The Past Trisennight on TV #34

With the series finale of The Americans on UK TV tonight (at 12:05am on ITV4), I thought I’d bring my monthly TV review forward a bit and share my thoughts on the final season of a series that, for those of us who found it, will be sorely missed.

Plus! The latest episodes of Westworld — much more widely discussed than The Americans, but does it deserve the attention? And quick thoughts on the end of Archer Vice and another series finale, that of Peter Kay’s Car Share.

The Americans  Season 6
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

The Americans season 6That song was released in 1987, the same year as the final season of The Americans is set. The show has typically avoided featuring well-known music in favour of cult favourites and obscurities, but R.E.M.’s classic would’ve been an appropriate number to hear during one of the series’ trademark music montages in the finale. (That said, it did contain both Dire Straits and U2, so they weren’t above using big hits.) Maybe it would’ve been a bit on the nose, but it certainly was applicable: it was the end of the world as the characters knew it, and so too for fans, as six incredible seasons came to a final end. But do we feel fine? That depends how you define “fine”. The show will be missed terribly, but goddamn if it didn’t stick the landing to cement itself as one of the greatest TV series ever made.

It all began with a good setup for a concluding season: finally, after years of disagreements about their jobs and their personal lives and how both should be handled, the world conspired to pit the Jennings directly — and secretly — against each other. The Americans isn’t usually so overt in its plotting, so it’s no surprise that the scenario doesn’t play out as a straightforward spy-vs-spy battle. But it certainly tests the lead characters both professionally and personally, and to an extent they haven’t been before, forcing them to question every one of their loyalties: to their employers, to their country, to their friends, to their family, and to each other. To say too much about how it unfolds would be a spoiler, obviously, but it has some clever ways of challenging even the characters’ most deeply-held beliefs.

Most spy-based TV shows ratchet up the scale or stakes season after season — I’m thinking of Spooks, where in season two they spent a whole episode debating the ethics of performing an assassination, but a couple of years later that was just routine first-act stuff; or 24, where season one was just about someone trying to assassinate a presidential candidate, but by season four it was about multiple coordinated attacks including bombing trains, kidnappings, melting nuclear power stations, shooting down Air Force One, a nuclear missile strike… The Americans has, if anything, gone in the opposite direction: there’s still spy stuff there, of course, and it’s as grounded as ever, but it’s increasingly taken a backseat to the characters’ relationships. Maybe this is just a matter of perspective, but I felt that in earlier seasons the spy stuff was the focus, No ordinary marriageegiven texture or sometimes affected by the relationships, whereas by this point the relative importance and impact seems reversed. I guess you could still enjoy it as “just a spy show”, but I don’t think you’d want to — the stuff you’re invested in has shifted. That was always the programme’s genius, of course: it’s not about spies who happen to be married, it’s about marriage through the prism of people who are spies.

For a while it almost doesn’t feel like the end (the season opener even begins with a montage set to Don’t Dream It’s Over), but then comes episode five, The Great Patriotic War, and suddenly years of stuff is brought to a head: the status quo and people’s values are flipped, then re-flipped; there are massive changes and developments — but all managed with The Americans’ usual understated believability. As the fallout begins in episode six, Rififi, you can’t tell where it’s going to go. It keeps the focus squarely on Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship, as if we could ever forget the show is, at heart, all about that, not the big spy stuff. The season isn’t just engrossing on a thriller-ish “will they get caught?” level, but also on an emotional “will they stay together?” one. A big part of this is the performances by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, both of whom are so, so good — the subtleties and nuances of their performances, and the way the series trusts them to convey what’s needed with just silence at times, is phenomenal. That they haven’t received more recognition for their work here is a crime against television.

The penultimate episode, Jennings, Elizabeth, is where things really begin to come to a head, and Jesus, the tension! It’s hair-raising. It’s intense. It leaves your nerves shattered, not just during the programme but after it too. I’m glad I saved the season up to watch on consecutive days, because I don’t know how I’d’ve spent a week with that hanging over me. And as for the finale, somewhat ironically titled START… I’ve been worried about how they’d end the show basically since it started. I spent that last hour covered in goosebumps and with my heart in my throat, and it was kinda perfect. It didn’t give me everything I wanted, but perhaps it gave me all that I needed. The garage sceneAs a commenter on the A.V. Club’s review put it, “I have to say it is of greatest compliment that the show both wrapped up the story and left me wanting more. It felt equal measure satisfying and gut wrenching.” That’s exactly how I felt. Also, it contained what I have no qualms about calling one of the greatest scenes in TV history: just a handful of characters talking in a garage, and it was absolutely stunning, the true culmination of the entirety of the show.

If you haven’t been watching The Americans (and viewing figures suggest you probably weren’t) then do yourself a favour and rectify that at some point — a 75-episode masterpiece awaits. Without doubt, one of the greatest TV series ever made.

