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Sleeper Agent

With new spy drama The Americans, FX again shows it's unafraid to take risks to make quality TV


Despite a general softening that undermined the TV ad market in Q4 2012, it’s impossible to understate how much FX has grown under Landgraf. Per the CAB, FX has increased its ad revenue by 87 percent since 2006, his first full year at the tiller.

In that same span, FX’s affiliate revenue has jumped from 35 cents per subscriber per month to 48 cents—nearly double the industry average. With some 98.2 million subscribers, the network took in around $565.6 million in carriage fees, a near-perfect balance of its dual revenue streams.

Joe Weisberg, the creator of The Americans, says he’s been working closely with Landgraf since FX picked up his pilot script two years ago. “John and his team have been an integral part of the development of the show,” says Weisberg, who also serves as an executive producer and writer. “It’s been a very close and fruitful collaboration.”

Not only does Weisberg receive notes from the network boss, but he also gets input from an even higher power. A former CIA operative, Weisberg must submit his scripts to the agency’s Publications Review Board, which vets its former employee’s manuscripts for classified material. “When I joined the CIA, one of the conditions of employment was that I had to sign a secrecy agreement,” he recalls. “In other words, I have a contractual obligation where anything I write that has to do with intelligence matters is subject to review.”

Weisberg says that while the CIA hasn’t studded his scripts with a bunch of redaction bars, production on The Americans was literally blacked out in late October when Hurricane Sandy slammed into the New York area. “We lost our production office pretty much entirely, and we’re still not back in it,” Weisberg says, adding that the nearby Gowanus Canal, the snot-green Superfund site that oozes past The Americans’ Brooklyn HQ, had breached its banks. “We’ve effectively been working out of a temporary office since Sandy hit. Most of the sets were damaged and had to be rebuilt.”

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Matthew Rhys’ face is a study in concentration. The Wales-born actor has snagged his tongue on the word “escalate,” and with every successive take you can sort of see him anticipating the lexical hurdle. On take four, he breezes past the trigger word, but then in a sprint to get to the end of the line he inverts another pair.

Like actual spouses, the actors are tremendously supportive of one another, apologizing effusively after every misstep. In the last take before they nail the scene, Rhys just blanks on a section of dialogue and grabs his head. Russell moves forward to embrace him and he blurts, “No! No hugs!” It’s as if he’s trying to stay in character while also suggesting that he doesn’t deserve her charity.

Then, as if fortified by a bracing shot of Stolichnaya, the two performers eat the scene alive. As they deliver lines and hit their marks, they also become more expressive and fluid in their movements. By the time Philip bounds up the stairs after laying down the law (“We’re doing things my way, for once! And you’ll live with it.”), everyone on the set recognizes that this is the take they’ve been waiting for. Now all that’s left to do is shoot coverage. “Good, because it ain’t going to get any better than that,” Rhys jokes.

As the crew adjusts the lighting for a posterior shot—producer Adam Arkin cracks that if any of footage of Russell’s denim-clad keister makes it into the final cut, “sales of Lee jeans are going to go through the roof”—Rhys talks about Philip’s desire to transform himself into a red-blooded American.

“Compared to the Russia he grew up in, the America he is living in now is a pretty great place,” Rhys explains. “So couple that with the fact that there’s an opportunity to ensure that his family’s safe while making a lot of money, it’s pretty much a logical journey for him.”

Best known for his role as Kevin Walker on ABC’s Brothers and Sisters, Rhys says the cable model allows him to pursue theatrical and film roles. “You know, cable really is the ideal,” he says. “You shoot for six months or whatever, and in terms of storytelling, you also have a greater amount of freedom.”

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