The setting of The Americans may be 1981 Washington, D.C., but since the FX thriller about undercover Soviet spies is actually shot in New York, the cast and executive producers held court at the Paley Center for Media last night for the latest installment of the PaleyFest: Made in NY panel series. On hand were stars Keri Russell (Elizabeth Jennings), Matthew Rhys (Philip Jennings) and Noah Emmerich (Stan Beeman), as well as executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields.
Those salivating for juicy tidbits about the forthcoming second season were bound to be disappointed as the cast and producers remained tight-lipped about specific plot points, both on the red carpet and during the panel. In their defense, Russell and Fields (demonstrating his loyalty to the Jenningses by wearing a red CCCP T-shirt emblazoned with a yellow hammer and sickle) admitted that the first table read of the season had just occurred that day, and shooting even doesn’t start until next week. (Russell told Rolling Stone that they’ll start on Wednesday. The series is set to return in January 2014.) But gleaning information about what’s next for the KGB agents who speak flawless English and look like they walked out of a JC Penney catalog wasn’t quite as impenetrable a task as some of Philip and Elizabeth’s previous missions. “We’ve only read one [script],” Russell told RS, “but it sounds like the family dynamic is going to be a real focus. As Paige [the Jennings’ American-born teenage daughter] gets older, she could be a serious threat for everyone’s safety.” Considering that Paige started snooping around her parents’ basement at the end of last season, Russell’s hints sound right on the mark.
Emmerich, who plays a shady FBI agent who also happens to be the Jennings’ next-door neighbor, spoke to RS prior to the panel about his character’s state of mind at the close of Season One: “Stan’s in a lot of pain,” he said. “And it just seemed to be piling on, as the season progressed.” He went on to suggest that he’s still figuring out what exactly is going on in Stan’s mind. “You just never know what’s real and what’s not, in this world. It’s part of the fun of it – you don’t know what’s in the center of the onion. So it seems like Stan is falling for Nina (the Russian double agent) in a realer way than, perhaps, his job requires. But who knows? Maybe he’s just really good at it.” The actor remains ever the optimist for Stan and his crumbling marriage: “It’s a show about marriage, and funnily enough, the first conversation is about Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage. But in a weird way, the marriage that’s being damaged the most at this point in the story is Stan and Sandra’s, so I’m rooting for them.”
New York magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who moderated the panel, kicked off the evening with questions for series creator – and former CIA agent – Weisberg, who was quick to disclose that he had made a serious error in his initial career choice: “It was my first day at the CIA when I realized I made a mistake,” he said. However, Weisberg’s training and experience has been vital to The Americans, as he’s provided expertise that only lends to the show’s riveting narrative and pace. Emmerich, for instance, discussed how Weisberg provided the cast members with counterintelligence techniques, such as how to follow someone without being noticed. This certainly adds to the show’s authenticity, but probably the biggest revelation of the evening was how some of The Americans’ most absurd story lines were taken from actual events. “Most of the stuff that seems the most ridiculous is real,” said Weisberg. Turns out the plot of Season One’s second episode, “The Clock,” where a young man is infected with a poison via an umbrella stab courtesy of Elizabeth, was based on a true story.
Speaking of ridiculous, the seemingly endless parade of awful wigs worn by Philip and Elizabeth were a welcome topic both at the panel and on the red carpet, as these tributes to every bad hair idea of the Eighties provide one of the few moments of levity on the show. Wales native Rhys told RS that he has reason to believe the hair pieces will receive an upgrade in the coming season: “I’ve had a fitting, which means the standard of wig in this next season will be of a higher quality, caliber, I’m certainly hoping.” Still, in Rhys’ experience, the whole disguise aspect of the show can be a no-win situation. “You live by that thing where you go, ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ If [the wig] looks too good, you go, ‘Well, would they really look that good?’ and if it looks too bad, they go, ‘Well, they don’t even look real.’ However, that CIA operative who was caught in Moscow over the summer, [he had] two very bad wigs and a case full of money! And you go, ‘This is the CIA in Moscow! You’d think he’d have good wigs!’ So all we do is imitate life!”
One of the many elements that has made The Americans such a gripping series is how the lines between the clichéd “good guys” and “bad guys” have been so expertly blurred. Philip and Elizabeth may be the communist “enemy,” but all-American patriot Stan tends to wind up on the morally ambiguous side of the spectrum more often than the Russians. “We’ve talked at times about the show being a three-legged stool,” Emmerich told RS. “And if one leg is too weak, it wouldn’t hold up. I think [the writers] have done an amazing job of crafting it so that any one of them has darkness that seems to go pretty deep. So hopefully they’re all somewhat unpredictable and somewhat dangerous.”
Even though history has already spoken regarding Philip and Elizabeth’s failed American-soil mission, Weisberg concluded the panel by admitting that he doesn’t know how the show will end just yet. “It’s evolving,” he said.