Upon first glance, nominations for the 2013 Emmy Awards (particularly in the drama categories) seem pretty on point. The usual suspects — Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland — are all there, as well as a few fun and deserving newcomers, namely House of Cards and Top of the Lake. It's only upon closer inspection that the omissions start to jump out at you. Orphan Black fans are aggrieved by the failure to recognize leading actress Tatiana Maslany while Fannibal's are crying foul over Mads Mikkelsen's and Hugh Dancy's snubs. But the most egregious oversight, in my humble opinion, is the FX Cold War drama The Americans.
While The Americans was in no way a perfect show, it offered one of the best premiere seasons we have seen in a few years. The characters are complex, the plot original (you mean the Russians are the good guys??), and it walks the delicious line between kitsch and sincere drama. Not to mention, in its final two episodes, the season boasted as much suspense as I've seen on any show on television this year.
But I get it (sort of) — the race for Outstanding Drama Series is a tight one. Despite a generally lackluster season, there's no way you can cut Game of Thrones after the Red Wedding. And Homeland, last year's favorite, earned itself a spot with that explosive finale. While I would argue The Americans bested Downton Abbey's last series, fans of the Dowager would surely disagree. So, maybe Emmys' hands were tied in that category.
The real place for The Americans to shine would have been in the acting categories. As the two leads, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys gave mesmerizing performances — while their Russian might have been spotty, their emotional integrity and immediacy never waned. And with lackluster performances given by Hugh Bonneville, Damian Lewis, and Connie Britton, the Academy had some wiggle room in its lead actor categories.
Supporting actors Noah Emmerich (as FBI agent Stan) and Annet Mahendru (as informant Nina) stole the show, however. Mahendru gives dimensionality to a character who could have easily become a caricature and in doing so ups the stakes for the entire show. Emmerich, meanwhile, has somehow created a character that is simultaneously the show's most aggressive and its most sympathetic.
The omission of nominations for Emmerich, Mahendru, and Rhys in particular make me wonder: Did the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences forget that The Americans exists? Since it went off the air in May, we have seen Game of Thrones slaughter its main cast and Mad Men destroy its lead's career. House of Cards, meanwhile, has remained buzzy thanks to its revolutionary status as Netflix's first original scripted series. Could The Americans have gotten lost in the shuffle? Pay attention, Academy, this is one to watch.
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Noah Emmerich has got to be one of the hardest working character actors around. He caught audiences' attention in 1996 with his portrayal of Michael "Mo" Morris in the Ted Demme relationship dramedy Beautiful Girls, alongside Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Mira Sorvino, Timothy Hutton and a pre-teen Natalie Portman. Many years (and film and TV appearances) later, he's reunited with Portman on the Western Jane Got a Gun. That production got off to a rocky start when director Lynne Ramsay pulled out right before shooting began. Then Bradley Cooper left the film due to scheduling conflicts. Blogs and websites were abuzz, speculating about the fate of the film. But director Gavin O'Connor (Fifty Dead Men Walking, Warrior) is now at the helm, and the film has commenced shooting in New Mexico.
Emmerich was able to take on Jane Got A Gunwhile his critically acclaimed FX show The Americans was on hiatus. It's a Cold War-era spy drama about a couple working undercover for the KGB. Emmerich plays FBI agent Stan Beeman while Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play his neighbors Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, two Soviet spies fronting as an ordinary American suburban couple. Emmerich brings a depth and originality to Stan that distinguishes him from the run-of-the-mill, tough-talking FBI agents we’re used to seeing on screen.
We talked to Emmerich while he was in New Mexico for Jane Got A Gun. The actor mused about Stan's demons, the power of saying yes, and why The Americans isn’t just another spy drama.
SSN: What attracted you to the role of Stan in The Americans?NE: My first thought was that I wasn't interested in playing an FBI agent, and I didn't want to do it. It felt similar to other roles I had played, and I didn't want to spend the next five or six years with a badge and a gun. It smelled procedural to me.
