Ray Richmond is contributing to Deadline’s TCA coverage.
What was it like to be a KGB spy posing as a suburban American at the height of the Cold War? This is the question at the heart of the new FX period drama The Americans, which was rolled out for critics during the FX panel at TCA before lunch. The hour stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as KGB operatives posing as an American couple with two kids and living in Washington, D.C. shortly after Ronald Reagan’s election as President in 1981. It’s inspired by the real-life story that broke in 2010 about sleeper Russian agents who had infiltrated American society and ultimately were exposed. “That was absolutely the inspiration for the show,” noted creator and exec producer Joe Weisberg, who was himself a CIA agent from 1990-94. “I got a call from DreamWorks TV about trying to create a TV show from that event.” He said it wasn’t really going anywhere until those involved hit on the idea of setting it in 1981 during rising Cold War tensions, “a time when we were really enemies with that nation” following Reagan’s declaration of it as the “Evil Empire.” It’s only really now that a story like this could be woven with potentially sympathetic Soviet characters… We want you to root for the KGB,” Weisberg emphasized. “Enough time has passed where people are willing to look with their hearts and try to understand,” he said. “By the same token, trying to tell the story of al-Qaeda now would would be impossible. It’s just too soon.”
In molding the series, Weisberg based much of his inspiration on the things that most affected him emotionally during his years in the CIA. “It was the way that CIA officers and their families lived these clandestine lives,” he stressed. “One specific thing that I never really got over in a way, is how CIA officers can’t tell their kids what they do. Even if they live abroad, they can’t tell their kid because the kid would go and blab it to all of his friends and blow their cover.” This secret hangs over families like a suffocating blanket that ensnares children in the emotional crossfire, Weisberg found. “Then maybe when they’re teenagers and old enough to know what mom and dad do for a living, it’s like this big day where they get sat down and told, ‘This is what we’ve kept from you your whole life: We work for the CIA.’ Sometimes, the kids are fine with finding out. Sometimes, it turns their lives into a big mess. But I’d always just found the whole idea incredibly powerful and made me want to go tell the story about the impact this has on a family.”
Besides getting the emotional resonance just right, there were other challenges for the actors in The Americans — some of them physical. Russell described one scene where she’s has to kick her abusive former KGB boss into a wall. When she was going to do it and was nervous, she recalled that the actor who was the recipient of her kick told her to relax. She recalled, “He said, ‘Listen, do it and do it right, because if you mess it up you’re going to have to do it again and then I’ll be pissed.’ But I loved that part of this job. I get to experience all of this masculine aggression.”