The Assets is based on the true story of Aldrich Ames, a CIA operative who worked as a spy for the Soviet Union until his arrest in 1994. The eight-part miniseries is derived from a memoir written by the two investigators who took him down, Sandy Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille. Considering the show’s pacing and complexity, that’s useful information to have from the outset.
The timing seems right for this unlikely story: Even though the Cold War is a thing of the past, shows about spies, defectors, and moles are bubbling in the public consciousness again. It’s hard to imagine The Assets would have gotten the green light without the success of FX’s The Americans, a drama about married KGB operatives living a double life in Washington, D.C. The Assets doesn’t have The Americans’ sexiness—in that show, spying is a counterpart to the interpersonal drama between the two main characters. The Assets is a flimsier show, even though it’s rooted in reality. The characters might be based on real people, but they lack the emotional intimacy that makes The Americans and even Homeland so watchable.
The main exception to this is Aldrich Ames himself, played by Paul Rhys. Rhys manages to imbue Ames with the shambling, insecure neuroses that make him both so unassuming and also so manipulative. He’s easy to overlook, which seems to at once infuriate him and also make him very good at being a double agent.
The Assets drops right into Ames’ world without so much as a title card—there’s no explanation of how he became a mole for the KGB. As a result, it can be extremely confusing. On one hand, it careens forward at a wonderful, immediately immersive clip—Peter Jennings is the anchorman on the news; Sandy’s daughter is wearing a fantastic late-’80s ensemble that gets her sent back to her room; several Soviet informants and agents get into kerfuffles that quickly mushroom and then resolve. On the other hand, the pace (and the staggering volume of information) is also something of a liability; The Assets has bitten off a lot, and the chewing is going to take a while.
What’s immediately clear, even with just a cursory understanding of the backstory, is that the period details and exposition are remarkably rich: The Assets manages to create the mood of the Cold War well, following in the footsteps of The Americans and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Rhys’ performance is matched by Jodie Whittaker’s Sandy Grimes. It’s clear both that Grimes is a sharp, dedicated agent and that Whittaker has worked to immerse herself in a role that doesn’t offer too much room for nuance. (She’s also done an excellent job masking her British accent.)
That said, in attempting to be a critically acclaimed miniseries, The Assets tries too hard to sell some things it has no interest in selling. The most obvious of these is the Grimes marriage, which is a painfully inferior imitation of The Americans’ family dynamic (even the set looks the same). The production of the score squarely codes the show with mid-level procedural stings and strings, and the camerawork and editing leave something to be desired.
But it’s heartening that the second episode is better than the first. Once the messy business of introductions is finished, The Assets can start milking the inherent suspense of the situation for all that it’s worth. And unlike shows that aren’t rooted in reality, there’s no danger of the plot burning up without resolution: This is a contained miniseries with a clear endpoint, and that makes getting invested much easier. Harriet Walter is also a credited cast member, though she hasn’t made an appearance by the end of the second episode. She’s consistently enjoyable, and the show could use another woman or two to break up the indistinguishable mass of middle-aged Russian men.
The Assets is airing in Scandal’s timeslot up to the 2014 Winter Olympics coverage on ABC, presumably to draw in that same viewership. It’s got some of the same appeal, but at its core, it’s a strong spy thriller with a few fascinating characters, not a splashy nighttime soap. And that’s okay. With luck, the series will continue to improve and become an even more compelling way to pass the time until Scandal returns.
Developed by: Morgan Hertzan, Rudy Bednar, Andrew Chapman
Starring: Paul Rhys, Jodie Whittaker, Harriet Walter, Stuart Milligan
Debuts: Thursday, 10 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Two episodes watched for review