Westworld  Season 2 Episodes 5-7
Shogun WorldI wrote last time about how Westworld season one took a few episodes to warm up but eventually got me completely hooked. Season two is so far failing to pull the same trick — over half the season has felt like it’s still just getting underway to me. And then, in the blink of an eye, episode seven, Les Écorchés, catapults us from “just getting started” to “endgame” over the course of an hour. I’m not sure how I feel about all that. There’s some exciting and interesting ideas in the mix here, but what also feels like a bit of flailing around. Maybe it’s all in aid of a Big Surprise? Season one certainly had a few of those in its final episodes — they were the most talked-about part of the show in the end, I’d wager — so I assume they’re going to end up shooting for the same.

One thing they’ve definitely copied from that freshman run is the multiple timelines. Back then it was a secret, and it ultimately paid off, but now it’s out in the open, and I’m not sure what it’s for. I mean, there are some very basic uses in play — “how does Character X get from that situation in the past to this situation in the present?”, “where have half the cast gone between the past and now?” — but that seems a bit… facile. As I say, I hope they’ve got some surprise to pull out of their sleeve — something to do with how the hosts struggle to differentiate between memories and current events, perhaps — but it’s a long time coming…

Also watched…
  • Archer Season 5 Episodes 6-13 — While the change-of-setup idea seemed interesting at first, I’m not sure how much I actually liked Archer Vice overall. There were some good episodes, plus sundry character bits and lines, etc, but the cumulative level of enjoyment was less than I remember from previous seasons. Equally, it’s been four years since I last watched the show — maybe I’d just moved on? Well, I’ll continue on to season six anyway, especially as I believe that returns to the original spy-agency setting.
  • Car Share The Finale — A much-needed conclusion after series two’s cliffhanger (did they really think that was ever going to wash as a final ending?) It gave us the happy ending most people wanted (I saw a handful of dissenting voices on Twitter), and, even more impressively, managed to do so without sacrificing the series’ two-people-chatting-in-a-car format. It was pretty darn hilarious, too. If they ever want to do more I won’t complain, but it’s fine to leave it there this time, thanks.

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Very English ScandalThis month, I have mostly been missing A Very English Scandal, the Russell T Davies-penned drama about the real-life case of a ’60s politician and his secret homosexual lover. It seems to have gone down exceptionally well, and anything by RTD is always worth watching. Other than that, it feels like there’s a bunch of stuff on streaming I’ve been meaning to get round to and still haven’t. That list would keep us here all day, though.

    Next month… the MCU’s other black superhero returns to Netflix.

  • The Past Month on TV #32

    Turns out I watched lots of great TV series this month, so here are several big ol’ reviews to try to explain what was so good about them…

    A Series of Unfortunate Events  Season 2
    A Series of Unfortunate Events season 2Abandon your vapid, facile distractions and set aside your very fine dramas, because it’s time to indulge in some vicarious fearsome disaster with the return of Netflix’s venerable family delight — a phrase which here means: A Series of Unfortunate Events is back.

    This season adapts volumes five to nine of Lemony Snicket’s thirteen-tome investigation into the terrible events that befell the Baudelaire siblings following the death of their parents; specifically, the many nefarious schemes of Count Olaf and his troop of miscreants as they endeavoured to steal the Baudelaire fortune. Although we left the Baudelaires feeling alone in the world — seeing as Olaf had managed to off each of their appointed guardians in turn, and the banker charged with finding them fitting accommodation is, well, incompetent — these episodes see the trio finding new friends and learning that secret forces are working in the shadows to keep them safe… though why they’re doing that, and who they are, is only slightly less mysterious than the inexorability of Count Olaf’s vendetta against the Baudelaires.

    Season two retains all the best qualities of the series’ first run, remaining witty, intelligent, satirical, literate, surprisingly attuned to genuine emotion, nicely scattered with meta-jokes, and manages to deliver all of this at a rate of knots that risks you missing one excellent moment while you’re still laughing at the last. What we get considerably more of here — much more than I was expecting, even — are answers. Reading between the lines (i.e. trying to avoid spoilers), I get the impression the book series left many things unresolved. Maybe the TV adaptation will too by the time it’s done, but at the moment it’s dishing out new information on the regular. It makes for an exciting game as a viewer, connecting up the snippets of info that are doled out, piecing together the bigger picture. There’s also some solid character development, on both sides: it seems there’s more to Olaf than just moustache-twirling villainy, while one story sees the Baudelaires indulge in an ends-justify-the-means betrayal that does them no favours later on.

