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How The Americans Became the Best Show on Television

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How <i>The Americans</i> Became the Best Show on Television

Note: This piece appears in Paste Quarterly #1, which you can purchase here, along with its accompanying vinyl Paste sampler.

“Here we go!”

“Here we go!”

“Here we go!”

The phrase trips across tongues, echoing through the soundstage as a prim Mary Kay saleswoman prepares to knock on the door. From my vantage, on a high canvas chair adjacent to the set’s mockup portico—white columns, latticework, shiny plastic plants in earthenware pots—the scene is no more than a sight on the monitor, and yet, even at this slight remove, it’s clear that the devil is in the details. While the conversation on screen unfurls in terse, edgy increments, a member of the crew slowly waves a rectangular black board, mimicking the effect of a gentle breeze; later, the episode’s director, Roxann Dawson (also known as Star Trek: Voyager’s B’Elanna Torres), fine-tunes the action, down to the speed with which a business card should be retrieved from a purse.

From the sliver of the saleswoman captured in the foyer’s mirror to the icy precision of actress Keri Russell’s delivery—“So mean!” I hear in my headset, after Russell’s character, Elizabeth Jennings, summarily dismisses the cosmetics representative—the care applied to this interstitial moment in The Americans’ fifth season might be interpreted as a microcosm of the series’ success. For FX’s sterling, 1980s-set spy drama, which stars Russell and her real-life partner, the actor Matthew Rhys, as deep-cover KGB operatives living and working in the environs of Washington, D.C., did not spring to life in its current form. Rather, The Americans—nurtured by creator Joe Weisberg and fellow showrunner Joel Fields, supported by FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, acclaimed by critics, devoured by fans—has been among the foremost beneficiaries of the profound creative, economic and technological changes that have reshaped the medium in the past decade.

As it happens, the story of how The Americans became the best show on television is also the story of an art form in flux.

“Evolution is the perfect word for it,” Weisberg says of the series’ metamorphosis, subtle but still perceptible, from Cold War thriller to fraught family portrait. “If you go back to the pilot, one of the things you notice is how different it is. First of all, it’s kind of funny. Second of all, it’s got a lot of action to it-—a lot of martial arts, kung fu. Thematically, in the relationships and the stories and the characters, it has maybe the promise of what the show became, but I don’t think you see the show The Americans is today.”

Sitting in their Brooklyn office, decorated with framed floor plans for The Americans’ secondary locations—FBI agent Stan Beeman’s suburban home, secretary Martha Hanson’s compact apartment—Weisberg and Fields (“the two Js,” “the Js,” or simply “the guys,” as they’re affectionately known on set) describe the first season as a process of “discovering” the series, and with it the realism that Fields calls their “creative North star.”

“Where we felt things were wrong was when we tried to create drama, when we tried to create excitement,” Fields says. “Whenever we tried, as storytellers, to impose something on the characters, it never felt right to us. When we stopped worrying about the result for the audience, curiously, everything started to get more true.”

Inspired by the 2010 arrest of five couples in connection with Russia’s so-called “Illegals Program,” through which spies operating under false identities and posing as ordinary residents sought access to “policymaking circles” in the United States, The Americans has always inhabited the space where the truthful and the far-fetched overlap. (Rhys, who plays Elizabeth’s husband, Philip, recalls complaining on more than one occasion that something in the script wasn’t believable, only to be told that it had actually happened.) But from the opening minutes of the pilot—replete with foot chase and fistfight set to Fleetwood Mac’s percussive “Tusk”—to its case-of-the-week narrative structure, the first season, by Weisberg and Fields’ own admission, bumped up against the limitations of its procedural bent. The Americans’ emotional core, the tumultuous marriage between two secret agents, each grappling with the sacrifices and compromises they’ve made in the name of patriotism, had lost ground to the impulse to gin up one spy mission after another—the impulse to think, in other words, in the traditional terms of TV.

“We were very aware that we were being straitjacketed by the episodic storytelling, and that was creating a huge problem,” Weisberg says. “And once we realized that, we felt it was, essentially, destroying us.”

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Under Landgraf’s leadership, of course, FX and its sibling FXX are not known for their stifling creative constraints: Since joining the network in 2004, Landgraf has been instrumental in expanding FX’s original programming, in part by cultivating—and, at times, sparring with—such iconoclasts as Louis C.K. (Louie), Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story), and Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy). The avuncular Weisberg and Fields, dressed in coordinating blue button-downs, jeans and sensible shoes on the blustery December day I visit the set, are a far cry from “difficult,” but it’s no stretch to say that The Americans itself, with its serious subject matter and somber mien, challenges even longtime viewers. It’s Landgraf’s understanding of the series, and his honest, perceptive feedback, that have made the network such a crucial partner in The Americans’ evolution, according to Weisberg.

