Maybe The Americans is quietly a technophile love letter to the 1980s

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Maybe The Americans is quietly a technophile love letter to the 1980s

The Emmy-nominated showrunners of The Americans, Joel Fields (L) and Joe Weisberg (R), sat down with Ars at ATX Television Fest 2017. One of ’em is a regular reader who enjoys our iOS and macOS reviews (but will revert to a flip phone when the show isn’t in production).

Warning: This post contains mild spoilers from the first five seasons of The Americans.

AUSTIN, Texas—On its surface, FX’s The Americans is a sleeper-cell spy drama set in DC during the Cold War. But fans will quickly tell you the show’s more about relationships and the difficulties of family and marriage; the show’s creators echo this sentiment, too.

“If you really look at the show honestly, the picture it paints of marriage is that there’s a lot of ups, a lot of downs, and it’s not an easy road,” showrunner Joe Weisberg says to fellow showrunner Joel Fields. The duo met up with Ars during this summer’s ATX Television Festival, and this author’s recent wedding comes up pre-interview. “He’s right at the beginning; he just got married. I don’t know if I want to lay out for him what’s really ahead.”

“Joe, he’s seen the show,” Fields replies.

“He’s probably thinking, ‘That’s not me,’” Weisberg insists. “But the real message of the show? That’s everybody.”

Through five seasons of this critically acclaimed drama (which recently earned Fields and Weisberg Emmy nominations for writing), they’re probably right. Lead characters Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) have been placed in an arranged marriage, transferred across the world away from everyone they know and love, and forced to start a family. Of course they’ll have some disagreements on how the kids should be raised and maybe go through a few strained periods or separations. But my chat with the showrunners isn’t about the relatable and engaging themes or overall narratives The Americans has found within its clever premise; I want to know about the show’s real subtext. I want to talk discrete audio recorders, tiny cameras, and mail robots—I want to hear about The Americans’ love for 1980s tech.

“We love that shit,” Weisberg says frankly. “You wouldn’t confuse us with full-borne technophiles, but we grew up in the ‘80s. We grew up with this technology, have a great fondness for it, and have fantastic technical advisors [on the show].”

Tech memory lane in vivid detail

The Americans’ overall attention to period detail has become legendary, from its music cues (Yaz!) to its incorporation of current events (Reagan’s Star Wars to David Copperfield and Lady Liberty). Accordingly, Weisberg and Fields’ tech credentials have subtly been on display all throughout the series to date.

On Twitter, Fields often posts writers’ room inspiration boards filled with everything from the origins of “:-)” to space minutiae like Challenger 4 or the Soviet Venera 16 probe. Episode titles have referenced software like Lotus Notes or touchstones like ARPANET, and corresponding scripts weave such entities into the plot as integral details. Most notable of all, the Jennings’ son Henry often feels like a proxy for both the audience and the writing staff’s collective nostalgia—at various points, he sneaks into a nearby house to play an Intellivision, obsesses over a Mattel Electronics-style handheld football game (Tandy’s Championship Football, specifically), and invites neighbor/FBI agent Stan Beeman over to see what appears to be the family’s new Osborne 1.

“We didn’t know each other [in the ‘80s],” Fields says. “We shared different childhoods in the same era in different cities, but we share the same memories and passions for that tech. [The tech] is nostalgic; it takes us back. We had to write in Henry’s passion for the handheld, LED football game because I think both of us craved it and didn’t have it in Junior High.”

“That’s not just us,” Weisberg says. “Any boy who grew up when we did wanted that game. It has a little light that beeped, but when you were 12-years-old there was nothing that had a little light and moved and beeped. It seems insane now—like the dumbest thing you can have—but back then it was a miracle.”

Obviously, the ‘80s proved to be a glorious decade for tech, and we at Ars revisit it fondly through things like the TRS-80 Model 100 and the Apple II. But Weisberg and Fields take a pragmatic approach to what appears on the show. Every bit of gadgetry they admire can’t show up on screen; instead they limit what makes the script by allowing narrative to dictate those decisions. So Lotus Notes highlights the particularly bland personality of one of Phillip’s assets, and Championship Football showcases Henry’s curiosity and fondness for American culture. But something as iconic as that famous 1984 Apple ad goes from inspiration wall to the cutting room floor.

“We talked about that big Super Bowl ad, but we usually avoid the big things like that,” Weisberg says. “It feels like you’re trying too hard. Would they have really seen that ad or do you feel the writers trying to put that in to show to say, ‘hey, we know how big that became?’”

“It has to be very integrated,” Fields continues. “We’ll always avoid putting something in if it just draws attention to itself. It has to feel like something they’d naturally be doing—that’s the sweet spot. You never want to pull the audience out of the show just so they say, ‘oh cool, I remember that.’”

Listing image by @joel_fields

Maybe The Americans is quietly a technophile love letter to the 1980s

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