“Who is Russia’s ambassador to the US,” the headline on BBC News asked. “Here’s what you need to know about Russia’s ambassador to the US,” the Washington Post told readers, in its Friday editions.
Joe Weisberg, the former CIA case officer who co-created The Americans with his fellow showrunner Joel Fields, could be forgiven for allowing himself a small laugh. And if that laugh seems a little more anxious than cheerful, well, welcome to the unpredictable world of prime-time television in today’s US.
It was never his intention that The Americans be so, um, au courant, to mix linguistic metaphors. When it bowed on Jan. 30, 2013, the period espionage thriller about a suburban couple living a double life in Fairfax, Virginia was firmly anchored in the Cold War of the early ‘80s. An assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan was about as topical and contemporary as The Americans was meant to get.
If anything, despite its espionage trappings — boring suburban couple Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, were tasked by their KGB minders with spying on their Pentagon-employee neighbors and plumbing them for state secrets — The Americans at heart was supposed to be a character study about a typical American family dealing with typical American family issues: raising kids through their tumultuous teen years, keeping up on this year’s Super Bowl contenders and who’s going to cook dinner tonight, him or her. Yes, there was the usual familial anxiety over the teenage daughter growing a little too close to her evangelical Christian youth counselor, Father Tim, but that — to outside eyes, anyway — was supposed to be about as edgy as life was meant to get.
Never mind the murders, the closet full of bad wigs, that business with the mail robot, the frumpy, middle-aged woman lurking around the family home like Lotte Lenya in From Russia with Love. The American family at the heart of The Americans was supposed to be the heart and soul of a show, which — cleverly and masterfully — pitched itself as a kind of 1980s-era cross between My So-Called Life and Mission: Impossible, the TV equivalent of what would result if, say, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskowitz conceived a TV drama with Bruce Geller.
To hear Weisberg tells it, The Americans’ brain trust worked very hard to recreate a sense of time and place. Goings-on at the Russian embassy were very much on average people’s minds during the Cold War. The world news in 2013, on the other hand, was dominated by the Syrian civil war; the collapse of the Arab Spring in Egypt; the emergence of the Argentinian cleric Jorge Bergoglio, better known as Pope Francis, as the world’s voice of reason and moral conscience; and a mousy, one-time NSA analyst turned whistleblower who became a household name. When The Americans debuted, few could imagine that Edward Snowden would one day flee to exile in Russia, like some kind of cyber-fugitive hiding out at the Ecuadoran embassy in London.
In person, Weisberg is cheerful and ebullient — more like the high-school teacher he briefly became after leaving the CIA than a spook who soon learned on the job that deception is a key job skill when one works for the security services.
“It was painful,” Mr. Weisberg recalled to the New York Times, just weeks after The Americans’ debut in January 2013. “Fundamentally, lies were at the core of the relationships. I lied to all my friends and most of the people in my family. I lied every day. I told 20 lies a day, and I got used to it. It was hard for about two weeks. Then it got easy. I watched it happen to all of us.”
Weisberg is talkative and easy to get along with — not skills that will get you far at an intelligence agency as a rule — but then not everyone who worked for an intelligence agency is who they seem. As a CIA case officer-in-training, much of what Weisberg learned on the job about tradecraft — a term first popularized by John Le Carré — he would later use in The Americans.
The Americans, like many of TV’s finer dramas, took a while to attract an audience. It’s still more aptly described as a boutique cable drama with a small but loyal and devoted following than a mainstream hit. Even so, it is one of the more relevant TV dramas in a time of relevant TV dramas.
The critics — never an easy crowd — are almost all onboard.
Early reviews were positive, then ecstatic. In recent seasons, The Americans has won a cavalcade of critics’ awards, despite airing against strong competition in the new, platinum age of television drama.
But then Russia became, well, Russia.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
All of a sudden, the distant, receding memories of Soviet skullduggery and headlines about Cold War-era mischief-making were back in the news.
At best, Weisberg admits, that created an unwanted distraction for The Americans. At worst, it could conceivably have wrecked the show. After all, how relevant are Elizabeth and Philip Jennings’ family problems likely to be when, in the real world, would-be White House appointees are noshing on canapés with the Russian ambassador and fretting about private email servers and whether they’re as secure as, say, the family cable signal?
The Americans returns for its fifth season Tuesday (FX at 10 ET/PT), with just one season to go before it ends and Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are either exposed and charged with spying, return to Russia with their American-born teenage son and daughter in tow, kicking and screaming all the way, or turn informer, Edward Snowden-like, and sing like a birdie about their former employers in the Kremlin and how that frumpy woman who keeps lurking around the family home wasn’t that nice a person to begin with.
Weisberg says privately that the core appeal of The Americans was that “these people who we think of as enemies . . . are just like us.”
