LOS ANGELES -- Can we root for the bad guys -- even if they are "The Americans"?
The FX series, which premieres tonight at 10, is about Soviet spies in the 1980s masquerading as ordinary American citizens. It stars Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, a seemingly ideal couple living in the Washington, D.C., suburbs just as Ronald Reagan takes office. The Soviet Union is worried about cowboy president Reagan. In fact, they think he might be a madman and are pressuring the KGB spies to step up their activities, putting them in more dangerous situations.
"The Americans" was created by former CIA intelligence analyst and novelist Joe Weisberg. He is an executive producer along with Joel Fields and Graham Yost, who is behind FX's hit "Justified." While Fields hopes audiences will root for the Jenningses, he points out that there's an FBI side of the story, too.
"The marriage is an allegory for the international relations," he says. "So you kind of root for where you are, we hope, emotionally in the scenes."
Sure. We understand, all marriages require a fair amount of diplomacy. But the backstory for "The Americans" is that Phillip and Elizabeth's marriage is merely a matter of putting two people together to spy on the United States. The couple have come to Washington being able to speak perfect English and with dangerous martial-arts skills. They also have a willingness to do anything for their country. Anything.
The first episode opens with Elizabeth seducing a Swedish official with a sexual act in order to get information. Episode two begins with Phillip in bed with a woman who has access to Defense Department secrets. And the couple's two children were conceived initially to enhance their cover, but after nearly 20 years in the States, the couple have begun to worry about their kids.
As most parents, Phillip and Elizabeth differ on how to raise their children and what they want for them. Elizabeth hopes they will grow up to be socialists, while Phillip is beginning to think that the American way of life isn't so bad, even buying a pair of cowboy boots. And while Elizabeth has been trained to do whatever is necessary sexually, she frets when her 13-year-old daughter buys a red bra at the mall. At least it was red.
Weisberg observed corresponding moments during his time at the CIA.
"One of the things I saw at the CIA that sort of most affected me emotionally was how CIA officers and their families live this clandestine life," he says. "And the kind of specific example of it that really I almost never got over in a way, was how the parents, whether it's the father or the mother or both who are CIA officers and live undercover, can't tell their kids what they do." And when they do, he adds, "The kid is like ppppppf, their head explodes."
Aside from all the spy stuff, one of the appeals of the show is its ‘80s setting. So along with revisiting the styles, there's the music. The series begins with an extended action scene set to Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk," with its incessant drums and horns, which the director made Russell listen to before she shot the scene.
Fields jokes that the choice of that song was the longest discussion they had about anything on the show. Another tune on the soundtrack is the much-used "In the Air Tonight."
"That was the second-longest discussion on the show," deadpanned Yost, who explained that while they considered other possibilities, including songs by Peter Gabriel and Elton John, the Phil Collins tune was "perfect for that time."
"Oh, but it's good," says Russell in defense of the song.