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How Realistic is The Americans?

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FX Network

FX's drama The Americans—which has its second season premiere tonight—is set in the 1980s during the Cold War and revolves around deep-cover KGB spies Philip and Elizabeth, who have been living in the U.S. for 15 years. On the show, the pair regularly engages in espionage, violent combat, sleeping with the enemy, and much more—all of which could potentially blow their covers and set international politics into chaos. The Americans is certainly entertaining and has garnered critical acclaim, but is it realistic? 

Show creator Joseph Weisberg was inspired by an incident in 2010 in which 11 deep-cover agents of the Russian government were arrested for conspiracy. In essence, they were foreign spies trained in Russia to assume false identities and report information back to the government. To suss the facts from the fiction, I consulted Peter Earnest, the Executive Director of the International Spy Museum and a career CIA veteran of 36 years (who also admits that he enjoys the show, though he doesn’t watch on a weekly basis).

Getting into the Country

One thing the Russian spy ring of 2010 and The Americans' Elizabeth and Philip have in common is that they are all “illegals.” This doesn’t mean that they entered the country illegally or conducted diplomatic work that would be considered unlawful, but rather that they assumed a false identity and have a relationship with their mother country (in this case, USSR/KGB) that is unknown to the host country. KGB agents who were not undercover entered as Russian diplomats, according to Earnest, but didn't declare themselves as KGB; CIA agents had the same practice.

Leading a Double Life

Considering the show’s protagonists spend most of their time fighting bad guys, seducing important sources, and breaking into secure locations, it’s difficult to believe that anyone in their situation could hold down a double life, with kids, neighbors, and clients of their cover businesses being unaware. While maintaining a double life, the real-life counterparts were less concerned about the awesome spy stuff and more focused on their new identities. They were putting legitimate work into their cover businesses, integrating themselves into American life, and raising families. And a couple of them were pretty successful: One was a financial planner earning $135,000 a year, while another owned a real estate firm in Manhattan that was valued at $2 million.

According to ex-CIA operative Milton Bearden, the Russian government likely didn’t mind these side businesses becoming successful because self-sufficient spies were cheaper to support.

In her 1994 memoir, ex-Russian spy Galina Fedorova said that illegals were trained at the KGB’s legendary Directorate S to assume a false identity. The candidates were given a psychological screening and underwent grueling training to prepare them for an isolated life in deep cover. In order to make their covers convincing, the KGB would mine records of deceased foreign babies and use their identities for the spies.

Multiple Personalities

Over the course of the first season of The Americans, Philip and Elizabeth juggle half a dozen identities, including one who seduces an FBI agent's secretary. In reality, a deep-cover agent’s life was far more boring. They lacked support from their home country and generally only communicated with them once or twice a year. Because of this, they spent much more time on keeping up their false identities and were unable to take any big risks. Oleg Gordievsky, former deputy head of the KGB, said in a 2010 interview that deep-cover spies “often fail to deliver better intelligence than their colleagues who work in the open.”

In fact, the 2010 Russian spy ring was so short on secrets, they couldn’t be indicted on any treason charges because no information they passed on was of any value. The New York Times reported, “The assignments, described in secret instructions intercepted by the F.B.I., were to collect routine political gossip and policy talk that might have been more efficiently gathered by surfing the web.”

According to Earnest, “Illegals are used for maybe one or two missions at most because they’re very sensitive assets. [The Russian government has] gone to great expenses to train and deploy them."

As for why these spies were sent sometime after the fall of the Soviet Union to gather information in what is now a relatively open society, many sources suggested bureaucratic inertia.

The Loyalty Issue

According to Bearden, Moscow’s biggest challenge with agents like Philip and Elizabeth wouldn't be entrusting them to complete dangerous missions, but rather ensuring that they remained loyal amid the comforts of daily suburban American life. Earnest points out that defections happened fairly often. When asked why anyone wouldn’t defect, Earnest replied that, in many instances, sleeper agents had friends and family back home whose lives would be threatened if they defected.

Although Philip and Elizabeth are a glamorized version of deep-cover spies, that’s not to say that much of what we see on the show couldn't—or didn’t—happen in real life. For example, one seemingly far-fetched scene in The Americans in which someone is poisoned with an umbrella was actually based on one of the most perfectly executed assassinations of the Cold War. In 1978, Bulgarian exile George Markov was stabbed in the leg with an umbrella containing tiny cyanide capsules. He died three days later; the perpetrator, a Bulgarian operative, wasn’t identified until 2005 and wasn’t tracked down until March 2013—after the episode inspired by the event had aired.

Special thanks to Peter Earnest and the International Spy Museum.

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The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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