    Not at all theatricalNeil Patrick Harris is having a whale of a time as Olaf and all his varied aliases, while the apparent earnestness of child actors Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes is clearly well measured for effect rather than poor work. There’s an array of memorable guest performances this season as well, from Kitana Turnbull, fantastically horrid as Carmelita, a little-goody-two-shoes teacher’s-pet bully the Baudelaires encounter in the opening two-parter; to Lucy Punch as an obsessive fashionista; to Sara Rue as a new inductee into the secret organisation trying to help the Baudelaires. Best of all is Nathan Fillion, born to play the fast-talking dashing hero who gets a ton of the best lines. If there’s a downside, it’s that we don’t see enough of some people. Unlike most kids’ fare (and, let’s be honest, some stuff made for adults), this isn’t a show where good is always rewarded and bad behaviour always punished, and that means some people may be shuffling out before we’ve had as much as we’d like. I guess the clue was in the title…

    It all ends on a bit of a damp squib cliffhanger. I mean, the series itself is in good shape: there are lots of mysteries left, with answers tantalisingly close, and most of the main cast are headed to a key location that’s pregnant with promise. But it’s undermined slightly with a big character reveal that doesn’t quite come off — they don’t reveal who the character actually is on screen (I guessed wrongly who she was meant to be, in fact), and while they’ve cast a moderately famous actress, she’s not famous enough for her mere presence to count as a reveal — and they put the kids in a moment of jeopardy that’s entirely empty — no one believes season three is going to begin with the two leads falling off a cliff to their death, do they?

    But, really, these are minor complaints in a show that continues to hit almost all the right notes. Fortunately season three is already in production, so hopefully there won’t be too long to wait for what should be a vehemently final denouement.

    Westworld  Season 1
    Westworld season 1With season two imminent (it begins tomorrow, people!) I finally got my behind in gear (it’s only taken 18 months) and missioned my way through the first season of HBO’s reimagining of the Michael Crichton film. I imagine that’s the last time I’ll be mentioning the original movie in this review, because while the TV series takes the basic premise and some of the iconography of the original, it has much bigger, deeper, broader ideas on its mind.

    For thems that don’t know, it’s about an immersive theme park — the titular Westworld — populated by robots, known as “hosts”, who imitate humanity with near-unerring accuracy. Guests pay a fortune ($40,000 per day) to effectively time travel, spending their time in the park as if it was the real Wild West, except with the freedom to do as they please with complete impunity — the hosts can’t hurt the guests, but the guests can kill, maim, or shag anything they like. And boy, do they. But the hosts seem to be developing, evolving, moving beyond their programming. The series follows both the adventures of some guests in the park and the activities of the team behind-the-scenes, trying to keep the show on the road and work out what’s going wrong. But most of all it follows a handful of hosts, who repeatedly live the same day on a loop, their memories wiped so they don’t realise it… unless, of course, that wiping isn’t 100% effective…

    Despite all the praise it attracted, I took a while to warm to Westworld. The first four episodes felt like a bit of a slog. There are good, even great, scenes and performances in those opening hours, and of course it’s introducing all the potentially interesting concepts and themes; but, much like the hosts, I felt like it was slowly going round in circles at times, and I felt little drive to push on and find out what happens next. I think I must finally know what it feels like to be one of those people who think Netflix shows don’t go anywhere fast.

    More human than humans?During its production Westworld hit the headlines because they shut down production for a while to retool the scripts and hone the story. Maybe this was why. If so, it paid off, because from the fifth episode things pick up considerably. Developments and twists really kick the mysteries into gear. Scenes between characters begin to carry more meaningful dialogue and affecting emotion. There’s even some action to give it a nice adrenaline kick at times. Rather than feeling like it’s ambling nowhere in particular, you feel like showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have some very particular things in mind, but good luck guessing what they are because there are many surprises in store: however close you think you are to uncovering Westworld’s games, someone always has something else up their sleeve. It develops an almost Game of Thrones-esque ability to pull surprising but plausible developments out of ‘thin air’.

    It was interesting to observe that from the outside, actually. Famously, the series pulls off some pretty big tricks that are revealed in the final few episodes, but the hive-mind of Reddit figured most of them out well in advance. (Indeed, they also figured out some of what was going to happen in season two, leading to rewrites.) Therefore I’d had some of the twists and developments spoiled before viewing, or I’d learnt enough to figure them out easily for myself; but there were others… well, I guessed almost everything, I think. I’m not trying to brag — I know I’m far from alone in making those deductions. But it made me think: did I just have a leg up to get there, from hearing what other people had figured out? Or are loads of us super-duper clever and so ‘beat’ the show? Or is the show not as clever as it thinks it is? Maybe it’s a bit of all of those things. Audiences are so sophisticated nowadays, so used to looking out for clues and twists, especially in programmes that demonstrate or suggest a propensity for them, that actually pulling the wool over viewers’ eyes is nigh impossible — especially when your biggest fans are basically crowd-sourcing solutions.

