Being a TV writer who’d formerly trained as a CIA operative, Joe Weisberg was the obvious choice to bring this tale of Soviet spies in suburbia to our screens.
Joe Weisberg was working on sci-fi show Falling Skies in Los Angeles in October 2010 when he heard that the FBI had arrested a group of Russian intelligence service spies posing as Americans. The next thing he knew his phone was ringing.
“The two heads of DreamWorks television called me,” said Weisberg, who is in the rare position of being a TV executive that has also trained as a CIA operative. “They knew I’d been in the CIA and that I’d produced and written a previous TV pilot with them, based on the CIA station in Bulgaria. When those illegals were arrested, they asked me if I’d be interested in basing a show on it. That was the genesis of this story.”
The show is The Americans, a nail-biting depiction of 1981 cold-war Washington that’s the most talked-about drama on US television this year. The story centres on a seemingly upstanding couple (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) who live in the suburbs of Washington DC, with their two beautiful children. The only complication? These Americans are actually Soviets.
The show has been such a smash hit that it was renewed for a second season at an unheard-of speed. Fans have been calling it the new Homeland, and – as with Homeland – The Americans has us rooting for the antiheroes. The FBI is the enemy here, it seems. But, of course, nothing is quite that simple, and there are twists throughout its 13 episodes.
When Weisberg began writing The Americans, the Soviet Union was long gone, but the moles had stayed. They’d proved to be so useful that Russian intelligence services kept using them even after the cold war was over. Weisberg began his research here, looking at the lifestyles of the 10 agents who were arrested as part of what was known as the Illegals Program in 2010, among them the glamorous (but supposedly ineffectual) Anna Chapman. But he decided to go back in time, to the period when sleeper agents were useful during the 1980s arms race.
Rhys and Russell play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, independent operatives who were sent to the United States as young “married” agents. By the time the story begins they have been in place for well over 10 years and have two children aged 13 and 10. The show depicts their domestic life, as well as the usual parked car and park bench meetings fans of cold war spy stories are used to.
“The difference between the Jennings and regular Russian intelligence workers is that they don’t work out of an embassy or anything like that,” explains Weisberg. “They have much better, deeper cover and therefore they’ve the potential to be much more dangerous and effective.”
Unlike their real-life counterparts, who, at that time, took up jobs with defence contractors or military research companies, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings run a small travel agency (the in-joke being that travel services are a common cover for American CIA operatives). In another departure from the mostly mundane activities performed by real-life agents, the Jennings are cold-blooded killers.
The show begins with a night-time chase set to the soundtrack of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. This is the kind of detail that American viewers have appreciated. They wonder what brand of jeans Keri Russell’s character would have worn, whether the Pac Man shown is authentic, even if the phrase “hit the pause button” was said back then (it was).
“The period stuff is very important,” says Joel Fields, who executive produces the show with Weisberg. “We both grew up in that period. It’s been a challenge to find a style for the show without it looking overly stylised.”
Everyone connected to the production has found the research compelling, including its male star Matthew Rhys, whose character has fallen in love with the country he is “at war” with. “Philip becomes slightly intoxicated with the more materialistic elements of the US,” says Rhys. “The Soviet Union he would have grown up in was an incredibly bleak and stark place. It kind of fed into the justification of why he loves America so much.” Watch Philip’s face as he sings The Star Spangled Banner at his son’s school in an early episode, and you’ll get a sense of the conflict Rhys is aiming to convey: “It’s an actor’s dream, because you’re playing parts within parts.”
The true star of the show, however, is Keri Russell, formerly known to audiences as Felicity in the JJ Abrams series of the same name, but now portraying a woman who is both beautiful and ruthless. “What interests me about her is the fact that, in a relationship, she is the one who is least likely to cry,” says Russell. “In contrast to a lot of things I’ve done in the past, it feels so relaxing to not have to be charming.” Russell even jokes that she wishes she were more like her character in real life. “Her objectives are very clear. To me, she feels very honourable. Her right thing may be very different to other people’s right thing, but that is what she believes in.”
Some critics in the States have complained that Russell’s character swings too drastically from femme fatale to domestic goddess, seducing then betraying her targets, only to return home in time for dinner. But that is exactly why she makes a good double agent. In The Americans, it’s the juxtaposition of murder and treason with the trivia of daily life that creates the dramatic tension. Sandwiches are made, kids go to school, laundry is washed and folded. Like Homeland, it’s the surface normality that slowly draws you in. Yet nothing is quite what it seems and no one can be trusted.
Those sandwiches can kill.
The Americans starts Saturday 1 Jun in the UK, 10pm, ITV