Action stations

The Americans: Spying on the neighbours

Riley Riley

Friends with your neighbours?

They could be Russian spies. At least that’s the premise of the long-running television series The Americans.

Launched in 2013, it’s loosely based on a real cell of Russian sleeper agents who had been hiding in plain sight in the United States for decades (also known as the “Spy Swap of 2010”).

Several of the Russian agents had children, friends, neighbours and work colleagues — all of whom had no idea that they were spies.

The Americans was created by Joseph Weisberg who worked for CIA’s directorate of operations from 1990 to 1994.

Weisberg recalls the CIA inadvertently gave him the idea for the series.

“While I was taking the polygraph exam to get in, they asked the question: ‘Are you joining the CIA in order to gain experience about the intelligence community so that you can write about it later’ — which had never occurred to me,” he said.

“I was totally joining the CIA because I wanted to be a spy, but the second they asked that question . . . then I thought: ‘Now I’m going to fail the test’.”

Weisberg later described accepting the job at the CIA as a huge mistake.

But it helped him develop several story lines for the series, with some plot lines based on real-life stories.

He integrated tactics and methods he learned in training, such as dead drops and communication protocols.

However, as a former agent, any script had to be submitted to the CIA Publications Review Board for approval.

The CIA must have thought it was okay because The Americans became a big hit, with six seasons and 75 episodes.

The series begins in the aftermath of the election President Ronald Reagan in January, 1981.

It concludes in December, 1987, shortly before the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The Americans is acclaimed by critics, many of whom considered it among the best of its era; its writing, characters, and acting were often singled out.

It follows Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phil Jennings (Matthew Rhys), two Soviet KGB intelligence officers posing as an American married couple living in Falls Church, a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.

Their American-born children are Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati).

The series earned Rhys an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, while Weisberg and Fields won Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series.

It also received the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Drama.

Margo Martindale twice won Emmys for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her performances.

It was one of the rare drama shows to receive two Peabody Awards during its run.

The Americans explores the conflict between Washington’s FBI office and the KGB’s undercover agents, from the perspectives of agents from both sides.

They include the Jennings’ neighbour Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent working in counter-intelligence and the relationship that develops between him and a woman who works at the Russian embassy, Nina Krilova (Annet Mahendru).

Keep an eye out for Richard Thomas too as Frank Gaad, Beeman’s results-driven boss at the FBI.

A real-life KGB sleeper agent Jack Barsky, who visited the set, described his experience as similar to that of the Jennings in so far as FBI agents lived in a home adjacent to his for six months.

But unlike the Jennings and Beeman families, the FBI never befriended Barsky over the three-year period that they investigated him in the mid-1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Americans is a slow burn drama, interspersed with flurries of action as we are introduced to Phil and Elizabeth, the other characters and see how it all works.

The agents walk a fine line as they fight to keep their identities secret from their own children as well as the FBI, at the same time carrying out their assignments.

Their loyalty and commitment are also tested as they struggle with the attractions of American life and the temptation to simply turn their backs on mother Russia and throw it all in.

One of the highlights of the show are the disguises the pair adopt for their various assignments — period correct of course.

But if you’re expecting Jack Ryan, you are going to be disappointed.

While it has its moments and plenty of people indeed die, this is no wham, bam, thank you ma’am action show, but rather a thoughtful, sensitive discussion about a fascinating period of American life. 

You can catch The Americans on Disney+.


CHECKOUT: The Midnight Meat Train: Take a butcher’s at this!

CHECKOUT: The Queen’s Gambit: All the right moves


Time out score

Final thoughts . . .

Spies are real. They might even live next door to you.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *