Sleeper Agent

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

Craft services appears to have closed for business, but Keri Russell would very much like something to nibble on if it wouldn’t be an imposition on the people packing away the last of the chips, cookies and crackers. This is not a diva trip—if anything, the petite actress somehow appears to make herself physically smaller as she asks to forage around in the snack bin.

The sun is setting on the second day of the new year, and Russell has just spent the better part of the last three hours filming a pivotal scene for the new FX series, The Americans (Jan. 30, 10 p.m.). It’s a long, rather tricky passage—there’s a good deal of futzing with an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, and some of the lines seem a bit more knotty than they absolutely need be—and so Russell and her co-star, Matthew Rhys, had run into a few rough patches earlier in the afternoon.

Having secured a small bag of pretzels (“I promise not to munch too loudly into your tape recorder”), Russell’s discernible self-possession is offset by a disarming tendency to punctuate her sentences with one of the few words you still can’t say on basic cable. Joking about how long it took to nail the scene, she refuses to make any excuses for the delay.

“If I would have known my lines, I would have talked to you sooner. But I did not, as you saw!” she laughs. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, that scene! Good riddance, that scene! Never again!”

The Americans marks Russell’s first starring role on the tube since she became a pop-culture phenomenon as the lead of the WB’s Felicity (1998-2002). Set in 1981, the show focuses on a sleeper cell of married KGB agents (Russell and Rhys) posing as regular folks in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The tension between Russell’s character, the fully indoctrinated spy Elizabeth Jennings, and Rhys’ more ambivalent Philip Jennings, ratchets up almost unbearably as their mutual attraction is increasingly at odds with the demands of the KGB and the dissonance between their respective ideologies.

The Jennings’ partnership is the nougaty center at the heart of the rich confection that is The Americans, and the balance between the domestic drama and the requisite trappings of espionage make the show the must-watch new midseason series.

“Look, I actually love spy stuff, but the interesting thing to me and the reason I said yes to the show was that marriage,” Russell says. “I was just drawn to this idea of a relationship that’s tested by extreme circumstances—I mean, they’re in this arranged marriage and having sex with other people and their job calls on them to do these really hateful things—and yet, over time, they come to choose each other. The trick is to get you to believe in them, and like them.”

Будь у него желание…

Were he so inclined, John Landgraf probably would make for a pretty nifty spy. While he wears his intelligence lightly, the president and general manager of FX Networks is almost dauntingly articulate, like the cool semiotics professor who deconstructed the diet pills episode of Family Ties to illustrate the inherent fallacy of the War on Drugs.

Given the disparity between the series he’s shepherded as the head of FX—from the head-stomping brio of the outlaw biker drama Sons of Anarchy to the existentialist squirmathon that is Louie, the network tends to spelunk its way through the darker side of the human experience—one may well imagine that the soft-spoken Landgraf has been operating under deep cover for the better part of a decade. While every show on the net bears his imprimatur, it’s often difficult to square the cerebral exec with some of the merrily antisocial content that’s been rolled out on his watch.

In a sense, The Americans represents the purest expression of FX’s guiding principle, which as Landgraf characterizes it, is “to make shows that appeal to the lizard brain as well as the frontal cortex.” As Landgraf notes, that sort of duality is central to the series. “What interested me was the interplay in narrative tension inherent in an espionage franchise and the thematic and emotional tensions that come with this very unique family dynamic,” he says. “After 15 years of living here, Philip is really as much of an American as he is a Soviet citizen while Elizabeth remains a loyal soldier. And as they work out their respective positions, they begin playing a dangerous game with their KGB handlers.”

(Incidentally, it’s worth noting here that Landgraf has a tendency to speak exactly as he does in the preceding paragraph—in full, grammatically correct sentences that arrive perfectly punctuated. As one rival network chief puts it, “That guy is a goddamn genius.”)

Genius or not, Landgraf makes profoundly engaging and profitable TV. Among the series that have debuted since he took the reins from Peter Liguori in 2005 include the dramas Sons of Anarchy, Justified and American Horror Story, and the comedies Louie, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League and Archer.

The balance of homegrown programming, along with a slate of acquired theatrical titles and an expanding sports roster, have helped make FX one of the biggest earners in the cable universe. Per the most recent SNL Kagan estimates, FX in 2012 netted $503.2 million in ad revenue, making it the fourth-biggest earner in its competitive set.

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