Crossing the Stream: Part 10 - "The Americans" Sn 1, Ep 1

Let's come to an understanding here: I am going to cheat myself during the course of this weight loss. I already have. I've cheated via a few rogue Easter chocolates, a bite of pepperoni pizza, and a sip of some heavenly brew called "Dave's Cherry Cream Soda" that I bummed off my wife. I'm at the stage some smokers get to where they say, "I'm not a smoker" though they still will bum one off somebody when the opportunity strikes. I'm also giving myself undue leeway in the realm of "rare and appropriate" times to eat the no-so-appropriate things. I went camping, so I had a burger. I just made sure to preface it with a nature walk. And though Rosely and I did not get to go on the dinner date we planned, I was fully prepared to have a plate of pasta.

Some diets and fad-like diet regimens hold the "cheat day" as the cornerstone of self-control. Like, "Hey, if I make today my cheat day, I can eat this cheesecake and not worry. I just can't do it again this week!" That makes sense, but it also sets a bad precedent in my head, where I can easily justify pigging out by promising myself some type of retribution, one that may not actually land. The old adage of writing checks your body can't cash. It's the drawback of being the prisoner, the guard, the defense attorney, and the warden in this mental Shawshank. I also am not a fan of the use of "cheat" in this entire scenario. Cheating implies manipulating a game in order to win, but if you cheat on a diet, there's no immediate win, or lose. But "cheat" is a word used to inspire the smallest amount of shame. And no one, not even a Barney Rubble looking fool like me, needs shame to be attached to their waffles. 

At any rate, today's gym session was miserable. Mondays suck, largely because I take Sundays off. But also I'm trying to balance between my money concerns and my health concerns. See, I have a unique opportunity for some rad overtime, but I also have a limit on gym time, so...which one? Today, I favored the gym, but it really sucks that I have to make the choice. Overtime is one of the things about my job I love. It's how I fund my insane media consumption habits, as well as my more childlike purchases. But there must be something to be said, that I chose my duty to myself to sweat for a small amount of time rather than earn an extra couple of bucks. If you had told me that a few weeks ago, I'd call you crazy. Still, it felt off today. I couldn't get much of a rhythm.

A programming note: in an effort to keep these down in length, I'm going to try just one episode per day, as I suspect there's a lot to cover for each episode. So, it'll likely be two weeks with "The Americans" Season 1.

"The Americans" - Season 1, Episode 1 "Pilot"



Conceptually, spy shows have to revolve around some type of formula in order to stand out. I find it interesting that shows about American espionage during the George W. Bush era were largely light affairs. The likes of "Chuck," and "Burn Notice," and even "Nikita" to a degree were preoccupied with slick-looking costumes, wondrous spy gadgetry, and maybe some cartoonish portrayal of bureaucracy or cluelessness of authority. Then, "The Americans," which seems popular enough to be called the definitive American spy program of the Obama era, deals largely with what covert affairs can do to a person's soul. Of course, it also takes place during the Reagan years, and so therefore has plenty to say about the saber-rattling of the nuclear arms race, and the doofy jingoism that met any mere mention of "those dang commies."

On a technical level, this is an exciting show. Though the narrative is something with the tension and exaggerated stakes of a "Mission: Impossible" style caper, it is shot as serious as a heart attack, outlining the grimy reality of the era with the texture and moody lighting of something like The French Connection. I was expecting a lot of Cold War dynamics, not as much bombast. But the early chase and fight in the back alleys of Washington D.C. was so adeptly rendered. I didn't know I wanted this much action. The music selections were highly recognizable, I doubt they will be as overt from here on out, but I had a lot of fun with the crisp edits that popped along with Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk," one of my favorite tracks from the band. And "In the Air Tonight" has always had a menacing, foreboding effect that matched the sequence nicely.

Even the writing of this pilot is economical, as the first hour of the season manages to establish the world and the characters that inhabit it, nail the era to the ground with some hindsighted commentary, establish the stakes and personal turmoil to be explored, and utilize the talent of this cast in a fresh way. One pilot episode. I liked "Altered Carbon," but that first hour couldn't get half the things done that this one pulls off. Case in point, rather than have a hammy internal monologue take us through the bizarre world of deep-undercover sleeper cells, it's a four-page scene featuring an Aaron Sorkin-style walk-n-talk. There was also plenty of material to ensure an audience that it's okay to root for the Soviet spies, so there are little shorthand devices floating around. FBI agent Beeman, who is positioned to be the ultimate antagonist of the show, is something of a jackass who is paranoid enough to break into a neighbor's garage. If there's one thing any audience can hate, it's a nosy neighbor. Even the defector, whose capture and imprisonment in the trunk of the family Oldsmobile that powers the plot, is given a handy reason for us to relish his suffering by making him Elizabeth's instructor and rapist from 20 years previous. No way anyone would consider these red spies the villains, not with the likes of that as their adversaries.

What I was struck by the most was how easily the dynamics of the lead characters' marriage can parallel and relate to actual marriages. Strip away the slick spy stuff, and you have a basic story of a couple who have hit a rocky patch that will not be subsiding. They have differing values. They see their children's futures in deeply contrasting light.And while one of them is as true a believer in their mission as they day they started, the other is having doubts. They even grow as a couple, highlighted by Elizabeth's opening up about her past life, before they were assigned to become the Jennings family. Such a reveal to a longtime partner can be seen as a new paradigm, or the first step toward the crumbling of the relationship, depending on the participants.

So far, it's really compelling. I hope we get to explore Elizabeth and Philip's relationship as much as I'm sure I'll end up exploring the perception of 1980s America through the lens of Soviet intelligence.

Random Notes:

-Isn't it kind of satisfying that both Keri Russell and Jennifer Garner went on from "Felicity" to be spies, but in crazy different directions?!

-The 1960s flashbacks to Russia really don't convince me. It seems like a different, much worse show. I hope these flashbacks are not here to stay.

-While "Mad Men" had the gross trash pile left after a picnic, "The Americans" has cowboy boots, the mall, an astronaut, and the Star-Spangled Banner

-Elizabeth's gentle steering of their kids toward Soviet sympathy is a little too precious.



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