"The Americans" Art and the Art of the Deep Dive
I'm consumed by this final season of FX’s “The Americans." It reminds me of the agonizingly tense end run of “The Shield” (which still, in my mind, holds the trophy for the greatest TV finale ever). In both shows, it feels like the entire run has been building to a last inevitable act, as opposed to just winging it until it got tired: I simultaneously want the show to hurry up and show me how it all ends, and to never end. Arrrgh, the TV agony!
Now that I’ve established my “Americans”-fan bona fides, I can use it as a micro case study: I use it out of love.
Five days before this season’s premiere, the New York Times ran a feature on the artist Alyssa Monks, who is the ghost-painter for the final season's new artist character, Erica, played by Miriam Shor. The wife of a nuclear arms negotiator, Erica's dying from cancer, and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) is posing as her health aide to spy on Erica's husband. The Times article was an informative look at Monks and her art, which was selected not just for how it felt at home in the ‘80s, but because her dramatic paintings would work with the Elizabeth/Erica arc they had planned.
I read the piece when it originally came out and enjoyed it, but I found myself searching it out again later, after I was a few episodes into the season: As a viewer, the story had much more resonance when I already knew the character and her art; it fed an existing curiosity.
This underlines two important points:
1. Encourage your viewers' interest during the season, because it only deepens their obsession. The Times feature was definitely a good press get for FX: It could bring in a new audience, or remind one that had drifted away from the show that they should return. But a video on Monks' work and how it got incorporated into the plot would also make a great subject for a midseason video, when fans have more context and will more deeply appreciate close-ups of the art that they have been seeing in the background. It's not just set design trivia: "The Americans" is the kind of prestige drama where viewers study everything, and Erica and her art was an intriguing addition. Midway through the season, Monks and the showrunners could speak to the paintings in a less spoiler-phobically way, describing their specific resonance to aired Erica scenes.
2. Just because something's been written about doesn't mean you can't do it again later. Covering these aspects of your shows or movies isn't an either/or thing; there's no reason you can't pitch a lead-up press feature and revisit the topic midseasonin a more fan-pointed way. At that point your audience either has forgotten the Times article, missed it when it came out, or will appreciate a deeper look free of dancing around spoilers.
The Times writer observed a scene where Monks came to set to draw a charcoal sketch of a sleeping Elizabeth while Shor sketch-synced, aping the techniques Monks had taught her.
[S]he knew she shouldn’t make the drawing too perfect. She was drawing as Erica, after all. “There will have to be some jagged moments where she’s seizing with pain,” Ms. Monks reasoned. “I imagine the charcoal would break”…. Once she’d taken a photo of a sleeping Ms. Russell, Ms. Monks went back to her table, covering the paper with charcoal, then using an eraser to pull out lines and shadows and shapes. “Bloody hell, that’s fast,” the director Chris Long said.
When I watched this scene as it aired on FX, I (who had read but forgotten about the Times article) found myself wondering whose hands were actually doing the sketch onscreen. I’d have been thrilled to then check my social feeds and find rough behind-the-scenes video of Monks madly sketching off camera, giving commentary while Shor fake-drew on set. I don’t need anything fancy: A PA could have unobtrusively shot it with his or her phone. But it would have made for a fascinating you-are-there dive into the show. Because for an insatiable fan like me, there's no such thing as too much background.
And now I go back to counting down the minutes until the finale. Hey, FX, how about a comedic "Beverly Hills Buntz"-esque spinoff about Martha's life in Moscow? You already have the precocious kid in place! Working title: "Flying Without a Nyet." (Alternate title: "Rose-Colored Glasnost.") If you're up for it, you know how to reach me!