Before the shutdown brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, my life and free time were largely consumed by viewing and covering the latest theater openings and film releases. So when I would hear glowing reactions to long-form dramatic television series, I would make mental note of them, wondering when in the world I would ever have time to catch up and view them.
Well, that time has been now as I have been immersing myself in such series as The Americans, Ozark, Madam Secretary and a new documentary, Howard – the first streaming on Amazon Prime, the next two on Netflix and the last on the recent arrival, Disney+. While it is probably old news for those who watched these shows when they first came out, here are some thoughts on these series for those of you who are playing similar catch-up.
The first three, while each is distinctive in its own way, have many similarities. They are each family dramas, placing families in near-constant crisis, as they also juggle intriguing work duties. Those duties – Cold War spying, money laundering through a variety of backwoods Missouri enterprises and diplomatic woes at the State Department – are the motor of each series, while the family drama is an emotional counterpoint.
* The Americans – For starters, the very title of this series — which spans six
seasons for a total of almost 40 hours — is ironic. For the central All-American couple, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), who live in a comfortable suburban Virginia home during the Reagan-era 1980s, are not American at all.
They are Soviet KGB spies, recruited as teenagers, matched up for faux-marriage by appearance and sent to the United States to ferret out Cold War secrets and – when the job calls for it – to brutally eliminate American operatives in cold blood. From early on in the series, we are tacitly warned not to grow attached to any of the characters, for they may be violently removed without warning.
Elizabeth and Philip have become attached over the years, but their relationship will be strained by the demands of their work. (The fact that their efforts to gain the trust of their quarry often involves having sex with them is rarely a factor in that strain.)
The Jenningses have two children, Paige and Henry, all the better to make them seem like typical suburbanites. However, over the course of the series, Paige (an impressive young actress, Holly Taylor) grows increasingly interested in – yikes! – religion and worse, starts suspecting that her parents may not be what they seem to be. Eventually the Jenningses are forced to level with her and, despite Philip’s objection, she is recruited into the spy game.
Near the start of the series, an FBI agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his family move in across the street from Philip and Elizabeth, and they become fast friends. Still, over time Stan grows suspicious of them and a cat-and-mouse, Javert-and-Jean-Valjean thread runs throughout the series, intensifying the drama as we growing increasingly attached to these Soviet operatives.
Creator and show runner Joe Weisberg keeps the writing quality high, Russell shows she has more acting chops than expected, though Rhys (the title character in the new Perry Mason series) is the more nuanced performer. Gradually the cast widens, including particularly Frank Langella and Margo Martindale as two steely Soviet handlers of the Jenningses.
Because of the series’ length, there is more opportunity to fill in character details and story depth, but The Americans does a remarkable job of keeping the viewer engaged throughout.
* Madam Secretary — If The Americans is truly an original series concept, it is not hard to see that Madam Secretary – the Inside the Beltway travails of a naïve, but earnest female secretary of state – owes so much to the template of The West Wing. But that is high praise for this series, which ran on CBS between 2014 and 2019, to be so reminiscent of the political struggles of Jed Bartlett and his White House staff.
In this case, the secretary is Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), a former CIA analyst suddenly elevated to POTUS Conrad Dalton’s cabinet when her predecessor’s airplane crashes off the coast of Florida, perhaps under suspicious circumstances.
In each episode of the six-season series, Elizabeth has to grapple with an international incident, just as surely as Jessica Fletcher found herself constantly in the midst of a murder in tiny Cabot Cove, Maine. In addition to the diplomatic crisis of the week, there is usually a dilemma involving Elizabeth’s staff, as well as domestic woes of her family – her husband Henry, a professor of religion at Georgetown University and occasional NSA operative, and their three whiny teenage kids. The international crisis usually gets wrapped up neatly within the episode, while the other two threads come in and out of focus, deepening as the series progresses.