“[Landgraf] was the one guy—FX was the one network—that got that doing a show where the heroes were KGB agents was a good idea, an exciting idea, rather than something scary,” he says. “That’s typical John Landgraf, to run toward the thing that everybody else runs away from.”

For his part, Landgraf sees his role as that of a sounding board, belying the image of the network executive meddling in the writers’ room. Though he watches every rough cut, his primary concern, he says, is “the shape of the entire season, the entire series,” which he discusses at length with Weisberg and Fields a handful of times each year.

“They’re sweating the details all day, every day,” he adds. “I can provide a perspective from a slightly greater distance, because that’s the nature of my relationship with the show.”

With Landgraf’s encouragement, Weisberg and Fields learned to direct their energies toward longer, more deliberate arcs: The “honey traps,” lures set to earn the allegiance of potential KGB informants, became the basis for searching drama, rather than titillating sex; clear antagonists and high-octane set pieces were supplanted by complex moral calculus and the slow burn of suspense. The result—a three-episode sequence in the middle of the second season, comprising “Behind the Red Door,” “Arpanet,” and “New Car”—is perhaps the most significant turning point in The Americans’ run, a collection of crackerjack episodes that awakened laggard critics, myself included, and set the series on its current course.

“That was around the time we stopped writing episodes, and we just started telling this long story,” Fields explains. “We abandoned the idea that things had to happen in particular episodes. From that point forward, we never said, ‘Oh, this is going to be the episode where…’ And the truth is, we have a couple really good, self-contained episodic story ideas that we will never do.”

Instead, Weisberg and Fields created what they call “the master document”—now known, for the fifth and sixth seasons, as “the final document”—which outlines each ongoing arc in the series from conception to completion, rather than slicing the narrative into episodes and seasons from the outset. This “free form” approach, as Weisberg describes it, is akin to a puzzle with multiple solutions: Each thread can be shifted, compressed, or expanded as needed, allowing The Americans to pursue subplots to their logical conclusion or surprise viewers with their sudden end. (For instance, Weisberg and Fields originally planned the execution of triple agent Nina Sergeevna Krilova, played by Annet Mahendru, to occur in Season Three, only to realize they’d run out of room to bring her story to a satisfactory close—thus producing one of the most shocking moments of Season Four.) It’s this “desire to cut against the grain,” says writer and supervising producer Peter Ackerman, that’s come to distinguish The Americans.

“In ‘Clark’s Place,’ we had this whole thing where Stan is following Martha and you think Philip is going to get caught in the apartment,” Ackerman remembers, referring to a taut Season Four sequence in which the FBI begins to close in on their mole—an administrative assistant, brilliantly portrayed by the actress Alison Wright, who’s fallen in love with Philip’s alter-ego, Clark. “The whole thing was kind of a distillation of what The Americans does, which is, at the end, nothing happened. Nobody caught anybody. But you feel this tension.”

In a cozy office adjacent to the writers’ common area, where an exhaustive timeline of political, economic, social, and cultural milestones from the 1980s—Beverly Hills Cop, the identification of the AIDS virus—is pinned to a Comintern-red corkboard, Ackerman and fellow writer and supervising producer Tracey Scott Wilson, both of whom joined the series at the start of Season Two, confess that the instinct to force the issue, narratively speaking, is not easily shaken. (Of a “honey trap” subplot involving Philip and an attractive teenage mark named Kimmy, played by Julia Garner, Wilson jokes that the writing staff initially pitched “the dirtiest, filthiest things.”) Under Weisberg and Fields’ thoughtful guidance, however, The Americans consistently defies expectations; with its unorthodox pacing and innovative structure, the series now counts among the most ambitious on television.

“[‘Clark’s Place’] wasn’t a typical drama, where Stan comes bursting into the room and Clark is there and has to dive out the window,” Ackerman continues. “We always laugh that we’ll go in and we’ll have a meeting with [Weisberg and Fields] about a scene, and they’ll be like, ‘He’s thinking this and she’s thinking this and they’re thinking this, and this, and this—but nobody says any of that.’”

