From the Sopranos to the Americans

Like many others this morning, I’m sad to learn of the death of James Gandolfini, and shocked that he was only 51. As his recent performance in Zero Dark Thirty showed, he seemed on the verge of shaking off his associations with Tony Soprano – and of doing something that could match or even surpass his achievement in playing that role. And I understand that he became a father again last year. It’s terrible to see someone so young passing away.

I am sure that there will now be many articles reminding us that The Sopranos re-defined television – that, without that show, there would have been no Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or The Wire.

The Sopranos itself could probably not have happened without Twin Peaks, of course – but David Lynch’s show had always seemed anomalous, with its innovations misunderstood as mere Lynch-ian quirkiness. In contrast, The Sopranos managed to be trailblazing while operating within familiar TV conventions. Gandolfini’s performance was a key element in that achievement: we couldn’t help watching Tony Soprano – in fact, we couldn’t help liking him either (most of the time). Perhaps the show’s primary influence, then, is in spawning a series of TV shows about likeable anti-heroes, from Michael C Hall’s Dexter Morgan to Bryan Cransford’s Walter White in Breaking Bad to Don Draper in Mad Men – and so on.

I’d been thinking during the last few days anyway that the influence of The Sopranos is also detectable in more recent (and more accessible) shows. I’ve been watching The Americans on RTE 2 for the last few weeks: it finished its 13 episode run in the US last month but we  in Ireland are only up to episode 4. So it’s a bit early to reach a definitive judgement.

But so far I am struck by a couple of similarities with The Sopranos. One of the enjoyable features of the HBO series was that much of the action took place in suburbia: we got to enjoy watching how Tony’s neighbours felt about having a gangster in their midst – and his status as a kind of outsider often shone a satirical light on the materialism and vapidity of the people around him. Something similar is going on in The Americans, in which Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play deeply embedded KGB spies who live in an American suburb in the early 1980s. Because the couple are both part of that world and outside of it (like Tony), the show is able to cast a mildly critical eye on such issues as consumerism and American attitudes to parenting.

And of course the duo at the centre of the show are (yet again) charismatic anti-heroes. This is particularly notable in the characterisation of Elizabeth (played by Russell), who in the first four episodes has already murdered two American men, both of whom were developed just enough for us to find her actions shocking.

Yet we care about what happens to her and her husband Philip: when they risk being caught, it’s assumed we’ll hope they escape; when they express anxieties about their kids or their marriage or their future, it’s assumed that we will be nodding along in identification. And part of the reason we are rooting for Philip and Elizabeth is that their main antagonist – an FBI agent played by Noah Emmerich – is himself morally ambiguous, and certainly not as likeable as the two Russians. So it’s a show that doesn’t feel the need to make things simple for its audience – again, something that we probably would not have had if not for The Sopranos.

I’m not sure how long the show will be able to sustain that kind of moral ambiguity, however. In The Sopranos, we always had Dr Malfi to act as a surrogate and safety valve for the audience: when she was appalled by Tony, so were we; when she liked him, so did we – and when in the final season she’d had enough and refused to see him any longer, we were ready to say goodbye too. There’s no-one quite like that (yet) in The Americans: someone who can give us permission to like the two protagonists, but also allow us to feel that our values are not being fundamentally threatened. So that could be very interesting, or it could quickly start to strain credulity.

Another issue is that the show doesn’t just remind me of The Sopranos, but of many other shows. It presents people who look like ordinary Americans but who for ideological reasons are dedicated to the destablisation of the USA. As such, it links up nicely with Homeland – and if it’s interesting to see how post-9/11 paranoia is not much different from Cold War paranoia, we have still seen some of these dilemmas before.

And, with its 1980s setting, it also shows some hints of the influence Mad Men – since both shows aim to use the past to explore matters about the present that might be too painful if tackled directly. And like Mad Men, it has some fun with our knowledge of how things turned out. I’m thinking here of simple things like Don’s line in the first episode of Season One in Mad Men – “It’s not like there’s some magic machine that makes identical copies of things” (apparently the photocopier had actually been invented in the late 1950s). In a similar fashion, some of the fun in watching The Americans lies in our knowledge that almost every dilemma the couple face would be much more straightforward if they’d just had mobile phones.

There’s one other resemblance that I’ve noticed already – and it’s not a very flattering one. But with its treatment of an early 1980s married couple who spend each episode solving a problem – often employing a stunning repertoire of funny disguises before concluding each episode by cuddling up together – I can’t help thinking of Hart to Hart, that show about a pair of millionaire amateur detectives. Of course there’s no real resemblance here, but there are elements of The Americans that could get pretty silly pretty quickly.

But where it’s most interesting, after four episodes anyway, is in its treatment of its female characters – not just Elizabeth, but also the couple’s KGB handler Claudia (played by Margo Martindale).

As stated above, Elizabeth is shown killing people where (so far) Philip has not; she’s also required to use her body to get information, sometimes with deeply unpleasant consequences for her. You can understand why she’s more committed to her cause than Philip is: she has to do much more of the dirty work than he, and thus has less room to entertain serious doubts. It’s also notable that (again unlike Philip) she has had a relationship outside of the marriage, with an African-American man whom she recruited as an agent.

The character of Claudia is also very interesting, played as an apparently harmless grandmother-figure who is in fact the most ruthless character in the series (so far).

I’ve been struck by the thought that this treatment of gender (and race) would never have found its way onto a TV screen in the 1980s. Think again of the opening lines of Hart to Hart: “This is my boss, Jonathan Hart – a self-made millionaire. He’s quite a guy. This is Mrs. H. She’s gorgeous. She’s one lady who knows how to take care of herself.” In that show, the man makes himself but the woman takes care of herself: he’s to be admired for what he does and she for how she looks.

In that respect, at least, we’ve come a long way since 1981.

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