I’m Canadian, and thus compelled to use this promotional still of Henry playing hockey, which I remain deeply entertained they released before the finale. Bless you, FX.
I have written about The Americans a single solitary time here at Cultural Learnings, and it was in a review that was more or less about Mad Men.
That’s bizarre to me, but not unexpected: the show debuted in the midst of graduate school, when reviews became more scarce and the blog in general became less of a priority. It was also a show that I, for various reasons, found myself always falling behind on within a given season, such that I often wasn’t current enough to write something even if I had found time or the inclination to say something. And while I’ve been more vocal about my appreciation for the show on my Twitter feed, it still feels weird to have never really tried to grapple with my relationship with the show in this setting.
I’m not going to try to encapsulate the entire series in this review, or else I’d be up all night. But I did want to briefly capture why “START” is such a compelling entry into the pantheon of serialized drama finales, despite in some ways departing from tradition. While far from the cut-to-black ending of The Sopranos, The Americans still works against many of the instincts of contemporary drama storytelling, and in doing so managed to reinforce and strengthen my connection to these characters that’s existed even if I’ve never quite put it into words.
The return of Breaking Bad this summer drew headlines for its meteoric rise in the Nielsen ratings, transforming from a cult success to a breakout hit for AMC seemingly overnight. Many credited Netflix for this development, rightfully so, but I was struck that pieces like Andrew Wallenstein’s at Variety made no mention of Sons of Anarchy, which is arguably the first drama series to benefit significantly from Netflix in its continued—and trend-breaking for drama series—rise from season-to-season.
The reasons it hasn’t been mentioned range from the statistical (its increases have been more gradual) to the contextual (it isn’t in its final season) to the typical: for better or worse, depending on who you ask, Sons of Anarchy has slipped under the radar when it comes to the prestige drama trend. With Justified and The Americans more beloved by critics in FX’s lineup, and shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men seen as better representatives of the dark, masculine dramatic series trend, Sons of Anarchy has largely been left to grow its audience outside of conversations like Wallenstein’s that privilege those series deemed most important.
Sutter and his bosses at FX have been expecting these audience increases: Sutter continues to hold a “contest” to hold a special fan screening of an episode late in the season if ratings go up over the previous year, which is more a way of rewarding fans for sticking with and promoting the show than an actual contingency (I expect he’d find a way to hold the event regardless of whether or not ratings had gone up, as it wouldn’t be the first time he’s privileged his relationship with fans over an arbitrary number). Still, one increase that perhaps works against the ongoing trend—gradual 10-15% increases per season—is the fact that ratings for the season six premiere among women 18-49 and women 18-34 were up 35% and 43% respectively.
Variety’s AJ Marechal posed the possibility on Twitter that this could be chalked up to the casting of Sons star Charlie Hunnam in female-friendly franchise 50 Shades of Gray, but I’d argue that’s a web of causality we can’t possibly break down. That being said, the increase in female viewership does tie into discussions of the series’ streaming success, as well as its expansion in non-linear platforms with the online Anarchy Afterword series that debuted following the record-setting premiere.
“The Crash” and The Americans’ “Trust Me”
May 21st, 2013
Of the shows I fell behind on earlier this year, The Americans is what I’ve considered my first priority to catch up on, although even that has been a slow process; I just finished “Trust Me,” the sixth episode of the FX series’ acclaimed first season, last night.
However, sometimes timing is fortuitous, as I watched it after having watched—and podcast with the folks at the Mad World Podcast—about Mad Men‘s “The Crash,” and I was struck by a shared interest in how the normal manifests within the sensational. Obviously, “Trust Me” isn’t a trippy drug trip, but it nonetheless juxtaposes a form of psychological struggle or torture with scenes of danger that at first manifest as part of the game but eventually appear to be simply a coincidental brush with everyday terror.
The 2012 Primetime Emmy Nominations
July 19th, 2012
While Cultural Learnings has certainly been put on the backburner as I spend my summer studying, my willpower to keep myself from writing about television is at its weakest during Emmy season. While you would think that an early analysis of the leadup to the nominations and a piece on the nominations itself—focusing on Downton Abbey’s successful transition to the Series category—over at Antenna would be sufficient, I found myself hitting the site’s word count limit while still having a whole collection of narratives left to play out.
