Homeland stars Claire Danes, famous for her role in the teen drama My So Called Life, as a bipolar CIA agent that is caught in political subterfuge as she tries to suss out terrorist plots. The Showtime series has earned Danes some of the best reviews of her career.
The Americans stars Keri Russell, famous for her role in the teen drama Felicity, as a Russian spy who is embedded in the United States with her fellow spy husband and unsuspecting children. The FX series has earned Russell some of the best reviews of her career.
So, which shows uses political intrigue, espionage and its former ingénue to best effect?
Homeland is squarely in the present, with Danes' Carrie Mathison chasing down al Qaeda types and getting caught up in schemes by the U.S. government to get people into power in the Middle East who are more favorable towards Western interests.
The Americans, meanwhile, is a period piece, with the action taking place in early Reagan-era Washington D.C. The Cold War is still raging and being a Soviet spy on U.S. soil is still a huge deal… and thanks to the distance of time, the audience can now be sympathetic towards characters that were on the other side of the conflict between the super powers. They don't spend a lot of time giving a history lesson, but sometimes they'll weave in events that took place in the '80s.
Originally, Danes' character was slightly unhinged and trying to prove that recently rescued POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) was really a terrorist. By this past season, Carrie was pregnant with Brody's child and she was unable to save her baby's daddy from being publicly executed in Iran. A whole lot happened in between but it's so layered with double-crosses, double-agents, and duplicitous government types that it's not only hard to summarize, it can be hard to follow. The end of the last season had Carrie taking a position at a field office in Turkey, so presumably the show's fourth season will follow her there.
The Americans, on the other hand, is much more straightforward and subtle. The show focuses just as often on the home life of Russell's Elizabeth Jennings and her husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys), as they try to do their jobs of feeding information back to the Soviet Union, while raising their children (one of whom is suspicious of them) and trying not to draw any unwanted attention from their neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich), who works in counter-intelligence for the FBI. There are a lot of disguises and characters posing as other people — Phillip is also married to a FBI staffer as part of their mission — and the show doesn't shy away from violence when appropriate (in the second season premiere, Phillip shoots up a restaurant and another KGB spy family is murdered). What makes it fascinating, besides the various espionage angles, is watching Russell and Rhys try to sort out their feelings for each other — their marriage was mandated by the Soviets — and their children.
Advantage: The Americans.
Danes gets to play anxious and frantic a lot, which gives her plenty of showy scenes. Her Carrie is a mess most of the time. Despite being pregnant she goes on a bender and she gets prescription meds through her sister. The show started with her fresh off of a suspension for conducting an unauthorized operation in Iraq and the show plays a lot on her bipolar disorder, keeping things off-balance as to when she has good reason to be paranoid versus when she's just paranoid because that's just how she is. First she was trying to discover and thwart whatever plot Brody had been sent back to the U.S. to undertake. Then she tried to redeem and clear him, while also sleeping with him. It's almost hard to tell when Carrie's right for what she's doing — like intentionally sabotaging an operation to kill a terrorist because she thinks it's more important to capture him alive, for instance — or if she's just completely unbalanced.
Russell is all business. She leads a double life but for the most part she's completely under control. Russell is marvelous in using her facial expressions to give glimpses into Elizabeth's soul. Her character is more comfortable with the harder parts of her job, using her skills as a trained spy to get what she needs, than she is with the family that she was forced into. She wants to protect her children, but they're also just part of her cover… and she has a better handle on those feelings than she does about what she feels for her husband. They both can be sexy, but Russell's cool trumps Danes' crazy.
Advantage: The Americans.
While Homeland has the awards and has more freedom to do whatever it wants on premium cable, The Americans has quickly become the better overall show.
For the bulk of every Rocky and Bullwinkle episode, moose and squirrel would engage in high concept escapades that satirized geopolitics, contemporary cinema, and the very fabrics of the human condition. With all of that to work with, there's no excuse for why the pair and their Soviet nemeses haven't gotten a decent movie adaptation. But the ingenious Mr. Peabody and his faithful boy Sherman are another story, intercut between Rocky and Bullwinkle segments to teach kids brief history lessons and toss in a nearly lethal dose of puns. Their stories and relationship were much simpler, which means that bringing their shtick to the big screen would entail a lot more invention — always risky when you're dealing with precious material.
For the most part, Mr. Peabody & Sherman handles the regeneration of its heroes aptly, allowing for emotionally substance in their unique father-son relationship and all the difficulties inherent therein. The story is no subtle metaphor for the difficulties surrounding gay adoption, with society decreeing that a dog, no matter how hyper-intelligent, cannot be a suitable father. The central plot has Peabody hosting a party for a disapproving child services agent and the parents of a young girl with whom 7-year-old Sherman had a schoolyard spat, all in order to prove himself a suitable dad. Of course, the WABAC comes into play when the tots take it for a spin, forcing Peabody to rush to their rescue.
Getting down to personals, we also see the left brain-heavy Peabody struggle with being father Sherman deserves. The bulk of the emotional marks are hit as we learn just how much Peabody cares for Sherman, and just how hard it has been to accept that his only family is growing up and changing.
But more successful than the new is the film's handling of the old — the material that Peabody and Sherman purists will adore. They travel back in time via the WABAC Machine to Ancient Egypt, the Renaissance, and the Trojan War, and 18th Century France, explaining the cultural backdrop and historical significance of the settings and characters they happen upon, all with that irreverent (but no longer racist) flare that the old cartoons enjoyed. And oh... the puns.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a f**king treasure trove of some of the most amazingly bad puns in recent cinema. This effort alone will leave you in awe.
The film does unravel in its final act, bringing the science-fiction of time travel a little too close to the forefront and dropping the ball on a good deal of its emotional groundwork. What seemed to be substantial building blocks do not pay off in the way we might, as scholars of animated family cinema, have anticipated, leaving the movie with an unfinished feeling.
But all in all, it's a bright, compassionate, reasonably educational, and occasionally funny if not altogether worthy tribute to an old favorite. And since we don't have our own WABAC machine to return to a time of regularly scheduled Peabody and Sherman cartoons, this will do okay for now.
If nothing else, it's worth your time for the puns.
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It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.