The Americans aims to break the second-season curse

The Americans aims to break the second-season curse

It’s early afternoon on the Brooklyn-based set of The Americans, and it’ll be time for lunch soon. The show’s three central actors—Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, and Noah Emmerich—are rehearsing a scene that will appear in the second season’s second episode, and the series’ co-showrunners and executive producers, Joe Weisberg (who also created) and Joel Fields, have dropped by to see what’s up. The two, who have a day crammed full of work on the second season, are also wondering when they’ll be eating, and it still won’t be for a while. Right now, they’re watching the tense scene, in which Emmerich’s FBI agent Stan Beeman shows up at the travel agency workplace and cover for the KGB spies played by Russell and Rhys, seeing what drama arises as episode director (and series directing producer) Daniel Sackheim sends Stan into the spies’ inner sanctum.

By the time the episode gets to its final cut, the scene will be played almost entirely as a humorous aside amid a much darker and more dramatic storyline, a brief moment of respite amid the season’s impressively tangled web. It’s as if all involved realized that playing the scene for tension would ultimately prove slightly cheap. Stan will inevitably catch on to Philip and Elizabeth Jennings somewhere along the way, but probably not in episode two of season two. At rehearsal, the scene seems fine, but slightly forced. In the final cut, it feels like an impressively modulated bit of playfulness. And if the micro-management Weisberg and Fields devote to the rest of the show proved out here as well, then they realized the scene would work better when ending with a chuckle instead of a threat. A joke that bombs will cause the audience to shrug; push the unnecessary tension button too often, and that audience might start to tune out.

Fields and Weisberg are running up against the same thing Bryan Fuller will go through with Hannibal or Jenji Kohan with Orange Is The New Black or Michelle Ashford with Masters Of Sex. 2013 was the best year in recent memory for new dramas, the kind of watershed year that suggests newfound vitality for a medium. But the thing nobody mentions in showrunner school (if such a thing existed) is that constructing a great first season is, on the list of TV drama tasks, ultimately easy. It’s in the process of making season two where the rubber hits the road. TV history is littered with shows that started out with a bang in their first seasons, then hit season two and couldn’t recapture the spark. (Here are two: Desperate Housewives and Homeland, both of which had relatively good second seasons that were no match for their first years.) Just looking at trends and statistics, at least one of the great new dramas of 2013 is going to flame out horribly in 2014. And maybe many of them will.

To judge from the excellent first five episodes of The Americans’ second season—as good a stretch of drama episodes as any in recent memory—it should escape the obstacle course unscathed. It’s amazing how many elements the series is juggling in its second season, including three new regulars (Annet Mahendru, who plays Nina; Susan Misner, who plays Sandra; and Alison Wright, who plays Martha), the loss of an important recurring player (Margo Martindale, who now stars on CBS’ The Millers and will have a reduced presence in season two), and an increased presence for the series’ two youngest co-stars, who play the Jennings’ kids. History is littered with good shows that have attempted to weather just one of the above changes and struggled with rough seasons. The Americans is dealing with all three.

All great TV shows arise from the alchemy of dozens to hundreds of people who do good work and do it diligently. The Americans is no exception to this, with its terrific crew, talented cast, writers’ room filled with acclaimed TV writers and playwrights, and long list of directorial ringers. But the buck has to stop somewhere, and on most shows, it stops with the showrunners. What’s unusual about The Americans among the current crop of sophisticated dramas is that it boasts two showrunners, who seem to tackle every question in a strange tandem mind-meld. If they don’t finish each other’s sentences, they certainly finish each other’s production notes. There are other shows with co-showrunners out there—most notably The Good Wife and Game Of Thrones—but at least in a day spent on set, Fields and Weisberg go everywhere together, ranging all over the several city blocks the show seems to have commandeered to be Americans central.

Fields and Weisberg are incredibly open about both the frustrations of trying to write the show and their typical solution for said frustrations: Take a walk. The general arc of season two arose when the two began taking long walks, and any time they confront a story problem they’re not sure how to solve, they’ll do the same. The act of walking, of getting out of the environment of the ’80s-set show and into the realities of modern New York City, and the act of talking about the show let ideas to flow more freely, and occasionally, bad ideas will lead to good ones.

