OK, maybe that’s a little crazy, but the agent in question, series creator and show runner of The Americans, Joe Weisberg is still very much in contact with the Agency, and still has to submit scripts for security approval before they’re shot. A fact that amuses and interests his writing partner, Joel Fields.
“We write our scripts together so it’s always amusing,” Weisberg explains, “Whenever a script comes back from that and they just write the script has been approved, he wants to know what they think, ‘did they like it? Can’t you write back and see if they liked it?’”
I spoke with Fields a few weeks beforehand while he was on set filming the second season. The studio, in an industrial neighbourhood in Brooklyn, is an unusual and low-key location for the set of a major TV show. And yet, given the subject matter of the series, seems entirely apt.
Inside, away from public gaze, the true nature of the buildings becomes clear. In one is a production office and writers’ room. A relaxed office, with a whole wall dedicated to a timeline of newsworthy events of the early 1980s. Across the street is an entirely different world: Washington DC, 1982 to be exact; the headquarters of the FBI.
For Fields that 1980s setting is a great opportunity, allowing the writers to inject a level of drama often lost from shows with a contemporary setting, “Not only are you liberated from that flat screen where you get all your information, but also suddenly the story gets more complicated in a good way.” he reveals, “When someone gets away in their car and drives away, you can’t call them on their cell phone to warn them about what you just found out. You got a real problem”
In contrast to the 80s setting, the show’s inspiration comes straight out of the 21st Century. As Weisberg puts it, The Americans was, “very consciously inspired by Chapman and other Russian illegals who were arrested in 2010”.
So how do you sell the concept of a show about two enemy agents to a mainstream American audience?
Fields attributes some of the appeal to the historical context, pointing out that the show’s protagonists, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings are, “at the end of the day, fighting for a paper tiger”. But the real key seems to be the show’s theme: relationships.
That’s certainly what grabbed the attention of the cast. As Matthew Rhys, who plays Phillip Jennings confides, “When I first read the pilot, the more interesting element of the whole thing was their relationship because I’d never seen a relationship in that situation before. The backbone of the story is this espionage thriller. But I think that what makes it universal is it’s about a relationship.”
That theme of relationships even runs through the show’s portrayal of spies and their activity. It may have moments of action, but the vast majority of the time it is, as Weisberg puts it, “about intelligence, recruiting and running agents”. This is where his years in the CIA come to the fore. “That’s what human intelligence is, “ he explains, “and the idea of bringing that into a TV show and having these characters run agents, and have those human relationships and dynamics between those people form a central core of a show seemed like something really interesting, really original to do with TV.”
And while the show is a work of fiction, some of the key details are very real; either plucked from Weisberg’s own experience, or from the annals of history. Indeed, some of the more outlandish and extreme moments of the show come straight out of real life. Like, for example, two people who have only a professional relationship being ordered to have children, which actually happened during the 2010 Russian ‘Illegals’ program that served as inspiration for the series. Or, indeed, having KGB agents seduce and marry low-level security-cleared staff in foreign intelligence services.
This level of sexual intrigue fascinated actress Keri Russell, who plays Elizabeth Jennings “I just thought it was interesting that it was used so prevalently and- that it worked so often,” she reveals, “But what I find good about this show is the sexuality is all to gain something, to gain information on some level. In a big movie or in this big sweeping romance, the girl always has to be so beautiful, so in love, and so like orgasmic. And in this it’s very different than that. It’s much more calculated and you’re doing everything as a show“.
So given the historical context of the show, and the ultimate end of the Soviet empire, how long can things go on for?
“It has, I would say, a number of potential natural stopping points, I don’t know which one we’ll end up with.” Weisberg explains, “We could stop with when Gorbachev becomes Secretary, or when the wall comes down, when the Soviet Union expires. All of those would be good natural places in history where we might want to end the show, or some other ones would work as well. Because the show is so rooted in history, it does mean that some powerful ending point would probably work”
The Americans: The Complete First Season is out now on Blu-ray and DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
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