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TV Quickshots #29

The Night Manager (BBC; 2016)

BBC’s handsome, intelligent adaptation of John le Carré’s 1993 novel of espionage and infiltration is, more than anything else, a showcase for its stars. le Carré’s original story delved into the interconnections between international arms dealers and global business as well as the internal politics of British intelligence agencies. This six-part miniseries, directed by Susanne Bier, updates its context to the present day, with invocations of Egypt’s Tahrir Square unrest and the Syrian refugee crisis. Floating in the gilded shadows and profiting off of all such political crises is “the worst man in the world”, Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), a Teflon-coated upper-crust Brit arms dealer. British intelligence bulldog Angela Burr (a pregnant, pugnacious Olivia Colman) has nipped at his heels for thenightmanageryears, but not only cannot catch him but can only fleetingly glimpse her quarry.

A golden opportunity to pin Roper to her board at last is presented to Burr in the form of Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), the titular night-shift luxury hotel manager. Crossing paths with Roper and his associates at first in Cairo with tragic consequences, Pine (who has military experience) later meets Roper again in Switzerland and begins a covert effort in concert with Burr and her agency, and gradually with Roper’s girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), to bring him to justice as payback for the events in Cairo.

If The Night Manager has any handicap, it’s made manifest in its latter stage. After convincingly establishing high stakes and the potential for considerable collateral damage, matters are resolved extremely neatly and positively. Repeated emphasis is placed on the danger of Pine’s situation and just how difficult his sting on Roper will be, but it turns out to be fairly easy in the end. The predatory corporations and corrupt institutions that Burr and Pine fight through in order to take down Roper.

Still, it’s an involving package, and Hiddleston, Colman, and Laurie are all great, the latter particularly so with his deceptively laddy tone concealing a deadly aristocratic cobra. Hiddleston’s turn as the hotel concierge-turned-spy has sparked James Bond casting chatter (not that Daniel Craig is relinquishing that role yet), but really it simply galvanizes what anyone watching this actor for years has long known: he’s ruthlessly proficient in his charm, cold and warm in equal measure (often, dazzlingly, at the same time), with a laugh-and-smile combo that could punch holes in a safe door. Watching him, alongside Laurie and Colman and Debicki and Tom Hollander (as Roper associate Corkoran), is worth the price of admission alone.

The Americans (FX; 2013 – Present)

A spy saga of much greater and more troubled ambiguity than le Carré has to offer (in The Night Manager, at least), The Americans is also less likely to conclude quite so neatly. Created by former CIA spook Joe Weisberg and set in early 1980s Washington D.C., its protagonists appear, on the surface, to be a standard all-American couple with two children but are, in fact, deep-cover Soviet KGB sleeper agents deeply involved in stealing U.S. secrets, turning American citizens into informers and double-agents, and even infiltration and assassination missions.

Much of the series is based on Weisberg’s CIA experiences as well as The_Americansthe revelations of the Illegals Program, but its masterful execution and tangled, wrought thematic complexity and destabilizing meanings trumps any lingering tone of insider rib-elbowing. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) pose as humbly comfortable and non-descript travel agents, raising the increasingly rebellious Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) as dutiful and loving if sometimes forbiddingly strict parents. Meanwhile, what they’re really doing is serving the Soviet Union and the cause of worldwide Communist revolution, employing secrets contacts, combat skills, coded communications protocols, a plethora of disguises, and even additional secret identities, like a matryoshka doll of deception and subterfuge. When a FBI counterintelligence agent named Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) moves in next door, Elizabeth and Philip see it less as a threat than as an opportunity, as do their fellow operatives at the Soviet embassy.

In a television landscape dotted with antihero figures, a couple of KGB sleeper agents who work to undermine American interests and frequently kill U.S. citizens must very nearly take the cake. On a deeper level, The Americans presents both poles of the Cold War with as much balance and fairness as possible, its storylines and dialogue and character arcs expressing as much sympathy for the ideological and human struggles of KGB agents as the conventional American heroes at the FBI. On an even deeper level, though (there’s that nesting doll effect), the show questions the basic ideological assumptions of the Cold War and personifies those unsettled assumptions in Elizabeth and Philip (both lead actors, who have been in a real-life relationship with each other since the first year of the show, are superb, but Russell especially entirely shifts our view of her as a performer very drastically and impressively). Ideologically fanatical Soviet agents who doggedly protect their children’s freedom and safety in American society, they are caught between two diametrically opposed sides in a wider geopolitical conflict, while also faced with the core problems of any family unit and the fundamental disconnect between politics and the personal. Combine these fruitful dramatic and thematic stakes with a bold willingness to go for the jugular when it comes to those stakes and you have one of the most compelling narratives in a crowded television drama milieu.

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