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“Sorry, I’m probably all sticky,” Russell says, extending her hand, as she glances up from her script and a half-peeled orange to greet me. Sitting at the Jennings’ dining room table as she waits for the crew to rearrange the set, the former Felicity star is much funnier than Elizabeth, a stern, even ferocious defender of the Soviet cause. (“I love how mean I am to her,” she says of the Mary Kay saleswoman, laughing as she pitches her voice to a growl. “It’s like, ‘Get the fuck out of here!’”) For her, Elizabeth’s hard line, especially in contrast to Philip’s softer stance, isn’t simply a measure of the series’ political intelligence—it’s central to the multilayered marriage that The Americans has crafted through years of patient character development.

“In a way, I feel like the show has become more dense and kind of quieter, and less about squishing people into suitcases, although that’s fun, too,” she says, alluding to an episode in which Philip and Elizabeth shatter a dead woman’s bones in order to hide the body in a piece of luggage. “That’s the sweet spot that cable TV is in right now… you get to play things out a little slower, and then the payoff is so much juicier.”

This more potent iteration of The Americans, beginning with the birth of “the master document,” comes into full flower in the series’ third season, thanks in part to the formidable young actress Holly Taylor, who plays Philip and Elizabeth’s adolescent daughter, Paige. As she experiments with religion— to her atheist mother’s dismay—and discovers her parents’ real identities, Paige’s swings between devotion and rebellion chart a new constellation of dangers for the Jennings family. Taylor, now 19, shot the pilot at age 13: In a sense, her evolution as a performer corresponds with Paige’s evolution as a character, and indeed the evolution of The Americans itself.

“This year, I saw a picture of me from Season One,” she says, laughing, “and my teeth are more spread out and I have the front bangs and it’s just not a good look. And then I was like, ‘No, maybe I don’t want to go back and re-live those moments.’ But it’s immortalized forever now, so I can’t take it back.”

Surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of the Jennings’ dim living room—a cartridge of Atari’s Pac-Man, a Betamax player— Taylor, on a brief break from filming a Season Five scene in which Paige discusses Das Kapital with Elizabeth, appreciates that Paige is unusual among her fictional peers. Though she trusts Weisberg and Fields to handle her character’s blossoming romance with Stan’s son, Matthew, played by Danny Flaherty, she admits to feeling a certain disappointment when she learned of their first kiss, in the Season Four finale.

“I was like, ‘Oh, no,’” she says. “I mean, I was also like, ‘Oh, no’ when Paige told Pastor Tim and probably some other moments in the series. I was just always so proud that Paige didn’t have a boyfriend. She was the one teenage girl on TV who didn’t have that as part of her storyline.”

Wilson, the daughter of a Baptist minister, first broached the idea of Paige finding faith—an exemplar of the series’ penchant for reinventing TV tropes—as a way to introduce familial conflict without risking cliché. She was inspired, in part, by her own experience.

“I grew up around a lot of preachers’ kids, and a lot had the typical rebellion of drinking and drugs and sex,” she says. “But my sister became this very rabid evangelical Christian, and that was her rebellion. It was so much to the extreme of my father, and it was crazy-making, because she wasn’t technically doing anything wrong.”

Ultimately, then, by plumbing the characters’ depths—Philip and Elizabeth’s clashing ideological convictions; Paige’s commitment to the church; Martha’s impossible affection for Clark; Stan’s doomed dalliance with Nina—Weisberg, Fields and company unearthed another series altogether. No longer limited to marriage and espionage, The Americans is now the evocative saga of a family that just happens to have two spies in it. In the process, the scripts have grown terse, the violence unsettling, the sex freighted with unwanted emotion—the lineaments of “a show that breathes,” as Ackerman suggests, indebted more to The Sopranos than to Aaron Sorkin.

“It’s gotten richer and more layered,” Landgraf says, comparing the series’ progress to the effect of an artist adding brushstroke atop brushstroke. “Each [season] feels like a new thing in itself, but it’s also a repainting of the canvas that sharpens and deepens and textures the image.”

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The transformation of The Americans culminates in the series’ fourth season, a marvel of unconventional construction. In essence, its 13 episodes comprise a trio of distinct arcs, reminiscent of a symphony’s movements—an epilogue to Season Three, in which Paige reveals the truth about her parents to her pastor; a brief, fretful interregnum, in which Martha dodges the FBI’s fast-closing dragnet; and a prologue to Season Five, concluding with their KGB handler, played by Frank Langella, urging the Jennings to flee the U.S. and return to Russia. In “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears,” perhaps the series’ finest episode to date, The Americans reduces this intricate structure to a perfect miniature—a daunting task, according to Rhys, the episode’s director.

