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Sleeper Agent With new spy drama The Americans, FX again shows it’s unafraid to take risks to make quality TV

Craft services appears to have closed for business, but Keri Russell would very much like something to nibble on if it wouldn’t be an imposition on the people packing away the last of the chips, cookies and crackers. This is not a diva trip—if anything, the petite actress somehow appears to make herself physically smaller as she asks to forage around in the snack bin.

The sun is setting on the second day of the new year, and Russell has just spent the better part of the last three hours filming a pivotal scene for the new FX series, The Americans (Jan. 30, 10 p.m.). It’s a long, rather tricky passage—there’s a good deal of futzing with an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, and some of the lines seem a bit more knotty than they absolutely need be—and so Russell and her co-star, Matthew Rhys, had run into a few rough patches earlier in the afternoon.

Having secured a small bag of pretzels (“I promise not to munch too loudly into your tape recorder”), Russell’s discernible self-possession is offset by a disarming tendency to punctuate her sentences with one of the few words you still can’t say on basic cable. Joking about how long it took to nail the scene, she refuses to make any excuses for the delay.

“If I would have known my lines, I would have talked to you sooner. But I did not, as you saw!” she laughs. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, that scene! Good riddance, that scene! Never again!”

The Americans marks Russell’s first starring role on the tube since she became a pop-culture phenomenon as the lead of the WB’s Felicity (1998-2002). Set in 1981, the show focuses on a sleeper cell of married KGB agents (Russell and Rhys) posing as regular folks in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The tension between Russell’s character, the fully indoctrinated spy Elizabeth Jennings, and Rhys’ more ambivalent Philip Jennings, ratchets up almost unbearably as their mutual attraction is increasingly at odds with the demands of the KGB and the dissonance between their respective ideologies.

The Jennings’ partnership is the nougaty center at the heart of the rich confection that is The Americans, and the balance between the domestic drama and the requisite trappings of espionage make the show the must-watch new midseason series.

“Look, I actually love spy stuff, but the interesting thing to me and the reason I said yes to the show was that marriage,” Russell says. “I was just drawn to this idea of a relationship that’s tested by extreme circumstances—I mean, they’re in this arranged marriage and having sex with other people and their job calls on them to do these really hateful things—and yet, over time, they come to choose each other. The trick is to get you to believe in them, and like them.”

Будь у него желание…

Were he so inclined, John Landgraf probably would make for a pretty nifty spy. While he wears his intelligence lightly, the president and general manager of FX Networks is almost dauntingly articulate, like the cool semiotics professor who deconstructed the diet pills episode of Family Ties to illustrate the inherent fallacy of the War on Drugs.

Given the disparity between the series he’s shepherded as the head of FX—from the head-stomping brio of the outlaw biker drama Sons of Anarchy to the existentialist squirmathon that is Louie, the network tends to spelunk its way through the darker side of the human experience—one may well imagine that the soft-spoken Landgraf has been operating under deep cover for the better part of a decade. While every show on the net bears his imprimatur, it’s often difficult to square the cerebral exec with some of the merrily antisocial content that’s been rolled out on his watch.

In a sense, The Americans represents the purest expression of FX’s guiding principle, which as Landgraf characterizes it, is “to make shows that appeal to the lizard brain as well as the frontal cortex.” As Landgraf notes, that sort of duality is central to the series. “What interested me was the interplay in narrative tension inherent in an espionage franchise and the thematic and emotional tensions that come with this very unique family dynamic,” he says. “After 15 years of living here, Philip is really as much of an American as he is a Soviet citizen while Elizabeth remains a loyal soldier. And as they work out their respective positions, they begin playing a dangerous game with their KGB handlers.”

(Incidentally, it’s worth noting here that Landgraf has a tendency to speak exactly as he does in the preceding paragraph—in full, grammatically correct sentences that arrive perfectly punctuated. As one rival network chief puts it, “That guy is a goddamn genius.”)

Genius or not, Landgraf makes profoundly engaging and profitable TV. Among the series that have debuted since he took the reins from Peter Liguori in 2005 include the dramas Sons of Anarchy, Justified and American Horror Story, and the comedies Louie, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League and Archer.

The balance of homegrown programming, along with a slate of acquired theatrical titles and an expanding sports roster, have helped make FX one of the biggest earners in the cable universe. Per the most recent SNL Kagan estimates, FX in 2012 netted $503.2 million in ad revenue, making it the fourth-biggest earner in its competitive set.

Despite a general softening that undermined the TV ad market in Q4 2012, it’s impossible to understate how much FX has grown under Landgraf. Per the CAB, FX has increased its ad revenue by 87 percent since 2006, his first full year at the tiller.

In that same span, FX’s affiliate revenue has jumped from 35 cents per subscriber per month to 48 cents—nearly double the industry average. With some 98.2 million subscribers, the network took in around $565.6 million in carriage fees, a near-perfect balance of its dual revenue streams.

