Mini-review: The Assets 1×1 (US: ABC; UK: Alibi)

Not as good as The Americans

In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, ABC

One of the US biggest traitors is CIA agent Aldrich Ames. Convicted in 1994 of spying for the Soviet Union, it’s thought that he compromised the second-largest number of CIA assets in the nation’s history.

You’d have thought that the march of time and a TV movie starring Timothy Hutton would have made his story less toxic, but The Assets, an eight-part mini-series that started on ABC last week about the investigation of Ames by CIA officers Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, not only has the privilege of being the lowest rated drama premiere ever on one of the four main TV networks, it appears to star an almost entirely British cast and only one American.

Comparisons with The Americans will abound, given it’s another spy show set roughly in the same time period and stars another Welsh Rhys – Matthew Rhys rather than Paul (The Cazalets), who plays Ames. It’s certainly a little instructive to do so, since The Assets is to The Americans what ABC is FX: louder, less subtle, softer hitting, drowning in cheesy music (yes, Nashville, I mean you) and more interested in female characters and sacrifice for families.

The focus of The Assets is very much Sandra Grimes (Jodie Whittaker of Broadchurch and St Trinian’s), the author of the book on which the story is based. The first episode begins with the capture of both an asset and a case officer, the suspicions that raises and how Grimes then gets drafted by the head of the CIA into investigating a much larger problem in the agency. Against this backdrop we see Grimes’ home life, which initially looks like it’s going to be the standard “working women must be punished!” set up but actually reveals a very supportive husband dealing with an often-absent wife.

That is, assuming you can hear any of the dialogue – which although clunky at times, actually takes very few prisoners with its talk of tradecraft, dead drops, et al – over the constant terrible background music.

We then go on to see debriefs and the growing suspicion of Grimes, before her hard work reveals there must be a mole in the agency.

Whittaker is good, Rhys is great, a lot of the rest of the cast struggle to maintain US or Russian accents. Everything looks quite good, albeit not as good as The Americans and a bit 1980s TV movie – which you might think appropriate, but simply dressing people in hats doesn’t qualify as “convincing portrayal of Moscow” in this day and age. If this had been made on cable, it almost certainly would have been a much better show. One to watch if you’ve nothing better to do or are interested in the subject, rather than because it’s much good. Assuming, that is, ABC doesn’t cancel it before the next episode.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.