Keeping Up with the KGB Jennings: A New TV Spy Thriller, 'The Americans'

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Recent headlines from Russia have some wondering if the Cold War is back on. Just today Russia announced it's scrapping an agreement with the US to cooperate on cross border crimes like terrorism and human trafficking. That's just the latest sign of a growing chill in relations between Moscow and Washington. Perfect timing then for The Americans, a new TV series premiering tonight on the FX channel. The year is 1981. The Cold War is definitely still on and in the house next door, the one with the white picket fence, lived the Jennings, a suburban family with typical suburban concerns.

[Show clip]: Car won't start, I'm gonna have to take a bus to the metro. Oh, dad. Yeah? Mary got two goals and an assist last night.

Werman: Except dad, Philip Jennings and his wife, Elizabeth, are Russian spies. Sound familiar? The plot is reminiscent of those Russian sleeper spies, the ones whose cover was blow in 2010 after years of living seemingly boring lives in places like suburban New Jersey. Writer and former CIA agent Joe Weisberg is co-creator of the series. He says he was, in fact, inspired by that real life spy drama.

Joe Weisberg: In the middle of that scandal I got a call from the heads of DreamWorks television asking me if I'd like to develop a show based on what was going on. And I said sure and then I wandered the street for a couple of weeks thinking how do you fit that into a television show? It's got a real big problem which is we're not enemies with the Russians anymore, so there aren't really any stakes, who cares? And after about two weeks I thought oh, it's easy, you just put it back in the Cold War.

Werman: There is also the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, electrocuted for conspiracy to commit espionage, but that predates the Jennings by several decades. I mean that story showed the cruel depths of the Cold War. Do you think The Americans, your drama, is going to kind of underscore just how insidious the whole spying business was? Or is this more kind of the Sopranos as a spy game?

Weisberg: We think of it on different days different ways. We think about the Rosenbergs and what a strange tragic story that was, and how the couple was so ideologically committed and they were willing to die. And the fact that espionage has, you know, just presents that kind of drama that people with that kind of commitment will do anything for the cause.

Werman: You're not just a writer, but you're also a former CIA agent. Were you undercover and how much of this is based on your own experience?

Weisberg: I was undercover with the CIA for about four years. I was primarily in training the whole time I was there. In particular what influenced this story was having a look at the people I worked with and what it was like to live undercover with a family, including often kids who don't know what you're doing because if you tell a 7-year-old Mom or Dad works at the CIA, they go to school and tell their friends and your cover is blown.

Werman: Right.

Weisberg: So thinking about how that affected families made me want to tell a story about a family in that situation.

Werman: I'd be curious to know, Joe, how you feel the CIA is portrayed generally in entertainment?

Weisberg: What you see all the time is this kind of vast conspiratorial mindset on the one hand, or this absurd glamorization on the other hand. And what is very rarely gotten to is the kind of brilliant beautiful bureaucracy that think is most interesting about the real CIA. It's something that I'm always looking for the TV show or the movie that will capture that.

Werman: So maybe you can just kind of layout for us if you're a CIA agent, what are the rules once you become a screenwriter that you still kind of have to submit stuff to the CIA for approval?

Weisberg: When you leave the agency one of the things they do is bring you into a room and you sit across the desk from a CIA employee, and he takes out an envelope and out of the envelope comes the very secrecy agreement you signed when you joined. And it turns out that, although I had forgotten this, that under the line where you signed your name when you joined, there's another line and that line is for you to sign again when you leave, just to remind you that you are committed to this secrecy even for the rest of your life.

Werman: Committed twice.

Weisberg: Right.

Werman: What do you think Russian audiences will make of this show?

Weisberg: I can't tell you how much time I've spent thinking about that. It's not yet sold to Russia, so we don't know for sure if it will air there or not. There are a lot of different audiences there. I wonder what the sort of liberals there will think. I wonder what the general population will think. And of course, Putin, who is in the KGB and in the Foreign Intelligence Service of the KGB, what will he think, you know? It's a show that I think is very kind of fair minded towards the KGB, but I don't know that Putin would necessarily see it that way. And of course, the you know, the liberals there, do they want to see a show that is fair minded towards the KGB? It could be very upsetting to them. I think it could be used politically in a lot of different ways. It's very hard to predict.

Werman: Joe, I gather you've got another spy drama in the works. Do you miss the clandestine life of an agent?

Weisberg: I have to say that I do not. I find writing about it very suitable.

Werman: Right, vicarious is good enough.

Weisberg: Yeah, much better.

Werman: Joe Weisberg, writer and former CIA agent, co-creator of the new series that premiers tonight on FX, The Americans, thanks so much, Joe.

Weisberg: Thank you very much, Marco.