How Realistic is The Americans?

The Americans is a great show. The writing is excellent, the actors are superb, and the costumes are spot on. Aside from the quality of the show, theme wise, this drama is quite unique. From the ironic title and the over-all look of the show, one can assume that the show if full of violence, politics, and talk about love of country. However, at its core, the main theme is about marriage and family. A complete 360 of what most people can expect out of a show about espionage, especially something that comes out from FX.

Another thing that I like about the show is that it emanates a sense of realism. This comes from the fact that Joe Weisberg, executive producer and creator of the show, is a legit ex-spy from the CIA. We’ve talked about that here in a couple of times and his story of how he created the show is fantastic. But brilliant as it is, how realistic is the Americans?

To answer that question, let me introduce you to Peter Earnest, a 35 year CIA veteran and the founding director of DC’s International Spy Museum. Aside from being a veteran spy, he is also an avid watcher of the FX hit.

First and foremost he thinks that the show is fascinating. “I heard the show was going to be on, and I watched the pilot, and I was struck by [it],” said Mr. Earnest. “I thought ‘Oh, they’re trying to use some real trade craft.'”

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings we’re characterizations of real foreign sleeper agents. Earnest says that they were definitely used by the Soviets. Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher was a good example, an “illegal” who went by the name of Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, a spy in the 1950s in New York City.
“[Abel] was an illegal, and he settled in in this country, had a small business. The idea is to blend into your surroundings – so if that takes a small business and a pursuit that explains why you’re there and how you’re able to pay your rent, that’s all you really need.”

Earnest says that the show is spot on when it comes to spy techniques like dead drops and multiple guises which has been used in the Cold War and today. What he finds unrealistic about the show is the amount of tasks that the spy couple have to do.

“I’ve never heard of an illegal who would be so heavily tasked to do so many different things.”

Earnest says . “They’re often saved for some extraordinary thing, or they may handle someone who can’t be handled by someone under official cover in the embassy.”

Another unlikely element of the show, according to Mr. Earnest of course, is the couple’s proficiency in martial arts and weapons handling.

“Illegals typically were normal people,” he explains. “They weren’t expected to engage in martial arts – in many cases they didn’t even carry weapons.”

If the cast and the crew are going to integrate this “realities” into the show then it will definitely be boring as hell.

Catch the premiere of The Americans season 2, February 26, 10 PM on FX.

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