FX Network
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.

Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.


According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.


Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.


Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.


Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.


Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.


Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.


Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.


Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.


Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.


Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

The Most Popular Netflix Show in Every Country
most popular Netflix show in each country map
most popular Netflix show in each country map key

If you're bored with everything in your Netflix queue, why not look to the top shows around the world for a recommendation?

HighSpeedInternet.com recently used Google Trends data to create a map of the most popular show streaming on Netflix in every country in 2018. The best-loved show in the world is the dystopian thriller 3%, claiming the number one spot in eight nations. The show is the first Netflix original made in Portuguese, so it's no surprise that Portugal and Brazil are among the eight countries that helped put it at the top of the list.

Coming in second place is South Korea's My Love from the Star, which seven countries deemed their favorite show. The romantic drama revolves around an alien who lands on Earth and falls in love with a mortal. The English-language show with the most clout is 13 Reasons Why, coming in at number three around the world—which might be proof that getting addicted to soapy teen dramas is a universal experience.

Pot comedy Disjointed is Canada's favorite show, which probably isn't all that surprising given the nation's recent ruling to legalize marijuana. Perhaps coming as even less of a shock is the phenomenon of Stranger Things taking the top spot in the U.S. Favorites like Black Mirror, Sherlock, and The Walking Dead also secured the love of at least one country.

Out of the hundreds of shows on the streaming platform, only 47 are a favorite in at least one country in 2018. So no hard feelings, Gypsy.


More from mental floss studios