By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES, March 14 (Reuters) - As a former CIA agent in training, Joe Weisberg knows a moral dilemma when he sees it.
But instead of pressing on the weaknesses of would-be informants, Weisberg now writes them into the characters of his Cold War spy drama "The Americans," which is currently in its second season on U.S. cable network FX.
Like many of today's cable dramas, the series takes its shape from anti-heroes with serious flaws. But "The Americans" poses a unique reversal of U.S. television convention as Soviet KGB agents take a turn as the protagonists trying to get a leg up on their Cold War adversaries.
Although the fictional series is set in the 1980s, the recent spate of feuds between the United States and Russia gives it a current-day relevance. The political upheaval in Ukraine, Russian asylum for NSA contractor turned leaker Edward Snowden and recent conflicts in the Middle East have all brought back a bilateral diplomatic chill reminiscent of the Cold War era.
But at its heart, "The Americans" is less about cloak and dagger tales and politics than a domestic drama that uses lies, spooks and love to face down moral quandaries.
"The show is conceptually about what it is to be an enemy and have an enemy, and how to think about enemies," Weisberg said alongside fellow executive producer and writer Joel Fields, who added that they wanted "The Americans" to focus on the characters' interior lives.
The series stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, Soviet spies paired together by their bosses in an arranged marriage and sent to the suburbs of Washington, D.C. to raise a family and run a local travel agency as their cover.
The Jennings' neighbor, who happens to be an FBI agent working in counter-intelligence, believes he is having an steamy affair with a mole at the Soviet Embassy, but who is in fact is playing him as well.
The action, complete with wigs, fake mustaches, sex and graphic violence, at times rolls on for minutes in perfect Russian dialogue and period-defining pop culture.
'A THREE-DIMENSIONAL PLACE'
The main question that fascinated Weisberg during his time a the CIA, from 1990 to 1994, was how spies kept their dangerous jobs a secret from their children, and when - if ever - they told them about their line of work.
"Just that fact being so rich and so interesting and full of so much dramatic potential, the idea of bringing that to television and centering the show around a family with kids, who didn't know what their parents did, seemed to me like that something that hadn't been done before," he said.
The first episode of the show's second season struck at the heart of a spy's family problem when Philip finds a fellow KGB spy couple slain in a hotel room along with their daughter. The couple's teenage son, swimming at the pool at time, was spared.
Do Philip and Elizabeth tell the college-bound teen about to start his adult life the real identity of his parents?
No way, decides Elizabeth in the latest episode as she burns a letter the boy's mother had prepared for her children revealing their true identities.
The series has averaged about 1.6 million viewers per episode through the first three episodes of season two, slightly lower than the 1.9 million viewers it averaged in season one. The series premiere, however, drew 3.3 million total viewers who watched the show either live or had recorded it and watched it within three days, according to Nielsen data.
"As long as the KGB and the Soviet Union don't have to be the enemy, but can be a real rich and full culture in this show, it gives us an opportunity to present a three-dimensional place," Weisberg said.
Dilemmas like these are also what makes critics heap praise on the series.
"Nothing else on TV can match 'The Americans' for the dizzying highs of its suspense or the unsettling depths of its emotion," wrote Andy Greenwald on Grantland. Meanwhile, New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum has praised the show for the complexity it gives to its women characters.
But whatever you do, just do not call the show a comment on the Soviet Union.
"The show is not challenging people to rethink whether or not that would've worked," Fields said. "It's more a question of our relationship with that time and how it refracts our view of this time."