News & Politics

Here’s Why “The Americans” Has So Many Insider DC References

The showrunners explain how they keep things so authentic even though it isn't shot in Washington.

Set in DC in the early 1980s, the spy thriller The Americans offers regular jolts of nostalgia for anyone who lived here during the Reagan era. As the show enters its sixth and final season (premiering March 28 on FX), we talked to creator Joe Weisberg—who spent time in the area while working for the CIA—and his co-showrunner, Joel Fields, about how they recreate Washington even though the program is mostly shot elsewhere.

You like to work in references that only longtime Washingtonians will get, such as a Jhoon Rhee commercial or a plot line involving the defunct Tenleytown Armand’s pizza. How come?

Weisberg: We shoot in New York, but we can make up for that and more if we drop those little things that make it feel extra DC. When somebody sees Jhoon Rhee and gets taken back to their childhood, we’re really there.

Fields: The writing staff talks a lot about this stuff because we’re trying to keep the show real, as if these characters had actually been there having these experiences. We sometimes ask our staff to look for those real references for things we have in the script. They come up with Armand’s pizza, or the Bread Oven restaurant, which was on Pennsylvania Avenue and had a see-through grand piano. In season four, we had a TheaterVision ad playing.

Weisberg: We had Tony Kornheiser appear as an extra in a bar. When I was in DC, we were listening to Tony on the radio.

Any good ones in the new season?

Weisberg: I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that we have the [long-shuttered Georgetown movie destination] Key Theatre—something doubling as it.

You do sometimes see shots of Washington edited into an episode.

Weisberg: A big question for us over six years is: What’s the right amount to show the Washington Monument? If you show it too much, you’re just trying to prove you’re in Washington. We were obsessed over how much to show it, how much to show the Lincoln Memorial.

But on the other hand, there definitely are moments where it’s like, come on, that’s obviously Brooklyn.

Fields: [laughs] Yeah, there are those moments. There’s no denying it.

What do you say when Washingtonians complain about it not being shot here?

Weisberg: We say, “Jhoon Rhee! Jhoon Rhee!” [laughs] The truth is, all the money in the world would not enable us to shoot in Washington, DC, in the early ’80s. You’d need a time machine.

This article appears in the March 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

Politics and Culture Editor

Rob Brunner grew up in DC and moved back in 2017 to join Washingtonian. Previously, he was an editor and writer at Fast Company and other publications. He lives with his family in Chevy Chase DC.