The Amer­i­cans are coming

Cold War drama turns clock back to days when ‘East and West really were en­e­mies’

Ottawa Citizen - - ARTS & LIFE - ALEX STRA­CHAN

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.

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