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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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12 Fast Facts About Magnum, P.I.
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CBS

Magnum, P.I. was appointment television in a world before peak TV made that sort of thing commonplace. Starring Tom Selleck and set against a lush Hawaiian backdrop, the series was a triumph thanks to its tense action, humor, and eclectic cast of characters. Selleck’s Thomas Magnum shed the typical action hero mold for something far more relatable, and for eight seasons, the series was among the most popular on the air. To bring you back to a time when all you needed was a Hawaiian shirt and a Detroit Tigers cap to be a star, here are 12 facts about Magnum, P.I.

1. THERE'S A STRONG HAWAII FIVE-0 CONNECTION.

Magnum, P.I. made its premiere on CBS in 1980, the same year the network’s long-running Hawaii Five-0 was taking its final bow. Magnum’s location was picked because the network didn't want to let its Hawaiian production facilities go to waste, so the Tom Selleck-led show filmed many of its indoor scenes on the old Hawaii Five-0 soundstage.

The two shows are even set in the same universe, as Thomas Magnum would make references to Detective Steve McGarrett, who was famously played by Jack Lord on Hawaii Five-0. Though Lord never did accept the offer to make a cameo, the link between the two shows was never broken.

2. PLAYING MAGNUM COST TOM SELLECK THE ROLE OF INDIANA JONES.

Can you imagine Indiana Jones with a mustache? Or Tom Selleck without one? Well one of those almost became a reality as Selleck was the top choice for the swashbuckling archaeologist when production on Raiders of the Lost Ark began. Unfortunately, the actor’s contractual commitment to Magnum, P.I. prevented him from taking the role.

In a cruel twist of fate, a writers strike subsequently delayed filming on the first season of Magnum, theoretically freeing up Selleck for the role—if he hadn’t already dropped out of consideration. Though the part will forever be linked to Harrison Ford, the ever-excitable George Lucas described Selleck’s screentest as “really, really good.”

3. THE THEME SONG MADE THE BILLBOARD CHARTS.

If you think the Magnum, P.I. theme is a miracle of network television, you’re not alone. The song, composed by Mike Post, reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1982—a rare feat for a TV theme. Post is also the man behind hit TV songs like The A-Team, The Rockford Files, Quantum Leap, The Greatest American Hero, and plenty of other ‘80s and ‘90s staples. He’s probably best known as the man behind the ubiquitous “dun, dun” sting from Law & Order. (The Who's Pete Townshend actually wrote a song about Post's theme work, title "Mike Post Theme," which was released on the band's 2006 album, Endless Wire.)

The Magnum, P.I. tune you’re bopping your head to right now wasn’t the original opening song, though. For the first handful of episodes, including the pilot, the series had a much less memorable intro song.

4. THE SHOW FEATURED SOME OF ORSON WELLES’S LAST PERFORMANCES.

Orson Welles’s final years were a blur of voiceover work and jug-o’-wine commercials, and one of his last jobs was acting as the voice of Robin Masters—the mysterious author who lends Magnum his guesthouse in exchange for security services. Masters is only heard, never fully seen, in the show, leading to plenty of conspiracy theories over his actual identity (some fans still think he was Higgins all along).

Occasionally Masters would be seen only briefly and from behind. For those rare moments, actor Bruce Atkinson would provide the necessary body parts for filming. Though his voice was only heard rarely during the series’ first five seasons, Welles was scheduled to play the role for as long as the show was on the air, but the actor’s death in 1985 brought a premature end to his tenure.

5. THERE WAS ALMOST A QUANTUM LEAP CROSSOVER.

Donald Bellisario’s TV empire is one of the industry’s most impressive feats, resulting in multiple top-rated shows and critical favorites. But getting two of his most popular series to cross over proved to be more trouble than anyone would have anticipated.

In order to secure a fifth season for Quantum Leap, Bellisario suggested that Scott Bakula’s Dr. Sam Beckett character “leap” into the body of Thomas Magnum in the final moments of season four, leading to the following year’s premiere. But there was a snag with securing Selleck; his publicist even claimed he was never formally approached about the subject, saying, "We’re hoping. It’s on hold. We don’t have an answer.” The idea was soon dropped, and a fifth season of Quantum Leap went on without any help from Magnum.

Magnum, P.I. was off the air at this point, so Selleck was already on different projects. Some test footage of Bakula as Thomas Magnum was shot and shown at a Quantum Leap fan convention, but that’s as far as viewers got.

6. CROSSOVERS WITH MURDER, SHE WROTE AND SIMON & SIMON DID HAPPEN.

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A crossover between Magnum and Murder, She Wrote? That did happen, oddly enough. The event took place in the Magnum, P.I. episode "Novel Connection" during season seven and Murder, She Wrote’s “Magnum on Ice.” In the story, Magnum is arrested for murder, and the only person who can clear his name is Jessica Fletcher, played as always by Dame Angela Lansbury.