SSN: What made you change your mind?NE: Gavin O'Connor is a good friend of mine, and we had lunch. He said he was going to direct this pilot and that I would be crazy not to do it. So I met with Joe Weisberg (creator and executive producer of The Americans) and questioned him about his ambitions and about who Stan was, and I turned around and really saw this as an opportunity. It seems like the more I live, the more I realize that saying yes is almost never a mistake. If you say no, it might feel safe, but then you end up going nowhere.
SSN: What did Joe say that changed your mind?NE: Joe talked to me about the character and I started to see him as a human being, and how the world around these people affects them. I realized it was a character-driven piece in the guise of a spy thriller. With Stan, there are a lot of different realms to play in: there's his relationship with his son, his wife, the new neighbors. There's lots of subtlety and nuances and dynamics to explore.
SSN: How would you describe Stan?NE: Stan is a tortured character. He's estranged from his family since he was so deep undercover. He's very lonely and isolated, but he's dedicated to serving his country, and he hasn't processed the effects of the time he's spent undercover, and he's thrust into this new spy game. He's good at his job, but it's destructive to his sense of self. Trust is a very rare commodity, and he really gets beat up during the first season and that takes a toll.
SSN: When you signed on, did you have a sense of where the character and the story were headed? It must be very different playing a character on a show that’s constantly developing as opposed to a feature where you usually have the entire script and trajectory from the get-go.NE: I had a sense of the arc of the character and a sense of where we were headed, but in incremental steps. The things I don’t know can be surprising. It's fertile ground for exploring this character. Stan’s commitment to his job is a double-edged sword. I don’t know how people do these jobs in real life. It's a great asset, but there's a cost and it affects his personal life.
SSN: Can you talk about working with the other cast members, Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell and Annet Mahendru, who plays Nina, the Russian informant who has an affair with Stan?NE: His relationship with Nina is very loaded and nuanced, and that's part of the fun of the job. I work with [Keri and Matthew] very rarely because we're almost in two parallel universes. I think I'm the most free atom of the cast members because I swing back and forth between the different worlds. It's a real layer cake of storylines.
SSN: The Americans started getting great reviews early on. Do you pay attention to what people are saying about the show while you're in production?NE: Not during production, it's quite a distraction. With television, you're getting responses while you're in production as opposed to a feature. It's one of the trickier things to resolve, and so early on in the first season, I just stopped looking. It's dangerous to me to be hearing those voices — dangerous and not at all constructive. Since we finished the first season, I have seen more responses and you get a sense of how people are responding, which I like.
SSN: You're in production on Gavin O'Connor’s western Jane Got A Gun with Natalie Portman. There has been a lot of chatter about the film with director Lynne Ramsay departing right before shooting and then Bradley Cooper having to pull out. How’s the shoot going?NE: It's going great. We have a very special movie despite all the chaos, and we're having a lot of fun. We're in New Mexico shooting revolvers and riding horses.
SSN: Do you jump right back into filming season two of The Americans after the film wraps, or do you get a little time off?NE: Thankfully, I'll have time to re-engage with myself because it's important to recharge. Before we started filming, I had one day off between the show and the film. I'm looking forward to just being Noah for a little bit.
You’ll have to wait a few months to see where season two takes Stan and the rest of the characters in The Americans. Judging from Emmerich's performance thus far, we're betting it will be even more captivating and surprising than ever.
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Maximiliano Hernandez (better known as the dearly departed Agent Chris Amador) said of The Americans, "The Americans for me is analogue. There's a texture to it, you can hear it." And in Wednesday's Season 1 finale, "The Colonel," all the gears and cogs — of Directorate S, the FBI, and the Jennings' marriage — are laid bare to suspenseful, poignant effect.
The Americans has walked the line between camp and drama all season, using moments of levity (such as chuckle-worthy fashion choices and antiquated — yet period-appropriate — technology) to add lightness to what would be an otherwise very, very dark show. By including just the right amount of kitsch, we are able to continue to root for characters — namely Keri Russell's Elizabeth and Matthew Rhys' Phillip — who rack up quite the body count. And in "The Colonel," when the stakes are higher than ever, your allegiances lie firmly with the Jennings.
