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'Allegiance' premiere react: Spies with too many issues

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Will Hart/NBC

Allegiance is confusing.

Not because it’s too complicated, or moves at too quick a pace, or is too smart for it’s own good. No, Allegiance is confusing because Allegiance wants to be several shows at once, yet never focuses on one for long enough to be a good version of those shows. Instead, it meanders into an unintentionally silly yet slick-looking pilot that feels like three different shows thrown into a blender with the hopes that the whole will be better than the parts. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

To understand why requires understanding what Allegiance is about and what type of shows it is attempting to emulate. Ostensibly, the NBC drama is about Alex O’Connor (Gavin Stenhouse), a brilliant but socially awkward analyst at the CIA. Only a few months into the job, Alex is pulled into a high-level operation involving a member of the Russian SVR (formerly the KGB) who wants to defect to America. Distrustful of whether the defector is playing them with information about a possible terrorist plot, upper management in the CIA brings Alex in as an outside pair of eyes to vet her.

Allegiance is also about Alex’s parents, Mark (Scott Cohen) and Katya (Hope Davis), trying to live quiet, peaceful existences in the United States after serving as Russian spies. The two have been inactive for years, but a face from the past enlists their services on one final mission in conjunction with this terrorist plot: enlisting their son, Alex, as a Russian spy against America.

Alex of course has no idea his parents were spies or that they’ve been tasked with turning him and thwarting the CIA’s current investigation. Oh and if that weren’t enough, their daughter, Natalie (Margarita Lavieva), is in love with the man goading Mark and Katya to turn their son against his country. And I thought my family had problems.

The setup for Allegiance is silly, and at times, the show embraces the absurdity of its plot. The music, plotting, and directing occasionally indicate the show is heading in that direction and doesn’t necessarily want to be too heavy of a show.

Yet the show too often eschews its self-aware, insane nature to attempt to be a prestige drama with dark twists and turns. The pilot opens with the brutal death of a man by incinerator—the event that pushes the defector into leaving the SVR. And after a few scenes establish the central players, the pilot tries to move along at a tense, quick pace, escalating the twists along the way. It occasionally succeeds when it remembers to, first and foremost, be a fun spy thriller, but unfortunately, it is too often bogged down by a number of character, plotting, and tonal issues.

Stenhouse approaches Alex in the right fashion as the naïve but brilliant newbie who may have some social disorder, but that archetype is so far beyond overplayed that Alex at times comes across as parody. The show’s first attempt to prove how genius he is? He knows exactly how many days he’s been on the job. Considering he’s only been there for about four months, though, that math shouldn’t be difficult for anyone who can add and subtract double digit numbers. His methods of interrogating the defector are smart, but they make the CIA look laughably bad in the process, which does not bode well for their chances of stopping the SVR.

Similar absurdities pop up throughout the rest of the hour. Somehow no one notices the SVR agent who grabs Katya looking like he’s prepared to slit her throat in a pharmacy. Mark and Katya’s car chase ends in a collision out in the open and the two debate whether Katya should turn herself in as a spy in broad daylight. And Hope Davis’ Russian accent is so intermittent and barely audible that I came close to convincing myself the accent was entirely accidental.

Despite these problems, Allegiance is competently made and has the basis of a good spy thriller. But it feels too reticent to completely take advantage of any promising aspect. The family drama at the heart of it is a great basis for a spy soap opera—but rather than leaning into its operatic moments like Empire and Jane the Virgin successfully have, Allegiance wants to make sure the audience thinks it’s also deep and complex. So it pulls a Homeland and transforms into a complicated political thriller, but before you know it, the show reveals another layer of secrecy in the O’Connor household and jumps back to the domestic side of things.

If a second episode of Allegiance were immediately available, I would have watched it, but not for the reasons NBC would likely hope. It’s because of the reveal at the end of the episode, in which Alex learns that his grandfather was the man incinerated at the episode’s onset. To see Mark and Katya weave a greater web of lies while Alex unwittingly investigates his own family would be an absolute joy to watch… if Allegiance felt comfortable bracing the ridiculousness of that idea.

Instead, Allegiance‘s premiere confounds by holding back from its true potential. It can’t decide what to be, and so it’s voice feels muddled. In its attempt to be both ludicrous fun and the next buzzed-about drama that has everyone talking, Allegiance is neither, held back by obstacles the show has created for itself.

Allegiance airs on Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.