To get the obvious out of the way, the new NBC drama “Allegiance” clearly suffers from cable envy. Like “Homeland,” this spy thriller was adapted from an Israeli series, and the basic Russian-moles-among-us plot sounds an awful lot like FX’s Cold War homage “The Americans,” merely relocated into a contemporary setting. Putting those concerns aside, what emerges proves fast-paced and enjoyable in a check-your-brain-at-the-door kind of way, with the disclaimer that the perilous premise can take a left turn from amusingly silly to distractingly ridiculous at any moment. In terms of capitalism, while “The Blacklist” lead-in might help, ABC’s “Murder”-ous competition won’t.
Written and directed by George Nolfi (“The Adjustment Bureau”), the premiere opens with the brutal execution of a former Soviet operative on U.S. soil. That event hints at a larger plot, with a Russian go-between, Victor (Morgan Spector), approaching the seemingly idyllic couple Katya (Hope Davis) and Mark (Scott Cohen), who have been dormant and living an ordinary life for six years.
Their past, however, is anything but, since she was a KGB agent who wooed, recruited and married him. Now, their task is to turn their son, Alex (Gavin Stenhouse), a brilliant Russian-affairs analyst for the CIA who spouts gibberish-sounding data as if he were the second coming of “The Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper.
Working to get as much in as possible, Nolfi skates over a lot of this territory at breakneck speed, including Alex’s Sherlock Holmes-like qualities in assessing data, his new bosses and the question of whether mom and dad can either deceive or manipulate their son in a fashion that will prevent them all from either ending up in prison or meeting an untimely end.
As with “Homeland,” in some respects the Israeli underpinnings of the series don’t mesh perfectly in their migration to the U.S., even with the saber-rattling and renewed tensions brought about by Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Still, all one really needs to understand is that the premise sets up a lot of thriller-like espionage, with Victor spelling out the obvious (and sounding a little like a network development executive) by telling Katya and Mark, “The stakes, for all of us, they couldn’t be higher.”
Davis and Cohen bring the necessary heft and angst to their roles, while Stenhouse is appropriately boyish and quick, although one has to wonder how many of these genius operatives are running around Langley. The show also gets good support from Kenneth Choi as Alex’s wisecracking boss.
“Allegiance” certainly won’t win many points for originality, but the episodes do clip along on a serialized basis, keeping the principals constantly scheming to stay one step ahead of the two sides between which they’re caught.
The question — one “The Americans” has faced, and largely overcome — will be how long the producers can master that tightrope act without stumbling into utter silliness. If they manage to succeed, then a commitment to stick with “Allegiance” for a while, at least, might be a pledge worth taking.