The Assets Series Premiere Review: The American
Even though we're coming off one unbelievably great year for television, it's always nice to be reminded that this is still an industry dominated by copycat productions. Watching the first episode of ABC's new short-run eight-episode event series The Assets, it was hard not to imagine network president Paul Lee (or, more likely, one of his lieutenants) catching a couple hours of FX's The Americans and realizing, "Hey, the Cold War is so sexy right now."
Luckily for ABC, the real-life story of Aldrich Ames and the CIA agents who brought him down hit the popular consciousness with a tell-all book in 2013 (Circle of Treason, in case you have an Amazon gift card left over from the holidays), and armed with the television rights and cool things like facts, the network now brings us The Assets, a show that's supposed to help tide us over until Scandal returns later in the spring. The bad news is that The Assets didn't accomplish that task with its first episode, nor did it really get anywhere near the quality of The Americans. But the good news, I guess, is that The Assets' opening episode was not terrible. In fact, it was one of the most perfectly fine, mediocre, and yet generally watchable pilots I've seen this season. So that's nice.
To be fair, I never expected The Assets to touch The Americans. The FX series' take on the Cold War has a more obvious hook, recognizable performers in the cast, the cable advantage, etc. And The Assets is obviously going to rely on similar material, but going the other direction: While The Americans asks the audience to invest in KGB agents working in America, The Assets wants us to care about an American agent working with the Russians. "My Name Is Aldrich Ames" did a decent job of focusing on some of the CIA's procedures and inner workings, so that the key plot-point of the story—that Ames is the KGB informant—wasn't the most dominant element of the premiere. I had remembered that this project was based on a book/true story, but I purposefully avoided doing any research until after watching the pilot. In that regard, it didn't over-show its hand at all; it was relatively clear from the end of the episode that Ames was involved at a deeper level than what his CIA colleagues knew, but at least there wasn't an especially bad scene where he explained his motivations up-front.
As the centerpiece of the show, Paul Rhys is fine as Ames. There were moments in the opening episode where it seemed as if Rhys was probably laying on the tics and oddball mannerisms a little too thick, but he made up for it in the sequence near the end where Ames, all alone in his office, read some files that could mean trouble for his double-agent operation. Now that I know this is a show about Ames' betrayal of his country, I'm slightly more interested in seeing how The Assets unspools years' worth of story in just eight episodes, and how much rationale we get from the character as to why he did what he did. There wasn't much of that in the pilot, and that's okay, but pacing is probably going to be an issue for the series if it follows a trajectory that's similar to the real events.
Additionally, while The Americans' first season devoted quite a bit of time to its characters kicking ass, this pilot seemed much more interested in exploring the minutiae of the U.S.-Russia showdown during the Cold War (or perhaps the show was forced into it due to budgetary restrictions). The big "set piece" was an extended sequence where a character tried to lose his tail by walking in criss-crossing directions. But honestly, that's perhaps a more realistic portrayal of how things went down at the time, and The Assets' pilot made those scenes seem relatively intense. The issue wasn't in the execution, but rather the context—given that we don't really know these characters yet, to be directly thrown into a high-risk operation that resulted in at least one death and could have led to more was a bit hasty. Yes, those scenes gave the pilot some real stakes and firm ground to stand on before the Ames stuff really kicked in, but they would've worked much better if we'd been given even six or seven minutes with the characters involved.
Where "My Name Is Aldrich Ames" tried to at least establish some character basics was with Jodie Whitaker's Sandy Grimes, who in real life played a major role in taking down Ames. Whitaker's done some solid work over the last few years—I enjoyed her in Attack the Block and especially in Broadchurch—and she's got the chops to succeed at or near the center of this story. The pilot strained to make us care about Sandy's difficulties balancing her home and work lives, a struggle we've seen so many times that it's hard to muster much enthusiasm for it. Whitaker did better in the workplace scenes, and I appreciate that the episode didn't over-emphasize Sandy's connection to the murdered asset, or how it would disrupt her family life. Nevertheless, that was all pretty simple stuff, and generally limited by the small period of time dedicated to it.
Really, that's how I felt about much of The Assets' series premiere. Like I said, it doesn't appear to be an out-and-out BAD show by any means. It's almost certainly not going to catch on with audiences in any real way, but the first episode (and the second, which I also screened) felt professionally done. But there was so much focus on procedure in the premiere and not enough on character, particularly with regard to Ames. With such a short episode order and presumably a lot of ground to cover, I like that The Assets hit the ground running, plot-wise. But it should have taken a bit more care of the characters along the way.
– I can't imagine The Assets has a very big budget, but the pilot looked okay. Probably too many brownish, grayish hues that signify HEY IT'S THE 1980S to everyone at home, but still.
– Ames and Grimes are the story's primary focus, and the rest of the cast is filled out with characters the pilot seemed to have no interest in developing. It's bad enough that they were all just sitting around talking; make me care about them, even if only a little bit.
– I'll be really curious to see how this thing does over the next eight weeks. Who's the audience for a show like this in a month as jam-packed as January 2014, with no Scandal to help it survive?
Did you watch The Assets' series premiere? What'd you think?
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