Joe Weisberg, the creator of The Americans, says he’s been working closely with Landgraf since FX picked up his pilot script two years ago. “John and his team have been an integral part of the development of the show,” says Weisberg, who also serves as an executive producer and writer. “It’s been a very close and fruitful collaboration.”

Not only does Weisberg receive notes from the network boss, but he also gets input from an even higher power. A former CIA operative, Weisberg must submit his scripts to the agency’s Publications Review Board, which vets its former employee’s manuscripts for classified material. “When I joined the CIA, one of the conditions of employment was that I had to sign a secrecy agreement,” he recalls. “In other words, I have a contractual obligation where anything I write that has to do with intelligence matters is subject to review.”

Weisberg says that while the CIA hasn’t studded his scripts with a bunch of redaction bars, production on The Americans was literally blacked out in late October when Hurricane Sandy slammed into the New York area. “We lost our production office pretty much entirely, and we’re still not back in it,” Weisberg says, adding that the nearby Gowanus Canal, the snot-green Superfund site that oozes past The Americans’ Brooklyn HQ, had breached its banks. “We’ve effectively been working out of a temporary office since Sandy hit. Most of the sets were damaged and had to be rebuilt.”

он предельно сосредоточен…

Matthew Rhys’ face is a study in concentration. The Wales-born actor has snagged his tongue on the word “escalate,” and with every successive take you can sort of see him anticipating the lexical hurdle. On take four, he breezes past the trigger word, but then in a sprint to get to the end of the line he inverts another pair.

Like actual spouses, the actors are tremendously supportive of one another, apologizing effusively after every misstep. In the last take before they nail the scene, Rhys just blanks on a section of dialogue and grabs his head. Russell moves forward to embrace him and he blurts, “No! No hugs!” It’s as if he’s trying to stay in character while also suggesting that he doesn’t deserve her charity.

Then, as if fortified by a bracing shot of Stolichnaya, the two performers eat the scene alive. As they deliver lines and hit their marks, they also become more expressive and fluid in their movements. By the time Philip bounds up the stairs after laying down the law (“We’re doing things my way, for once! And you’ll live with it.”), everyone on the set recognizes that this is the take they’ve been waiting for. Now all that’s left to do is shoot coverage. “Good, because it ain’t going to get any better than that,” Rhys jokes.

As the crew adjusts the lighting for a posterior shot—producer Adam Arkin cracks that if any of footage of Russell’s denim-clad keister makes it into the final cut, “sales of Lee jeans are going to go through the roof”—Rhys talks about Philip’s desire to transform himself into a red-blooded American.

“Compared to the Russia he grew up in, the America he is living in now is a pretty great place,” Rhys explains. “So couple that with the fact that there’s an opportunity to ensure that his family’s safe while making a lot of money, it’s pretty much a logical journey for him.”

Best known for his role as Kevin Walker on ABC’s Brothers and Sisters, Rhys says the cable model allows him to pursue theatrical and film roles. “You know, cable really is the ideal,” he says. “You shoot for six months or whatever, and in terms of storytelling, you also have a greater amount of freedom.”

And while Rhys is uncanny in The Americans, slipping in and out of his various disguises like some sort of caviar-devouring chameleon, he’d probably make a lousy real-life spy. For one thing, he’s a terrible liar.

“You know, I’m actually not from the U.K. I’m from Indianapolis, but I’m just pretending to be a British actor so I can get work here,” he jokes, before heading back to the set. The hint of Welsh in his voice gives him away.

Он не хочет говорить об этом…

Much as Landgraf et al would rather avoid talking about Homeland—after all, Weisberg’s pilot script was in the works long before Showtime premiered its paranoid valentine to espionage—the success of the premium-cable series could work in FX’s favor.

“Homeland is one of those shows that everyone always talks about, but you can’t really put any dollars into it,” says one national TV buyer. “The Americans looks like a pretty impressive alternative, and for clients that gravitate toward the FX brand, this is a show that should draw a much more balanced male-female mix.”

While Landgraf cautions that it may take a number of weeks before The Americans settles in, there’s no question the Wednesday 10 p.m. slot is ripe for the picking. NBC’s freshman drama Chicago Fire is averaging a meager 1.8 in the 18-49 demo while ABC’s Nashville is doing a 2.0. And while CSI remains a formidable reach vehicle on CBS, its median age (56 years) is a bit longer in the tooth than the mid-40s crowd expected to sample The Americans.

And then there’s the matter of unit cost. Per buyer estimates, the cheapest 30-second spot in the time slot is Chicago Fire, as clients who invested in the show during the upfront spent an average $60,000 a pop. With an asking price in the low $50,000 range, The Americans could be a hell of a bargain.

Landgraf declined to predict the ratings, saying only that he hopes viewers find The Americans to be “an exciting, suspenseful show and a smart, emotionally fulfilling show.” He believes the show will draw a solid complement of husband-and-wife viewers.

Having lived through the weird media freak out over Felicity’s haircut, Russell is even more pragmatic. “Look, you never know. It has a lot of potential, and I’m really excited about the show,” she says. “I mean, it has a lot of things going for it…we’ll see.”