Pierce: 'Americans' will make you root for the KGB
The new series "The Americans" (Wednesday, 10 p.m., FX) revolves around a couple in an arranged marriage, parenting two children and trying to blend in while living in and spying on a foreign country.
Viewers will identify with them, will root for them, and will line up behind them.
And Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) are KGB spies posing as Americans and living in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s.
It's tough enough to be Russian spies raising a 13-year-old daughter (Holly Taylor) and a 10-year-old son (Keidrich Sellati). It's even tougher when an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) moves in next door.
"They're going to try and undermine the U.S. government," said executive producer/creator Joe Weisberg, who spent four years working for the CIA. "They're going to try to have the Soviet Union win in the Cold War. We know that's not going to work out too well for them, but that's the side to be on."
"The Americans" is not anti-American. It's not pro-Soviet. It's an engrossing character drama about a couple with the most complicated of lives.
"I think we would all very much like Philip and Elizabeth to have a happy, healthy marriage that goes on for a long time," Weisberg said. "And then in the Cold War, although it might be a little bit difficult to believe and get used to, we want you to root for the KGB."
The show is a period piece that begins just after Ronald Reagan has been elected president. And that three-plus decade time frame lends some distance to this story. It's easier to root for spies who are working for the country that lost the Cold War, a country that no longer exists.
Weisberg said it would be "completely impossible" to tell this kind of story about al-Qaida today. And it would have been impossible to do a show about KGB spies "even 10 years after the Cold War." "But I think enough time has passed now that people are willing to look into their hearts and see them as people we can understand."
As unlikely as it sounds, he's absolutely right. "The Americans" is a very promising series, and it's easy to identify with the two lead characters. They're a couple, but they were assigned as a couple. And they don't always see eye-to-eye.
For example, Philip is ready to give up their lives as spies and defect; Elizabeth isn't. And hers is the stronger personality.
"Yeah, she scares the (expletive) out of me," actor Matthew Rhys said at a press conference talking about his onscreen wife.
"Like all wives do," Russell said.
"Yeah," Rhys agreed. " 'Honey, let's defect.' 'No, OK?' 'OK. Whatever you want.' "
They weren't entirely joking. There's something so natural about these characters, it's startling.
And that natural chemistry is what makes "The Americans" work.
Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.