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FX Network

How Realistic is The Americans?

FX Network
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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10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for more than 40 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guardaldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother, Linus, however, is still a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGG.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of whatever holiday they’re celebrating. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day Marathon Is Back
Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

For many fans, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is as beloved a Thanksgiving tradition as mashed potatoes and gravy (except funnier). It seems appropriate, given that the show celebrates the turkeys of the movie world. And that it made its debut on Thanksgiving Day in 1988 (on KTMA, a local station in Minneapolis). In 1991, to celebrate its third anniversary, Comedy Central hosted a Thanksgiving Day marathon of the series—and in the more than 25 years since, that tradition has continued.

Beginning at 12 p.m. ET on Thursday, Shout! Factory will host yet another Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day marathon, hosted by series creator Joel Hodgson and stars Jonah Ray and Felicia Day. Taking place online at ShoutFactoryTV.com, or via the Shout! Factory TV app on Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire and select smart TVs, the trio will share six classic MST3K episodes that have never been screened as part of a Shout! Factory Turkey Day Marathon. Here’s hoping your favorite episode makes it (cough, Hobgoblins, cough.)

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