Beware of darkness.
And not because it’s scary, but because you can’t see anything. Not to sound like an old guy complaining about light-deprived cinematography because of failing eyesight (let me assure you -- my eyesight is fine), but I just watched the first two episodes of the new upcoming fourth season of “The Americans” on FX, and so many scenes were shrouded in darkness that I might as well have been listening to the radio.
On one level, the darkness is understandable. “The Americans” is about a pair of married Soviet spies (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) embedded in suburban Washington in the 1980s and masquerading as ordinary Americans. Ergo, the cloak-and-dagger spy stuff they do is invariably undertaken in the dark, most frequently at night.
This must present a hardship for the makers of this show because it means many scenes are shot in low or seemingly nonexistent light, which in turn presents a challenge for a viewer. I watched the two episodes on a PC screen in a room with the lights out and the window shades down, and in scene after scene I had trouble making out what was happening. Maybe other viewers will fare better, depending on their own surroundings.
It’s possible this is the first time I have ever written on this particular issue in any of the thousands of columns and stories I have written about television over the years. But I have long found the impenetrable darkness of some TV shows to be irksome, although I have no idea whether anyone else feels the same way -- or indeed, ever even thought about it.
The dimly lit, hard-to-watch scenes in “The Americans” are unfortunate because they mar a viewing experience that, for the most part, has been richly rewarding for three seasons and -- again, for the most part -- continues to be so in Season Four.
This is fertile territory for a dramatic TV series -- the final decade of the Cold War and the covert chess game played by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in and around the District of Columbia. As much as anything else, “The Americans” is a show about secrets and the stress of keeping them, particularly when they pile up and some secrets come into conflict with others.
In the current TV era, some of the best dramas have dealt with this very same subject -- from “The Sopranos” to “Dexter.” In “The Americans,” the juggling act is particularly complicated. Last season, the married spies, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, felt compelled to reveal their true identities to their teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), an act that in Season Four begins to emerge as a terrible miscalculation.
Like “The Sopranos,” murder is often the only way to maintain certain secrets in “The Americans.” Over three seasons, Philip in particular has been responsible for at least as many corpses as Tony Soprano was. And in Season Four, Philip is beginning to have misgivings about the direction his life has taken -- and yet his murderous ways continue.
In the new season as in past seasons, the central question in “The Americans” is how this couple will continue to keep it all together. As the fourth season gets underway, they are dealing with a veteran “handler” (Frank Langella) who is beginning to question their abilities, and a local pastor to whom Paige has unfortunately confided their parents’ secret. And there’s still the FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) who lives across the street and who now suspects Philip is having an affair with his wife.
Film scholars have often credited Alfred Hitchcock with harboring a preference for staging suspense sequences in broad daylight rather than down dark alleys at nighttime. “North by Northwest” -- with scenes such as the famous crop-duster sequence filmed in harsh sunlight in the middle of nowhere, for example -- is usually presented as Exhibit A in this interpretation of Hitchcock’s methods.
Whether or not Hitchcock ever came out and stated this preference for light over dark I do not know. But I do know that scenes filmed with light are certainly easier to watch than dark ones. They might even be more suspenseful too. The Cold War was undoubtedly a dark time, but in future episodes of “The Americans,” I’d like to be able to see more of it.
“The Americans” returns for its fourth season on Wednesday (March 16) at 10 p.m. Eastern on FX.