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Like a huge chunk of the programming on network TV, NBC’s Cold War throwback Allegiance stands in the shadow of a previously established series – in this case, FX’s The Americans – and would have been a better fit for audiences had it premiered when it was first conceived. That said, it’s different enough, and contains a wealth of good actors that make this spy-lite half-procedural a decent fit for NBC’s new comedy-free Thursdays.
Allegiance is centered on the ocean-crossing dangers plaguing the family O’Connor. Parents Mark (Scott Cohen) and Katya (Hope Davis) are actually Russian spies who have been living in the U.S. for decades, now assuming they’ve been completely deactivated by the Russian government. Only they haven’t! The agreement that allows their U.S. citizenship has a stipulation that they can be called up at any time, and they’re now put under pressure by an old colleague, Victor (Morgan Spector), to assist in a Russian plot that will bring the U.S. economy to its knees.
Of course, it all revolves around their oblivious son Alex, played by Gavin Stenhouse in his first major TV role. Alex is a CIA analyst whose career (go figure) involves him keeping tabs on the Russians and their plots that may or may not bring America to its knees. (That phrase seems to come up a lot, but maybe it’s just me.) Sitting in the “TV lead character” side of the autism spectrum, Alex is the kind of guy who spent the first eight years of his life in complete silence, mostly on a whim, and has encyclopedic, instruction manual intellect of nearly everything he comes into contact with. There’s a moment in the first episode where his working knowledge of furnace temperatures and the melting point of bones was howl-worthy.
Because Katya is the true Russian here – Mark was an American businessman when they met – she is the one who bears the biggest emotional brunt for their recent troubles. She is initially tasked with turning her son into a spy, much like they did with their oldest child Natalie (Margarita Levieva), but she convinces the powers that be in Mother Russia that they can just as easily get the info needed by spying on their son instead. This allows for awkward conversations and faux reveals that keep everyone on edge, but instead of each scene feeling heightened by the lack of its characters’ honest motivations, it all felt kind of like a sitcom plot where one simple confession to one character brings the entire plot crumbling down.
Created by The Adjustment Bureau writer George Nolfi, Allegiance is a remake of the Israeli series The Gordin Cell, and was first developed in 2012 in the wake of Homeland’s critical success. It’s easy to imagine this show feeling more conceptually at home then. While the avoidance of conflicts in the Middle East is refreshing, there’s a reason why modern political dramas pick their fictional enemies like they do; Allegiance’s modern-day setting wipes away most of the international tension, as Russia is no longer the Big Bad they once were. (Or might be again.)
If its “family drama” and “CIA/FBI drama” could be exclusive of one another, Allegiance might feel like a far more successful series. Davis and Cohen are great and relaying just how horrible this situation is for them and their family, and Alex’s work team – including Sons of Anarchy’s Kenneth Choi as the amusingly straight-faced mentor Sam and Floriana Lima as the attractive partner – are equally enjoyable to watch. It’s just the meshing of these worlds that doesn’t jibe, and it's reflected in Alex's character. We watch him turn from the enviable genius who knows everything to the lovable dolt whose social behavior is a punchline for his instruction-exuding superiors, and the immediate family problems never allows us to see the O'Connors as a happy whole. It isn’t horribly jarring, but one feels like NBC wanted to have all the genre-crossing cake it could eat.
Even though these first three episodes of Allegiance didn’t blow me away, I rather enjoyed the series’ ability to keep its focus firmly tightened around the serialized aspects of this story, while the procedural beats played second fiddle. After years and years of high-concept “case of the week” shows where characters’ personal stories take entire seasons to make headway, Allegiance feels like it’s facing the right direction, even if it’s getting lapped by its most comparable cable shows.
Allegiance will premiere tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. ET.