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The Americans, Kimmy Schmidt, and more: Spring TV's pricks of conscience

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FX; Netflix; AMC

In the twilight world of The Americans, the prick of conscience can be deadly. For more than a season, Nina Krilova (Annet Mahendru), a disgraced KGB agent, has been stuck behind the Iron Curtain doing perverse penance, using her powers of seduction to spy on comrades or manipulate them. Eventually, though, the degrading work wore her down, and recently, her latest mark, a captive physicist named Anton Baklanov, got the best of her by rousing the best in her: she tried to get a note to his family. For this crime of the heart, Nina was shot through the head. In her fate, I saw a chilly, bitter rejoinder to Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s feel-good, true-story film set in an earlier period of Cold War cloak-and-dagger. In the climax to that tale, Soviet spook Rudolph Abel (Oscar-winner Mark Rylance) stood defiantly with righteous wheeler-dealer James Donovan (Tom Hanks), heeding conscience instead of orders and helping Donovan broker the release of another American. Abel survived his failure and subversion. Russia framed him a hero and let him live out his days with his family — the happily-ever-after that Nina dreamed about in her final episode. If only she was back in the ’50s, and, probably, a man.

Nina’s tragedy shades the current drama threatening the show’s married antiheroes, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys), married KGB operatives undercover in Reagan-era America. They live in tension with their masters at The Center, mostly over how to groom their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), for spy life. They had been asked to submit to a plan that would have resulted in the execution of Pastor Tim, a mentor to Paige, who has become a born-again Christian. Last week, as Nina died for her sins in the KGB underworld, Elizabeth suffered through a negative reaction to a vaccine designed to immunize her against a toxic biological agent, a metaphor for her own moral turmoil and existential nausea. She emerged transformed from this dark night of the soul, joining Philip in declaring that they would not be party to a destructive act that would destroy their daughter and turn her against them, that they would find a better solution for the problem of Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin). Elizabeth’s blooming individualism — which is also informed by her new friendship/mission, Young-hee (Ruthie Ann Miles) — is stirring. But we remember Nina’s punishing exit* and we worry. Where will all this well-meaning free-thinking lead Team Jennings?

*Nina’s death came in the middle of a bleak stretch of Big Character Death on TV, most of them women. Lexa on The 100. Denise on The Walking Dead. Laurel on Arrow. Mimi and Camilla on Empire. Abbie on Sleepy Hollow. More. The bloodbath deserves separate analysis, but I do think Nina’s termination was necessary. Her arc had followed an organic path and had come to a dead end, the reality of the world justified and even required death instead of another choice, and the story was well-written and should produce meaningful consequences. (For a quality defense of this choice, I recommend Matt Zoller Seitz on the subject.)

“Chloramphenicol” concluded the first act of yet another terrific and apparently poorly watched of season The Americans. Maybe no one gives a hill of beans about tortured counter-culture lover-heroes trying to dismantle an evil empire … at least, when the lover-heroes are Commies and the evil empire is us. Seriously, I get how the show’s high concept irony is too much for some. But push through the sympathy-for-the-Red-devil surface and you see thoughtful if twisted pulp fiction about what it means to Red, White, and Blue right now. This season, I appreciate The Americans as an allegory about what it means to be a conscientious objector, in conflict with the institutions that govern them and define their worth. In fact, it’s one of several shows this spring that have engaged my mind and — and tickled my funny bone — by dramatizing how people respond to the pang of conscience (or don’t) and how we rationalize moral compromises and failings.

Exhibit A: FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which wrapped its sensational proceedings last week. One shot from the finale haunts me the most: Simpson standing on front of his mirror, half-naked, rolling his shoulder as if working out a kink, looking at his reflection, his heavy eyes looking back at him. Director Ryan Murphy found an image to express what we were all thinking. How can this man live with himself? How can he stand to be in his own skin, to look at himself in the mirror? This judgment was hammered home like a gavel when David Schwimmer’s Robert Kardashian — 2016’s most unexpected and poignant portrait of cultural idolatry, betrayed faith, and moral turmoil — mic-dropped a Bible on his old buddy and walked out on him.

It was heavy-handed image-making — that’s Ryan Murphy for you — but it was well-earned by the brilliantly written and acted season that preceded it. It also framed a final half hour, a succession of pained and flawed reflections. Most poignant was Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), who shared that she had been raped and how the experience motivated her to fight for women and justice. Most provocative was Johnny Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), who shed tears as he watched President Clinton effectively affirm his push to make the case about systemic racism, most notably in law enforcement. Most shameless was Robert Shapiro (John Travolta), who blamed Cochran for everything despicable about their defense. “Not only did we play the race card,” he told Barbara Walters, “we dealt it from the bottom of the deck.”

Together, these scenes finished out the show’s aspiration to present a Rashomon view of truth. Clark and Cochran’s perspectives in particular argued for the story’s relevancy. As I wrote in my original review: The People v. O.J. Simpson was basically a “creation myth” for contemporary culture. But those moments mean something else, too, something about how we manage and medicate failure and shame, how we reconcile actions that fall short of our principals. Clark may have been on the side of justice, but she was outmatched by a superior opponent. Cochran served his client with a vigorous defense, but he also played dirty. Shapiro might have been appalled by how Cochran executed the “race card” strategy, but (per the show) the hypocrite who authored it and planted it in the public consciousness. Like Simpson, all have to look at themselves in the mirror, too. Those scenes showed us their strategies for doing so, the stories they tell themselves about themselves.

