Warning: This post contains mild spoilers from the first five seasons of The Americans.
AUSTIN, Texas—On its surface, FX’s The Americans is a sleeper-cell spy drama set in DC during the Cold War. But fans will quickly tell you the show’s more about relationships and the difficulties of family and marriage; the show’s creators echo this sentiment, too.
“If you really look at the show honestly, the picture it paints of marriage is that there’s a lot of ups, a lot of downs, and it’s not an easy road,” showrunner Joe Weisberg says to fellow showrunner Joel Fields. The duo met up with Ars during this summer’s ATX Television Festival, and this author’s recent wedding comes up pre-interview. “He’s right at the beginning; he just got married. I don’t know if I want to lay out for him what’s really ahead.”
“Joe, he’s seen the show,” Fields replies.
“He’s probably thinking, ‘That’s not me,’” Weisberg insists. “But the real message of the show? That’s everybody.”
Through five seasons of this critically acclaimed drama (which recently earned Fields and Weisberg Emmy nominations for writing), they’re probably right. Lead characters Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) have been placed in an arranged marriage, transferred across the world away from everyone they know and love, and forced to start a family. Of course they’ll have some disagreements on how the kids should be raised and maybe go through a few strained periods or separations. But my chat with the showrunners isn’t about the relatable and engaging themes or overall narratives The Americans has found within its clever premise; I want to know about the show’s real subtext. I want to talk discrete audio recorders, tiny cameras, and mail robots—I want to hear about The Americans’ love for 1980s tech.
“We love that shit,” Weisberg says frankly. “You wouldn’t confuse us with full-borne technophiles, but we grew up in the ‘80s. We grew up with this technology, have a great fondness for it, and have fantastic technical advisors [on the show].”
Tech memory lane in vivid detail
The Americans’ overall attention to period detail has become legendary, from its music cues (Yaz!) to its incorporation of current events (Reagan’s Star Wars to David Copperfield and Lady Liberty). Accordingly, Weisberg and Fields’ tech credentials have subtly been on display all throughout the series to date.
On Twitter, Fields often posts writers’ room inspiration boards filled with everything from the origins of “🙂” to space minutiae like Challenger 4 or the Soviet Venera 16 probe. Episode titles have referenced software like Lotus Notes or touchstones like ARPANET, and corresponding scripts weave such entities into the plot as integral details. Most notable of all, the Jennings’ son Henry often feels like a proxy for both the audience and the writing staff’s collective nostalgia—at various points, he sneaks into a nearby house to play an Intellivision, obsesses over a Mattel Electronics-style handheld football game (Tandy’s Championship Football, specifically), and invites neighbor/FBI agent Stan Beeman over to see what appears to be the family’s new Osborne 1.
“We didn’t know each other [in the ‘80s],” Fields says. “We shared different childhoods in the same era in different cities, but we share the same memories and passions for that tech. [The tech] is nostalgic; it takes us back. We had to write in Henry’s passion for the handheld, LED football game because I think both of us craved it and didn’t have it in Junior High.”
“That’s not just us,” Weisberg says. “Any boy who grew up when we did wanted that game. It has a little light that beeped, but when you were 12-years-old there was nothing that had a little light and moved and beeped. It seems insane now—like the dumbest thing you can have—but back then it was a miracle.”
Obviously, the ‘80s proved to be a glorious decade for tech, and we at Ars revisit it fondly through things like the TRS-80 Model 100 and the Apple II. But Weisberg and Fields take a pragmatic approach to what appears on the show. Every bit of gadgetry they admire can’t show up on screen; instead they limit what makes the script by allowing narrative to dictate those decisions. So Lotus Notes highlights the particularly bland personality of one of Phillip’s assets, and Championship Football showcases Henry’s curiosity and fondness for American culture. But something as iconic as that famous 1984 Apple ad goes from inspiration wall to the cutting room floor.
