Monday, February 09, 2015

"The Americans" vs. "Allegiance"

I'm a big fan of the TV series The Americans, the FX series now in its third season, starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, two KGB sleeper agents in the Washington area during the 1980s. The series works because of the great acting of Russell and Rhys and a general helping of action, family tension and cable TV sex. What really makes it work is that it keeps the viewer engaged in a sympathetic way with both the KGB agents and the FBI agents chasing them. And they use as a backdrop historical events, most directly relevant to the Cold War: the assassination attempt on Reagan; the Contra operation in Nicaragua' the war in Afghanistan of the 1980s when the Ruthless Islamic Terrorists were our friends and the American press celebrated them as the brave mujahideen freedom fighters; the Star Wars program; the development of ARPANET, which evolved into the Internet.

NBC just started a knockoff series called Allegiance. Along the lines of imitation being the most sincere form of flattery, that says something good about The Americans' appeal. It premiered last week, and I forced myself to sit through the whole episode.

I'm not sure I would have liked it even if I hadn't been following The Americans. But it certainly suffers by comparison.

The first episode starts with the evil Rooskies burning a Russian defector alive in a furnace. (Plot spoilers follow.) This series is set in the present day, with the Russian SVR instead of the Soviet KGB. Where The Americans uses historical situations, the SVR in the first episode is working on what is said to be a plot against American infrastructure that would be a crippling blow. That hardly makes sense. Steal secrets? Yes. Kidnapping, blackmailing and the occasional assassination? Those would be plausible plots. But Russia going all Bin Laden on the US, uh, that's kind of a stretch.

The protagonists of Allegiance are a family, the O'Connors: Mom (Katya) and Dad (Mark), older sister Natalie, son Alex and younger sister Sarah. Alex is a twentysomething CIA analyst, kind of a Sherlock Holmes nerdy sort. Katya and Mark used to be SVR agents, but they stopped years ago. Natalie took up the family SVR business also. Their old SVR handler, Victor, shows up at their front door by surprise one day, looking like a psychopathic Russian gangster from every police procedural you've ever seen featuring Russian gangsters. He also looks like he might be a relative of Jaws from the James Bond movies.

Katya and Mark, two of the least threatening cinematic Russian spies you're ever likely to see

Victor goes immediately to the blackmail, telling them they have to recruit Alex to spy for the SVR, because he's working on a CIA case that could uncover all the SVR agents in the US. (Recruiting the kids also looks a lot like a knockoff of a theme that dominates the third season of The Americans.) Mom and Dad don't come off like experienced spies; Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings would probably refuse to work with as too inept. Katya and Mark cook up a panicky plan to leave the country with Natalie and go on the lam forever, which it's not at all clear how they plan to finance it, in order not to endanger Alex's career. Also, the sudden disappearance of the whole family of a CIA analyst working on a sensitive case would presumably attract attention from more than the SVR.

Elizabeth and Phillip, who Katya and Mark should hope they never encounter!

That plan snuffed by Victor the mobster-SVR-handler, Katya impulsively jumps in her car and tells Mark she's going to turn herself in to the FBI. (Elizabeth and Phillip would have made both of them disappear by this time!) Mark's response is to jump in his SUV and cut her off on the street, so that Katya runs smack into the driver's side of the SUV. They then both get out of their cars and stroll away, and in a minute or so he's convinced her not to turn herself in.

At the end, we discover that Natalie is Victor's girlfriend.

This is sad shadow of The Americans, if the first episode is any kind of guide.

And I doubt we'll see a lot of hot sex in this one, either.

No comments: