In 2010, the Illegals Program was revealed in the United States. That was an investigation by the FBI uncovering and arresting ten Russian agents who had been living in the U.S. for years, posing as American citizens. As they went about their everyday lives they tried to obtain intelligence for Russia by making friends with academics, industrialists and lawmakers. They were subsequently part of a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Russia.
Thrilling stuff; no wonder that Joe Weisberg, the creator of The Americans, was inspired by it. Then again, he had plenty of material from his past to make The Americans a first-rate spy series.
Travel agents with a secret
Washington, D.C., early 1980s. Ronald Reagan has just settled into the White House and the leaders of the Soviet Union are not sure what to make of the hostile new American president. Somewhere in the suburbs live the Jennings, Philip and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell) and their two children, Paige and Henry (Holly Taylor, Keidrich Sellati). Philip and Elizabeth are travel agents, work that often has them on the road. What their kids, or their neighbor, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), don’t know is that the couple are in fact Soviet agents, placed in the country since the 1960s. As the Cold War rages between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Jennings are frequently sent on deadly missions, which they try to balance with the challenges of being ”normal Americans”…
Hesitating at first
The concept does indeed sound like a formulaic thriller series, along the lines of (the perfectly watchable) Alias. That’s one of the reasons why Emmerich hesitated to accept his role; he didn’t feel like playing another man with a ”gun and a badge”. But then he realized that this would be different. Weisberg always pointed out that this was foremost the story of a family and he remained true to that. When he was working as a CIA agent, he became fascinated with how many of the agency’s human assets stationed abroad lived normal lives with families while they were also collecting information for the CIA. Life as a spy often meant simply keeping up appearances as a normal citizen. That’s what he wanted to explore in a TV series, but from a Soviet perspective during one of the country’s most dramatic periods, the 1980s, when Reagan labeled it ”the evil empire”.
Apart from the fact that Philip and Elizabeth frequently ended up in affairs that required a lot of action (and a lot of killing) on their part, the show relied on realism as it explored their past and complicated emotions regarding the mission and how America differed from mother Russia. Part of the tension was obviously Stan’s constant presence and the fact that over the years Paige, growing into a teenager, became a dangerous part of the operation.
Russell and Rhys (who fell in love and married during the run of the show) were perfect in the leads, two very compelling but rather sad individuals, forever trapped in the dirty, bloody business that had shaped their lives; Elizabeth was always the true ideologue while Philip allowed himself to doubt. Emmerich was also terrific as clueless Stan. The show got a shot in the arm from two exceptionally gifted supporting actors, Margo Martindale and Frank Langella, who provided rich portraits of the Jennings’s KGB handlers in D.C.
Intelligent and exciting, the show also frequently used pop and rock music to set the tone. Two of my favorite scenes were brilliantly and meticulously directed to fit Fleetwood Mac’s ”Tusk” and Peter Schilling’s ”Major Tom (Coming Home)”. I will always think of The Americans when I hear them.
The Americans 2013-2018:U.S. Made for TV. 75 episodes. Color. Created by Joe Weisberg. Theme: Nathan Barr. Cast: Keri Russell (Elizabeth Jennings), Matthew Rhys (Philip Jennings), Noah Emmerich (Stan Beeman), Holly Taylor, Keidrich Sellati, Margo Martindale, Lev Gorn, Alison Wright (13-17), Susan Misner (13-16), Annet Mahendru (13-16), Richard Thomas (13-16), Frank Langella (15-17).
Emmys: Outstanding Writing, Actor (Rhys) 17-18; Guest Actress (Martindale) 14-15, 15-16. Golden Globe: Best Drama Series 19.
Last word: “In the CIA I lied all the time, and everybody I worked with lied all the time, and we were the biggest, fattest liars in the world, and it was definitely possible for us to be honest and heartfelt. These characters don’t think of themselves as liars. We didn’t think of ourselves as liars. Spies think of themselves as good people who, as part of their profession, have to lie.” (Weisberg, TIME)