“We talked about that big Super Bowl ad, but we usually avoid the big things like that,” Weisberg says. “It feels like you’re trying too hard. Would they have really seen that ad or do you feel the writers trying to put that in to show to say, ‘hey, we know how big that became?’”
“It has to be very integrated,” Fields continues. “We’ll always avoid putting something in if it just draws attention to itself. It has to feel like something they’d naturally be doing—that’s the sweet spot. You never want to pull the audience out of the show just so they say, ‘oh cool, I remember that.’”
Listing image by @joel_fields
When it comes to narrative utility, the tech that most often succeeds is either the standards integrated into daily life in the early ‘80s (say, typewriters or rotary phones) or spy-tech of the era. The Americans takes a rigorous approach to either category when the time comes to display it accurately on screen. Weisberg remembers some of the most heavily researched sequences early on in the show revolved around mundane things like beepers or telephones.
“When we were doing the pilot, we had an outdoor phone, and the question came up, ‘Should it be a dial phone or a rotary phone?’” he said. “No one could figure out the answer. We finally had to call the phone company and ask them to dig into their archives, and the complex response was: at that time, in that era, a lot of the phones outside were both—there were plenty of X phones and Y phones, so we could choose what we wanted.”
For spy tech, The Americans does even better—it goes right to the source. Weisberg served in the CIA once upon a time, and the show’s technical advisors include some of the premier experts on both American and Soviet spy craft from the era. (Christopher Lynch was a counter-intelligence office for 30 years who specialized in the Soviets; H. Keith Melton literally started the US’s Spy Museum.)
“So everything used on the show like that was actually stuff the KGB used during those years,” Weisberg explains. “[Our advisors] literally send it to us to put on the show—if you see KGB gear or any of that stuff, it’s not fabricated; it’s the actual stuff.”
“For example, in S2, the briefcase where Emmett and Leanne have a concealment, it’s an actual KGB suitcase with a concealment baked in,” Fields notes.
“And Phillip’s recorder is actually an unbelievable piece of tech,” Weisberg adds. “The KGB built it in the 1980s, and it’s a wire recorder. When everyone else was using cassette tapes that could hold 60, 90, maybe 100 minutes, they came up with a way to use a thin little strip of wire. It was the only recording device that could get 22 or maybe even up to 60 hours on a wire; it’s incredible.”
The Americans’ real star castmember
The Americans just wrapped its fifth season in the spring, and next year’s season six will be the show’s final run. Based on the pattern so far, it’ll likely be set in 1985 (hello, Amiga). But Fields and Weisberg couldn’t disclose what types of tech gadgetry will even make the inspiration wall during production. So instead, we end our chat by addressing everyone’s favorite (including the showrunners’) piece of tech shown so far: a mail robot operating inside the FBI offices.
The robot has had several crucial plots call upon it, and Henry Jennings once got to see it on a career day-like excursion. Fans write to the two showrunners about it often, and it’s become so popular that mail robot earned its own Twitter feed. And as you might expect from everything else on The Americans, this, too, comes directly from real life.
Fields: “There’s something perfectly beautiful about the mail robot as an expression of the transition of the technology. There you are in the early ‘80s, and they knew correctly that mail delivery wasn’t going to be controlled by human beings, but they just had the tech backwards. They eliminated the mail carrier instead of eliminating the mail—how could’ve they known?”
Weisberg: “We didn’t make that up by the way. [Christopher Lynch] wrote a book about his experiences in the FBI. We’re reading it, and he describes this mail robot that they had at the FBI. So we took that entirely from the true history; on YouTube, you can see videos of the real one, and it looks exactly like our mail robot.”
Fields: “There was actually a lot of anger when Richard Thomas [Agent Gaad] beat it up. We almost had to do one of those things—‘No mail robots were injured in this episode.’”
Weisberg: “Fans demanded Agent Gaad be kicked off the show.”
Fields: “Yeah, John Boy got his throat slit over that.”
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