Mar 08 2013
The chief problem (or ‘bitch’ or complaint) with the ‘slow burn’ television program isn’t that nothing happens; rather, it’s that nothing happens fast enough. Now, despite what people (or critics or pundits) will tell you, that’s a legitimate complaint. The chief expectation of any television show – so far as any audience is concerned – is that it should keep one’s interest; if it doesn’t, turn it off, for God’s sake, and do us all a favor. Pacing should be a chief consideration when plotting out story arcs over the short and long haul.
But for those of us willing to make an investment in a program … for those of us willing to look the other way conditionally … for those us looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow … then the rewards can be thrilling. Phenomenal. Earth-shaking.
It’s difficult to critique a ‘slow burn’ TV show because of the nature of the program. Generally, more questions are raised than ever get answered in a single episode, so analyzing the message or even the performances can be tricky because we don’t have the whole picture. We haven’t been treated to a full meal. Still, we make a go of it, keeping our fingers crossed behind our backs, hoping we haven’t made fools of ourselves or our faithful readers.
Two such programs on the boob tube today are coming at you compliments of Fox: FX is presently airing The Americans – a period piece set in the early 1980’s about a pair of Soviet spies doing their part to wage the Cold War – while its prime time counterpart is investigating The Following – a serial about serial killer Joe Carroll being psychologically pursued by former FBI agent Ryan Hardy. Both such programs heavily rely on the ‘slow burn’ to make their case to audience, but both go about it in uniquely different ways.
The Americans stars comely Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, a husband & wife spy team set in place by the (former) Soviet Union. To some, their mission might appear somewhat nebulous – a format friendly to a weekly TV show – but that’s the biggest, darkest secret behind legitimate spy work. The day-to-day life of a spy deep behind enemy lines is largely an awful lot of mundane work – create a persona, fit into the established culture, and report back on various mission objectives – so, to its credit, The Americans does reflect a real-world scenario with some modest Hollywood tinkering to amp up the sex and violence. However, with each episode it appears clear that the ‘slow burn’ of the program is going to be a chess game not only between this married pair but also some FBI agents tasked with uncovering domestic agents.
Where FX plays with this formula is that the show’s creators are experiencing some typical and not-too-typical marital strife. There are questions of fidelity. There are suggestions of incompatibility. There’s even the makings for possible defection that dog their relationship at every turn. It may not be considered ‘genius,’ but, at least, I think it’s inspired as it gives the actors yet one more layer to play with, to keep it interesting for the folks watching.
The Following stars Kevin Bacon as former FBI agent-turned-author Ryan Hardy. He’s drawn back into active service when the subject of his previous book – Joe Carroll (played by the reliable James Purefoy) – begins a new campaign of terror from behind bars. It seems that Carroll has been busying himself from prison in amassing a certain ‘following’ of admirers willing to do his dirty work while he manufactures one crisis after another. Obviously, the ‘slow burn’ of any detective or police procedural is the traditional ‘race against time’ to stop evil from being carried out. By using a format not all that dissimilar from Fox’s previous Monday night actioner – the stellar 24 – the show’s creators test the limits of an audience’s adrenaline.
Where Fox plays with this formula is that not only are the program’s leads – Carroll and Hardy – explored via flashbacks that lend weight to current events, but also they’ve started exploring secondary characters and the events that have made them into who they are for these stories. It’s markedly similar to what ABC’s Lost program did with their first few seasons: they’d spotlight one character in present TV time, and then they’d sprinkle a handful of flashbacks about that character’s past history in order to spotlight why he (or she) does what he does in the present.
Despite their differences in execution, both programs clearly are telling stories whose destinations are intended to be somewhere down the road. While The Following appears more heavily designed for mass consumption, The Americans occasionally smacks of FX’s predilection for stories with greater narrative impact. Still, both run the risk of alienating viewers with their respective formats, but I’d argue that it all boils down to the same diagnosis: too little relevant information in too little time.
I’m not harping on either program. So far as I’m concerned, they’re both quality shows with some talented casts. Were I the showrunner on The Following, I probably would’ve switched Bacon and Purefoy into the other’s roles because I think it would’ve been more interesting to see Bacon play the killer and Purefoy play the romantic lead, but that’s a small quibble. Were I the showrunner on The Americans, I probably would’ve come up with a career choice for the married couple – they’re both travel agents – that actually warranted their being away from the house for so long a time (they’ve been given two kids who seemingly take care of themselves constantly). Again, a small quibble, but real, nonetheless.
I’ll hang with them so long as they continue their slow burn and the fire looks inviting.
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