Two shows premiered recently: FX’s “The Americans” and Netflix’s “House of Cards.” The former got attention because its creative story carries the potential to put it among the ranks of FX’s other original dramas, such as The Shield, Damages, Rescue Me, Sons of Anarchy, and Justified. The latter has received a lot of attention not only because it’s produced by Netflix (and all 13 episodes were released at once), but also because of it’s top notch cast and crew. After watching both, I don’t think “The Americans” will join the FX pantheon, but “House of Cards” will be a game changer.*
WARNING: REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE PILOT EPISODES OF BOTH SHOWS.
“The Americans” is the story of Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip (Matthew Rys) Jennings, your average, northern Virginian suburbanites who also happen to be Soviet spies living deep undercover. The show takes places in the early 80s, so you’ll get your fill of Jordache jeans and gas-guzzling cars with sofas for front seats. You’ll also get the wacky, next-door neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich) who just happens to work counterintelligence in the FBI.
Yeah, he literally moves in next door. Gratuitous, I know. But the show doesn’t stop there. There’s gratuitous sex and language (hey, look at what we can do on basic cable!). The spies seem to go out of their way to risk detection because who doesn’t like disguises and fight scenes that have no bearing on the plot (besides me, that is)? But the American spies are terrible too–somehow a KGB general can make it in and out of the DC area?
Alright, I get it that it’s just a piece of fiction. They’re allowed a certain amount of dramatic license. Even if I’m willing to overlook all of that in the name of a fun TV show, there are other things that I can’t deal with. Why is there a deep-sea port in DC? Where do suburbanites, even spy/suburbanites, get body bags and bottles of acid? And did I mention that there are moments when characters speak like Boris and Natasha?
I think I was frustrated with “The Americans” more than anything. I like a good Cold War spy drama. I live in DC. I was primed to like this show. But it just seemed to hokey to me. All drama was lost. I could see plot turns a mile ahead. It’s all sparkle, no substance. It’s a good idea, terribly executed.
“House of Cards”, on the other hand, was executed perfectly. The writing, the acting, and the direction were all top notch. My only concern is that I will likely end up blowing though all 13 episodes in a weekend.
When a newly elected president renegs on a campaign promise to Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), he and his wife Claire (Robin Wright), decide to use anyone and everyone, including reporter Zoe Bares (Kate Mara) and vice-ridden Congressman Russo (Corey Stoll), to stab the President in the back while smiling to his face.
Although I give “The Americans” points for originality–delivering a show from the Soviet point of view–the nominally cliche plot of “House of Cards”–politics, greed, sex, and corruption in DC–is delivered in a much sharper, more interesting fashion. Even though Spacey addresses the camera like Zack Morris, Spacey’s acting and Beau Willimon’s writing (“The Ides of March”) give these asides style and menace. And even if you missed the credits, there’s no way you’d miss David Fincher’s direction. “House of Cards” is dark, and it moves fast. It’s almost like the Anti-West Wing.
“House of Cards” is slick and subtle, whereas “The Americans” was transparent and over the top. So ditch the DVR. Switch over to Netflix. I have a feeling this might be the beginning of something wonderful. I just hope Netflix can find a way to make enough money doing it.
*My wife had the completely opposite reaction I did, so you know, take this review with a grain of salt. Then again, we only agree on like 2% of TV shows. Feel free to let me know who you think has the right opinion.