Saturday, May 14, 2016

Red Seeds Planted on American Soil

There is a lot of quality choices in home media entertainment today which is why it’s been hard every month to choose just one excerpt from The DVD Laser Disc Newsletter.
This is the main reason I’m excited about today’s post — a Second Excerpt extracted from the same May Newsletter! 
The review we’re featuring has Doug Pratt writing about the first three seasons of the TV series, THE AMERICANS.  
I’ve been a fan of the show from the very beginning. And yet, even today, whenever I think of the series, the first thought that always pops in my mind is the casting of Keri Russell as one of the leads.  At one point during the development process of the show, the casting call went out for the main characters and the description of “Elizabeth Jennings” probably read something like this — the character has an emotionally cold interior; is a woman driven to succeed as if programed like a machine; the right actress is one who will not only hold her own with her male co-star, but is actually at times shoring up her
emotionally weaker spy partner. How Keri Russell ended up answering the casting call for the show speaks volumes about how much she has grown as an actress. It also says a lot about how the filmmakers/FX executives took chances with this series from the very beginning. If you need a show to binge on, look no further than Doug Pratt’s review below. I must admit that I’m envious of anyone out there who gets to watch this TV series straight through from the beginning.

Oh say can you see                                            Doug Pratt

America is a vast melting pot.  
People of different nationalities and races move here to live their lives in our bountiful land.  
Africans.  Australians.  South Americans.  Russian spies.  
The 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment release, THE AMERICANS Season One (UPC#024543869061, $30), is a four-platterset of a TV series originally broadcast in 2013, about a

married couple living in the Washington D.C. area in the early Eighties who run a travel agency and have two kids, and spend every spare moment they have conducting espionage for the Soviet Union.  
In some ways, the show is so ludicrous it is a satire, not that there weren’t Russian spies doing all sorts of crazy things back then, but those spies probably didn’t look like Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, and likely did not have quite the white bread suburban family cover that these two have.  Nor is it readily believable that the FBI agent played by Noah Emmerich, who is searching for them, unknowingly happens to move his family into the house right across the street, so they can have barbecues together and otherwise get to become friends.  
As a drama, however, the show settles into a comfortable suspense rhythm.  Although the narrative continually advances, each of the thirteen 42-minute episodes has an individual story in which some piece of information has to be obtained or some other figure in their world has to be dealt with.  

When there are action scenes, they are quite arousing, and the actual drama of suspicion, compromise and betrayal is effectively sustained.  But, while the show keeps a straight face at all times, its premise is highly satirical, using the dynamics of the different character relationships to explore the frailties of everything from love to patriotism.  Both the husband and the wife characters readily sleep with other people as part of their assignments, but present the façade that they are true to one another to their children, while the bond that they have formed by having those children begins to tug on their ready acceptance of the infidelities.  While such an arrangement is completely opposite of the idealized American family, it is perhaps less different on a case-by-case basis, and thus generates an elevated humor from suggesting that the flaws in their façade are not because of normal impulses or emotional problems, but because they aren’t real Americans. 
History tells us that both the Russians and the Americans, during that era, were vastly overestimating one another’s capabilities, and the show is true enough to the facts to reflect this, which also adds an element of refined amusement to the proceedings.  
So, the show is ridiculous, but as it utilizes its premise to explore the emotional conflicts of its characters from a relatively fresh perspective, essentially taking the cloak and dagger out of the shadowy, rain-glazed cobblestones of Europe and placing it in the brightly lit linoleum of American shopping malls and such, it is consistently intriguing and captivating. 
Margo Martindale has a key supporting role as the couple’s ‘handler.’  Each platter has a ‘Play All’ option.  The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  The color transfer is fine.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has an occasionally effective dimensionality.  They don’t go crazy with the Eighties music, but once in a while a choice number surges onto the soundtrack, and those gas-guzzling Eighties car engines sound wonderful.  There is a Spanish track in standard stereo, optional English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles, 4 minutes of bloopers, 12 minutes of interesting deleted scenes that include a strong but entirely verbal erotic sequence, and 25 minutes of good promotional featurettes that talk about the history of espionage and the Cold War in the Eighties (one of the reasons the show is set at that time is because the technology was more awkward—and cinematically ‘friendly’).  

