A scripted eight-part miniseries from a subdivision of ABC News, “The Assets” is an unexpectedly good placeholder for regular time-period-occupant “Scandal,” if perhaps a little too slow-going to connect with that show’s “OMG TV” crowd. Detailing the betrayal of CIA mole Aldrich Ames during the Cold War, it’s a true story that requires scant embellishment, derived from a book by agents featured in the series. Similar in tone to John Le Carre’s novels (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” comes to mind), the emphasis on tradecraft is understated but engrossing — and perhaps better suited to cable, frankly, than these somewhat more demanding environs.
The slightly disheveled Ames (played by Paul Rhys) is a CIA analyst who began providing information to the Soviets, leading to the capture and execution of “assets” within the Eastern bloc that begins, as we’re told, “destroying our eyes and ears inside the Soviet Union.”
It’s 1985 when the show begins (the producers deftly employ ABC News footage to set the time and place), and while Ames is obviously the driving force within the action, much of the focus is on Sandy Grimes (“Broadchurch’s” Jodie Whittaker), an agent who realizes the CIA’s informants are being picked off.
Beyond looking a bit like Sandy in “Grease” under her blond locks, a secondary emphasis on Grimes’ home life — balancing the demands of wife and mother with her life-and-death day job — is a bit of a snooze, and something of a distraction from the meatier aspects of the central plot.
Filmed in Lithuania and featuring U.K. performers in most key roles, the first two episodes find the agency realizing its problem, which becomes painfully clear after a lengthy sequence in which an American agent serving abroad seeks to lose his KGB tail as he seeks to exchange information with a Soviet asset. The whole show, meanwhile, features a slightly washed-out look that plays into the drab sense of life behind the Iron Curtain.
In tone and substance there are similarities here to FX’s “The Americans,” although the fact-based aspects of the story provide an extra degree of resonance, if fewer fireworks. Indeed, the plodding nature of the work — as opposed to the whiz-bang James Bond view of spying — feels more naturally tailored to cable, in part because it would be easier to get lost in this sort of drama without the interruption of long commercial pods. (Consider that one aspect of capitalism, alas, that occasionally works against a certain kind of TV drama.)
For all the talk this season about “limited series,” “The Assets” offers the advantage of being exactly that — a self-contained story and temporary commitment. It is, admittedly, a little strange seeing an adjunct of the news division embarking on such a venture, although the historical aspects of the story do create some cover for that.
Give ABC credit for using this sort of fare to keep the lights on, as it were, while “Scandal” takes a breather. Still, given the florid nature of that show — and indeed, most of ABC’s dramas — one suspects the real-life scandal featured here, despite the high stakes, might be a little too understated and brainy, ultimately, to be much of an asset.