The toughest hurdle to get around with FX’s “The Americans” is that setting the action in 1980 qualifies the drama as a period piece.
For those already adults when President Reagan was in office — and might have even driven an Oldsmobile Delta 88, which looms large in the pilot — the days of Madonna being relevant don’t seem distant enough to be a period drama. They are, though, and the series that premieres Wednesday, Jan. 30, does them quite well.
The drama stars Keri Russell (“Felicity”) and Matthew Rhys (“Brothers & Sisters”) as Russian KGB spies living in the United States. The pilot explains how Elizabeth and Philip came to live in a suburban house with two children. It flashes between suburban Washington, D.C., of 1981 and 20 years earlier in Moscow, when they were introduced and later assigned to be a married couple in the States.
“I can’t believe we are calling 1980 ‘period’,” Russell tells Zap2it. “I didn’t study too much of this specifically. More the take I took on this project is what I lifted from it, my interest. I know it is a spy drama. It is really cool. The thing I kept thinking about was this crazy relationship.
“This arranged marriage at such a young age of 18,” Russell continues, “to be that fervently committed to a cause at that young of an age and placed in this situation with a partner and not really in love with [him] and having kids with them, I think there is a shift. I don’t think she does love him. They definitely have a relationship.”
Elizabeth is a stolid Communist, which she was bred to be. When she went through training, she was an unquestioning soldier of the state, which included a KGB officer beating and raping her. A couple of decades later, that officer is bound and gagged in the trunk of Elizabeth and Philip’s Delta 88.
Elizabeth is a complicated woman; she appears icy and self-contained. Affable Philip adores Elizabeth and has grown quite fond of the American lifestyle. Whether she loves him, as much or at all, isn’t certain.
“He has arrived at a place, he has fallen in love with her and loves his children, and the longer they prolong this spy life, the chances are he will lose everything,” Rhys says. “The research we have done on it, I am constantly surprised as to how these people maintain these double lives.”
Philip’s cover is as a travel agent. Both actors affect Russian accents in the scenes showing them in the motherland, but once they settled in the States, they always spoke English.
“I am thoroughly confused myself,” Rhys says with a laugh. “I am a Welshman playing a Russian pretending to be an American. The concept is fabulous. It is not a context we have seen before. It sets up beautifully for the dramatic conflicts. You put a high-stakes job coupled with a marriage, and that makes for a great drama.”
As dark as espionage can get, there are moments of comic relief — if Philip pulverizing a lecherous creep who came on to their 13-year-old daughter can be considered comedy. Parents of teenage girls will cheer this scene, even if Philip’s reaction is a bit extreme.
“Although he does have this cool and calm exterior for his spy work, when it comes to his wife and child he is like any other red-blooded husband,” Rhys says. “He has that skill set he can execute, which would be what a number of fathers would like to do.”
The pilot reminds us how the Cold War peaked when Reagan took office. Joe Weisberg, the show’s creator, trained for 3 1/2 years at the CIA, he says. He never worked as a spy because he stayed home to tend to his sick father, then resigned before his first assignment.
Weisberg, who had been gobbling up spy novels since he was 10, says, “I was a very internal and secretive kid. And I thought [the CIA] was a place I could fit in. The CIA was full of people who were secretive and kept to themselves.”
“We wanted it taking place when the Cold War was very, very hot,” Weisberg says. “And under Carter, things were kind of calm, and then Reagan came in and started screaming about the evil empire.”
The show was developed slowly, he says.
The pilot has a rich, cinematic depth to the cinematography. It’s also a little long and, initially, confusing. But stick with it because by the end you will want to know where these characters are going and why.
“We see it very much as a marriage story even though they are a married couple in a crazy, crazy situation,” Weisberg says. “Not only that they are KGB spies, at the root of it all, we are trying to tell a marriage story and see their own joys and hardships.”