Thursday, March 05, 2015


At first glance, NBC’s Allegiance looks to be a painfully obvious rip-off of the FX hit, The Americans.

Both feature a seemingly perfect, all-American family, Mom, Dad, older daughter, younger son – except Mom and Dad also happen to be Russian spies.

As it turns out, however, Allegiance isn’t purely a cynical network attempt to ape yet another cable critical darling. It’s actually based on an Israeli show, The Gordin Cell, (the same way that Homeland is a remake of Israel’s Prisoners of War). Though it’s doubtful Allegiance would have been developed, if not for the success of The Americans.

The two shows are actually more different than they are similar. Or, rather, they are companion pieces instead of being direct competitors.

Their commonalities are purely surface, and include some pretty horrible attempts at speaking Russian. On The Americans, neither of the leads are native speakers, though all of the actors playing KGB agents at the Rezidentura are, and hearing them talking to each other is pretty jarring. On Allegiance, Margarita Levieva, who plays oldest daughter Natalie, was born in then-Leningrad and, like many Soviet Jews – including myself – moved to the States as a child. Her Russian is perfect. Hope Davis’, who plays her mother… isn’t. And, of course, there is the matter of the subtitles. On both shows, the translations are flawed, at best, complete fictions, at worst. Sometimes the dialogue only matches on the most surface of levels, but idioms and nuances are inevitably lost.

The differences, however, are key. On The Americans, “Elizabeth” and “Phillip” a.k.a. Nadezhda and Misha, are trained spies, recruited at young age and set up in the US with stolen documents as a phony married couple. Their children, Paige and Henry, are merely part of their cover story, as much tools as the employees at the travel agency they supposedly run.

On Allegiance, Katya was a Russian agent sent to recruit American engineer, Mark, (a fact that prompted my American engineer husband to look at me with suspicion). The two ended up falling in love, getting married, and raising a family in the US – while continuing to spy as a team. Katya isn’t pretending to be a wholesome, all-American housewife. She’s supposed to be a Russian immigrant, so the family speaks Russian, and celebrates Russian Orthodox holidays (nevertheless, my 15 year old refused to believe any real Russians would be so blasé about the youngest daughter getting a “D” in math). Oh and, along the way, they recruit their oldest child to be a spy, too.

It’s the middle son, Alex, however, who is the centerpiece of the story. Alex is an up-and-coming analyst with the CIA (though, like with all of TV’s attempts to portray an intellectually gifted individual, they make the usual mistake and/or lazy writing of demonstrating it by having him spout obscure facts and be socially awkward). Katya and Mark’s handlers want an oblivious Alex to start spying for them, too. Or else!

And this is where Allegiance dovetails so beautifully with The Americans.  The theme of the latter show’s third season has been Phillip and Elizabeth’s conflict over recruiting daughter Paige to their cause. (Apparently, even in this, poor, neglected Henry gets the shaft.) Elizabeth is all for it. Phillip is wildly against it. Elizabeth thinks it will give her moody teen a life purpose and bring the two of them closer together. Phillip thinks their sheltered, innocent American princess would shatter from living a lie.

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