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FX’s 1980s Spy Drama ‘The Americans’ Asks Audiences to Root for the Enemy

FX's 1980s Spy Drama 'The Americans' Asks Audiences to Root for the Enemy

Premiering on January 30, FX’s new show “The Americans” is part spy series and part domestic drama, set during the Cold War and starring Keri Russell (coming off “Running Wilde”) and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a seemingly normal suburban Washington D.C. couple in 1981 who are actually deep-cover KGB spies, a fact their two very American children know nothing about.

“The Americans” is executive produced by “Justified” creator Graham Yost, who made an appearance at the TCA Winter Press Tour to discuss the show with Russell, Rhys, executive producer Joel Fields and creator and executive producer Joe Weisberg, a former CIA officer.

Weisberg stressed that the series is as much about a relationship as it is about espionage: “It’s going to have a lot of ups and downs like most of the marriages that we’re all familiar with.” Fields added that “it’s a show about marriage, and the marriage is an allegory for the international relations. It’s a show about international relations, and the international relations are an allegory for marriage. So you kind of root for where you are, we hope, emotionally in the scenes.”

That will sometimes mean cheering for people actively trying to undermine the U.S. goverment. “Although it might be a little bit difficult to believe and get used to, we want you to root for the KGB,” said Weisberg, while Fields said, “there’s an FBI side of the story that’s told that when you’re with them, the hope is you’ll root for them too.”

Weisberg agreed that the three decades remove is what’s helpful in making the lead characters sympathetic. “If you tried to tell a story like this about al Qaeda now, it would be completely impossible. Nobody would be prepared to hear it. I think it would have been the same way about the Soviets or the KGB even 10 years after the Cold War. They had and still have a lot of nuclear weapons pointed towards us and felt during the Cold War like they maybe were ready to kill all of us. Nobody wanted to try to relate to the enemy, but I think enough time has passed now that people are willing to look into their hearts and see them as people we can understand.”

Rhys and Russell’s characters are based on real sleeper agents who worked in the U.S. from the 1930s on, who lived in the country posing as Americans. Russell’s is the more devoted of the pair, while Rhys’ has started to soften to the American way of life and to consider defecting. Addressing the way that Elizabeth’s point of view in particular allows and demands a certain critique of Western standards, Fields explained that “there really were these two very competing value systems, and there’s no question that repressive socialism failed in the Soviet Union. It failed in the Cold War, and it’s also failed around the world. But unbridled consumption hasn’t necessarily led to great satisfaction on the part of hordes and hordes of people. Part of what we’ve been struggling with is how do we express that dramatically through these characters.”

One of Weisberg’s other inspirations for the series was the way CIA officers have to keep what they do secret from their children until they decide they’re old and responsible enough to be trusted. “Every CIA family has this. They have the big day, a family meeting, and they tell the kid, listen, we’ve kept this from you your whole life. This is a 14- or a 15-year-old. But we need you to know now that we actually work for the CIA. And then the kid is like ppppppf, their head explodes.

“Sometimes those kids are fine and sometimes their life is a mess based on these big lies. I always thought that was incredibly powerful, and it made me want to tell a story about a family and parents where the kids don’t know what they’re doing and the effect that that has on family.” Beyond his knowledge of tradecraft, he said, “that’s really the main thing that I brought over from my experience into this story for these parents and their kids.”

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