NBC’s espionage drama Allegiance, though technically new, arrives carrying the sour stench of a product past its expiration date. Allegiance’s premise—married Russian spies are reactivated for a terrorist attack on the U.S.—bears more than a passing resemblance to FX’s The Americans, which currently rests comfortably among the television drama elite. But that isn’t the only reason Allegiance feels past its prime.
NBC planted the show’s roots in 2012, snapping up the adaptation rights to Israeli series The Gordin Cell during the Israeli-format feeding frenzy that also yielded Homeland. Had the network been able to rush Allegiance to air, the show might have had a splashier landing, but the television landscape has changed in the three years since the show’s acquisition. Not only did The Americans premiere, but Homeland bolted out of the gate, its quality waxing and waning in subsequent seasons. Meanwhile, 24 returned from hiatus, and spiritual cousins like Tyrant debuted, flooding the market with shows about the human cost of warring ideologies. Were Allegiance an incredible show, it would still feel like an appetizer that arrives after the dessert course. But because it’s average, Allegiance feels more than superfluous: It feels onerous.
Hope Davis plays Katya, who began her life in the U.S. as a KGB operative sent to recruit an American native as a spy. She ensnared defense engineer Mark O’Connor (Scott Cohen) and when the two fell in love, they struck a deal with the KGB allowing them to marry and move to the U.S. so long as they remain available assets should the Russians need them. Years pass without word from Mother Russia, leading Katya and Mark to assume there’s no longer a need for them or their daughter Natalie (Margarita Levieva), who the O’Connors raised as a covert spy. The O’Connors failed to pass the family business down to their son Alex (Gavin Stenhouse), who instead became a prodigious CIA analyst specializing in—what else?—Russian affairs.
The tense arrangement reaches its breaking point when Victor (Morgan Spector), a handler with the KGB-rechristened SVR, demands Katya and Mark turn Alex to Russia’s side to help mount a “devastating” attack on U.S. soil. Instead, Katya, Mark, and Natalie join forces to use their relationships with Alex to gather the information the SVR needs without involving Alex directly. The thematically familiar setup relies on the idea that the most potent threats are the most proximal, allowing them to intensify undetected.
But Allegiance undermines this theme early and often by making Alex seem impervious to having the wool pulled over his eyes. Alex isn’t merely a competent CIA analyst, he’s a counterintelligence savant. He rifles off detailed research on esoteric subjects having only studied them briefly, often leaving his colleagues in stunned silence. “You got all this from one all-nighter?” asks one of Alex’s many intellectual lessers. “No, I slept,” says Alex. He isn’t being smug, he’s just oblivious to social cues, placing Alex in the fraternity of television characters who embody qualities associated with autism, but only because they’re super-duper smart.
Alex’s tics are only unwelcome in that they’re more suited to a different show—say, a jaunty USA series in which he’s paired with a gorgeous but steely female partner who will be just fine once someone convinces her to smile. Alex gets the partner, supermodel-tomboy Michelle (Floriana Lima), but he doesn’t get a show attuned to him.
Instead, Allegiance wants to be a solemn thriller in some scenes and a quirky romp in others. The tonal clash is most evident in episode three, in which a CIA bigwig greenlights an evidence retrieval mission while voicing his reservations about Alex’s unorthodox techniques: “I just wish I wasn’t relying on your sense of smell to find it.” The show also tries to have it both ways with Alex, making him a genius or a dunce depending on the story’s needs. Alex makes quick work of deducing Katya’s secret, but when confronted, she deflects him with an alibi framed both as a shocking revelation and the nimble work of an esteemed spy, but it feels like neither.
The broader problem with Allegiance is also its starkest difference from The Americans. Its present-day setting robs the show of urgency and psychological impact. It’s certainly refreshing to see a show about terrorism that isn’t walking the narrow, porous line between harnessing the zeitgeist and peddling Islamophobia. But the idea of assimilated Russian spies doesn’t tap into primal fears the way it did during the Cold War. Times have changed, and there’s no better proof than the fact that a Russian adaptation of The Gordin Cell is in the works. (The Americans would make a terrific title, were it not already spoken for.) Allegiance compensates by having its characters speak in trembling tones about the pending attack, codenamed “Black Dagger.” But the more they talk about Black Dagger, the more it feels like a well-branded plot device rather than an actual threat.
If Allegiance sounds like The Americans dumbed down for The Blacklist’s crowd, that’s because it is, though that isn’t always a terrible thing. The third episode—wherein Alex follows his nose to the clues—is the best and briskest of the first three. It’s ultimately a MacGuffin race, but a charming one, pitting Alex against his parents and wringing value out of a Philadelphia location shoot. Even when it’s fun, Allegiance doesn’t do anything The Americans isn’t doing far better. The temporal distinction allows for slick gadgetry, but there isn’t much to be found—in the thick of a mission, the O’Connors contact each other using tactile burner phones. In fact, the coolest piece of technology in Allegiance is a dress shirt. Appropriately, it’s well made, but out of style.