NPR Story
4:56 am
Sat January 5, 2013

'The Americans': Looking Back On The Cold War 'Fondly'

Originally published on Sat January 5, 2013 7:59 am

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The end of football is in sight, so what to do with that couch? What about another classic rivalry? An old fashioned spy versus spy Cold War drama?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")

MATTHEW RHYS: (as Phillip) Super secret spies living next door. They look like us, they speak better English than we do. According to Misha, they're not allowed to say a single word in Russian once they get here. I mean, come on. Someone's been reading too many spy novels. Talking figment of the imagination.

WERTHEIMER: Or not. In this TV series, "The Americans," that's exactly who we meet - a very attractive all-American family, except the parents are KGB agents. I asked Joe Weisberg, the creator the show, which premieres this month on FX, why is Cold War nostalgia popular now?

JOE WEISBERG: I think that enough time has passed that we can actually look back on it, odd as it might sound, a little bit fondly. And one of the things about our show is that the heroes of our show actually work for the other side. They're actually KGB officers. And I think that five or even 10 years after the Cold War, I don't really think you could have done a show where you ask people to identify with KGB officers. But I think enough time has gone by now that you can.

WERTHEIMER: You're a retired CIA agent yourself, aren't you?

WEISBERG: Yes. I don't know if retired is quite the right word because that implies that I maybe had a long and fruitful career in the CIA, which I did not. I worked there for about four years. So, I tend to say that I resigned.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, the KGB officers in your series are a couple of gorgeous young people. These are the bad guys, or are they - I mean, they sort of give you the feeling that they might be the good guys. And everybody looks like a model in this program. I mean, it makes it sort of hard to know which ones we're supposed to be rooting for.

(LAUGHTER)

WEISBERG: Yes. Well, that's really the whole idea of the show, is that hopefully there's some confusion between who the good guys are who the bad guys are. And my real hope is that people will fully identify with and fully root for the heroes of the show, and that sort of once or twice in every episode you'll sort of be going along, you'll be rooting for them, they'll be doing their mission, you'll be hoping they succeed, hoping they make it and then all of the sudden, they'll succeed, they'll accomplish their mission, and you'll go, uh-oh, they just did this horrible thing that's devastatingly bad for the U.S. government. How could I have been rooting for them this whole time?

WERTHEIMER: They are very sympathetic characters. And at times, they seem themselves to be conflicted about their mission.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")

KERI RUSSELL, ACTOR: (as Elizabeth) Why can't we do this together? Because I'm a KGB officer. Don't you understand that? After all these years, I would, I would go to jail, I would die, I would lose everything before I betray my country.

WEISBERG: That's a scene where Elizabeth, who's the wife in this couple, talks about her lifelong devotion and dedication to the KGB. Now, on the other side, she's married to a guy who has started to waver. After all this time in America, he started to be, to a certain degree, seduced by its charms. And who wouldn't be, except Elizabeth?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")

RHYS: (as Phillip) We've been here a long time. What's so bad about it, you know? The electricity works all the time, food's pretty great, closet space...

ACTOR: (as Elizabeth) Is that what you care about?

RHYS: No. I care about everything.

ACTOR: Not the motherland.

RHYS: I do, but our family comes first.

WERTHEIMER: Now, is this based on real history? I mean, could there possibly have been a network of KGB agents who blended in perfectly the way these people do? I mean, in this show, they live in suburbia, they speak perfect English, they actually have children who were born in America, who go to American public schools. I mean, it just looks real.

WEISBERG: I think based on the real history - is the right way to put it, or inspired by the real history - the KGB from the '30s onward in the United States, and in fact across the world, did run networks of spies who blended into various countries as citizens of those countries. The place where we've taken a little bit of liberty for the sake of storytelling is that we've had them trained in the Soviet Union to be absolutely perfect English speakers, who speak the language without any accent. And that's not quite accurate. The KGB illegals, who you actually had in America, did have accents from whatever countries. But that didn't really pose an obstacle to blending into America because we are in fact a country of immigrants.

WERTHEIMER: The thing that I kept thinking about when I was watching it, is that these particular spies have the misfortune of having an FBI agent move in next door, which was fairly amazing. But the other thing is I wonder, I mean, are we going to find that they have a big network? Are we going to find out about a network?

WEISBERG: The honest truth is we haven't totally decided yet. You know, there certainly are other KGB illegals spread out across the United States. This is true both in reality and in our conception of how the show works. If and when they will meet them or carry out other operations with them we'll have to see.

WERTHEIMER: Joe Weisberg wrote the new show "The Americans," which premieres later this month on FX. Joe Weisberg, thank you.

WEISBERG: Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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