Review: Allegiance 1×1 (US: NBC)

Allegiance

In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, NBC

Sometimes it can seem like all the Big Four US networks do these days is watch cable TV and then develop their own poorer, tamer versions a few years later. Certainly, if you watch Allegiance, you’d be tempted to think that all NBC had done for its latest spy thriller is to watch FX’s rather wonderful The Americans and come up with a weaker, stupider version set in the present day.

Allegiance sees a young talented CIA analyst (Gavin Stenhouse) tasked with helping track down some top secret Russia intel that a defector is trying to give to the US. The only problem? Unbeknownst to him, his Russian mother (Hope Davis) is really a KGB/SVR spy who recruited her American husband (Scott Cohen) and elder daughter (Margarita Levieva) to the cause. And they’re all named in that intel. Will they be able to stop him finding out their secret or will they be forced to recruit him to the cause, too?

If that sounds familiar, it’s perhaps because that’s pretty similar to the plot of The Americans, particularly its latest season. Typical, hey? Why can’t network TV be original like cable TV is, hey?

Except this is a shining example of how cable isn’t necessarily an original source in itself. Because just as Showtime went to Israel’s Prisoners of War to give us Homeland, so Allegiance is actually an adaptation of Israel’s The Gordin Cell.

One thing’s constant though: cable’s smarter than network because Allegiance is almost offensively stupid. Here’s a trailer.

About
This high-octane thriller revolves around the O’Connor family and their son, Alex (Gavin Stenhouse), a young idealistic CIA analyst specializing in Russian affairs. Unbeknownst to him, both of his parents and his sister are part of a dormant Russian sleeper cell that has just been reactivated.

Years ago, Russian-born Katya (Hope Davis) was tasked by the KGB to recruit American businessman Mark O’Connor (Scott Cohen) as a spy, and the two fell in love. A deal was struck: as long as Katya remained an asset for Russia, she would be allowed to marry Mark and move to America. After years in America building a happy life and without word from Moscow, they thought they had escaped. Now it seems the new Mother Russia has one more mission – turning Alex into a spy. The SVR (Russian Intelligence) has re-enlisted the entire family into service as they plan a terrorist operation inside U.S. borders that will bring America to its knees. For these anguished parents, the choice is clear: betray their country… or risk their family.

The series also stars Margarita Levieva (Natalie O’Connor), Morgan Spector (Victor Dobrynin), Kenneth Choi (Sam Luttrell) and Alex Peters (Sarah O’Connor).

Based on an Israeli format, “Allegiance” is a production of Universal Television, Keshet Media and Yes! and comes from Executive Producer, Showrunner and Producing Director George Nolfi (“The Adjustment Bureau”) and Executive Producers Avi Nir, John Glenn, Rashad Raisani, Ron Leshem, Amit Cohen, Giyora Yahalom and Yona Wisenthal.

Is it any good?
This feels like a show with a strong central idea borrowed from the original that’s been wrapped in typical NBC incompetence and genericness in its translation into a US show.

On the one hand, you have the sleeper cell concept, which is good; you have the pitting of the son against his own family, which again is good; and you have the generally smart methods the son uses to track down the Russians, which work well, even if they are a little eyebrow-raising.

However, against this backdrop, there are a lot of problems. A lot of stupid problems. For starters, we have the simple issue of Russia wanting to use a bunch of old retired spies to help with a vitally important terrorist operation that will bring the country ‘to its knees’ – this might almost be plausible in close-knit Israel whose response probably wouldn’t be a threat to Russia, but in the US, it’s likely to provoke World War III. So why trust people whose allegiance is wavering to non-existent at best, and who aren’t likely to be a crack team any more, if they ever were?

Things don’t get any better as we drill down into details either. At one point, Davis gets the jitters and decides to tell the FBI everything. Except rather than just go, she tells her husband what she’s going to do. And despite being the trained spy driving a BMW rather than the SUV Cohen chooses, she’s unable to shake her tail and he’s able to run her off the road. Right in front of the FBI headquarters and no one wonders WTF is going on and are they terrorists.

Not only is this ridiculous in and of itself, it also means we have to endure one of the worst car chases in TV history, as Davis and Cohen drive in congested traffic in lockstep with each other for about 50 miles (or something), with no one even going faster than the speed limit.

And that’s pretty much the action scene of the pilot.

On top of that, we have a largely not-Russian cast (Margarita Levieva excepted) trying to speak Russian, except because this is NBC, weirdly even when Russians are talking only to each other, they’ll speak Russian then English then switch back to Russian, because apparently NBC viewers can only take so much ‘foreign’ in one go.

We have younger daughter Alexandra Peters going unchallenged in justifying her low maths scores at school on the grounds that “girls aren’t even supposed to be good at maths” – not exactly something Russian parents would agree with or that’s even borne out by facts.

We have a lengthy introductory scene in which we’re forced to watch Cohen and Davis banter about the sweetness of potatoes in an effort to contrast their domesticity with their future spy revelations.

We have the idea that Stenhouse (the secret Brit in all of this) is some kind of genius because he was silent until he started speaking in fully formed sentences aged eight. That’s not a sign of genius – that’s a sign of a serious developmental disorder and that your medical system is f*cked if it wasn’t picked up on until then.

We have Levieva giving baddie Morgan Spector some slaps for trying to recruit her brother and then threatening her mother… before shagging him because he’s her boyfriend and apparently that’s all really fine with her or something.

And so it goes on. The dialogue is dreadful, characterisation weak, interest-factor low. On the whole, you’re better off watching pretty much anything else.

  • GYAD

    Dare I say it…but the CIA is for foreign intelligence. So by all rights the investigation ought to be run by…the FBI.

    I'd also like to take this moment to ask for a moratorium by TV dramas on all characters who demonstrate their genius by pulling ludicrous Sherlock Holmes style deductions out of their ass.

    Maybe writers could funnel that creativity into not writing scenes where an SVR handler turns up on on the doorstep of an Illegal in the middle of the day and speaks to her in Russian…

  • There's a lot of fudging. IIRC young guy is really an FBI guy on secondment to the CIA. Or something. There's certainly a point where he someone has a gun and the CIA people don't because they're on US soil. It's not convincing but they do broach it.

    The Russian handler at door thing is just about plausible in that the Russians have had the house and the family under surveillance, and most of the family, including CIA boy, speak Russian to each other openly – unlike The Americans, they're not trying to hide the fact that anyone is Russian and can speak it, only that they're spies.

    But both points are at least symptomatic of the overall stupidity of the show, in that there's papering over the cracks for all to see.

    And I agree about ludicrous deductions. In this case, it's part of the other brand of “they have a Syndrome therefore they have special skills” that's afflicting a lot of US dramas of lot.

  • GYAD

    Fair enough. I must admit that I think real life – like the SVR guys the FBI exposed last week – is far more interesting than this sort of highly artificial potboiler.

  • That's certainly true. And a lot of the spy shows tend to borrow from real-life anyway – The Americans was influenced by the Illegals Programme and State of Affairs borrows a new headline practically every week. It's just how well they do it. This is pretty much how _not_ to do it.

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  • GYAD

    Yup.

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