Two top shows to tell you about today. One is a returning show tonight, and the other is a new and perplexing series starting Thursday. Pay close attention, now.
Let's start with this – Afghanistan. The mess of it, the mire of brutality; and all of us, the triumphalist Americans or the well-meaning Canadians, and others too, traumatized by it. A bullet to the head. We didn't sign up for that.
And we need to note that before us, forgotten now in the blur of chaotic current affairs, the Russians were there. Mired in it. The USSR. A short tank ride in the Hindu Kush turning into years of fear and loathing. The countless dead, the trauma of a national morale battered. A bullet to the head.
There's a scene in the first episode of the new season of The Americans (FX Canada, 10 p.m.) that takes you back, shockingly, to that. If you're old enough to remember the 1980s not merely as a playlist of cool pop songs, it will be a sharp reminder. Some people are sitting in the Soviet Embassy in Washington in the early 1980s. They watch a video of two Russian hostages being shot, a bullet to the heart, by Afghans. One character tells the others that this video's being used to recruit anti-Russian fighters in the Middle East.
It might as well be now. We might as well be talking about the Islamic State, Syria and the recruiting of angry young men to fight in a distant war unfolding before us. It's the Russians who are troubled, though, not us.
The Americans is back for a third season. And it grows more complex, intriguing and entertaining with each batch of new episodes. It is still anchored in an arresting concept – it's the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan is the new president of the United States. And in Washington we find Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), a very middle-class couple with two kids. They apparently own a travel agency and work long hours. But as we know now, they are KGB spies. They kill for their Soviet masters.
The Americans becomes glorious as drama. Elizabeth, the tough one, fiercely loyal to the Soviet Union, is trying to extract a key list from the CIA about the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It matters. The Russians are being pounded there. Along the way, an odd thing happens, something that's sweetly ironic if you have followed U.S. TV over the past few decades. At the FBI, there's an agent played by Richard Thomas, best known, still, for his role in The Waltons. Russell, of course, played the iconic Gen-X undergraduate in Felicity. Here you get to see Felicity stomp on John-Boy Walton.
But it is more than a pastiche, this series. It has the great gift of being a thriller and deeply serious. It's bracing to be reminded how the Russians might feel about things. And there is action, sex, violence and, eventually, a seriously creepy journey into the manipulation of teenagers. This is superb storytelling; both art and a blistering cautionary tale. What we get is war on the human and grand scale. A terrible but thrilling sadness pervades it.
Fortitude (Thursday, Super Channel, 9 p.m.) is deep, dense, slow-moving and as serious as all get-out. Made by Sky in Britain, it's an obvious attempt to offer viewers HBO-like drama. It's epic and has been much compared with Twin Peaks in advance publicity. That is, a strange and baffling murder takes place in a remote community, an outsider cop intervenes and things get very blurry. It's an Arctic murder mystery, which co-stars Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston and Call The Midwife's Jessica Raine, and clearly cost many millions to make. The setting is the town of Fortitude somewhere very north in Norway, a place of claustrophobic feuds but grand prospects. Something evil is, however, out there. And we're not talking the usual menu of hate, infidelity, corruption and violence.
Dark, literally, and imbued with a poisonous sense of rough sex and violence, it's a very British foray into this territory. It's good, no doubt, but it sure does move slowly. It takes about an hour before it livens up sharply, when Stanley Tucci, as the outsider cop, arrives in this remote, cold place. Stick with it and it bears fruit, although it can be annoyingly off-centre in its treatment of a very cold-weather environment.
Also airing Thursday
A TV Renaissance (Thursday, CBC 9 p.m. on Doc Zone) is about "the rise of TV as the most influential medium of the 20th century and how it's helped to shape our national identity." Well it touches on that and a great deal more. It features yours truly pontificating away about TV, and others too – Bill Carter of the New York Times and Chris Haddock, one of the our few TV auteurs. Since I'm involved I'll say no more.
I'm away for a few days. Stay tuned.