Elizabeth Jennings (played by Keri Russell) faces a whole new set of challenges on her latest mission.                                  (Craig Blankenhorn/FX)

 

“The Americans” may not shoot in the Washington area, but the FX drama about married KGB spies living in deep cover in Falls Church has tried hard to get both the metro area and its period pop culture details right. And tonight’s episode has a little Easter egg for Washington residents. The hour kicks off with a famous local ad, with a jingle by E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren, for the Jhoon Rhee Institute, which has operated in Falls Church since 1972. The spot has such a persistent place in local pop culture history that the martial arts studio still features the ad on its Web site:

“One of our writers sent us the commercial,” says “The Americans” creator Joe Weisberg. “He remembered it from his childhood.” And he noted that the jingle and the spot were an example of the region’s larger cultural power, where ephemera like the ad become “a national phenomenon in a way, because D.C. is such a transitory place,” and people who leave the region take its pop culture with them when they leave.

But the local hook was not the only reason that Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields found themselves so captivated by the Jhoon Rhee Institute’s ad. The draw was not so much that the spot is unusually sophisticated. “It looks like people were figuring out how to do a TV ad,” Weisberg said. “There’s nothing slick about it.” Fields joked that “he used what I assume is his kid.”

Rather, it was the intense sincerity of the spot that resonated with them, particularly in a season when Sandra Beeman (Susan Misner), the wife of FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is responding to her husband’s coldness and distraction by diving into the culture of self-help, including attending est trainings and watching Leo Buscaglia’s broadcasts on PBS.

“Both of us think we’re really moved by Leo Buscaglia, back in the day, and it just seemed to slide right into the show and where they’re both at,” Fields told me in another interview. “And it was such an important part of that time — that that genuine movement of connection was happening.” Even what today seem like awfully cynical mantras, Fields sees as relatively straightforward in a way that is difficult to believe now. “‘Greed is good,'” he said in our more recent conversation, naming one example. “That’s pretty sincere. Even in the go-go ’80s, there wasn’t an artifice about that.”

The characters on “The Americans” may all be living with some degree of subterfuge, whether Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), whose entire existence is a deception, or Stan, who is having an affair with a KGB officer. But Fields and Weisberg know that for people whose lives are dedicated to dishonesty, sincerity — be it in an ad recovered from pop culture history, a hug or a Phil Collins song — may be the most dangerous weapon.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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