For a TV Spy Show, the CIA Approves the Scripts

Interview

Friday, February 28, 2014

On the FX show The Americans, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a typical suburban family 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. But after some time inside the organization, he started to doubt it. “It was all kind of BS,” he tells Kurt Andersen. “The intelligence they were providing wasn’t worth anything to the U.S. 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 that eventually lead him to Hollywood. After Russian agents were found working undercover in the US in 2010, Weisberg got a call from DreamWorks executives. For dramatic purposes, Weisberg decided to reset the events during the Reagan era.

One advantage of making 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, when they had to rely more on brains, guile, and sometimes their bodies. But the CIA keeps a close eye on Weisberg’s scripts to make sure that he doesn’t give away tradecraft he learned with the Agency.

But 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.” 

    Music Playlist
  • Theme Song from The Americans
    Label: 20th Century Fox
    Purchase: Amazon

Guests:

Joe Weisberg

Produced by:

Eric Molinsky

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