“‘This is a feature film! I can’t do this! There’s an aeroplane in it!’” Rhys says, in his disarming Welsh brogue, of his initial reaction to Stephen Schiff’s script. Sporting a pageboy cap, licking his fingers as he fits in an on-the-fly lunch of tandoori shrimp, Rhys credits the entire team, in particular director and executive producer Chris Long, with shepherding him through the process. “I was handed a fireworks box and a lighter, because, you know, there were big bangs in it. I just had to light the blue touch-paper and retire 25 feet.”

As if to confirm his description of “David Copperfield” as a “feature film,” the whiteboard behind Rhys features four blocks of black scrawl, each one corresponding to an aspect of The Americans’ storytelling: “Sex/Action/Violence,” “Period Details,” “Reagan/Cold War,” and “Cinematic Moments.” As Rhys recognizes, the metronomic intensification of the strain on the characters, accelerating with each subsequent season, results from what he calls “the luxury of time.”

“The beauty of being allowed to come back every year is, you’re laying down all this dense, deep foundation work, and the tension becomes that much greater,” he says. “Real development takes real courage, real bravery, because in the MTV age, something needs to gratify every eight seconds.”

Long echoes this sentiment when I meet him, near day’s end, in a building on the opposite side of the Gowanus Canal, after touring the empty offices of the FBI’s counterintelligence division and the Jennings’ travel agency. Long, who came on board at the start of Season Four, describes The Americans’ aesthetic as an homage to Sidney Lumet and other filmmakers of the 1980s, an evolution he traces to Season Two and predecessor Daniel Sackheim.

“If anything, it’s like watching a kid grow up—the changes in a child are so funny as you watch it blossom into an adult, and there was a precociousness to our child,” he says. “No line is wasted. No shot is wasted… There’s nothing gratuitous.”

Though the series features more than a few bravura sequences—the capture of an informant in a rambling park, inspired by Donnie Brasco; a murder on an airport bus cut to “Tainted Love”—Long’s focus, following Weisberg and Fields, is realism. Whether it’s by removing a drone shot that disrupts an episode’s rhythm, or declining to use two angles when one will do, his goal is to avoid ostentation.

“If it’s a Mamet movie, you’re like ‘Wow, that dialogue is fantastic,’” Long says. “If it’s a Fincher movie, you’re like, ‘Wow, that camerawork was amazing. And there is absolutely room in the landscape to play all that, but that’s not who we are.” As he adds, snapping his fingers for emphasis, “If you’re just peppering cuts in there and peppering shots in there, and not choosing the moments when to play those kind of shots, then they’re not very meaningful.”

This belief in the power of restraint stems, to a significant extent, from Landgraf’s dedication to The Americans, though Weisberg and Fields also attribute the series’ more circumspect style—and thus its longevity—to two pivotal changes in the wider TV landscape: The proliferation, hastened by the rise of social media platforms, of episodic reviews, or “recaps,” and the integration of new metrics into the networks’ assessment of a series’ viewership. (“For a show to succeed on our roster it has to bring something to that roster, and that can be ratings, or it can be awards and critical acclaim,” Landgraf says.) The combination, especially in the early stages, squared space for The Americans—always highly praised, never widely watched—to find its footing, and by extension its singular voice.

“In that first season, as we were trying to figure out what the show was, in the analyses that we would get in these recaps, the things that they were responding to so thoughtfully were the things that excited us, and that was the character story,” Fields says. “Who knows? If we’d had 10 times the audience and no critics who were interested in that part of the show, we could’ve been pulled toward doing just a really exciting show and pulling our hairs out that we weren’t getting to tell character stories.”

“You cannot separate this show from the critics,” Weisberg adds. “I think probably more than any other show.”

It’s in this confluence of factors—immense creative talent, network daring, critical interest, audience passion, technological advancement, industrial and economic change—that The Americans resembles not the streaming sensations and limited series and eccentric sitcoms of the era we’re in, but the TV dramas of an era that already seems to have passed. It strikes me, reading another message scrawled on that conference room’s whiteboard, this one in crisp, red letters—“You won’t see the next one coming”—that Weisberg and Fields’ sterling series deserves consideration alongside the likes of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Hannibal, The Good Wife, Rectify, The Leftovers, and Halt and Catch Fire not only because it is of their caliber, but also because it evolved in the same hothouse atmosphere in which their particular alchemy of influences bore art. When The Americans comes to an end in 2018, after all, none of the aforementioned series will be on the air, and though I may have too much invested in it, too many hours and too many words, too many feelings and too many thoughts, I want to suggest this: The Americans may well turn out to be last great drama of television’s most recent Golden Age, and it’s high time we learned to appreciate it.

The Americans airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. Read our episodic reviews here.



Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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