Maybe so, maybe not. Wanted or not, Russia is back in the real-world headlines.
When I asked Weisberg a while back, if the new Russia’s adventurism in Crimea and Ukraine, not to mention the most costly, expensive Winter Olympics of all time in a palm-tree lined beach resort wasn’t likely to affect real-world perception of The Americans and make the show more difficult to write, he laughed ruefully and replied: “It’s screwing everything up!”
I mentioned that, to me, the most interesting aspect of the family dynamic in The Americans is that the Jennings’ teenage children — born-and-bred in the USA and as American as apple pie and New England Patriots Super Bowl wins — wouldn’t take too well to a home they never knew if they were deported together with their parents back to Mother Russia and the prospect of 10-month winters and a steady diet of borscht and ice hockey. Or orphaned.
After all, the Rosenbergs, Ethel and Julius (left), went to the electric chair for less.
“We talk about the Rosenbergs all the time in the writers’ room,” Weisberg said — and then, like a well-trained spook, said no more.
And then there’s the strange case of Anna Chapman, actual name Anna Vasil’Yevna Chapman, who was arrested, along with nine other Russians, in New York City in June 2010, on suspicion of being part of a spy ring operating in the US for the Russian Federation’s external intelligence agency, the SVR (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, if you really must know). Chapman was deported back to Russia in July 2010, where — and this is hard to make up — she landed a TV gig, owing to her attractive looks and outgoing personality, as host of a weekly program called — and again, I am not making this up — Secrets of the World, on Russia’s privately-owned REN TV network, the Russian equivalent of CBS, in that its target audience is said to be young to middle-aged city workers who have families and respect family values.
If The Americans should ultimately end with the Jennings being deported and Elizabeth Jennings landing her own TV show on Soviet state TV, I apologize to Weisberg and co-showrunner Joel Fields for letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak.
But back to Putin.
“Russia was supposed to be this nice, friendly country,” Weisberg said, sounding almost wistful. “We were supposed to be getting along fine. The Americans would show everybody, ‘Look, we thought of them as the enemy at the time, but look at how nice they are now.’
“And now they’re acting crazy again! It’s not helping.”
Only a few acclaimed TV dramas make it to five seasons without losing a step along the way, but Weisberg said he and Fields are not about to change their work habits now that their baby has become a critics’ darling.
“Our inclination, even at this late stage, is to just keep trying to make the show better and tell the best story we can. In a way, I think that’s all we know how to do. We don’t know how to shift the show to X, Y or Z to get more of an audience, but we do know how to take these characters and shape them more fully and tell our stories better.”
The Americans is a show with many moving parts, thematically and story-wise, but that doesn’t mean it’s written on the fly and thrown together at the last minute. Weisberg confirmed that The Americans brain trust has been working from a “master document” — Fields’ phrase —since the second season, in 2014.
“We had a very specific process,” Weisberg acknowledged. “We figured out roughly what was going to happen in the first two seasons, but then we went back and broke out Season 5 [the upcoming season] in great detail, so we could start writing that at the time. We needed to know what was going to happen in Season 6 [next year’s final season] with certainty, so we could do Season 5 to the best of our ability. Season 5 really stands alone as a season. You can watch it without knowing for sure that it leads into the finale, but it sets everything up for the finale, and in a very specific way. We couldn’t have done it if we didn’t know where we were going.”
Weisberg is not in the business of spilling state secrets: According to the New York Times, as a former agency employee, Weisberg must submit every script he writes to the CIA’s Publications Review Board before filming may begin.
Even working for an intelligence agency, though, couldn’t have prepared Weisberg for the unpredictability of prime-time TV. Weisberg knew he and Fields had a strong idea with The Americans, but good ideas don’t always translate into success on the screen.
In that sense, The Americans has been a gratifying experience from top to bottom.
“Joel and I together will go to set or somewhere, and someone on the crew will come up to us and say something like, ‘I just want you guys to know, I love working on this show. It has been a special experience for me. I've worked on a lot of shows. For some reason, this one has been tough, for various reasons, and I don't care. I don't care because this show means something to me. I believe in the show. I like this story. I like that it's really good, and I just wanted to tell you that.’
“And suddenly, all the work that we do and all the time that we put in really means something. To kind of get that recognition, to have them feel that this thing they put so much into is recognized in that way, is the best feeling in the world. To have people vested in the show and rooting for it in that way is special.
“When you dedicate yourself to something like this, to get that kind of feeling in response is just . . . well, I mean, I haven’t gotten over it, and I don't think I ever will.”
NOTE: Unless noted otherwise, quotes used above were taken from an amalgamation of private conversation and Television Critics Association press conferences in January 2015 and August 2016.