Spies, Intrigue, and Felicity: A Show I Never Expected to Like

Each Wednesday either my wife or I share what we are watching (either together or separately) in terms of movies and TV each week in a feature called “What We’re Watching Wednesday.” This week, in the spirit of the holiday we’re celebrating here in America, she gives her (spoiler-free) review of the show The Americans, which recently just ended after six seasons.

It happens to me with books. I pick something up quite by accident and casually begin reading, and end up clutching the book in a fevered dream every chance I get until it is over, when I am left with that curious emptiness once the story is fully told.

The Americans was just such a TV series for me. Recommended by a friend (Michelle of the blog That’s What She Read) quickly abandoned by my husband as “too complicated to invest in,” I continued on alone, watching most episodes during downtime in the wee hours of the morning at work. I argued with it, rolled my eyes a few times, and then the questions began mounting that I decided I needed answers to. In short, I was hooked.

The show, in case you haven’t heard of it, concerns Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a couple with two children living in Falls Church, Virginia, proprietors of a travel agency. Their house is nice (though I earnestly prayed that as the seasons wore on they would get rid of that awful wallpaper in the kitchen), their kids are occasionally annoying, and oh…they are Russian spies.

I credit Keri Russell for pulling me in. She portrays Elizabeth with such unapologetic brutality that you watch her to see whose ass she is going to kick next. And at the same time you realize she is the Alpha in this situation, like Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey in The Shield, you root for her, only occasionally swatting away the pesky reminders that these characters are supposed to be enemies. Is it close to reality? According to my own research, spying is a lot more boring than one might conclude, watching this show, and frequently less successful. This fascinating article details the experiences and exploits of a real spy during the same time period.

Elizabeth’s husband Philip, played by Matthew Rhys, is the conscience of the pair…and his struggles with some of the things he has to do raise the most interesting questions. Could a couple who lives seamlessly embedded in American culture and raise children here remain true to their mission without wavering for all that time? Elizabeth acknowledges at one point that things are “easier here, not better” but it is difficult to believe, given the backstory they have for her, that it isn’t both.  The show may not be strictly historically accurate, but as a play of drama, loyalty and moral dilemmas, it is excellent.

What We’re Watching Wednesday | Documentaries

Each Wednesday I share what my wife Kim and I are watching in terms of movies and TV each week in a feature called “What We’re Watching Wednesday.” This week, though, it’s Kim who is sharing…only what she is watching by herself: documentaries.

I am that person. The one who tries to get you to watch a documentary.
When we first got cable, I discovered my love for watching the obscure stories, little independent documentaries about unfamiliar subjects. I have always liked to learn about people whose life experience was vastly different from my own.

And I love a well told story, slowly unfolded. They affect me. I try to spread my enthusiasm and I can tell straightaway if I have chosen my audience correctly. If you are not one whose eyes glaze over as someone bangs on about social issues, history, or the best restaurant in Berlin, read on.

All three of these series are available on Netflix.

Chef’s Table

You may think you are utterly disinterested in cooking, or assume this series bears some resemblance to the cooking competition shows that fill the offerings on Netflix and elsewhere. If you will indulge me, watch one episode. Watch Season 3, Episode 1. And tell me if you aren’t hooked. Then go back to the beginning.

Each episode of Chef’s Table stands alone and tells the story of one chef, what inspires them, how they got started, what they serve in their restaurants. Whether cooking is your thing or not, their stories are fascinating. Part biography, part travel show, a feast for the eyes and the soul. The chefs themselves are at times holy, other times profane, deeply connected to the food they serve, deeply connected to the places they live, and their life experiences are the flavors they bring to the plate. I have learned so much that inspires my own cooking and that confirms my suspicion that if I worked in a professional kitchen I would hide in the bathroom and cry a lot.

Wild Wild Country

We have seen and enjoyed a couple of Mark and Jay Duplass’ films, most notably Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) and The Skeleton Twins (2014) but their documentaries are another thing entirely and I hope they produce more.

Wild Wild Country concerns the establishment of Rajneeshpuram, a commune of followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh established in Wasco County, Oregon in the early 80s. In the first episode, one of the interviewees notes that if you wrote a book with all of the elements of this story in it, it would be dismissed as “too ridiculous.” Indeed, the rise and fall of this community and all the things that happened are a strange, fascinating tale. I found myself looking up articles and interviews seeking answers to the questions I was left with.

Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist

Many of us remember the footage on the news of pizza delivery man Brian Wells, handcuffed and seated on the ground in front of a state police cruiser with a bomb around his neck that would later take his life, having robbed the PNC Bank on Peach Street in Erie. The Pizza Bomber, they called him. I must admit once it rotated out of the news cycle I forgot about it. I live in Pennsylvania but at the time we were about as far from Erie as we could be while still being in the same state. I was not aware that the investigation, and the mystery, took years to solve. In some ways, this short documentary reminded me of the first (and still, most affecting and compelling) podcast I ever listened to, S-Town.

Have you seen any of these? What did you think? If not, do you like documentaries? Any ones you can recommend?