TV: The Americans [season 1]
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl [trade paperbacks, vols. 1 and 2]
These are the first two trade paperbacks of the Ryan North/Erica Henderson run of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, a comic about a college freshman with a secret, squirrel-themed superhero identity.
This is a delightful comic that I recommend without hesitation to everyone. It is relentlessly funny -- Mr. North is best known for Dinosaur Comics, where he carves a new joke out of the same six-panel dinosaur strip, week-in, week-out, for years. Here, he can set up his panels however he likes, and the jokes land on every single one. It goes delightfully meta without presenting like it's too cool for its genre. The inside jokes are there in every nook and cranny if you're looking for them. It's light, and positive, and fun. It celebrates women and POC.
It's basically a comic that gives you a relieved sigh that you didn't know you were holding in. "Oh, right. Everything *is* pretty awful lately." Yes, I *do* need to see the best friend's eight-page "Cat Thor" fanfiction comic that she wrote while bored in compilers class. And, related, yes I *do* need a superhero story that's just... *nice* to women and POC.
Half the stories don't even resolve with fighting -- Squirrel Girl just brings the bad guys around with her winning positivity. And you don't even feel like you're 'missing out' on a good fight -- instead, it feels like a natural result of such a sunny comic.
The only drawback is that I really don't have much to say about it beyond "it's good". It's the happy, life-affirming laugh that everybody needs in 2017. Go and read it.
The Americans [season 1]
This is the 2013 FX series about a pair of Russian spies posing as an all-American couple in the suburbs of Washington, DC.
I ended up watching this right after Deutschland 83, a show that covers the exact same topic -- embedded communist spies in the West during the Cold War -- but... sort of from the opposite end. And that was an interesting context for watching this show; it foregrounded storytelling choices that I might not have noticed otherwise.
For instance: this show is about *experienced* spies. Part of the joy of The Americans is in the "competence porn" -- a term coined by John Rogers to talk about the sheer joy of watching someone experienced do what they're good at. A lot of the pleasure of this show is just from watching the good spies be good spies: manipulating targets, using fancy spy gizmos, and (of course) wearing a series of delightful disguises.
And the moral questions they ask are the questions that trouble *experienced* spies, as opposed to spies that are just starting out. The question is not, for example, "Am I capable of killing someone?" -- both Phillip and Elizabeth well know that they can. And it's not "can I trust anyone?", because they basically take it as a given that they can't. Instead, the questions look backwards -- in weaker moments, they wonder what they lost by not having a normal life, and interrogate the blurring line between who they are and who they've pretended, for decades, to be.
It's also interesting to see where the focus lies. Deutschland was clearly using the spy story as an excuse to explore the world of divided Berlin -- kind of like how The Wire uses a police procedural to show us the systems at play in contemporary Baltimore. The Americans is not that. It has a sizeable cast, but it lakcs that 'Dickensian' shape, where story tendrils curl out into all the different strata of society. This is a *bounded* world: our characters are spies, their targets, and their immediate family. We never really get outside of that, either to see other types of characters or to get a general feel for the zeitgeist.
And deep down, I suspect it's not really about the spying. I feel like, if we apply the Mutant Enemy "what it's about"/"what it's *really* about" rubric to this, we get a show that's really about a marriage. Sure, the strains on the Jennings' relationship are unique to their deep-undercover work, but it's still a story of two people watching their relationship begin to fray and unravel. Sometimes they fight it, sometimes they accept it. But it all feels like the sort of woes that people my age saw in our own parents in 1981.
So that gives weight and purpose to the twisty spy story. They are harking back to the classic genre-TV structure, with a "<x> of the week" for each episode and then a larger story arc taking place. This plotting is flat-out masterful. The initial episodes set up a tight net of people who all have to lie to each other -- an FBI agent moves in across the street from the spies, and then turns an agent at the local Russian embassy, while Philip seduces a secretary in the counterintelligence unit -- and then gradually ratchets up the pressure.
By the time the cat-and-mouse games develop a body count, the show is absolutely riveting. They have mastered two important plot tricks: (1) making both sides steadily escalate their actions, motivated by simple revenge; and (2) having both sides misinterpret intelligence and make wrong choices. Everybody has sparse data available, and given a minimal set of facts, everybody almost always draws the wrong -- the worst -- conclusion, and takes the wrong -- the worst -- subsequent action.
In the end, Deutschland 83 might matter more to me -- the world it depicts is more expansive, the story feels more real, and the characters' choices seem even more agonizing -- but The Americans is far and away the more *entertaining* show. The mission-of-the-week storylines on The Americans are like catnip, the performances -- good christ, I haven't even mentioned the performances, because I rarely have anything useful to say about great acting beyond "it's good" -- are riveting, and it constructs its stories with a precision I associate with LOST on a good day.
Both shows are absolutely worth your valuable time.
For next week: I'm watching season one of Jane the Virgin and reading If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, Alan Alda's memoir about his unexpected second career with the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook.