by Jack Lilburn
Last week, HDD was invited to attend a pretty damn fun vokateur release party in Beverly Hills for FX’s breakout Cold War espionage hit 'The Americans'. The series, created and produced by former CIA officer Joe Weisberg, tells the story of Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), two undercover soviet KGB agents who assume the identities of a married American couple in the suburbs of 1980s Washington D.C. While we’ve seen a ton of spy material on the big over the last few years, 'The Americans' is a somewhat revolutionary take on the genre. Its heroes are also villains, leaving the audience with a fascinating moral quandary the likes of which I haven’t seen since Clint Eastwood’s 'Letters from Iwo Jima'. Smart, edgy and addictive, it was one of my small-screen favorite surprises of 2013 and highly worth your time.
With Season 1 debuting on Blu-ray today, and Season 2 set to air February 26th, Executive Producers Graham Yost, Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank were on hand to talk about the series, the espionage genre at large, and the cable series renaissance that’s reshaping the industry.
On how Season 2 will top Season 1.
YOST: Nuclear war! (laughter) You know what, the first season was really about a marriage. It was such an interesting way to tell the story of a marriage where two people have been together for 15 years, and they don’t really know each other and they don’t really love each other - and over the course of the season, the ups and downs. But they fall in love and we end with Elizabeth saying, “Philip, come home.” And season 2, spoiler alert, he comes home! He comes home and she’s waiting for her! You know, they’ve got their spy stuff to do and then something happens in the first episode that haunts them for the rest of the season and it leads to their fear that there could be an attack on their family. So where the first season was more about the marriage, the second season is more about the family, and there’s also a threat from within. There’s a crack that’s developing within them and their kids, so it’s both from within and without. Last year was more about Star Wars, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). This year there’s Afghanistan. There’s the Contras in Nicaragua. There’s stealth technology. There’s the beginnings of the ARCnet which was before the internet, which was a defense project and what that represented. So there’s a lot of information for them to get.
Small spoiler alert [Elizabeth and Philip] don’t have “the talk” this year [with their kids]. This is something Joe Weisberg talked about which is something for CIA officers posted overseas. Their kids wouldn’t know what their parents did. And at a certain age, and it was hard to decide when, they would have what they called “the talk”, where they would sit the kid down and say “Mommy and Daddy are spies” or “Dad is” or “Mom is”. I was doing a thing with Howard Rosenberg (retired TV critic for the Los Angeles Times) at USC and we were talking about ‘The Americans’ and with the questions afterwards a girl in the audience was laughing and said, “My parents were in the CIA”. And I said, “What was the talk?” And she said, “They took us out to see ‘Spy Kids’.” (laughter) There were like 10, 11, 12 – something like that. And the coolest thing was then someone raised their hand and said, “I am from the Ukraine. My uncle was in the KGB.” This was awesome. I think [the two kids] had a talk afterwards.
On making a less action-oriented spy story:
YOST: American filmed entertainment goes more to action with something like spies, if you consider the James Bond films American films. There’s often a reliance on the big action set pieces, but there is the tradition of, especially in Europe, in Britain, of the John LeCarre, Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, that kind of thing. It’s funny because television is perfect for that. We don’t have the budget to blow crap up every week, and we don’t really want to, so it’s just all about the moods and what are people doing, suspicions. And I think the great thing that Joe got - working with Daryl and Justin – I mean, you guys were talking about the idea for the show before I really signed on, but the idea of doing it with this family, about this marriage – and then the other brilliant thing was saying, “Oh let’s set this in 1981” and start it there.
FRANK: And that was all Joe’s idea. Because he knew when this Russian spy ring was busted in the suburbs on the east coast, he had friends, and we asked him about it, he knew those people got sent back, because they didn’t really have any information that was valuable. The first thing he said was, “You know, it would be much more interesting to set this during the cold war.” Because if you caught one of those people then, they’d have real information that really meant something. The stakes were much higher.
