Spies like us

In "Turn," the spying takes place during the Revolutionary War years, also showing the split personalities of ordinary-seeming folks who carry big secrets.
In "Turn," the spying takes place during the Revolutionary War years, also showing the split personalities of ordinary-seeming folks who carry big secrets.
Posted: February 26, 2014

* THE AMERICANS. 10 p.m. tomorrow, FX.

JAMES BOND never supervised anyone's homework. Or ran a mom-and-pop business. And he certainly never gave a moment's thought to having his exploits, sexual or otherwise, interrupted by curious offspring.

Ian Fleming's superspy might have crumbled under the pressures faced daily by KGB operatives Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings in FX's "The Americans," juggling espionage and parenthood in Reagan-era suburbia.

As "The Americans" returns tomorrow for a second season in which that juggling act becomes ever more perilous, the Jenningses aren't alone in depicting spies whose double lives may look more like those of our neighbors than like anything from a John le Carré novel.

Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), of Showtime's "Homeland," who's expected to be back in the field in Season 4, has dealt with mental illness, heartbreak - and pregnancy, all while fighting terrorists.

The fractured family life of her former lover, turncoat war hero Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), was part of the show's first three seasons, and we've seen Carrie's CIA boss Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) trying to save his marriage amid overwhelming threats to his agency's mission.

Starting April 6, AMC's "Turn," a Revolutionary War drama inspired by Alexander Rose's Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, will introduce a whole new group of seemingly ordinary people - recruited from the pages of history - whose lives and loves will be examined as thoroughly, if maybe more fictionally, as their work as spies.

Accent on family

In Season 2 of "The Americans," said Joel Fields, who runs the show with its creator, Joe Weisberg, "the family itself is the question. . . . It's easy to tell ourselves in our relationships, and particularly in our parenting relationships, that what's important is what we say to our children, how we treat them - we think that's the most important thing.

"But, really, at the end of the day, isn't what impacts our children, isn't it just the aggregation of our actions? It's who we are. We live by example. And what is it that they're imparting? And what is the world that they've created? And that's where the season kicks off - [Philip and Elizabeth are] forced to confront that in a very intense way."

"The challenge we're always facing," said Weisberg, who worked for the CIA in the early '90s, "is how to have the stakes as high as possible and keep everything grounded and real. And whenever there's conflict between those two - and occasionally we feel we made a mistake in this in Season 1 - we try to choose grounded and real."

Not that being utterly faithful to reality is necessarily required of a thriller, suggested "Homeland" executive producer Howard Gordon, who's also overseeing the London-based reboot, for Fox, of his former show "24," and working on a new FX series, "Tyrant," that's set in the Middle East.

Early on, Gordon said, he and executive producer Alex Gansa "fretted over the basic question of setting a spy show about a CIA agent who operates on domestic territory, which defies a principle, and even a civilian understanding, of how that agency works."

But when they showed it "to our analysts and consultants, they were far less offended by it," Gordon said.

It could be argued that "Homeland," set in the present day, amid growing revelations about the nature of America's antiterrorist activities, serves an audience with little or no disbelief left to suspend, but Gordon doesn't see it that way.

"I think that it's all about the characters that you insert and the situation that you tap," he said. "I'm not sure it's about the fact that we're so jaded and so cynical about the people who are charged with helping us.

"I really think the questions are genuinely interesting, mainly, what are we afraid of? And even 'The Americans' really sort of challenges our understanding of who we're rooting for."

Looking at our history from the point of view of foreign agents on U.S. soil is "just interesting," he said. "It just makes us think about our own history, through a kind of different prism."

From a distance

It probably doesn't hurt that "The Americans" is set during the last gasps of the Cold War - a conflict that ended in the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"What's interesting is seeing them in the midst of this pitched battle of history," knowing how it will end, Fields said.

"Back then, we had a certain mortal enemy. If we knew one thing, we knew we had a mortal enemy. And it's gone today, we do business with them, it's just evaporated. And now we have another certain mortal enemy."

"And we'll see how it looks in 20 years," Weisberg added.

Or, maybe in a couple of hundred.

That's the distance that "Turn" will be looking back.

"In a way, it's the first spy story," executive producer Craig Silverstein told reporters last month.

"The birth of modern trade craft was worked out here through trial and error," he said. "Aliases, cover stories, dead drops, the idea of a black budget, you know, a lot of cryptography."

Rose, on whose book about America's first spy ring the show is based, said that the thing that surprised him most "was just how much or how greatly George Washington delighted in spying the daylights out of the enemy. . . . He took this very deep interest in the goings-on of this very obscure bunch of people on Long Island."

Viewers may be equally surprised to see how laundry - which figures in some plot points on "The Americans" - was used by at least one of Washington's spies, Anna Strong (Heather Lind), who would hang a black petticoat on a clothesline as a secret signal.

Agent 007 may love his toys, but to those writing TV's spy thrillers, low tech can make for high drama.

Sometimes in writing "The Americans," Fields said, "we wish a character could call another character with a cellphone, but mostly . . . it's so great that when characters have separated, they're out there in the world and nothing can be solved through an email, a cellphone, a text. They're just in crisis alone. It's good from a storytelling standpoint."

On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray

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