It’s also appropriate for a show that’s, ultimately, about a marriage (or, at this point, three marriages and an affair). Maybe there’s a version of The Americans that one person runs alone, but it’s hard to imagine it turning out as well as this one has. The series, at its base level, is about the push-and-pull and give-and-take that arise in any marriage. What’s more, the show’s central marriage is an arranged one that turned very real, a match made by the KGB becoming unexpectedly tender and affectionate after a number of years. Similarly, Fields and Weisberg were thrown together by their studio and network (though one presumes they got a chance to audition each other, rather than being forced into this particular relationship). And now to sit with the two in their shared office as they bounce ideas off of each other—and try to figure out how to bring more attention to themselves and their show via Twitter or compare notes on the sandwiches they ordered for lunch or make minute adjustments to a script for the show’s fifth episode—is to watch one of these partnerships working about as well as it can.

I ask the two several times if they’re at all concerned about the second season, or if they’ve found anything different about writing the second season. But outside of the fact that the production of season two hasn’t been beset by a literal hurricane (as season one was with Sandy), they aver that things are going smoothly, that any problems are solved easily enough with a long walk or two. (Indeed, when I bump into the two at a TCA event a few months later, they suggest the second season went even more smoothly.) And yet a certain amount of anxiety about the second season of the show being as good as the first is baked into those first five episodes. After all, if this arranged “marriage” has produced a child, it’s The Americans itself, and those first five episodes turn away, ever so slightly, from the marital connection between Philip and Elizabeth and toward their fears and hopes for their two children, who are finally old and independent enough to pursue their own passions and interests, which may mark them as much more “American” than their parents.

All of this might seem a slight stretch, but a chief reason the second season of a TV show is hard is because the series no longer belongs entirely to its creative team. In the first season, the production vacuum can be thrilling; it’s easier to forgive flaws in a first season, too, because there’s an assumption everyone is finding their form. In a second season, though, there are expectations placed on a show from its fan base, and there are always fans who will say season one was the best, because that was the series at its most pure. Leaping out into that void and trying to figure out what the audience responded to in season one can be enthralling, but it can also very quickly turn enervating if the production team and audience (and critics) valued different things.

Any show that runs long enough will become, on some level, about its own relationship to itself (see also: Mad Men), but that process usually begins in season two. There are plenty of other things going on in The Americans, from considerations of what it means to be “free” to thrillingly intricate spycraft. But at its base, the show is about the relationships one values when the chips are down and just how much control one can have over one’s own creations, be they children or TV show. Fields and Weisberg might not be directly feeling the concern, but it’s still bubbling over, at least a little bit.

That concern, though, is probably best left to the subtext. At the Americans’ offices, all proceeds apace. A wall near the entrance is covered with a giant timeline of important news and cultural and sporting events from 1982, the year in which the season is set, and a few steps further brings you to a cardboard cutout of Ronald Reagan that spouts the former president’s most famous platitudes when you move past it. It’s a kind of experiment in osmosis: If Fields and Weisberg and their team surround themselves with the totems of a bygone era, maybe they’ll start to think like that period, just a little bit. (In these first five, it pays off largely in the sorts of ’80s references you won’t get on The Goldbergs, like hat tips toward The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Intellivision.)

But that osmosis also extends to the two men who bring the show together, and if the show continues on a streak that looks likely to carry it safely past the second season curse, they’ll have played a huge hand in delivering it to safe harbor. During the day, they have a production meeting with the director for episode five to clear up some specifics about the look of the episode. They deal with a handful of network and studio requirements. They talk at length about how to squeeze the three new regulars into the opening credits. They pick at a bit of dialogue Martha will speak in episode five, massaging it, until they make it better by changing just a tiny handful of words. And when it’s time for lunch, they compare notes on their sandwiches. It almost seems a wonder they don’t fight more often, but, then, that’s the show they’re writing, too.

Toward the end of the rehearsal of that scene at the travel agency, Emmerich approaches the two to ask whether his last line in the scene—which points out a prop on the travel agency set—is meant to be some sort of clue about Stan getting with the program when it comes to his neighbors, who just happen to be his arch-nemeses, in addition to his friends. Fields and Weisberg laugh and say that, no, this line is just meant to be a quick, humorous button on the scene. (Perhaps that’s where the scene starts to morph into the more amusing one that made the final episode.) But there’s also something implicit here: Fields and Weisberg know where this show is going; everybody else is along for the ride. And if The Americans is to make it to season three alive, then everyone had better hope that having two drivers works out as well as it has so far.

Filed Under: TV, The Americans

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