On the FX show The Americans, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a typical suburban couple in the 1980s. Two kids, nice house, they run a travel agency together. They’re also spies for the Soviet Union, moles sent to live among us. And their kids have no idea.
The Americans, which just started its second season, may be the first spy show created by a former spy. Joe Weisberg worked for the CIA in the early ‘90s, just as the Cold War was ending. He came from a very liberal family, so joining the CIA was a bit of a rebellion.
Yet after some time inside the organization, he started to doubt what the CIA was doing. “It was all kind of BS,” he says. “The intelligence they were providing wasn’t worth anything to the US government. But what you did to collect that intelligence was ask people to really risk their lives — for a lot of nothing.”
Weisberg also had a passion for writing. And that eventually led him to Hollywood. After Russian agents were found working undercover in the US in 2010, Weisberg got a call from DreamWorks executives. Weisberg decided to reset the events during the Reagan era.
There was one clear advantage to setting a spy show in the 1980s: no cell phones. “Philip can’t pick up a phone and call Elizabeth and say, 'get out of there!'” Weisberg says. He’s also proud to show off what agents could do in the analog era, without great technology, when they had to rely more on brains, guile, and sometimes their bodies.
And there's another unusual aspect to the show. The CIA keeps a close eye on Weisberg’s scripts to make sure that he doesn’t give away tradecraft he learned while at the Agency.
Though spying provides the tension in the show, at its heart The Americans is about a marriage. Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage was arranged by the KGB, but has become more and more authentic for the characters. “It’s the emotional underpinning," Weisberg says, “It comes before the spy drama, it comes before the thriller aspects.”