“The Americans" 10 p.m. Wednesdays, FX
“The Americans," a new spy thriller starting Wednesday on FX, has a CIA pedigree, is set in the geopolitical crucible of the Cold War 1980s and stars Keri Russell playing against winsome type as a Communist hard-liner who is equally adept at seducing bureaucrats, kicking the heads of her enemies through walls or inserting a bit of propaganda into her son’s homework.
It has plenty going for it as a cloak-and-dagger series, in other words, especially in a prime-time era defined by another espionage drama, “Homeland."
But it’s the metaphorical tension of the show’s domestic conceit — a pair of deep-cover KGB agents are assigned to pose as husband and wife in the Washington suburbs — that the show’s creators hope will elevate it into something more than a pulpy diversion.
The bet is that beyond the clandestine window dressing, viewers may find some deeper resonance in the story of two people thrown together by fate, who end up years later with two kids, a house in the ’burbs and a superficial marriage that they keep up for appearance’s sake.
“Regardless of whether you’re spies, how much do you really know somebody?" said Russell, perhaps best known as the title ingenue in “Felicity," which was shown on WB from 1998 to 2002. “How much do you really choose somebody?"
Or as Joel Fields, an executive producer, put it, “What is marriage besides going through the motions?"
“The Americans" was inspired by the 2010 arrest of a ring of actual Russian sleeper agents. The case, with its forged passports, coded messages and other details seemingly derived from a John le Carre novel, spurred Amblin Entertainment to contact Joe Weisberg, who was a case officer trainee at the CIA in the 1990s before moving on to write for series like “Damages" and “Falling Skies."
The show he came up with moved the spy story to the 1980s and drew on his recollections of how working undercover affected the family lives of operatives he met at the agency. “Even in this show, which has a lot of fun with espionage, there were stories we could tell that could feel real," Weisberg said.
“The Americans" begins in 1981, more than a decade after the show’s spies, played by Russell and Matthew Rhys, emigrated to the United States, had children and established a modest travel agency — all part of the cover — in Falls Church, Va. The election of Ronald Reagan, with his “Evil Empire" rhetoric, as president has intensified the hostility between the superpowers.
Meanwhile, the couple has come to a sort of emotional crossroads, torn between a long-standing loyalty to the motherland and devotion to their American family. Existentially charged high jinks ensue as the agents, known as Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, negotiate their own deepening relationship and a series of increasingly dangerous operations.
The period details are relatively muted, aside from a soundtrack that features Pat Benatar, Juice Newton and the requisite “In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins.
But the time frame does allow the show to borrow actual historical tension and off-screen characters while spinning a yarn free of smartphones or online technology. When the agents bug the office of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, they use an analog microphone and a remote transmitter the size of shoe box.
Often at odds within the series, the actors share an obvious rapport in person. Interviewed together in Russell’s trailer on the set in Gowanus, Brooklyn, they traded jokes about the series (Rhys: “I think she kills me in Episode 8." Russell: “Then it’s just going to be called ‘The American.’") along with more earnest musings about the challenges of creating a credible phony-but-maybe-becoming-real marriage while also occasionally beating people up.
The producers draw a comparison with “The Sopranos," which is perhaps not surprising. Who wouldn’t want to keep company with one of the most acclaimed shows in history? But the point, Fields said, is “you were drawn into this intense family drama that happened to be set in a very challenging world, and the same is the case here, we hope."