TV’s fixation with the consequence of conscience will continue over the next week with the season finale of AMC’s Better Call Saul (more on that Monday) and the debut of two shows that couldn’t be more different, except for the fact that they are enormously entertaining. In AMC’s The Night Manager, an adaptation of the John le Carré thriller, Tom Hiddleston, best known for playing the villainous god of lies Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is Jonathan Pine, a disillusioned soldier turned vagabond hotel clerk trying to run away from this mad world, but can’t deny his moral compass wherever he goes. A tale of heroic reawakening, Pine’s night manager is an ironic anti-Bond and a different kind of dark knight that moves us away from the current obsession with superhero noir. 

Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, is ostensibly lighter than The Night Manager, but its real brilliance lies in being funny and subversive. Each episode is a burp gun of banter, punchlines and gags. Many aim for the head — and miss by sailing over it — but nail the funny bone, plus other delicate regions. The season 2 premiere, penned by Fey, finds the slightly dim sunshine optimist — still recovering from years of sheltered, warped, cult captivity — wrestling with moral relativism (or as she calls it: “moral relatives”) and competing desires for virtue and satisfaction. Taking aim at rom-coms that exonerate cheating or adultery if it’s in service of acquiring true love, Kimmy has to decide whether it’s right or wrong to chase her Korean GED study buddy flame, Dong (Ki Hong Lee), currently in a sham green-card marriage. “Am I the only person in this city who doesn’t do ‘whatevs, whenevs’?” she cries during a moment of weakness. “Well fudge that sugar! Fudge it to heck!”  The moral universe created by Fey and Carlock pushes back against Kimmy’s bid to break bad by going buggy. Literally. A plague of silverfish is involved.

Like two other self-aware series about conscience, Mr. Robot and Better Call Saul, Kimmy Schmidt presents pop culture as pernicious and unavoidable. In one recurring joke, everyone has the Kardashians on the brain — they’re a social disease, more infectious than the biological agent on The Americans — filling the noggin with noise and threatens to corrupt the speech and integrity of nearly everyone in the show. Kimmy models the steely character, common sense and basic decency — the conscience — needed to navigate the world wide wilderness; she’s our WWKD? good shepherd.

In the premiere, when she’s not wringing her hands over Dong, Kimmy ministers to her roomie, the delightfully flamboyant Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), prone to running away from conflict and responsibility … like, say, on the day of his coming out, which also happened to be the day of his wedding to best friend Vonda. Shouldn’t he feel terrible for abandoning her at the reception? He doesn’t think so. “Because in the movie I saw,” says Titus, “I was a hero scoring a victory for young runagays everywhere!” Kimmy sets him straight, so to speak. The show is pro-diversity and anti-bigotry and believes ardently in all that self-realization jazz. But it isn’t afraid to take issue with the “my truth” hero’s journey construct of identity creation and quibble with the notion that all’s fair in self-love and culture war.

There’s sweetness aplenty in season 2, too, and it’s a necessary balance to all the salt. But fudge the sugar! I love it when Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t spare the edge. The no-sacred-cows satire — and love-thy-neighbor heart — is set within a broader critique of a country that identifies itself as “Christian” (symbolized by Kimmy’s new job: working in a year-round Christmas decoration store) even as it routinely affirms that might, money, and celebrity make right. Portlandia’s Fred Armisen plays Bobby, an old, smothering beau to Lillian (Carol Kane); he’s actually a very clever parody of alleged murderer and self-sabotaging belcher Robert Durst, the Manhattan real estate scion who was the subject of last year’s extraordinary HBO docuseries, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. He spends the story pulling a suitcase — his baggage — behind him like a ball and chain, guilty conscience incarnate.

As the season progresses, Kimmy Schmidt continues to interrogate in wise and wild ways what it means to be a good person. The questioning pushes on some touchy areas of the American conscience. Fey and Carlock revisit — and further develop — season 1’s most controversial joke, the queasy comic premise that professional trophy wife and solipsistic narcissist Jane Voorhees (Jane Krakowski), blonde, blue-eyed, and white, is actually a self-hating Sioux. Implicit in the concept, and what becomes more apparent in this set of episode, is history, our country’s “manifest destiny” destruction, marginalization, and demeaning appropriation of Native American cultures. While Jacqueline sweats through an apocalyptic vision — a projection of her hollow self; a confrontation with her warped reflection, like O.J. looking in the mirror in the American Crime Story finale — a Washington Redskins logo beseeches her: “How is this still a thing?” At first, Jacqueline seems to respond by doubling down on her own self-made, morally bankrupt identity, but the second episode suggests she could be driven by a sense of responsibility to the past in addition to a whole lot selfishness. Is Jacqueline’s arc a metaphor for … reparations? Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt joshingly asks if all of us are merely self-absorbed, empathy-challenged “moral relatives” — and then follows it up with a dead-serious, “No, seriously, are we?” in the subtext. How do we respond? Ask your conscience.