It's easy to compare The Americans to Homeland, Showtime's hit espionage drama du jour, but The Americans takes the Homeland's anti-American wolf in sheep's clothing one step further. Rather than waddling in the gray area of "Is he or isn't he a bad guy?" as Homeland's first season did, The Americans cuts to the chase—literally.
A chase scene before even the opening credits of the first episode lets you know, unabashedly, that our protagonists Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings are clandestine agents. A conversation right after the credits tells you more: Two FBI counterintel agents discuss super-secret sleeper cells that exist across the country—"They speak better English than you and me," one of the agents remarks.
It doesn't take much narrative arithmetic to put it together that Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) are one of those cells, long-embedded KGB spies raising their unsuspecting children in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. And this is 1981, when America reveled in high-waisted Guess jeans, Phil Collins power ballads, and Reagan-era super patriotism underlined by Soviet paranoia.
How will 21st century Americans take to a show about their Cold War enemies trying to undermine their country? "When we were first developing the show we had quite a few discussions about that question. We didn't have an answer, we just thought we had to go for it and hope that they like it," explains Joe Weisberg, creator, writer, and executive producer. "After we cast Keri and Matthew in the roles and saw them act together, we never had another discussion about it. [The characters] were so sympathetic and likeable with these actors playing them."
Russell and Rhys do excel in their roles as the Russian spies next door. But part of what makes the characters so relatable comes from Weisberg's own experiences of espionage and Soviet-era Russia. Weisberg spent months traveling Eastern Europe and Russia in the late 1980s. After studying Russian language and history, Weisberg joined the CIA, working there for four years into the early '90s. "I got a whole feeling for the world of intelligence and espionage, and what that life is like and what the people are like," he says.
In those years, Weisberg learned the tradecraft methods and bureaucratic mazes that come in handy now as he writes the show. (As part of a lifelong contract with the CIA, he submits each script to the agency for approval.) But more than anything else, he says, it was the personalities he encountered while at the CIA that helps him shape his narrative.
"I worked with people who spent their entire careers abroad and their families, and even thinking about that question of what is it to have family when the parents or one of the parents are a spy and the kids don't know about it," says Weisberg. "It's more emotionally engaging than anything, more than the actual 'spy thing.'"
The "spy thing" in The Americans is pretty thrilling. The pilot moves in a way to not hold back the characters' motives or directives: It explains what kinds of spies the Jenningses are in the aforementioned FBI conversation, and how they got there, with flashbacks back to their Russian origins.
By clearing up the mysteries of the past, The Americans can dwell on the questions of today (1981). Is the FBI agent who just moved into the Jenningses' neighborhood onto their case? Are their children, who think Mom and Dad are dorky travel agents, becoming too indoctrinated in American culture? Should they abandon "the motherland" and defect to the United States?
As the worlds of espionage and domesticity bob and weave, The Americans drips irony. Phil walks away sheepishly from an older man who hits on his 13-year-old daughter because, as he tells her, "It's no use fighting guys like that." Phil, donning a wig of greasy long hair and fake mustache, inevitably shows up to the creep's home and does just that. Elizabeth seems to be the more masterful spy, however, knowing how much to give and when to hold back, even when it comes to interacting with her own husband. Phil listens in anguish to an audio tape of her sleeping with a source, but softens his face when he hears her get the information they need, as if to show respect for her skills in sexual manipulation.