lot and I was two episodes ahead on Ripper Street by the time my feet hit US soil again. What can you expect from the new series other than superb production, as always?

Did you watch Copper? As I watched Ripper Street, I was struck that it does for London's Victorian Whitechapel what Copper did, and will continue doing, for New York City's 1860s Five Points area. There are a lot of similarities between the two programs, and frankly it makes me hesitant to fully recommend it.

I was wondering why one of the lower numbered BBC stations hadn't decided to air Copper considering some of the sheer crap they do air, but after seeing the second episode of Ripper Street, I realized the two might be just too damn similar to comfortably air. 

The protagonists of both series have undergone severe changes due to cataclysmic events in their lives. Both are male and suffer from stress due the loss of a young daughter. Their marriages are in peril and their future in question and their most relied upon companions are people who have been there for them during those times when all seemed lost. They come from all walks of life and might seem otherwise odd choices for men of the law, if we didn't know how deeply they trusted them and why. There is also a madam of prominence in both series, and they are using the dawn of forensics to solve crimes when it was not the common way to do things.

If you're one of those people who don't mind watching a lot of similar shows and have already watched Copper, then definitely tune in. Or, perhaps you're more interested in Victorian London. There are many reasons to watch, including superb acting. It took me a few minutes to peg him, but Jerome Flynn who plays Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake is Bronn on Game of Thrones!  

If you're expecting a show that will revolve around Jack the Ripper, please look elsewhere. This show is devoted to what's left in the wake of his aftermath, not the murders or the killer. Just as Copper focuses a lot on the aftermath of the Civil War. Another similarity.

Can I recommend it? Yes. Would I recommend it over Copper, similarly themed? No. But, some of you don't get to make the choice of whether or not to watch both. We in the United States just happened to get lucky this time since BBC America took a risk to deliver us both.