Warning: This post contains mild spoilers from the first five seasons of The Americans.
AUSTIN, Texas—At first glance, FXs The Americans is a sleep cell spy drama set in Cold War DC. But fans will soon tell you more about relationships and the difficulties of family and marriage; the show’s creators echo this sentiment as well.
“If you really look at the show honestly, the picture it paints of marriage is that there are a lot of ups, a lot of downs and it’s not an easy road,” showrunner Joe Weisberg told fellow showrunner Joel Fields. The duo met Ars at this summer’s ATX Television Festival, and this author’s recent wedding precedes the interview. “He’s at the very beginning; he just got married. I don’t know if I want to tell him what’s really ahead.”
“Joe, he’s seen the show,” Fields replies.
“He probably thinks, ‘That’s not me,'” emphasizes Weisberg. “But the real message of the show? that is everybody.”
Over five seasons of this critically acclaimed drama (which recently earned Fields and Weisberg Emmy nominations for writing), they’re probably right. Main characters Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) have been placed in an arranged marriage, moved around the world, away from everyone they know and love, and forced to start a family. Naturally they will disagree on how to raise the kids and may go through some tense periods or separations. But my conversation with the showrunners isn’t about the recognizable and engaging themes or general stories The Americans has found in its clever premise; I want to know more about the shows Real caption. I want to talk about discrete audio recorders, small cameras and mail robots – I want to hear more about them The Americans’ love for 80s technology.
“We love that shit,” Weisberg says honestly. “You wouldn’t mistake us for seasoned technophiles, but we grew up in the 80s. We grew up with this technology, love it and have great technical advisors [on the show].”
Technical memory strip in vivid details
The AmericansThe overall attention to detail of the era has become legendary, from the musical elements (Yaz!) to the inclusion of current events (Reagan’s Star Wars to David Copperfield and Lady Liberty). Accordingly, Weisberg and Fields’ technical references have been subtly seen throughout the series thus far.
On Twitter, Fields often posts inspiration boards for writers’ rooms full of everything from the origins of “🙂” to space minutiae like Challenger 4 or the soviet Venera 16 ask questions. Episode titles refer to software such as Lotus Notes or touchstones such as ARPANET, and accompanying scripts weave such entities into the plot as integral details. Most notable of all, Henry, the son of the Jennings, often feels like a proxy to both the audience and the collective nostalgia of the writing staff — at various points, he sneaks into a nearby house to play an Intellivision, obsessed with a Mattel Electronics-style handheld soccer game (Tandy’s Football Championshipin particular), and invites neighbor/FBI agent Stan Beeman to see what appears to be the new Osborne 1 of the family.
“We Didn’t Know Each Other” [in the ‘80s]Velden says. “We shared different childhoods in the same era in different cities, but we share the same memories and passions for that technology. [The tech] is nostalgic; it brings us back. We had to write Henry’s passion for the portable LED football game because I think we both longed for it and didn’t have it at Junior High.’
“That’s not just us,” Weisberg says. “Every kid growing up when we did that 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 – if it dumbest thing you can have – but then it was a miracle.”
Clearly the ’80s proved to be a glorious decade for technology, and at Ars we look back fondly on 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 gadget they admire cannot appear on the screen; instead, they limit what the script makes by letting the story dictate these decisions. So Lotus Notes highlights the particularly soft personality of one of Phillip’s assets, and Football Championship shows Henry’s curiosity and fondness for American culture. But something iconic like that famous 1984 Apple ad goes from inspiration wall to the floor of the cutting shop.
“We talked about that big Super Bowl ad, but we usually avoid big things like that,” Weisberg says. “It feels like you’re trying too hard. Would they have actually seen that ad or do you feel like the writers are trying to put that up to show, ‘Hey, we know how big that got?’”
“It has to be very integrated,” Fields continues. “We will always avoid putting anything in it if it just draws attention to itself. It should feel like something they would naturally do – that’s the sweet spot. You never want to take the audience off the show just to say, ‘oh cool, I remember that.’”