    Who's in control?The other most striking thing about the show are the performances. It’s like an acting masterclass: there are numerous fine performers here, and they’re all doing their best work. Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright… they’re all so magnificent that I don’t know who to single out without going on forever. And that’s not to undersell the rest of the cast either, many of whom would be said to excel in most other shows, but here there’s just so much raw talent on display.

    So, over the course of the season I went from finding it a bit of a drag (I didn’t even like the theme music) to being completely enthralled (now I can’t get the theme out of my head). And season two is sure to spin off in all sorts of new directions, as the trailers confirm. I won’t be waiting 18 months to watch it this time.

    Archer  Season 5 Episodes 1-5
    Archer ViceHere in the UK, animated spy-comedy Archer originally aired on Channel 5, until they started really titting about with the scheduling, which is what led me to drop off watching. It’s all on Netflix nowadays though, so I’m finally getting back into it.

    This fifth season made huge changes to the show’s basic setup, even giving itself a new title in the process: Archer Vice. Obviously such a big reenvisioning generated lots of chatter at the time, some of which I overheard, and from the way people were talking about it I expected a ground-up reboot. That’s not really the case. Yeah, the situation has changed (instead of working for a spy agency they’re now trying to become drug dealers), but it’s all the same characters and the same style of humour. So, it depends how vital you think the “sit” is in “sitcom”, because while the backdrop is technically entirely different, everything else about the show is still in the same vein. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a reboot, just like the same show but with a huge change to the status quo. It almost proves Archer was never really about the spy stuff (which, as neat a hook as it was, it wasn’t) — as with most sitcoms, the “sit” is almost irrelevant: it’s the characters that matter. Now, all of that said, maybe these aren’t entirely the show’s finest episodes, but it’s still very funny. As I always say about comedy, what more do you need?

    Line of Duty  Series 4
    Line of Duty series 4Another superb performance from Thandie Newton here, as the subject of AC-12’s latest internal affairs investigation. She’s convinced she’s arrested a notorious serial killer known as “Balaclava Man”; our faithful heroes reckon she’s cut corners, overlooking serious concerns about the evidence; the higher-ups who were exerting pressure on her to close the case would rather it all just went away. And as is the Line of Duty way, some shocking early developments send things spiralling in different directions. After the programme had become increasingly mired in its multi-season meta-arc last series, culminating in an extra-long finale which brought much to a head, it’s refreshing to have a brand-new case… for most of the series, anyway. For all those last-minute connections, the real star here remains Newton, with a nuanced portrayal of a copper who starts out professional and certain she’s doing the right thing, then disappears off down a rabbit hole of increasingly serious indiscretions to keep her initial beliefs on track, before eventually revealing her true character by the end. I suppose there are some similarities to Keeley Hawes’ role in series two — a clever female detective running rings around AC-12 thanks to her cunning and intelligence — but when the performances are this good and the plots this knotty, does it matter?

    Lucifer  Season 2 Episodes 1-10
    Lucifer season 2While I very much enjoyed the first season of Lucifer, the second one ups the ante. This is mainly thanks to the addition of Tricia Helfer to the regular cast as a great antagonist: everything she does is motivated by what she thinks is best for Lucifer, but that’s not at all the same as what he wants. It makes for a different dynamic than you see in most series, where bad guys do bad things, however many shades of grey the writers pretend to find in them. Plus, although it continues to take the form of a case-of-the-week cop show, it’s putting increasing emphasis on both ongoing story arcs and the fantastical elements. It makes for a nicely balanced, addictively watchable show. The Devil has all the best tunes, indeed.

    Also watched…
  • Episodes Season 5 Episode 1 — The long-awaited final season of the Matt LeBlanc sitcom finally made it to UK TV this month. For various reasons I’ve only watched the first episode so far, so I’ll (probably) say more about the whole season next month.
  • The Silent Child — The Oscar-winning short film screened on UK TV this past month, and is still available on iPlayer. Review here.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The City and the CityThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s miniseries adaptations of China Miéville’s The City and the City and Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence, both of which I’ve been saving up to watch in a more condensed fashion once they’re finished. The Christie ended on Sunday but the Miéville is only halfway through. Anyway, I imagine I’ll cover both next month. Also released this past month was Netflix’s big-budget reboot of Lost in Space, which I would’ve watched if I hadn’t been missioning my way through Westworld this past week. That might be here next month also. And finally, the last-ever season of The Best Show On TV™, The Americans, is underway in the US. Again, I’m saving it all up ’til it’s done, but I do intend to watch it promptly so as to avoid finale spoilers — my real hope is to time it just right so that I can watch the finale the day after it airs in the US, but we’ll see. Said finale isn’t until May 30th, so whatever happens I won’t be reviewing that until June.

    Next month… straight on to Westworld season two.