The Americans are coming
Cold War drama turns clock back to days when ‘East and West really were enemies’
Premises can be tricky, titles even more so. Take The Americans, for example.
The producers of this slow-burning post-Cold War era drama about Soviet spies masquerading as ordinary, everyday American citizens clearly want viewers who appreciate Homeland to see The Americans in a similar light: a cerebral, adult character study of people with something to hide.
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a couple seemingly living the perfect life in 1980s suburban Washington, D.C.
Ronald Reagan is president. Reagan has dubbed the decade “Morning in America,” and behind the Iron Curtain, the last remaining pillars holding up the Soviet empire are starting to crack.
The Jennings were recruited as teenagers by the Soviet KGB. Posing as a married couple in a world of spies where not even spouses and their children may know their true identity, they’ve learned to assimilate perfectly with their neighbours in their new home in suburban Washington, D.C. No one suspects a thing.
Only now, with the Berlin Wall about to crumble and with a new era of glasnost starting to dawn, they’re having second thoughts about their lifelong assignment. They’re thinking of flipping but are aware that, if they do turn, they will never regain the life they’re living at the moment.
The Americans is the brainchild of former CIA intelligence analyst and novelist Joe Weisberg, together with writer Joel Field and Vancouver writer-producer Graham Yost, whose Justified has become a cornerstone for the FX cable channel’s growing stable of adult dramas.
The Americans makes its first appearance Wednesday on FX Canada, the same day and at the same time it makes its U.S. debut.
Whether viewers will embrace The Americans in the era of simple, easy-to-understand TV crowdpleasers like CSI and NCIS is an open book. Enough viewers latched onto Homeland to make that series a decent-sized hit by cable-TV standards, but AMC’s similarly themed Rubicon before it never found an audience, and was cancelled after just 13 episodes.
Weisberg believes that if The Americans does find an audience, as he hopes, it will be because of its innate authenticity — that, and an almost subliminal sense that this could be happening again today, right now, where sleeper cells representing antagonistic states and terrorist groups can embed themselves in everyday suburbia, away from prying eyes.
“From the ’30s really to, as it turns out, the present, the Soviets and Russian intelligence agencies ran what are called “illegals,” sleeper agents in the United States,” Weisberg said.
As a former analyst with the CIA, some of these agents fell under his watch. “They played an important role in penetrating the Manhattan Project and getting the plans for the atom bomb. We don’t know everything about what they did, but they were always out there.
“They were a little different from the characters in our show, in that they didn’t always speak perfect English without an accent, but they did live among us, posing as Americans. There weren’t a lot of them. We were never really sure, but we think 10, 20, 30 of them at a time lived in the United States.”
Weisberg said that setting The Americans in the present would have made it less exciting, from a TV-action point of view. He always thought it would work better toward the end of the Cold War era when tensions between the Soviet bloc and the West were never far from a flashpoint.
Weisberg says part of the inspiration for The Americans was that the story of what really happened has never been fully told.
“One of them, for example, we found out only recently was actually getting very close to someone who was in the president’s cabinet. Even with their limited access to the government at the start, they were kind of working their way into inner circles. I think that whole story hasn’t quite been told yet.”
Keri Russell plays Elizabeth Jennings and Matthew Rhys plays Philip Jennings, a Washington, D.C. couple working for the KGB in the 1980s.