Two Power Couples – Two New Seasons: The Americans & House of Cards – Season 5

The Americans (FX) – Season 5
Created by Joseph Weisberg

House of Cards (Netflix) – Season 5
Created by Beau Willimon

Two shows I champion. more than just about any other, lined up their new seasons perfectly with the season finale of “The Americans” airing on the exact same day “House of Cards” released its entire season on Netflix. And…well…not much happened on either. Well, to be more precise…literally nothing happened on the former, and, SO much happened on the latter, it failed to remotely affect me emotionally.

I’m really surprised at the lack of movement on “The Americans”. A show that made its name via the tension of our spy-couple being found out, was never dull (aidedby a larger wig budget than the Metropolitan Opera). Even during those interminable moments spent in E.S.T. meetings in prior seasons, the writers managed to squeeze every ounce of self-doubt, self-loathing and fear of the inevitable in to compelling drama. But, wow, did they miss the mark this time ’round. I mean…the main plots surround wheat, groceries and, (please, God, no), Paige’s relationship to the minister.  And, then some other unintersting stuff happens. When Weisberg was given the green-light on two final seasons, we all hoped it would be a twenty-six episode juggernaut to some sort of conclusion – whether it be a return to the USSR or a lifetime membership to a CIA black site. Instead, we’ve been given a 13-episode treatise on the mundacity of the spy world. NOTHING is resolved, and nothing is interesting enough to carry in to the following season….with one exception…a SHOCKING exception: Paige’s character is…wait for it…interesting…compelling, even. But, really, in terms of plot…you could literally skip this entire season and not miss a beat.

The fifth season of “House of Cards”, on the other hand, alienates in a completely different way. What has made the show a must watch has been its slow, steady, and horrifying drive to each season’s conclusion – the effect of which was to make the Underwoods terrifyingly real. I’m not sure if the current state of our government had much to do with it, but Willimon has overloaded the the last five episodes of this season with SO much goings-on, that we never get the chance to feel how it affects our power-couple – or anyone else on the show. Since things happen so fast, we, instead, get a lot of Frank and Claire telling each other how they feel. All the seduction and intrigue is sucked out of each scene by over-the-top decisions and actions. In fact, the use of the line, “but that makes no sense,” was utilized at least five times as a means to get a character to explain why he or she did something. Alas, the show that invented the phrase “show me, don’t tell me”, fails to heed it….with one powerful exception…an exception found in both shows…love.

Love is not a word one associates with “House of Cards” or “The Americans”, unless referring to love of country, love of power or love of task. Interestingly, both Weisberg and Willimon have given us the ebbs and flows of that feeling as the lone subject to hang our hat on – to FEEL something about. The Jennings love for each other, Claire’s love(?) for Tom Yates, Frank’s love (or whatever it is he feels) for <REDACTED>, are all that’s left to keep us invested and are responsible for the only moments where the script caused me to audibly gasp. Alas, powerful as these three moments are, they just aren’t enough to satiate or carry us through thirteen hours.

DSC5849However, that doesn’t mean the acting is any less committed or three-dimensional. If anything, the lack of story has only added to the power of “The Americans” Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys’ connection to these tortured characters – and to each other. However, the scripts assure that the overarching adjective of the season is ‘dour’. The “hangdog” acting of both Noah Emmerich and Costa Ronin, while consistently real, gets pretty old without action to match the stakes. And even Frank Langella and Margo Martindale, have been reduced to plot activators…plots that either go nowhere or are ended in minutes.Only Holly Taylor’s Paige gets to flex some muscle…which, as mentioned above, is pretty surprising.

nevemichael-h_2017As for “Cards”, Robin Wright has some sublime moments due to Willimon finally giving her some vulnerability not borne of quiet rage. And Michael Kelly, whose role has been severely diminished this season, saves his best for the last two episodes. And, I’m not sure what happened in the casting room, but the major/minor characters introduced this season (Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson, James Martinez, and Korey Jackson), just aren’t fleshed out enough to bring the same import as those that have come and gone in the past. Neve Campbell and Damian Young, on the other hand, are terrific, and are about as real as this season gets. But if you’re looking for the next Corey Stoll, Mahershala Ali, Kate Mara, or Rachel Brosnahan to grab your attention, you’re out of luck.

Early on in each season, I sincerely hoped my struggles to get through each episode was due to the very real overwhelm and disgust I feel toward the soap opera that graces our newscasts and late night talk shows. I rationalized that I just didn’t have the energy to watch it all portrayed in a fictional universe, as well. But, alas, I am forced to admit that both seasons are just plain dull. Knowing that “The Americans” has only one season left assures me that it will come back strong…it will have to…and, as such, I eagerly await it. But the very last line of “House of Cards”, which sets up next season, is so telegraphed and so predictable, I fear I will be forced back to the screen only in the hopes that Willimon will have found his way back to the subtle forces, manipulations and machinations of previous seasons.

Sorry. Wish I had a better report.

“The Americans” Season Five Trailer

 

“House of Cards” Season Five Trailer

Written on 6/12/2017

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