Show Name: Allegiance
Genre: Spy thriller/drama
Premiered: February 5, 2015
Following in the footsteps of the FX hit The Americans, NBC offers up Allegiance, a show that, once you scratch past the sexy spy surface, reveals an altogether different from the usual sleeper cell drama. Hope Davis and Scott Cohen star as Katya and Mark O'Connor, two Russians spies who have recently be “reactivated” by their SVR handler Victor (Morgan Spector) for a very special mission: to bring their son Alex (Galvin Stenhouse), a brilliant CIA analyst, under their umbrella. There’s just one problem - Alex has been recruited to a joint FBI-CIA investigation into an alleged SVR plot to bring the United States infrastructure to its knees. As he delves deeper into his mission, the lines between family and enemy begin to blur, and with his parents trying to keep one step ahead of both him and their handler, betrayals and secrets are bound to pile up.
I was surprised to discover that this show was actually a remake of an Israeli drama called The Gordin Cell, and is just one of several others adaptations, including an intriguing localization from South Korea centered around the conflict with its northern neighbor. But how does the one stateside fair? Is it a must watch?
The Good: Stenhouse’s performance is definitely the highlight here. Had he played Alex as a straight-forward ace, or even the more acceptable but cliched “brilliant-but-bad-with-people” trope, I probably would have pulled all of my hair out by the end of the episode. Instead, he’s depicted as sort of ambiguously on the Spectrum: awkward, innocently insensitive, and scarily focused on the current moment’s preoccupation. This adds a certain charm to an otherwise overplayed template, and though I can’t know whether or not this was part of the original characterization in The Gordin Cell, it certainly leaves me wondering how a person of his particular mentality will respond to the various layers of deceit and betrayal threatening to close in on him. Alex’s shenanigans are also the prime vehicle of the shows subtle and self-aware humor. I couldn’t help but chuckle as Alex suffered the “new guy wringer” under his obviously fed-up station chief, played by Kenneth Choi, whose performance is at times drowsy but still deadpan enough to be enjoyable. The various quips about when to wear or not wear your sunglasses, or how to turn into a secret room without looking obvious, were all well-deserved stabs at the baggage carried by every single spy thriller since the year dot, and with thoughts of The Americans and Salt in my mind during this premiere, it was nice to see a show that didn’t take itself too seriously.
The Bad: Unfortunately, the rest of it doesn’t quite make the cut. The acting of nearly everyone besides Alex was so perfunctory and cookie-cutter that they might as well have been sleepwalking. It was as if there was some kind of spy drama master script everyone was reading off, but they all somehow failed the spot check to put any sort nuance, emotion, or humanity into their roles. Davis and Cohen have all the chemistry of a helium balloon, and I was almost begging for their lukewarm scenes to end so that we can switch the focus back to Alex. Also, despite the tongue-in-cheek self-depreciation, the show still plays the spy angle to a painfully straight extreme; I felt like I should have had a clipboard at hand, ticking off every spy stereotype and cliche as they popped up.
The Ugly: I’m really not sure what to make of the plot and premise themselves. On the one hand, this show seems ripe to explore the layers of loyalty and...well, allegiances, that can make or break family bonds under such a dubious environment. While this angle has, obviously, been explored to some degree in the usual sleeper cell fair, it has never been the focus in any of those shows or movies, and adding in Alex’s intriguing personality quirks and commitment to the American government, quite a few surprises could be lurking around the corner. On the other hand, Allegiance is just capable of and probably more likely to waste all of that potential. The first episode concluded in a rather rushed manner, with Alex already confronting his parents about their potential involvement in his first case. This could be a way of getting the spy fluff out of the way so as to explore the dynamics of a family on the verge of breaking at the seams...or it could just be sloppy writing for a show that promises diminishing returns for its viewers. I lean towards the lattter, but you be the judge.
Tune In or Tune Out? Tune out. While it’s likely to be a nice Thursday evening distraction, not even the subtle humor in the continuing adventures of an autistic(?) analyst is enough to make this a must-add to my TV block, and the snoozy acting and too-quick pacing doesn’t seem like it’ll lead to anything particularly groundbreaking.