January 3, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “The Assets”


THE ASSETS:  Thursday 10PM on ABC – Change the Channel

It’s easy enough to see why ABC would like to be in the spy-TV business.  Homeland, whatever its flaws, is a major hit, and The Americans, while not as sizable, has been a critical success and buzz magnet.  The novels of John Le Carre are having a renaissance, with two more films about to open on the heels of the successful remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  ABC’s own Scandal has been delving more and more deeply this season into the espionage aspects of its mythology with the saga of Olivia Pope’s parents.  So even though ABC failed badly last season with its Ashley Judd vehicle Missing, the idea of filling in the Thursday night gap between Scandal arcs with 8 hours of THE ASSETS in January and February must have seemed like a good bet.  On the basis of its first hour, though, The Assets is a dull, uninvolving turn through the world of Cold War spycraft.

The Assets is “inspired,” as they say, by the true story of the hunt for a 1980s CIA agent who was systematically leaking secrets to the Soviets.  He will turn out to be Aldrich Ames (here played by Paul Rhys).  Even if you didn’t know the story, there’s no attempt to keep this a secret–the opening sequence of The Assets shows Aldrich at the Russian embassy, handing over Top Secret papers.  The first episode, written by showrunner/Executive Producer Drew Chapman and directed by Jeff T. Thomas, is mostly prologue, concerning a CIA agent in Moscow whose identity, as well as that of his Soviet asset, has been leaked by the traitor, resulting in the Soviet’s execution and the American’s arrest.  At the end of the episode, this leads DC agent Sandy Grimes (Jodie Whittaker), who had recruited the Soviet, to realize that the agency has a mole to be hunted down.  (The show is based on the memoir by the real-life Grimes and her fellow agent Jeanne Vertefeuille, here played by Harriet Walter, although at least in the first hour, Grimes is clearly the heroine.)

The writing is notably bad throughout, and nowhere more so than in the family scenes with Grimes and her husband (Julian Ovenden) and children, which are embarrassingly simple-minded compared to the relationships in Homeland and especially The Americans.  There’s no tension at all to the spy sequences, and all the characters speak in blunt declarative sentences without nuance or subtlety.  Crackling dialogue is usually a pleasure of the genre, but here no one comes across as particularly smart, let alone witty, and there are none of the motivational complexities that mark great spy stories, where the loyalties of the spies (and thus of the viewer) are often in question.  In another universe, perhaps this could have been the stuff of a deadpan satire–the CIA as The Office–but no one here has the verve to be that kind of subversive.

Spy stories usually at least provide opportunities for actors to strut their stuff–think of Alec Guinness in the first Tinker, Tailor, or Gary Oldman in the remake, or any of the leads on the current cable hits–but even the performances provide no pleasure here.  Most of the cast is made up of English actors playing US, and they tend to speak with the flattened, bland accents of an imagined wheat-field America.  Admittedly, they don’t get much in the way of sharp lines to speak, but it’s still a disappointment when not even the supporting spies come off with any distinction.  Although the show handles the period 1980s costumes and sets well enough, there’s nothing like the cleverness with which The Americans explores the era.

Now that the hunt for the CIA mole is actually underway at the end of the episode, perhaps The Assets will find another gear to move into.  There’s nothing in the premiere, though, to suggest that the show can do more than keep the lights on while Scandal rests.  It’s a sad thing when a spy series makes you long for the good old days of Rubicon.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."