Exclusive interview with Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, executive producers of “The Americans”:
Why is “The Americans” set in the 1980s? What makes this era especially interesting?
We settled on the 1980s because of one man — Ronald Reagan. He breathed new life into the Cold War. It’s true — things were getting a little sleepy under Jimmy Carter, but Reagan came into office determined to destroy communism and put the Soviet Union out of business, and that ratcheted up the hostility level overnight. It was also, obviously, the birth of a new conservative culture in America, the dawning of a new confidence for certain parts of our country, while other things were going down the drain. In a way, it also felt like a time that hadn’t been reflected on that much in the popular culture, although that’s starting to change now.
Is “The Americans” based on actual events? Were there Russian spies working in similar ways on American soil in the 1980s? And did the FBI have a Counterintelligence Task Force to go after those spies?
“The Americans” was inspired by a group of Russian illegals who were arrested by the FBI in 2010. There were Soviet illegals working in the United States, going back to at least the 1930s, and the FBI did have — and still does have — a counterintellgience division that works against this threat. We did make up Stan Beeman, though.
Why are spy shows still compelling to the audience 50 years after the first James Bond movie?
The world of spycraft inherently pulls people into action and suspense — and with stakes that involve not only life and death for the characters but sometimes the fate of the world. On a character level, spy stories offer an opportunity to parallel universal human experiences through the heightened world of espionage: After all, on some level, everyone is a spy in their own life.
The two main characters are not superhumans or super-spies, by any means. Elizabeth is still very much a Russian in her thinking, while Philip is starting to waver in his commitment to the cause and is even thinking about defecting. Going back to the James Bond reference, Elizabeth and Philip’s missions are not always smoothly executed. Why was it important to show the very human traits of the two characters?
In order to show how espionage really works, you have to show real spies. They’re real people, with real flaws. They make mistakes. Just as many operations go badly as succeed. But this is what makes espionage compelling, and why we thought it could make a good long-form television series rather than just a fun two-hour movie.
What will be the theme for the second season?
If last season was a season about marriage, this season will explore family.
Congratulations on the two Emmy nominations! Are you surprised?
What?! We got Emmy nominations?! Oh my gosh! We are surprised! And very grateful.
Who are you reaching out to with “The Americans”?
Covertly, of course, the show is entirely a means to imbed secret messages to various remaining sleeper agents from the 1980s. Other than that — Joel, stop! Ahhhh!