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NBC’s Allegiance is and will always be compared, less than favorably, to The Americans. That’s just life and, in this case, it’s just accurate.
But NBC’s modern-day Russian spy series has a whole different set of problems aside from being compared to FX’s Cold War-era Russian spy series. For starters, in an effort to hook viewers, Allegiance has to strenuously ramp up the storytelling energy, but it hits such a frantic pace that you can’t imagine the show being able to sustain it, or viewers to endure it, over the course of an entire season. Having watched the first three episodes, Allegiance seems to be one “victory” away from either the United States foiling a major Russian plot or the Russians killing 10,000-plus Americans and crashing our economy and bringing us “to our knees.”
There isn’t much of a slow build to Allegiance, and it begins, by the third episode, to really strain credulity. One of the hardest things for a show to survive is the adrenaline rush addiction of burning through story faster than it’s possible to sustain. It’s a real thrill ride in the early episodes, but then it ends up being this laborious effort to postpone off the endgame that’s right there at all times.
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But first, Allegiance will have to overcome the comparison to The Americans. Let’s make this clear up front: There is no comparison. Allegiance is a broadcast network series that doesn’t have the writing or the acting chops to compete with its FX counterpart. The series is, however, entertaining on its own merits. Would it be better if the premise, imported but changed from an existing Israeli show, didn’t have to compete with The Americans? Of course it would. The Americans is arguably the best drama on television right now and why would any network hour want to go up against those expectations?
But again, if you watch The Americans — and you certainly should — then you’ll know immediately that there’s no competition here. Allegiance has really hot government employees at every turn and a central character that is a trope-heavy, off-the-charts genius who uses those skills to masterfully solve puzzles. It’s like Allegiance decided to take from Sherlock because it wasn’t scared off by The Americans comparison.
Ballsy, but not actually effective.
Executive produced, written and directed by George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau), Allegiance centers on the O’Connor family, just your typical group of Russian sleeper spies — what? – who get reactivated by Russia because their son is now super-important to the CIA.
Hope Davis plays Katya, who, in her capacity as a Russian spy, tried to recruit American businessman Mark O’Connor (Scott Cohen) but fell in love with him instead. The Russians let the two move to America and marry with the presumption that they could be used again in the future (we learn that Mark obviously betrayed his country for the Russians, but not explicitly how – something with engineering). Their eldest daughter, Natalie (Margarita Levieva) is a fully functioning Russian spy with, it seems, not much remorse about it. Youngest daughter Sarah (Alexandra Peters), is not aware – yet – what’s going on. Oh, but brilliant boy analyst Alex (Gavin Stenhouse) messes things up by being so good at his CIA job a mere four months or so into it, that the Russians – seemingly way ahead of the Americans here – want Katya and Mark to turn him. One of the many cutthroat Russians pressing for this is Victor (Morgan Spector), who has been watching over the O’Connors as they’ve grown comfortable, thinking they’re out of the spy game. In a twist that is less a twist than a dubious decision, Victor is also sleeping with Natalie. But her parents convince Victor that Alex, who is some kind of a savant (though the show wants him to have all kinds of skills – the ability to remember everything, a keen sense of smell, etc.), can’t possibly be turned. Instead, to protect him, Katya and Mark persuade the Russians to let them spy on their own son and feed them the information.
Dubious, sure, and made more so by the fact the Russians come up with all kinds of ways to figure out Alex and stay ahead of the Americans, which means every episode is a cat-and-mouse game that eventually feels more manipulative than thrilling.
Alex can’t find out what his family does and the family can’t let the Russians kill Alex or turn them in to the Americans for treason because, well, everybody in the O’Connor clan would then be bummed out and their lives over. Clearly, you’d have no show that way, so Allegiance just keeps finding ways to be this close to something big happening on either side.
But, as noted, this becomes challenging because, unlike The Americans, it’s less a series of secrets that the Russians are trying to get from the Americans and more a way to implement their evil plan to bring us to our knees.
And if that happens, yeah, show’s over. So the conceit of Allegiance gives rise to lots of action in the early episodes, but it also feels like Nolfi has painted himself into a corner. And if Allegiance eventually ratchets back to become a show about discovering minor secrets, we’ll all know that those aren’t nearly as important as this Big Thing the Russians want to do to the United States, and so the suspense is lost. It’s boom or bust.
Allegiance also suffers from Alex’s family being less compelling than he is. Yes, Natalie is a badass and always looks hot, but she’s playing for the Russians (at this point). As his parents, Davis and Cohen have the unenviable task of being compared to Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys on The Americans, who not only kill it as actors but are magnificent as both a married couple and parents – their concerns have been so marvelously constructed that Allegiance can’t match, which leaves Davis and Cohen looking rather dull in comparison. They just don’t have the material.
Look, take Allegiance away from the highly unflattering comparison to The Americans and you’ve got a fine high-octane broadcast network thriller. But you also have a show that might not even be able to live up to itself, much less any other show.
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