Review: With 'Allegiance,' NBC plays the TV imitation game
For the past few weeks, my Twitter mentions have been filled with indignation over the existence of "Allegiance," the new NBC drama starring Hope Davis and Scott Cohen as Russian deep cover agents who are pressured to recruit one of their kids to the cause. Most of them go something like this:
And I get it. Yes, "Allegiance" (which debuts tonight at 10) is based on an Israeli series, and there are some notable differences from the FX drama: it's set in present-day, the parents are retired spies reluctantly forced back into active service, they have two adult kids (one of whom, played by Gavin Stenhouse, works for the CIA), etc. But the premise is so similar to "The Americans" — and particularly to recent plot developments on that show — that it's hard to avoid making that comparison if you watch the adventures of Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys and their wigs every week. But you have to keep in mind two things:
#1: This happens in the TV business all the time.
#2: Viewership for "The Americans" is so small that NBC can't be making programming decisions based on whether they're offending that audience.
Let's deal with #1. Imitation is the sincerest form of television, and everybody steals from everybody else. Always and always and always. Every hit gets copied, whether it was all the unwatchable sitcoms about attractive New York singles created in the wake of "Friends," or the many short-lived mythology-driven sci-fi shows spawned by "Lost" (or, before that, by "The X-Files"), or even going all the way back to the '50s and all the sitcoms that began filming in front of a live studio audience because of "I Love Lucy." And then beyond that, you have the many weird coincidences of nearly identical shows being developed by different networks at the same time, like "The Munsters" and "The Addams Family" debuting within a week of each other, or "ER" and "Chicago Hope" doing the same, or even that year when ABC and the WB both had shows about unhappy men who travel back in time to relive their adolescence. It is a thing that the business has done and will always continue to do.
The slightly unusual thing involves #2, though. I love "The Americans," and think it is one of the very best shows on television. But it's also among the lower-rated shows on FX, and if the first episode of "Allegiance" were to draw "Americans"-level ratings, the second episode would be burned in a furnace, much like a living, screaming man is in this series' unpleasant opening scene.
NBC isn't making "Allegiance" because they're trying to clone a hit. They're likely doing it because they like the idea behind "The Americans" (and/or behind the Israeli series) and think they can make a glossier, more commercial version of it that can be a hit airing after "The Blacklist."(*)
(*) Assuming "The Blacklist" doesn't simply get annihilated by "Scandal" in its new timeslot tonight, in which case the NBC scheduler who decided to move it away from "The Voice" might also be introduced to a furnace.
This doesn't happen as often, but it does happen, including a few times on NBC alone. When "The Sopranos" was the talk of television — and a much bigger hit than "The Americans," but still fairly modest compared to what the broadcast networks were doing at the time — NBC introduced "Kingpin," a dark, violent, heavily-serialized drama about the head of a Mexican drug cartel. I liked it, but it lasted six episodes. (A few years before that, CBS failed to tap into "Sopranos" mania with "Falcone," a "Donnie Brasco" adaptation whose entire ad campaign was modeled on the HBO show's, down to a poster where the hero was, like Tony Soprano, flanked on one side by his family and on the other by his Family.) When "Sex and the City" was hot, NBC hired one of that show's writers to create their own single woman in Manhattan comedy, "Leap of Faith," which also only lasted six episodes despite airing in TV's best comedy timeslot, right after "Friends."
A few seasons ago, NBC was one of two networks debuting shows set in the early '60s era of "Mad Men" with "The Playboy Club." (ABC's "Pan Am" was the other.) "Mad Men," for all its awards and acclaim, is a boutique show with boutique ratings that no network could live with, but I can just imagine an NBC executive convincing himself of a high-upside scenario where if they raised the sex and violence levels a bit and did away with all that arty use of metaphor and symbolism and whatnot, America would just come to love Eddie Cibrian as big swingin' Nick Dalton(**). Instead, they got the extreme downside, where you had a show whose subject matter was of interest to a niche audience, but wasn't good enough for that niche to care about, and it was canceled after three episodes aired.
(**) I did not have to look up that character's name, nor will I ever have to, because other characters said it in full about a thousand times in "The Playboy Club" pilot, just to make sure we understood how impressive he was supposed to be.
A spy thriller is by design a more commercial concept, and the existence of "The Americans" in and of itself shouldn't have been enough to scare NBC off of the idea, any more than FOX should have passed on "Gracepoint" because a few hundred thousand Americans had seen "Broadchurch," the show from which it was adapted. ("Gracepoint" failed because people weren't interested in the show, not because they were offended that the story didn't deviate enough from the original.) It's not hard to picture NBC's Bob Greenblatt — who loves loves loves him some remakes — believing that the genre, the relative topicality (Russia is making enemies again in the real world) and the mixture of elements from other popular shows (Stenhouse's character is the latest in a very long line of TV investigators with an encyclopedic-bordering-on-Asperger's knowledge base, because Sherlock Holmes inspired even more rip-offs than "Friends") becoming a hit for him. Maybe it will be.
And if I've gone on for 900-odd words about the history of this TV imitation game rather than talking about the merits of "Allegiance," it's because I found the show itself so much less interesting than the thought process that may have gone into making it in the first place.
Even with the premise, the more obvious comparison in terms of tone and areas of interest is "24," where everything is driven by plot, not character, where every situation is some kind of ticking clock scenario where the Americans and Russians are racing for the same MacGuffin, and where the whole scenario is completely unsustainable without one stupid twist after another.
When "24" worked, it did so because of the high level of execution by the production team, and because Kiefer Sutherland was so fiercely committed to the reality of Jack Bauer that you went along with every dumb thing that happened to keep the story going. Hope Davis is an actress whom I would watch read the collected works of Dostoyevsky in Russian (and she's picked up both the language and a fairly convincing accent for her role on the show), and she and Cohen do what they can to ground things, but it's all flying away too quickly for them to pull it off. As the one adult member of the family who doesn't know his parents' secret (Margarita Levieva plays the daughter they recruited before their retirement), Stenhouse should be the emotional fulcrum of the whole thing, but his character is just used as a human Google who keeps the story from bogging down with actual investigative details. There are too many characters — including various hierarchies in the CIA, FBI and SVR (the latter-day KGB) — the creative team (led by producer George Nolfi) haven't bothered to make interesting enough to make anyone want to learn their names, let alone to care about their clashing agendas.
It's not terrible, but rather aggressively mediocre. And unless "The Blacklist" move is an instant fiasco, its first episode tonight will be seen by many more people than have ever even heard of "The Americans." So there's that, NBC. Just don't act flabbergasted if these spies get reassigned somewhere close to Nick Dalton soon.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org