The Americans is based on a group of real-life 'Illegals'.
The Americans is about a pair of KGB operatives in deep cover in the United States. The two agents speak perfect English and blend right in with their suburban surroundings, all the while gathering intelligence and running operations for the Soviet Union. The show was inspired by the real life arrest of several "illegals," as they are also called in the show, most of them married couples, in 2010. The most famous of the illegals caught in "Operation Ghost Stories" was Anna Chapman, who is now a TV host and model in Russia, following a US spy trade. The show's creators chose to set The Americans during the Cold War, as it's a period in history where the rivalry between the US and Russia was more pronounced than it seemed in 2010.
The Americans was created by a real-life intelligence agent.
The "realness" of The Americans doesn't end there. Part of the show's nuanced credibility, which elevates it above more traditional and familiar spy fare, comes from the fact that it was created by a real life ex-CIA operative. A fan of spy novels himself, series creator Joe Weisberg worked for the CIA for three and a half years. He toyed with the idea of setting The Americans in the seventies, because he loves the clothes, but the presidency of Ronald Reagan served the story better, as Cold War tensions often simmered beyond a boil more often than under President Carter.
Keri Russell and Noah Emmerich almost passed on the show.
Given the massive amount of love for the show from critics, fans, and award shows, it's crazy to imagine that two of the main stars of The Americans almost passed on it. Keri Russell, previously best known as the curly locked star of TV's soapy Felicity, has said she was ultimately convinced by the number of layers to the story and characters. Noah Emmerich, brother of movie producer Toby Emmerich, was apprehensive about carrying a gun and a badge in another role. He was convinced otherwise by Warrior director Gavin O'Conner, who directed The Americans pilot.
The CIA Reads each of Weisberg's scripts.
Given his history with the organization, the CIA insists on vetting each of Weisberg's scripts at least a month before shooting begins. In a 2013 interview, Weisberg told Slate that the Publications Review Board had yet to ask him to change anything.
What the show gets right and wrong.
The CIA even approved a demonstration of real-life surveillance techniques Weisberg gave to his cast and crew. The Washington Post interviewed former CIA officers about what the show gets right and wrong. The show's action is heightened for dramatic purposes - certainly any sleeper agents who were involved in violent altercations would be whisked home immediately. They say the spy game is mostly a bore. The real life sleeper agents caught in America would mostly observe and report. One of the ex field agents interviewed, who began her career as a disguises officer, praised the "nuggets of authenticity that you don't see in other shows. Everything from gadgets to surveillance is done with great care and authenticity, and you can feel that it's not over the top, it's really core to the characters."
The show's stars have directed standout episodes.
Continuing a long TV tradition that has included Breaking Bad, Grey's Anatomy, Friends, House, The X-Files, Frasier, and even Beverly Hills 90210, cast members on The Americans have occasionally stepped behind the camera. The men who play Stan and Phillip on the show have both directed important episodes, including Season 3's Clark's Place which was directed by Noah Emmerich and Season 5's The Committee on Human Rights, which was directed by Matthew REECE Rhys.
David Bowie gave the show his blessing.
In Clark's Place, one of the episodes directed by Emmerich, Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure" worked much better in the director's cut than the original choice for music, "If I Had You" by Dire Straits. As they worked to clear the song, the show's music supervisor reminded producers that Bowie had actually been in touch a year before, saying he loved the show and they could use one of his songs anytime.
Oliver North gave so much info, he got a story credit.
Eighties savvy audiences will of course remember Oliver North for his role in the Iran/Contra scandal that plagued the Reagan administration. In one of the standout arcs on The Americans, Phillip and Elizabeth work on an operation involving the US military's support for right-wing rebels in Nicaragua. Oliver North served as a consultant on those stories and gave the show's producers so much detail, they gave the former Marine Corps lieutenant colonel turned pundit a partial story credit.
New York City usually doubles for Washington D.C.
Washington, D.C. is practically a character in The Americans, but generally what audiences are seeing onscreen is actually Uptown Manhattan. The Americans has also used Queens as West Germany. Speaking of New York, the 2015 memoir How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent takes place there. The young American at the center of the story often used things he'd learned watching Miami Vice, Magnum P.I., and Goodfellas to fool his Russian handlers. 500 Days of Summer director Marc Webb purchased the movie rights.
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell became a real-life couple.
In the show, Philip and Elizabeth are put together in Russia in a marriage that's nothing more than a cover. As the show progresses their feelings for each other become real. Eventually, they are even married, under their real names, in a secret ceremony, by a Russian priest. Russell and Rhys have been a real life couple now since 2013, the same year the show first premiered on FX. They have a son together.