Allegiance Review – TV

A lot of people are likely to look down on Allegiance before it even starts, and only because The Americans isn’t that old. I have to give them that, if I’m really being honest, but this one is quite a different spin on things, and I’m a lot more intrigued by the possibilities.

In this telling of the Russian agents living as American citizens story, Mark and Katya O’Connor (Scott Cohen and Hope Davis) have a complicated backstory. They fell in love when Katya was still working for the KGB, and a deal was ultimately made that allowed the couple to marry and live in America, but with a vague understanding that one is never really out of the KGB… or whatever.

Fast-forward a lot of years, and their son, Alex (Gavin Stenhouse), has started working as analyst for the CIA. He also rather a sharp cookie, and it all sounds good to the SVR (the new KGB), who have a massive plan in play to launch a terrorist attack on the U.S. that they believe will “bring it to its knees,” and having someone in the CIA sounds like just the ticket.

When an old contact shows up at the O’Connor home, Mark and Katya know just where things are going, but pulling a runner isn’t as easy as it might seem, and with Alex, and daughter Natalie (Margarita Levieva), in a bad situation, they really aren’t sure what to do.

Allegiance Review
Will Hart/NBC

The trouble with the show, which is the same problem the first season of The Americans had, is that you aren’t sure what sort of story you’re watching, which makes it difficult to jump on board immediately. Are we watching the story of this one plot by the Russians, which is going to take at least a season to unfold? Or, is that wrapping up in a few episodes, as the O’Connor’s morph into some double-triple-agent family who work for, and against, the Russians in a variety of ways? Who knows?

It isn’t something that’s actually a problem, but it’s something audiences don’t tend to flock to and stick with.

While there’s no way to avoid the comparisons with The Americans, the show actually feels a bit closer to The Bridge. It has a plot that is hard to deal with, because if you take two steps to the left, it becomes completely goofy, but it tries to work through its inherent pitfalls with dialog and believable motivations. Not that The Americans doesn’t succeed in working through the same difficulties, it just has a somewhat different approach.

Allegiance bills itself as “high-octane,” because it wants to insinuate itself into the same market as The Blacklist (which has really gone downhill), but it may be overplaying things in its own promotion, because it’s mostly a slower, more methodical game, which goes for intrigue over thriller as often as possible.

That’s where long-underrated Scott Cohen, and always a scene-stealer Kenneth Choi come in handy, because they can pull you along through just about anything. Cohen can manageĀ “running through a dozen scenarios in his mind,” and makes you believe whatever conversation he’s having. Choi can stand in the background and sell you on the idea that he’s done all this before a dozen times.

Will Hart/NBC
Will Hart/NBC

That leaves a lot for Stenhouse to do, and he’s actually in the pilot far less than you’d expect going in. Though we are clearly playing up the family aspect of things, it’s still a bold move to leave us wondering where he is so much of the time.

Another potential stumbling block (which is also potentially brilliant) is that the pilot ends without giving the audience any clue as to where we’re going. It’s a pilot that does an impressive job at establishment, laying out a lot of information without turning clunky, but things could spin in several directions, and since you don’t have any idea which way things are leaning, you might decide that you don’t care. You’re fickle like that. Especially when you haven’t made up your mind on whether or not you’re sold on the general effort yet.

If you’re having trouble deciding if you’re coming back, focus on the things people say, and how they react. It’s well-written, and if a theory that is playing a little fast and loose with believability can get you into the characters, it’s worth giving a shot.

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This high-octane thriller revolves around the O’Connor family and their son, Alex (Gavin Stenhouse), a young idealistic CIA analyst specializing in Russian affairs. Unbeknownst to him, both of his parents and his sister are part of a dormant Russian sleeper cell that has just been reactivated.

Years ago, Russian-born Katya (Hope Davis) was tasked by the KGB to recruit American businessman Mark O’Connor (Scott Cohen) as a spy, and the two fell in love. A deal was struck: as long as Katya remained an asset for Russia, she would be allowed to marry Mark and move to America. After years in America building a happy life and without word from Moscow, they thought they had escaped. Now it seems the new Mother Russia has one more mission – turning Alex into a spy. The SVR (Russian Intelligence) has re-enlisted the entire family into service as they plan a terrorist operation inside U.S. borders that will bring America to its knees. For these anguished parents, the choice is clear: betray their country… or risk their family.

The series also stars Margarita Levieva (Natalie O’Connor), Morgan Spector (Victor Dobrynin), Kenneth Choi (Sam Luttrell) and Alex Peters (Sarah O’Connor).

Based on an Israeli format, “Allegiance” is a production of Universal Television, Keshet Media and Yes! and comes from Executive Producer, Showrunner and Producing Director George Nolfi (“The Adjustment Bureau”) and Executive Producers Avi Nir, John Glenn, Rashad Raisani, Ron Leshem, Amit Cohen, Giyora Yahalom and Yona Wisenthal.

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Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.