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Send in “The Americans”

courtesy hollywoodreporter.com

Drew Scheeler, Film and Television Critic

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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to discover you have latent psychic powers? And what if you suddenly gained the power to predict the future? Some people would abuse these powers to win the lottery or control the stock market or learn the release date of The Legend of Korra’s second season.

Last week, in this very column, I made two prophecies that have since come true. The first involved the new NBC drama Do No Harm, a modern adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson story about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I predicted that this would be a terrible show. Secondly, I foretold of the wonders of FX’s The Americans. This makes me two for two and instantly gives me a better prediction record than the combined histories of Nostradamus, Miss Cleo and Wang Chung, who obviously never visited this campus when they promised that “Everybody [will] Have Fun Tonight.”

It is easy enough to become an expert in psychicness. Just reading the Wikipedia synopsis of one X-Men comic should be enough to give anyone a thorough understanding of their powers, responsibilities, and limitations. Looking at the cast of Do No Harm suggests great things: the actors who brought Connie Rubirosa, Clair Huxtable and Neil Schweiber to life are all cast on the same show? Harm stars Steven Pasquale, phoning in a dual role as Dr. Jason Cole who we are informed is a brilliant neurosurgeon.

But then every night at 8:25 he transforms into the manic Ian Price and singlehandedly sets the American portrayal of mental illness on television back twenty years. It almost appears as if Pasquale is challenging himself to create two equally grating characters.

Admittedly, the cast is not being given any interesting material to work with. But, worst of all, my psychic musings warned me about this show and I decided to watch the pilot anyway against my own advice.  One photo circulating around the internet shows a Do No Harm billboard being taken down only two days after its premiere. It just isn’t good and America knows this. The whole Jekyll story trope has been done better in other media.

But proving people wrong is a wonderful thing and this is why we have the same stories adapted time and time again. Just last week my weightlifting instructor thought that I could do a pushup. But then I did, and several at that. A normal person would probably attribute this to my months of training in the athletics. But I didn’t because of the same new telekinetic powers that made that all of those containers spill out when I opened the refrigerator door last night to grab some olives. My psychic powers tell me that an adaptation of this tangent would probably cause less Harm to the careers of the producers associated with that bland drama. Stop remaking the same franchises if your characters aren’t top notch and you can’t bring anything new to a tired plot idea.

But then we have The Americans to remind us how wonderful a concept series can be if you give your actors interesting characters, wonderful material, and a clever hook to work with. The title Americans of FX’s most recent drama are actually a pair of KGB agents, planted so far deep in suburbia that they still don’t know about each other’s life back in the USSR.  And they’ve now had two children, including a son who is prone to spouting anti-Communist rhetoric back at his parents, and a daughter who is testing the waters with the wrong crowd.

Stars Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell –as seen on Brothers and Sisters and Felicity, respectively –both do a very good job at suggesting that being married is a lot like being a spy: there’s a certain level of trust that you need when facing the uncertainties of life and you need to cover the back of your partner. In the opening hour, there is an especially powerful scene where Rhys talks of defecting to the United States and releasing the American-turned agent that’s been tied up in their trunk for the last week. I can think of only a handful of shows brave enough to end this standoff as it plays out. And unlike Homeland, as phenomenal as that series is, this show has children that actually serve a purpose and can act. That is especially impressive.

The Americans reminds me most of a couple of storied British franchises. The period setting and stunning actions scenes could have been plucked out of the Timothy Dalton era of James Bond films. It’s before cell phones and before internet so every decision looks to be incredibly low tech by today’s standards. But that’s a good thing: these action sequences rely on techniques and skills that aren’t overexposed to today’s audiences. Discovering a well-crafted car chase without neon lighting or machine gun fire is a delight.

Perhaps The Americans owes more than a passing nod to Downton Abbey, of all series, in its willingness to embrace a period setting and demonstrate that our basic humanity hasn’t really changed. The petty arguments and class differences seen on Downton are similarly compelling to today’s viewers in the way the mutually-assured destruction and ideological differences that drive The Americans will entertain.

So often, we see stories about characters that need to make Faustian bargains in their pursuit of their life’s ambition, sacrificing their morality or sanity or ego control or some combination of these traits in the process. We know that the United States doesn’t collapse to the KGB at the end of the 1980s. Spoiler alert: my psychic powers, assisted by Wikipedia, are telling me that we won the Cold War. But if The Americans continue to present interesting characters that stay relevant with today’s viewers, while folding in clips of Reagan speaking about the Communist threat, it doesn’t take a psychic to see it succeeding.

All I had to do was put my professional and journalistic reputation on the line in predicting that NBC was going to put out another mediocre show. And that a basic cable drama about Reagan-era KGB agents was going to be awesome. I have come to the conclusion that I am an awesome psychic. And it’s okay if you can’t accept that. But, I hereby retire using my gift for something as lowly as predicting what will happen on TV. Besides, I lost a ton of money on the Super Bowl. May the ghost of Art Modell haunt my dreams.

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