The Assets Series Premiere Review: The American

By Cory Barker

Jan 03, 2014

The Assets S01E01: "My Name Is Aldrich Ames"

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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  • xubxerox Jan 07, 2014

    I thought it was surprisingly decent for a series premiere.

    I really appreciated that the show tried to ephasize its timesetting by trying to make it look old. And for the colors: If you have been the old USSR (or even just to east germany) it usually did look that bleak. Also notice how that contrasts nicely with the way more colorful setup of the US-side of things? That makes for a nice destinction and makes it easier to figure out where you are at any given moment.

    The one moment that seemed sort of out of place was the pep-talk Grimes got from her husband at home. that to me seemed somewhat awkward. And here I have to agree with you: I get why these shows (like Homeland) try to show us the impact of their protagonists worklife has on their homelife. But since that is not what the show is mainly about, it makes (as with Homeland) for some boring, unnescesarry and timeconsuming sideplots.

    Concerning getting to know the characters better in the pilot: I think they did OK as far as Ames and Grimes are concerned. I disagree with you on the guy who did the deadrop. I haven't seen the second episode, but to me it seemed like that was more of a throwaway character that was mainly there to do the deed, get arrested and report home. For now I don't really expect to see him again. But maybe you have more info there ;)

    I read the files Ames recieved somewhat different. To me it seemed like he got some info that he could pass on to the Russians. Why else make a big show of Grimes locking her office, file cabinet and so on?
    Also, I already like their dynamic. Right from the outset they are in an antagonistic relationship which should make it somewhat harder for Grimes to identify Ames, since he seems "just another obnoxious man" not appreciating a woman in this business. Remember, its the 80's....

    So..... to me, yes they tried to jump on the "The Americans" bandwagon of spying-in-the-80's stuff. But the show is just different enough to remain interesting. Because I hadn't heard about the show bevorehand and just sort of stumbeled onto it, I was plesantly surprised and well entertained.
    Looking foreward to the rest!

  • sensiblecitizen Jan 06, 2014

    Bravo ABC for coming up with a smart dramatic series based on real-life national security activities and the search for one of the worlds most infamous villains. Keep it coming.

  • edshrinker Jan 04, 2014

    I would expect this completely vacuous attempt at copying to be something NBC would do. Looks like ABC has no shame either. How does this complete lack of originality allow people to cash a paycheck in Hollywood? In my academic career, this would simply be called plagiarism. Or STEALING!

    I'll just watch the entertaining version called "The Americans"

  • wrightruel1948 Jan 04, 2014

    I was disappointed that they identified Aldrich in the first scene as the mole by showing him contacting the Russian embassy, then returning to CIA headquarters. Otherwise, the show is interesting and compelling to watch.

  • MarlboroMagpi Jan 06, 2014

    I had the same thought but after some research, it seems Aldrich being the mole is a very open fact that most people knew about. There is thus no point hiding it especially since the show are based on historical facts.

  • MarlboroMagpi Jan 06, 2014

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  • reasonating Jan 04, 2014

    I normally try to give shows more of a chance, but, honestly, after about 20 minutes, I was too bored and turned it off.

  • sluu3p18 Jan 04, 2014

    FYI, ratings for The Assets pilot were horrible. Worse than the Lucky 7 and Do no Harm premieres, and we all know how those two turned out.

  • MarlboroMagpi Jan 06, 2014

    This is a mini-series event so I have hope it will run its full 8 episodes.

  • williamwinche Jan 03, 2014

    um... YOU CANT COMPARE THIS TO THE AMERICANS.... once is pure fiction and one is fact.

  • MarlboroMagpi Jan 03, 2014

    I thought it was a good start and Jodie Whitaker is quite good. I will probably watched all of you as it is only 8 episodes and I will view it like a mini-series. The ratings were quite low though.

  • dolphin_intern Jan 03, 2014

    Just finished watching it and meh is all I can muster. I will probably watch the next episode and if doesn't hook me than bye bye Assets, I have to many other things to watch to waste my time on mediocrity.

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