On their favorite spy films/show that influence their creative sensibilities:
YOST: I was a LeCarre fan, but I got into it through the British mini series, 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy', directed by John Irvin with Alec Guinness. And that got me to read The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. Those were pretty awesome. And I read Ian Fleming as a teenager because they had spicy stuff in them!
FALVEY: ‘The Saint’. My dad and I used to watch that one.
YOST: I’m older than these guys, so for me, in the 60s, ‘Man from U.N.C.L.E’ was a must watch TV show.
On quality writing moving away from movies to TV:
FALVEY: [Graham] is a perfect example. This guy’s written some of the biggest features, one of the biggest action features ever ('Speed').
YOST: Well, one (laughter).
FALVEY: We were talking about this today in a meeting. A lot of the 20-50 million dollar films are simply not being made. So writers, good writers, who are writing real characters, real story for actors kind of had no choice and it’s paying off. And I think what they’re finding is there’s not a more satisfying medium than television because it’s more of a challenge in a way because you’re setting up characters, stories and arcs that are taking place over multiple years but crossing over with greater payoff.
YOST: That’s it. And I think one of the other big things is that with 'The Sopranos' and ever since then, the ability to do a show that’s only 10 episodes, or 12 episodes, or 13 episodes a year. You can really craft something in that time. You know, 'The Americans' and 'Justified' both FX shows, both work on a 7-day schedule, so we’ve gotta move very fast. HBO is a whole different thing. They’d be doing 25 days on an episode of ‘The Sopranos’ and that kind of thing. But, writing wise, you can get your head around a season of 10 or 13, whereas I’ve got a friend who’s working on 'The Good Wife' which is perhaps the best network show on television and one of the best shows in any measure. But boy oh boy, to do 22 of those a year. That’s a brutality. I mean, people get well paid and we’re lucky to do it, but that’s really tough.
FRANK: The best talent from movies is coming to TV.
YOST: Yeah, I don’t like that. I don’t like that. I wish they would stop that. (laughter)
FRANK: We’re doing a show with Halle Berry and the advantage to do only 13 episodes a season of this show and then have her do that for only 4 months a year and then be able to spend time with her family and do movies the other time. And to have feature directors like Gavin O’Connor who shot the pilot. For him, he can do a movie and then come in and do a pilot, a movie – and it’s incredible the kind of talent that’s coming to television. I think they see that to be able to grow a character beyond 2 hours – to grow them beyond 13 hours, or 60 hours or 80 hours – they see an advantage to that. TV is not the redheaded stepchild anymore. (laughter)
YOST: I think there’s still great movies being made. I think what’s interesting is that there’s so much more flexibility in the form [with TV]. Especially when you get things like BBC, with 'Sherlock', where their season is three episodes and 90 minutes each. Who came up with that model? But it works. It’s great.
FALVEY: There’s enough avenues out there that it feels like the creative is driving the reigns as opposed to programming. You start with, “What is the most satisfying way to tell the story?” So many of these networks now, emerging networks like Amazon and Netflix, where you can have that flexibility and pitch what’s best for the concept artistically.
YOST: And something that’s happening which is part of that, because so much of the secondary market is on streaming services now where there’s Netflix or my personal favorite, Amazon Prime because both 'Justified' and 'The Americans' are on that, with an FX show like 'Sons of Anarchy', there are episodes there where the airing length was over 60 minutes. So I called up and asked “Essentially, do you guys care how long an episode is anymore?” (laughter) And they were like “Eh, try to keep it to the 42. It makes it easier for the affiliates and stuff.” We still have to do act breaks, but that’s fun because you get to add punctuation to the story. It’s like a poem and you write a quatrain. But we did an episode that’s 55 minutes. Americans has a good long one. Boy, the fifth episode of the second season? One of the best things I’ve ever seen. That is about a 50-minute episode and it is a 50-minute movie. It’s just this great little spy movie.
A huge thanks to the awesome folks at FX and Think Jam for putting together such a great event. I can’t wait to see where Season 2 takes things later this month.