Best New Stuff – May 2018

This month I did something a little different: I watched a lot of The Americans.

That wasn’t all that unusual; the show has been one of my favorites since I started watching it years ago. The show is a smart, level-headed look at marriage through spywork, finding perfect distorted mirrors of parental and partnership trials, always one step ahead of what I think it could be.

I’ve spent May watching the first five seasons of The Americans — as well as, of course, the sixth season as it currently airs — for a few reasons. The first being, writing an essay for Bright Wall/Dark Room, timed with the release of the final episode. And also, it’s been great to rewatch the show, and see how the kernels were methodically planted (and uprooted) over the years to get The Americans where we are today.

The result is that I have a more profound understanding of the show, as well as an essay at BW/DR. But throughout it also struck me how hard it can be to write about what we love (I mean, just look at that slapdash description up-top).

Shows like The Americans excel so well at so many things it can be a struggle to find the words to describe how it operates, let alone how it hums. And I find that I can often feel this way when I discuss lots of different kinds of things I like: Essays I enjoyed, movies that really touched me, people who truly enrich my existence. It’s something I’d like to get back to, and also something I hope to do more (and better) within the walls of this platform.

Between that and the Seattle International Film Festival, I’ve been pretty booked-up, pop culture-wise this month.

But among other things I watched this month:

Sorry to Bother You

Picnic at Hanging Rock (a bit uneven, but so damn enthralling) 

Akane no Mai, from Westworld, which seemed to be one of the first things actively interested in the emotional groundwork and stakes for its characters. 

Killing Eve — another slightly scattershot entry, but boy howdy is that something I can’t wait to see more of. 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which found such depth of humanity without ever tipping its hand into excusing bad actions. This is one to watch, with a real starmaking turn from Chloe Grace Moretz. 

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It’s All Been Done Before—But that doesn’t mean it’s the end

If there is one show on TV that is unparalleled in quality, it’s “The Americans.” No other show can take the same core principles—be they intimacy and relationships or the Cold War spy drama—and turn them over and over, finding new aspects to explore every time. It’s been a week since the season finale and I still can’t get this latest season out of my head.

12696Without spoiling too much, season 3 saw its leads Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, respectively) struggle to maintain their cover while also protect their family from outside sources, now including their employers the KGB.

“The Americans” isn’t inherently new territory. Heck, exploring the fabric of marital couples and the intimacy both in and outside of those relationships is the foundation of a massive bulk of pop culture. But in the constant turmoil of the show, coupled with “The Americans” writers’ commitment to building their universe on a slow-burn, creates a new facet, a fresh angle, and a new scar to heal from with every turn of the plot.

Oh that old "falsely accused of murdering my nephew the king who is product of my brother and sister's relations" trope.
Oh that old “falsely accused of murdering my nephew the king who is product of my brother and sister’s relations” trope.

Too often I hear friends complain that they don’t like a show only because “it’s nothing new,” as if there’s nothing it could possibly offer aside from being a completely unique plot. Most sci-fi or “Game of Thrones” plotlines aren’t likely to be something you couldn’t find somewhere else in literature, but that doesn’t mean they can’t provide a fresh take.

The forest looks the same as any other show about a family of spies (if there are enough of those out there for this to be a legitimate analogy) but the trees are so rich that everything about it is enriched. “The Americans” builds on the knotty and overloaded lives of families (and spies) and turns it into some real insight into both (with “The Americans” it’s exactly the kind of show that’s so fascinating to share with people, while also making it a hard sell).

If you’re looking for a concept that’s not been done before you’ll be, as Bruno Mars says, locked out of pop culture heaven. Because so many of the best shows out there aren’t retreating into familiar territory, they’re building on it.