Tag Archives: tv review

The Americans

jYQdyGu9tl75VThe Americans is an unusual type of period drama. It takes place c.1980, a time that may seem too close to now to be ‘historical’. But 35 years is a lifetime ago and The Americans is an engrossing Cold War drama that follows a pair of Russian spies embedded in Washington DC at the start of Reagan’s reign. He may be about to (arguably) take out the ‘Evil Empire’ but no one knew it at the time.

THE AMERICANS -- Trust Me -- Episode 6 (Airs Wednesday, March 6, 10:00 pm e/p) -- Pictured: (L-R) Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings -- CR: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

Not your usual kitchen-sink drama

The CIA is funding the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan (thereby turning them into Al Qaeda) and the KGB is tasked to stop them. Who do you back? There are no cell-phones or internet, computers are rudimentary and wigs, alcohol and sex are as important as guns. Like a lot of American drama, it has family at its core albeit a marriage where the couple put on disguises to get close to targets, have sex with them, manipulate/blackmail and/or kill them. They then go home to look after their oblivious teenage children (who become less clueless as the story develops).

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The All-American family. Kind of…

This may seem too unreal to take, but the conceit works. This is down to very good acting and storytelling that doesn’t play it for big drama or simple laugh-at-the-‘80s-clothes/hair yuks. It is restrained and dark, shot in a beautiful palette of browns and muted colours that somehow suggests the era while keeping a contemporary coolness. The fact that it is created and produced by an ex-CIA officer probably helps, too.

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Adding to the drama, their neighbour is an FBI agent. But instead of the obvious tension this could create, it is played more like the Walter/Hank Breaking Bad dynamic where keeping enemies close is an opportunity to exploit them. Do you want the Ruskies to triumph? Well, no, they can’t… but you don’t want Stan the FBI guy to win or be humiliated, either. And by series three the KGB are trying to take down the racist South African regime that Reagan and Thatcher supports. Um…

THE AMERICANS -- "Arpanet" -- Episode 7 (Airs Wednesday, April 9, 10:00 PM e/p) -- Pictured: (L-R) Annet Mahendru as Nina Sergeevna, Lev Gorn as Arkady Ivanovich -- CR: Patrick Harbron/FX

Nina and Arkady

One of my favourite aspects is the Russian embassy controlling the spies. These parts are in Russian with English subtitles, and it’s a treat to listen to. The actors are so stylish and no one trusts anyone. For good reason. A gulag in Siberia is hanging over all their heads. Nina, the young manipulated-by-both-sides double agent, is outstandingly; hard and heart-breaking. (As a counter-point, it’s good to see Richard ‘John-Boy Walton’ Thomas as the head of the FBI… but his strength seems to be in marching from A to B barking orders).

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The FBI guys

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Philip seducing a stoned minor

With the third series it has really developed into something special. There are some outstanding scenes. It’s one thing seducing the hapless secretary of the FBI boss chasing you. It’s something else to be told to seduce and smoke pot with the wayward 15 year-old daughter of a CIA operative (especially when you have a daughter the same age). The moral complexities are delicious. There are no laughs, which is often a negative for me, but the conflicted and twisted beauty of the story has the series win awards for writing, best drama series and acting.

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The pretend couple don’t always have to pretend

For those used to traditional Tudor/Victorian/Regency historical ‘frock’ drama, this may not suit. But if you like tight, gripping storytelling and tasteful period recreation (as I do) The Americans is a must. I can’t wait for the next series.

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Peaky Blinders

This is a rave (no spoilers) about Peaky Blinders, the BBC period drama set in post-WW1 Birmingham. It’s a beautiful, brain-tinglingly fresh historical recreation of an over-looked part of history (one which I especially love as it’s the time my grandparents were teenagers).

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The Shelby Brothers

Set around a street gang on the up, it pulls a world of travellers/Gypsies/Tinkers, Fennians/IRA/Loyalists, Anarchists/Communists, London Italian/Jewish underworld (and post-War gender politics) into a strong narrative that is compelling and exciting.

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The family discuss business around the beer bucket

It pits Cillian Murphy as the leader of the Peaky Blinder’s against Sam Neill’s weirdly sinister Ulster copper (complete with weirder accent) who has been sent by Churchill to sort him out (and what a great Churchill, always sitting in a chair and still talking down to everyone).

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Battle of the film actors

It’s part of the BBC’s stated intent to resist continually humping the corpse of Jane Austen (no matter how productive she continues to be), and it works so well as costume drama.

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Illegal bookshop at work

The clothes are just amazing, the sets (virtual and actual) rich and gorgeous, even when they are showing grinding industrial poverty. And the hair cuts… I want one!

As for the soundtrack… wow. Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys, Johnny Cash, while anachronistic, all fit perfectly (I believe PJ Harvey and Flood are in charge) both adding to and opening up the story, showing Baz Luhrman how it should be done (his unforgivably ham-fisted butchering of the 1920s classic The Great Gatsby has earned him a special place in period drama hell).

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Industrial horseflesh

The theme song, Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, fits the story/themes/feel in ways which continually unfold as the series progresses, with lyrics and instrumentation that seem to have foreseen the story even though the song is from the 1990s (that the song references Milton’s Paradise Lost is perfect for post-Apocalypse 1919).

With only six episodes per season (there have been two with another coming next year) it cracks along but never feels rushed, and the acting and characters are outstanding.

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Aunt Pol on the pull

As Thomas Shelby, the always wonderful Cillian Murphy leads the show with an impenetrable calm, while Helen McCrory as Aunt Polly (who ran the gang while the boys were at war) is more than a match for his acting chops (and may surpass him).

Tom Hardy as Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons also stands out on the intriguing filmic acting front. I could watch all of the scenes between Aflie and Tommy again and again.

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Alfie Solomons, scary London ‘baker’

And while Sam Neill is mad fun, that accent… I just can’t be sure if it adds or detracts (I suspect it adds).

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Sam cleans up the mean streets

There’s so much more I could rave about/discuss (the love interests are great actors, too) but best you enjoy it yourself.

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The curious Grace

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Horsey-girl Toff and Bit of Rough

Anyways, if, like me, you’re a history buff, love period/costume drama (and great storytelling) then give Peaky Blinders a try.

It’s great fun and you’ll get a killer Brummie accent to boot (probably best to avoid the haircuts).

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Real Peaky Blinders