The West Wing comes to mind because of the hyper-articulate walk-and-talk exposition at the State Department offices. Elizabeth has inherited a slightly sitcom-y, but efficient crew, which includes a speechwriter (Geoffrey Arend) and a press secretary (Patina Miller), who have an on-and-off romantic relationship, a badly kept secret. Also prominent is Elizabeth’s chief of staff (Bebe Neuwirth), who had been carrying on an affair with the previous secretary of state (Brian Stokes Mitchell in an all-too-brief appearance). With all the office hanky-panky, it is a wonder that they have time to save the free world each episode, but they manage.
Despite the soap opera-ish whirlwind around her, the husky-voiced Leoni anchors the series deftly, getting us on her side quickly and sustaining our empathy throughout. Although she does nothing to emphasize their similarities, it is hard not to think of Hillary Clinton and her globe-trotting escapades. Madam Secretary sustained its momentum over six seasons without ever jumping the shark, and if creator Barbara Hall was interested, there are plenty of compelling characters in the series with spinoff potential.
* Ozark – My favorite “discovery” – everyone else, including Emmy voters, have apparently beaten me to it – is this tongue-in-cheek, fish-out-of-water crime drama about a Chicago family that relocates to Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, to escape the clutches of a Mexican drug cartel, but keep finding themselves in deeper, hotter waters.
Deadpan Jason Bateman, the series’ executive producer and frequent episode director, stars as financial wheeler-dealer Marty Byrde. As we quickly learn, however, the job is a front for money laundering for a ruthless cartel, from whom Marty’s business partner has skimmed off $8 million. When the Mexican kingpin discovers the shortfall and offs Marty’s business partner, Marty packs up his sullen wife Wendy (the superb Laura Linney) and their two kids and heads to the Ozarks.
There Marty gets involved with a variety of operations – from a strip club to a funeral home to a casino – all designed to launder money and pay back the cartel. Both Marty and Wendy are more clever than the rednecks they need to manipulate, but that does not prevent them from being threatened with extinction at regular intervals. How they maneuver out of each dilemma and become increasingly entwined in the community is the series’ main thrust.
So far, there have been three seasons of Ozark, and a fourth and final season is promised in 2021. After a novel first season, the story got bogged down with new characters and tangents, but it absolutely returned to top form in Season 3. That is due largely to the added prominence of Linney, stressed out by the arrival of her bipolar and frequently off-his-meds brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey), a constant screw-up.
And to an added emphasis on Helen Pierce (the great Janet McTeer), attorney to the cartel who has no qualms about eliminating any impediments to her objectives. And to the continued appeal of redneck loose cannon Ruth Langmore (Emmy winner Julia Garner, who also shows up, more peripherally, in The Americans), as Marty’s not-to-be-trusted aide, soon to take over management of the casino.
The Ozarks are a definite character in the ever-twisting storyline (even if the series is actually shot in Georgia.) Here’s hoping that the show’s creators, Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams, have even more devious ways to place Marty and Wendy Byrde in peril in the season ahead.
* Howard – Somewhat off the subject of binge-worthy series, but too good not to recommend, is this 2018 documentary on the career, life and (as they say) “untimely” demise of theater and film animation lyricist Howard Ashman – dead at age 40 from that earlier epidemic, AIDS.
A stage-struck kid growing up in Baltimore, he hit it very big with an early off-Broadway musical, Little Shop of Horrors, based on Roger Corman’s eerily comic low-budget flick. Everyone told Ashman it was a terrible idea for a musical. Fortunately, he didn’t listen.
He would have remained working in the theater had he not had a major flop with his next show, Smile, a satire of teen beauty pageants. Disillusioned with his beloved Broadway, he accepted an offer from then-Disney studio head, Jeffrey Katzenberg, to go west and try his hand at animated features.
Ashman brought along his Little Shop collaborator, composer Alan Menken, and together they revitalized the Mouse Factory’s animation output by injecting the tenets of musical theater into such soon-to-be classics as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast.
By the time he was writing Beauty and the Beast, though, Ashman had contracted the “gay plague,” AIDS, which he kept hidden from the Disney brass as long as he could so he could retain their health insurance.
Director Don Hahn, a longtime Disney staffer, tries to avoid the inevitable downbeat ending with shameless plugs for the recent live-action remakes of Ashman’s animated features. Nevertheless, you will want to have some Kleenex nearby.