“The Americans” is a show filled with secrets, but it is no secret that executive producer Joe Weisberg drew from his CIA background when creating the FX series. Weisberg’s field agent know-how and knowledge of Russian history helped inform the story of Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Kerri Russell) Jennings, two KGB agents living in the D.C. area as everyday Americans, but there was another important takeaway from Weisberg’s CIA experience.
“I saw how much CIA agents had to lie to their kids,” Weisberg told International Business Times in a conversation that included fellow “The Americans” executive producer Joel Fields. The observation led Weisberg to create a show that was just as much about the dynamics of an American family and marriage as it was about espionage. “We are just trying to do something that is different than what James Bond or your stereotypical spy story is doing,” Fields says.
And that they have done. “The Americans” manages the difficult task of blending the tense mind games and deception of “Game of Thrones” with the subtle exploration of character found in “Mad Men.” The result is a show that is both riveting and relatable.
When Phillip and Elizabeth realize CIA agents are tailing their car during a scene from the current season, there is no high-speed chase. Instead, over the course of a few pressure-filled minutes, the couple drives around trying to find a route in which to lose them, all the while bickering about what evasive method to use the way any married couple might argue when lost.
Later, after Phillip is able to roll out of the car at an out-of-sight corner, he returns home hoping Elizabeth will be able to get away. When he gets inside, he finds their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) still awake and watching TV.
“In that scene he has to have a conversation with his daughter, while he has no idea if his wife is OK,” Fields says.
When Elizabeth finally does return home, the couple must address a sore tooth that has been ailing her for days. After getting into a confrontation with FBI agents in the Season 3 premiere, she sustained a mouth injury but could not go to a dentist for fear of getting caught.
According to Weisberg and Fields, the writing staff briefly considered a plotline where Elizabeth would go to a dentist, lying her way through the sticky situation. In the end, however, the team decided to have Phillip pull the troublesome tooth himself. With Phillip’s hand sympathetically holding Elizabeth’s head, the KGB agent extracted the tooth with a slow care that, despite the disturbing intensity, caused some to compare the moment to a sex scene.
“We considered it a love scene,” Weisberg says.
And so goes “The Americans” -- always equal parts family drama and international spy saga, every scene advancing both character and the show’s Cold War storylines. So what comes first, the relationship plots or the spy plots?
“How many times have we been asked that,” Fields asks Weisberg. “It changes season to season. It’s a little of both. It’s very organic.”
However they do it, it is working. Despite a premise in which two Soviet spies pose as Americans to fight for communism -- doing daily battle with FBI and CIA agents with their lives at stake -- the show manages to stay relatable.
“We have people who say, 'I just went through that with my family' -- even if what they are talking about is Phillip and Elizabeth murdering someone,” Weisberg says.
When a show has fans relating to a murder, it is doing its job well. Maybe too well. Perhaps that is why FX President John Landgraf challenged the Emmys at a recent TCA Panel to finally take notice of the critically acclaimed show. If “The Americans” keeps it up, it will not go unnoticed much longer.
"The Americans" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EST on FX. Do you relate to Phillip and Elizabeth? Tweet your thoughts to @Ja9GarofaloTV.