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In 'The Americans,' Art Imitates Real Life Lies


The story goes something like this - Russians in the U.S. masquerading as ordinary citizens, leading ordinary lives - turn out to be KGB agents. No, we're not talking about recent events in New York where authorities have arrested an alleged Russian spy working as a banker. We're talking about the FX television show "The Americans."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: The counterintelligence we're up against is the most sophisticated enemy in the world. Super-secret spies living next door. They look like us, they speak better English than we do.

NOAH EMMERICH: (As Stan Beeman) How are you doing? Stan Beeman.

MATTHEW RHYS: (As Philip Jennings) My wife, Elizabeth, Paige, Henry. What do you do, Stan?

EMMERICH: (As Stan Beeman) I'm an FBI agent.

RHYS: (As Philip Jennings) I have to make sure I don't do any spying around here.

SIEGEL: The third season of "The Americans" premieres tonight. Joseph Weisberg is the creator behind the scenes and former CIA officer himself. Joe Weisberg, welcome to the program.

JOE WEISBERG: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: The recent arrests - life imitating art imitating life?

WEISBERG: We've made a lot of jokes around here recently about whether or not our marketing department was behind all of this.

SIEGEL: Well, you know, when you began doing this - and the story is set in the 1980s, so you're doing a period piece - but actually as things proceed, it's more and more timely every year it seems.

WEISBERG: Yeah, it was interesting. When we started out, one of the real goals of the show was to say look at the enemy and think about whether or not there's any reason to be so hostile towards people. At the time, things were really quite peaceful in our relationship with Russia. So it seemed like a good time to be able to re-examine how we thought about them. And almost as soon as the show went on the air, things started getting more and more hostile in our relations with Russia. And now they seem to be almost at an all-time low since the advent of the Cold War.

SIEGEL: It's that marketing department of yours again doing a fabulous job, obviously.

WEISBERG: (Laughter) Right.

SIEGEL: Your own history as a spook - you were interested, I gather, in Russian history. That's what led you to it?

WEISBERG: Yeah, when I was in college, I took a great course on the history of the international communist movement. And I pretty quickly turned into a cold warrior and decided I should play my part in trying to bring down the Soviet Union. I don't think I accomplished much, but I did spend a few years in the CIA and learned a lot about espionage.

SIEGEL: One of the themes of the program - and I guess it's a theme you experienced - deception - deception in everyday life, deception over serious espionage matters, deception over everyday life matters.

WEISBERG: Yeah, you know, when I was at the CIA, I became really quite a liar. I had to lie all the time. I had to lie about everything I was doing. And I went in. And at first I thought that'd be very emotionally difficult for me. And it took about two weeks. After that, I just became adept at it. It never bothered me again. I just - I just found - it became almost second nature right away. And then after I left the CIA, I had to re-examine all that and think about how did that happen? How did that become so easy for me to do? And I got very interested in the whole question of lying and what it's like and what it means to a person and what it does to a person.

SIEGEL: Now, the plot of "The Americans" was inspired by the arrests of several Russians who had been living as Americans covertly in the United States for several years. I guess the arrests were back in 2010. The one major difference - I mean, I imagine those people experienced many of the issues of lying and deception that your Americans experienced - but my impression was that those Russians did remarkably little, actually. It didn't seem as though they accomplished very much. Your spies are amazingly productive.

WEISBERG: Our spies are very busy - not only busier than the actual illegals that were arrested in 2010, but our spies are probably busier than any spies in the actual history of espionage. Fictional spies have to stay very, very busy in order to keep people entertained.

SIEGEL: So season three - were still in the 1980s here, yes?


SIEGEL: At some point, if the show is too successful, you know, you're going to bump up against the collapse of the Soviet Union.

WEISBERG: Well, the big hallmarks that are coming up that we think about are 1985. Gorbachev is going to come in, and he's going to start Glasnost and Perestroika. And what are Phil and Elizabeth going to make of that? And then, of course, the wall is going to come down. That's going to be the big one - and then the end of the Soviet Union. But the show would have to last a very long time to get to those later points.

SIEGEL: Well, here's hoping. And thanks for talking with us about season three.

WEISBERG: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Joe Weisberg, creator of the TV show "The Americans," which begins its third season tonight on FX. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.