The new 1980s-set FX series stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as KGB agents posing as a married couple in the U.S., but here it’s the Soviets wearing the white hats.
On a bone-rattlingly cold winter morning, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are sitting in a Lincoln sedan the size of a small barge, adjusting Walkman-era fashion accouterments and whispering about the Reagan assassination attempt.
Russell and Rhys are not oddball nostalgists. The actors are shooting a scene for FX’s “The Americans,” a Cold War thriller set in the early 1980s that premieres Wednesday.
Created by former CIA officer Joseph Weisberg, the show stars Elizabeth (Russell) and Phillip (Rhys) as KGB agents who are sent to live in America, start a family and blend in as the all-American couple next door. The couple’s task is dangerous: They must feed information to the motherland while covering their tracks so that their neighbors — including a suspicious FBI agent — don’t catch wind of their Kremlin ties.
“Some of the younger people on set have been asking me ‘What was it like back then?'” Rhys said to a reporter between takes. “And I’m thinking ‘Back then?’ This wasn’t the 1800s. Lincoln wasn’t president. We had indoor plumbing.”
You can forgive the millennials their naivete. Thirty years since the Reagan administration and “The Day After”-like fears that went with it, the Cold War seems far removed from today’s concerns of Chinese economic dominance and Islamic radicalism.
On television, though, such fears don’t ever go away; they simply get rehabilitated for prime time. And so “The Americans” seeks to revisit them, playfully piecing together bits of Cold War entertainment (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “Mission: Impossible,” “No Way Out”).
Yet where most TV and film from that era blurred the line between the Cold War superpowers to up the dramatic stakes, “The Americans” turns the Soviets into the good guys to explore issues of identity and values.
“This is a show where the enemies are the heroes, with all the questions that come with that,” Weisberg said. “You couldn’t do that right after the Cold War. But you can do it 30 years later.”
Ready to serve
Weisberg didn’t set out to become a go-to Hollywood writer on covert affairs. Coming of age in Chicago during the late 1970s and early 1980s, he wanted to be in on the action. He bought the Reagan talk of evil empires and strategic defensive initiatives and, shortly after college, enlisted in the CIA.
Weisberg spent four years with the organization in the early 1990s, largely at its headquarters in Langley, Va., then left to write novels and freelance scripts inspired by his experiences. Now less of an ideologue, he mixes CIA recollections with the conventions of espionage thrillers.
The idea for “The Americans” came about because he thought it was time to address the personal costs of a career in espionage.
“One of the things that struck me about the CIA is that parents don’t tell the truth about what they’re doing to their kids,” he said. “It’s such a painful and difficult thing, but it’s the kind of thing that isn’t portrayed very much on screen.”
Though this has been a season of entertaining spies — “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Skyfall” have been ringing up movie-theater cash registers, while Showtime’s thriller “Homeland” has been on a serious awards streak — “The Americans” largely rode a separate track. The show was developed as a pilot before “Homeland” was even on the air and was green-lighted to series status a year ago when the Showtime program was a niche hit.
FX was looking for a series that would follow in the steps of Fox’s “24,” which aired for years on its sister network. Executives also wanted a show that would fit the mold of character-driven genre pieces such as “Sons of Anarchy” and “Justified.”
“The thing that interested me was the notion of a show about family and marriage and fidelity but in a very heightened context,” said FX chief John Landgraf. He and others felt “The Americans” was similar to “The Shield” (the dark hit that put the network on the map a decade ago), only with geopolitics instead of police-department corruption.
Perhaps the most difficult choice in crafting “The Americans,” creators say, was casting. Elizabeth’s character was more unadorned ideologically than Phillip and less attracted to an American way of life — “an icy automaton,” in the words of David Madden, president of lead production company Fox Television Studios — which required a friendly face to take the edge off. Enter Russell, who as the likable, soft-spoken star of the series “Felicity” and the 2007 movie “Waitress” would give viewers license to sympathize with a character bent on undermining the U.S.
Weisberg and co-creator Joel Fields also wanted the cast to capture the sense of paranoia that existed at that time, on both the Soviet and American sides. The period setting, they thought, could help.
“The thing that makes it so exciting to me is there was no technology,” Russell said. “If you wanted to find out what someone was up to, you had to drive by several times and leave a message under a rock.”
In creating that period detail, creators have avoided more garish touches; those expecting a “Mad Men”-style piece drenched in vintage flourishes might be disappointed. The fashions are of the ’80s but without the exaggerated colors or hairstyles of many shows set in the decade.
Back to 1981
As the director yells “Action,” Russell and Rhys get out of the Lincoln parked on a Queens street, then walk briskly up to the suburban home of a nurse they’d learned treated President Ronald Reagan after he was wounded in an assassination attempt. Their characters are trawling for information about the president’s condition — it wasn’t clear at that moment, to them or the world, that the Kremlin wasn’t behind it.
Assuming the guise of vice presidential aides, they coax the nurse to admit that Reagan is going to be OK. They then turn on their heels — she in 1980s-style pumps, he in a very Cold War-era trenchcoat — and head back to the car.
But for all the appeal of ’80s nostalgia, will today’s young viewers relate to a show that essentially examines the fears of their parents?
Weisberg said he sees echoes of the show in today’s headlines. Modern viewers, he said, can watch “The Americans” and understand how we got here.
“This is a show about the Cold War, which we did win, and what does it mean to be smack in the middle of another war that came right out of it,” he said.
But principals also say that the issues the show raises aren’t necessarily political.
“I see a lot of the spy issues as a metaphor for a marriage,” Russell, married with two children, said of her character “It sounds funny, but there are similarities to spy work, because you can never really know what your spouse is doing or who they’re talking to.”
Madden calls it “a show about trust. At a very personal level it’s about how two people can trust each other, and at a very global level it’s about whether two countries can trust each other.”
Those behind the show, which shoots in New York for Washington, D.C., say they hope that by drilling down into the two main characters and their relationship issues, it can avoid the obvious pitfall.
“The stakes of the show are not whether America will survive the Cold War,” Landgraf said. “We know it will. It’s whether these two people will survive the Cold War.”