During its third season, Magnum also crossed over with his fellow CBS private investigators on the show Simon & Simon. Both series ran simultaneously on CBS for almost the entirety of the ‘80s, and in this episode the trio banded together to secure a Hawaiian artifact that supposedly had a death curse attached to it.

7. THE SMITHSONIAN PRESERVED MAGNUM’S SIGNATURE HAWAIIAN SHIRT.

If you’re not old enough to appreciate what a phenomenon Magnum, P.I. was, consider this: Selleck’s iconic Hawaiian shirt, Detroit Tigers hat, and insignia ring from the show were all donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The objects joined other culturally significant TV relics from over the years, including Archie Bunker’s chair from All in the Family, the Lone Ranger’s mask, and a Kermit the Frog puppet. Perhaps just as big of an honor, Selleck found himself in the Mustache Hall of Fame for the memorable lip fuzz he sported throughout the series. His digital plaque reads:

“Throughout his acting career, Selleck’s charismatic grin, unflinching masculinity and robust, stocky lipholstery have made him the stuff of legend.”

8. IT PRODUCED A FAILED BACKDOOR PILOT.

The first season of Magnum, P.I. was about more than just establishing Tom Selleck as a household name; CBS executives also wanted an episode to act as a backdoor pilot for an action series starring Erin Gray. In the episode “J. ‘Digger’ Doyle,” viewers meet Gray as the titular Doyle, a security expert that Magnum calls on to help thwart a potential assassination attempt against Robin Masters.

Though the episode went off without a hitch, the spinoff never materialized. In fact, Gray never reappeared on the series after that.

9. MAGNUM DIES IN THE PREMATURE SERIES FINALE “LIMBO.”

By the time season seven rolled around, it seemed that Magnum, P.I. had run its course—so much so that the network had planned for that to be the show’s sendoff.

In the season’s final episode, “Limbo,” Magnum winds up in critical condition after taking a bullet during a warehouse shootout. The episode gets Dickensian as Magnum, caught between life and death, drops in on all his closest friends (and supporting cast) as a specter no one can see or hear. He makes peace with everyone around him before he apparently walks off into heaven, punctuated by the John Denver song “Looking For Space.”

To the surprise of the cast, crew, and fans, the series was renewed for a shortened eighth season, meaning Magnum had to come back from the beyond and continue his adventures for another 13 episodes.

10. THE REAL SERIES FINALE IS ONE OF THE MOST-WATCHED OF ALL TIME.

When Magnum, P.I. actually ended, it ended with one of the most-watched finales of all time. It currently sits as the fifth most-watched series finale, not far behind the likes of Cheers, M*A*S*H, Friends, and Seinfeld. The grand total of viewers? 50.7 million.

11. SELLECK AND TOM CLANCY FAILED TO GET A MAGNUM MOVIE OFF THE GROUND IN THE ‘90s.

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Rumors of a Magnum, P.I. movie have been rumbling since shortly after the credits rolled on the series' final episode (and likely well before that). It got close in the ‘90s when Selleck teamed with famed novelist Tom Clancy to pitch a Magnum movie to Universal.

Clancy was a big fan of the show and was ready to crack the story with Selleck, but nothing ever came of it. Selleck later recounted:

"We got together, and I went to Universal, and I said ‘It's time we could do a series of feature films.’ They were very interested, and I had Tom, who wanted to do the story, and I had this package put together, but Universal's the only studio that could make it, and they went through three ownership changes in the '90s, and I think that was the real window for Magnum."

12. WE MIGHT SEE A SEQUEL SERIES FOCUSING ON MAGNUM’S DAUGHTER.

The time for a Selleck-led Magnum, P.I. movie may have passed, but there’s still hope for the franchise. In 2016, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that ABC had a pilot in the works for a Magnum sequel, which would put an end to the constant reports of a full-fledged reboot or movie adaptation of the show.

According to the site, the show would follow Magnum's daughter, Lily, "who returns to Hawaii to take up the mantle of her father's PI firm.” It remains to be seen whether or not the project will ever come to fruition.

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5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
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At its best, Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.

1. MAN IN HARRY POTTER T-SHIRT STABS ANOTHER MAN IN THE FACE—WITH A PEN

In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.

2. MEMORABILIA THIEVES INVADE NEW YORK

Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’ Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."

3. CATWOMAN SAVES THE DAY

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Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”

4. MAN POSES AS FUGITIVE-SEEKING INVESTIGATOR TO GET INTO VIP ROOM

The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of this year and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In June, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

5. MAN WALKS 645 MILES TO COMIC-CON, DRESSED AS A STORMTROOPER, TO HONOR HIS LATE WIFE

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In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.

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