There is also a pretty good commentary track on one episode, featuring two of the show’s creators, Joseph Weisberg and Joel Fields, along with Emmerich.  They, too, talk about spycraft and so forth, but also about staging the show (which was actually shot in New York), the difference between making TV and making movies (“I compare it to sort of sketching in pencil to working in oil.  There’s not a lot of time to revisit and rework.  You have to really trust your instincts and experience and sort of impulsively go with and roll with it and not be too precious.  At first, I started out feeling somewhat resentful of that, I really liked to toil away and really try and hone, but there’s a great freedom and trust.  Some of the best work, I think, comes out of that space.  It’s a very different beast.  I’m filming a movie now and I have to say part of it’s wonderful and part of it feels like, ‘Come on, guys, you gotta be able to move quicker than this.’  You get use to the pace.  It can get very tedious, a movie can be very dull.  You spend a whole day shooting two pages.  On the other hand, there is an opportunity for more microscopic work within a scene.  [On TV,] you don’t have time to explore as much.”), and some of its compromises (they say that the most common question they get asked is how the wigs the characters are wearing for their disguises stay on during the wild sex scenes, and their answer is, ‘secret Soviet wig technology’).

With barely perceptible nicks and tucks (some of which show up on the deleted scenes), THE AMERICANS The Complete Second Season (UPC# 024543931904, $30), from 2014, is a stronger and more satisfying show.  The house still seems to get cleaned magically, and the kids don’t have much of a social life, but there are stabs at making such points more realistic.  The spy stuff all has the feel of verisimilitude, not that all of the adventures would have happened to the same spies, but the killings, the corruption, the sneaky business and the double crosses seem like they could easily be the hidden part of the headlines you do read.  And the show’s inspired cleverness of using a ‘non-American’ couple as a representation of America becomes cleverer and more powerful as the episodes advance.  From a political perspective, the show is perfectly balanced.  Sometimes the Russians are morally justified in their actions, sometimes the Americans are, and sometimes, each side is totally wrong.  Both sides blunder forward without knowing what the other side is actually doing.  Sometimes they figure it out, and sometimes they don’t.  
One of the improvements is the downplaying of overt political messages, since the genuine right and wrong of the character actions seep through anyway.  The suspense is terrific and once in a while there is some good action, but the primary appeal of the show is its exploration of the two protagonists.  It is clear they have feelings, it is clear that they have passions, and it is clearly that they are as confused by parenthood and marriage as everyone else is.  It is not clear that they have souls, but that is the reason for the show, to find them.
Specifically, in Second Season, each child does something that the parents do not approve of, unaware of the blatant hypocrisy that occurs when the parents chastise them for ‘keeping secrets.’  The FBI agent finds that his relationship with his informant has become so sticky that he may be turning into an informant himself, and his own marriage is compromised in the process.  There is also a cute introduction to the beginnings of the Internet, as the characters attempt to learn about and purloin ‘Stealth’ technology. 

Again, thirteen episodes are spread to four platters, with the same picture and sound presentations.  Along with an amusing 4-minute blooper reel, there are 6 minutes of deleted scenes that include stronger political statements than what made it into the show and 18 minutes of more informative production featurettes, which, among other things, speculate that there are still Russian agents living among us.

A little over halfway through THE AMERICANS The Complete Third Season (UPC#024543104575, $40)—the beginning of the third platter—there are a series of three episodes that each contain a scene or sequence of scenes so compelling they are worthy of John Le Carré.  And the scenes have nothing directly to do with spying.  Indirectly, they are about spying, because that is what has placed the characters in these dramatic situations.  But it is the drama itself—about betrayal and love, about death and evil, about parental responsibility and affection—that packs such a powerful punch no action scene or clever plot twist could ever come close to having the same impact.  Indeed, the scenes are so magnificent they excuse any other shortcoming that the series has.  
Frank Langella is brought in to replace Martindale, for example, and the producers sort of wasted their money doing so, not because he isn’t a good actor, but because they had to pay him so much money that they could only afford to do most of his scenes on one simple living room set.  The sequences have a contrived feel because there is no secondary tension going on as there is in the scenes where they meet their handlers surreptitiously on the streets and so forth.  A cheaper actor could have allowed the creators a greater flexibility of time to mix up the locations.  But it doesn’t matter.  TV shows are allowed those sorts of compromises if they deliver in other ways, and that is what the show does, with great success.  There is less action in the 2015 season, but once the premise really starts to take hold, going to the very core of the moral and spiritual foundations of the characters, the entertainment becomes overwhelmingly powerful.  The show no longer feels like a satire.
One of the deleted scenes in First Season, incidentally, relates directly to the final, cliffhanger scene in Third Season.  Another thirteen episodes are spread across four platters.  The picture quality is consistent with the earlier seasons.  The stereo mix is less compelling—there aren’t as many distinctive car sounds as before, either—and there are no foreign language tracks. 
The Portuguese has been dropped from the subtitling options, as well.  There are 7 minutes of mostly inconsequential deleted scenes and one 10-minute promotional featurette about one of the primary plot lines in the scenes, involving the couple’s daughter, played with great promise by Holly Taylor.