"The Americans" and "The Leftovers" are this week's selections.
I know there’s a lot of people out there who don’t watch much TV now being given a deep dive into the world of streaming services, but that doesn’t mean they should sacrifice quality for quantity. In fact, it means the opposite: You could watch cotton candy like Netflix's much-hyped "Tiger King" docuseries — quick and compelling, but you won't remember it in a month — or you could watch something more akin to a hearty stew on a chilly evening, something that will satisfy and stick with you a while.
That’s why I’m pulling out my pot and cooking low and slow this week, highlighting two shows that I keep thinking about long after they went off the air.
“The Americans” (2013-2018)
Amazon Prime Video, TV-MA, six seasons (75 episodes), 55 hours worth of content
“The Americans” is my favorite show of the past 10 years. It follows Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) through the real-life events of the Cold War while they work as travel agents and raise their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), and son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati). All of that is true, and none of that is true, because Philip and Elizabeth are actually Russian spies living in America, posing as typical Americans. They are doing quite well until Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his family move next door, and Beeman tells them he’s an FBI agent.
“The Americans” never became a cross-country sensation because it’s a show that values quiet moments as much as prolonged action sequences — though it has those, too. It knew that big revelations have no impact without tension first being wound tighter than a 1700s corset. It didn’t glorify the spy profession; it often did the opposite, caring more about how the work impacted the lives of innocents than it did the work itself. Through all six seasons, you watch the Jennings grow together and apart, as a family and as individuals. The early seasons focus on Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship, while later seasons give Paige just as compelling an arc. With these overarching plots come events that hammer home the tough choices these people had to make every day and make the Jennings question whether the risk that comes with their life’s work has been worth it.
(You can still root for the FBI; Beeman is portrayed as a good guy, too, which makes viewer's feelings even more complicated.)
The most remarkable thing the show accomplishes is getting you to care about people typically seen as the enemy (another reason some people never gave it a proper chance). Philip and Elizabeth are Russian, and if they succeed in their many missions, it’s bad news for the U.S. Our U.S. But you want them to succeed anyway, or at the very least survive. They do what they do because they love their country, the same reason high-ranking people in this country do what they do. We’re all the heroes of our own stories. A show like this helps you see different perspectives. It’s sobering but necessary.
“The Leftovers” (2014-2017)
HBOGo, TV-MA, three seasons (28 total episodes), 28 hours of content
“The Leftovers” is, at its core, a show about loss: of life, of innocence, of sanity. It begins with the disappearance of 2% of the Earth's population, seemingly out of thin air. But unlike other shows with a similar premise, the show doesn’t focus on the disappeared. In fact, it doesn’t care about them at all, never giving an explanation as to what happened to them. It instead focuses on those still on Earth, who now have to come to grips with what happened and move on with their lives — if they can at all
Justin Theroux plays Kevin Garvey, a cop in a small New York town whose wife, Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman), joins a speechless cult in the event’s aftermath, and whose daughter, Jill (rising star Margaret Qualley), and son Tom (Chris Zylka) head down very different paths themselves. Eventually, the family meets Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), a woman who lost her husband and two children during the event, and their lives become intertwined. Carrie Coon never got the awards-show hype she deserved for her performance as Durst. She’s incredible, and you should watch this show for her performance alone.
Although “The Leftovers” has many conversations about spirituality, it’s never preachy. You don’t have to believe in anything in particular (or anything at all) to relate to character motivations. We’ve all lost people we care about, and personally, I’d do some crazy things for the chance to see them again or to keep their legacy intact. The people on "The Leftovers" are no different.
Be warned: This show can get bleak, especially early in its run. If you stick with it, you’ll find yourself in the midst of something special, something truly beautiful.