Accordingly, there are two points I want to make here. The first is the way in which this year’s awards demonstrate the capacity for a show to fall completely off the radar, and the other is what this year’s awards mean for the different networks and channels who are always looking to retain a footing within the race for nominations.
April 10th, 2012
While I haven’t exactly had the chance to write about Justified this season, I haven’t exactly been silent on the subject: my good friend David Chen at /Film has been hosting the JustifiedCast all season, and I had the pleasure of joining him a few times over the course of the season, including in a mid-season interview with Graham Yost.
However, those conversations tended to be fairly episodic, and my general line in terms of broader thematic work was a “Wait and see” attitude that there isn’t enough time to expand on within a podcast setting. Now that we’ve reached the end of the season, however, I want to return to those larger questions I put off in earlier editions of the JustifiedCast, in part because I feel like “Slaughterhouse” rewarded my patience by embracing the tensions that had been creating some degree of dissonance throughout the season itself. This was not a cohesive season, but that did not keep it from coming to a meaningful conclusion, a fact that says something quite profound about the value of narrative play in the face of audience expectation and anticipation.
Trench Warfare: Kurt Sutter vs. Critics, Round Infinity
January 4th, 2012
As a vocal critic of the third season of FX’s Sons of Anarchy, I was apprehensive going into its fourth season, and found myself more or less pleased with how the season went down. By dialing down the number of storylines, and focusing more exclusively on the inner-workings of SAMCRO (with additional storylines intersecting with the club dynamic quite successfully), the strong performances rose to the surface and the “plot mechanics” largely proved quite effective even if I would agree that the finale was a major step back in that department, ending up too cute for a show that purports to being so dark. Ultimately, while it didn’t make my “Top 20” at The A.V. Club, it probably would have made a Top 25, which is more than it would have managed last year.
I didn’t have time to write about the show this fall, and I wouldn’t say I was particularly disappointed by this at the time: while the show was better than last season, it was better in ways that were not particularly surprising, and which other critics reviewing the show week-to-week were capturing well in their own reviews. Similarly, while I did have my issues with some of the plot developments, people like Alan Sepinwall, Maureen Ryan, and Zack Handlen were effectively covering the ground I would have covered, nicely capturing what proved to be a solid (if flawed) season of television that cemented the show’s future as a solid (if flawed) staple of the basic cable landscape.
However, when the season ended amidst a flurry of dismissive comments from creator Kurt Sutter regarding the critical reception of the season, I changed my mind. It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to pick a fight with Sutter, who rang in 2011 by insulting me over Twitter, but rather that it felt wrong to be sitting on the sidelines while Sutter waged trench warfare on hardworking critics who were being criticized for doing their jobs (and doing them well). While I remain convinced that Sutter has a point regarding the limitations of weekly criticism with a serialized show, to suggest (despite his best efforts to suggest otherwise) that these limitations are a function of individual critics as opposed to the form made me wish that I had reviewed the series if only so I could stand alongside my fellow critics in support of critical analysis that reflects a personal, subjective approach to television.
Aired: June to September
When, as a critic, you stop writing about a number of shows, there is always the risk that your opinion will begin to lean towards the critical consensus, especially if that critical consensus is as effusive as the praise surrounding Louis C.K.’s second season of Louie on FX. Similarly, in circumstances where you fall behind on a particular show and begin to soak in all of this praise, it’s tough to view the episodes piling up on your DVR with fresh eyes.
Louie had a very strong second season, but something about the way I watched it kept me from considering it the best television of the year – this isn’t to say that The A.V. Club (and various other sites/critics) placing it as the #1 show of the year was “wrong” by any measure, but I will say that I did not come close to putting it in that position (and, if we’re being honest, probably placed it higher than my initial instinct due to the indirect influence of other critics). Perhaps it was that I felt my experience with the show was unduly influenced by the critical culture surrounding the series, or that my DVR catchup method somehow changed the series’ impact (with its episodic segments mashed together as opposed to being parceled out), but Louie didn’t jump out to me as the best show of the year (nor did it necessarily jump out at me as a comedy, but we’ll save that genre conversation for another day).