The main action of "The Colonel" obviously hinges on the bait-and-switch of the trap the FBI has set for the Directorate S illegals (who we know to be the Jennings). As Elizabeth prepares to meet the colonel — and then when Phillip actually does, after he goes rogue — the audience knows that the real danger lies in picking up the surveillance tapes. And therefore the moments in which Elizabeth approaches the vehicle while Phillip tries to intercept her are the most suspenseful of the episode. Although, the car chase that follows ain't bad, either (I personally loved the vintage feel and old school car stunts).
The emotional high point of the episode, however, is of course the touching final scene between Elizabeth and Phillip. When Elizabeth asks Phillip in Russian to "come home," you feel the cathartic release as a season full of back-and-forth rushes away. It's obvious these two love one another and, after the heartbreaking scene in "Covert War" during which Phillip rebuffs (or is oblivious to) Elizabeth's attempt at reconciliation, this moment of tender forgiveness seems long overdo. And I, for one, can't wait to see how their relationship progresses going forward, especially with the new specter of Phillip/Clark's marriage to Martha haunting them.
Speaking of Martha, the secondary characters really came into their own in the season's final few episodes. Martha, played with incredible earnestness and care by Alison Wright, is pitiful, yes, but you can't help but love her. She's not so blinded by her love for Clark that she fails to exert her own convictions — she was, after all, able to convince Clark to let her tell her parents about their relationship as well as move up the wedding date — and that's appealing. Wright has created a layered, nuanced character where it would be so easy to fall back on caricature. And it was a surprise to all that she was able to survive the season — although I doubt she'll be so lucky in Season 2.
The other big surprise of the season was Nina's (Annet Mahendru) new role as a double agent. Nina transformed from the victim to a force to be reckoned with, and could very well be Stan's (Noah Emmerich) downfall. Stan and Nina are, in a way, foils for one another. As Nina gains strength and grows stronger in her convictions, Stan is reduced to nearly a shell of a man. He lost his partner, he is well on his way to destroying his marriage, and his big professional moment was a bust. Nina has taken control of her fate while Stan has become victim to his — and that makes me want to root for Nina and Directorate S. Team Nina!
So, where do we go from here? When Season 2 begins, we will once again have a unified Jennings family and Directorate S will once again have an upper hand on the FBI (thanks to Nina's double agent status and the colonel's new intel) — but that doesn't mean we have returned to square one. While Elizabeth and Phillip's relationship seems stronger than ever, how will they keep the Martha ruse going? It will surely tear Elizabeth apart to watch Clark return to Martha's (soon to be redecorated) apartment night after night.
Also within the Jennings family, we have Paige's growing suspicion to deal with. Is Paige's curiosity simply reflective of your normal teen rebellion and tendency to delve into one's parents' past? Or will Paige become a real threat to her parents' secret identity? Furthermore, if Paige does discover her parents' true lives, how will she take it?
The other huge question mark is Claudia's (Margo Martindale) fate on the show. In the final episode, the audience was given a look at Claudia's true loyalties — which, contrary to the Jennings' belief — lie firmly with the agents in her care. And yet, Claudia may be out of the picture come Season 2. Unfortunately, Grannie's future on The Americans may be determined by outside forces; she has a starring role in the pilot for Will Arnett's new comedy, which is currently awaiting pickup by CBS. If her new show gets a green light, we might unfortunately lose Claudia. And what a loss it would be.
Bigger picture questions I have going forward involve the spy aspect of the show, rather than the familial one. How long can the FBI and Directorate S continue to play this game of cat and mouse without it wearing thin? And will Phillip and Elizabeth continue to be given one-off missions that don't forward the overall arc of the show? These seem to truncate the action without advancing the characters in noteworthy ways. Furthermore, how do we progress in the Cold War without rewriting history? In order to keep things accurate it seems we have to shy away from big, international moves. They can't actually assassinate Reagan or drastically change the space program... can they?
The show is ripe with possibilities for Nina's advancement as well as the Martha/Clark storyline, and I'd love to learn more about Sandra (Susan Misner), Stan's cuckolded wife with an impressive amount of backbone, so hopefully we see those progressed in a second season. Ultimately, I feel in good hands with Joseph Weisberg and Joel Fields at the helm; I can't wait to see where they take us.
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