Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in "The Americans." (Craig Blankenhorn / FX )
NEW YORK — On a bone-rattlingly cold winter morning, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are sitting in a Lincoln sedan the size of a small barge, adjusting Walkman-era fashion accouterments and whispering about the Reagan assassination attempt.
Russell and Rhys are not oddball nostalgists. The actors are shooting a scene for FX's "The Americans," a Cold War thriller set in the early 1980s that premieres Wednesday.
Created by former CIA officer Joseph Weisberg, the show stars Elizabeth (Russell) and Phillip (Rhys) as KGB agents who are sent to live in America, start a family and blend in as the all-American couple next door. The couple's task is dangerous: They must feed information to the motherland while covering their tracks so that their neighbors — including a suspicious FBI agent — don't catch wind of their Kremlin ties.
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"Some of the younger people on set have been asking me 'What was it like back then?'" Rhys said to a reporter between takes. "And I'm thinking 'Back then?' This wasn't the 1800s. Lincoln wasn't president. We had indoor plumbing."
You can forgive the millennials their naivete. Thirty years since the first Reagan administration and "The Day After"-like fears that went with it, the Cold War seems very far away, well removed from today's concerns of Chinese economic dominance and Islamic radicalism.
On television, though, such fears don't ever disappear; they simply get rehabilitated for prime time. And so "The Americans" seeks to revisit them, playfully piecing together bits of Cold War entertainment ("The Manchurian Candidate," "Mission: Impossible," "No Way Out") in its own hybrid mosaic.
Where many TV and film offerings from that era blurred the line between the Cold War superpowers to up the thriller stakes, "The Americans" turns the Soviets into the good guys to explore questions of identity and values.
"This is a show where the enemies are the heroes, with all the questions that come with that," Weisberg said. "You couldn't do that right after the Cold War. But you can do it 30 years later."
Ready to serve
Weisberg didn't set out to become a go-to Hollywood writer on covert affairs. Coming of age in Chicago during the late 1970s and early 1980s, he wanted to be in on the action. He bought the Reagan talk of evil empires and strategic defensive initiatives and, shortly after college, enlisted in the CIA.
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Weisberg spent four years with the organization in the early 1990s, largely at its headquarters in Langley, Va., then left to write novels and freelance scripts inspired by his experiences. Now less of an ideologue, he mixes CIA recollections with the conventions of espionage thrillers.
The idea for "The Americans" came about because he thought it was time to address the personal costs of a career in espionage.
"One of the things that struck me about the CIA is that parents don't tell the truth about what they're doing to their kids," he said. "It's such a painful and difficult thing, but it's the kind of thing that isn't portrayed very much on screen."
Though this has been a season of entertaining spies — "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Skyfall" have been ringing up movie-theater cash registers, while Showtime's thriller "Homeland" has been on a serious awards streak — "The Americans" largely rode a separate track. The show was developed as a pilot before "Homeland" was even on the air and was green-lighted to series status a year ago when the Showtime program was still just a niche hit.
FX, for its part, was looking for a series that would follow in the steps of "24," which aired for years on its sister network, and also wanted a show that would fit the mold of current character-driven genre pieces such as "Sons of Anarchy" and "Justified."
"The thing that interested me was the notion of a show about family and marriage and fidelity but in a very heightened context," said FX chief John Landgraf. He and others felt "The Americans" was similar to "The Shield" (the dark hit that put the network on the map a decade ago), only with geopolitics instead of police-department corruption.
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Perhaps the most difficult choice in crafting "The Americans," creators say, was casting. Elizabeth's character was more unadorned ideologically than Phillip and less attracted to an American way of life — "an icy automaton," in the words of David Madden, president of lead production company Fox Television Studios — which required a friendly face to take the edge off. Enter Russell, who as the likable, soft-spoken star of the series "Felicity" and the 2007 movie "Waitress" would give viewers license to sympathize with a character bent on undermining the U.S.
Weisberg and co-creator Joel Fields also wanted the cast to capture the sense of paranoia that existed at that time, on both the Soviet and American sides. The period setting, they thought, could help.