'The Assets' Review: A Spy Drama That Eschews Hollywood's Usual Tradecraft Tricks

Based on a true story, the ABC spy drama eschews Hollywood's usual tradecraft tricks.

Jodie Whittaker plays Sandy Grimes, a Cold War-era CIA officer who realizes there is a mole in the agency, in ABC's "The Assets."
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It's the mid-80s and an espionage operative must balance juggling the spy games of the Cold War and being mother to her suburban family, who are more or less ignorant to the her line of work. If the premise of ABC's "The Assets" sounds familiar, it's because FX already has a show that is somewhat its mirror image - "The Americans," about Soviet spies deep undercover in the Washington suburbs. "The Assets" also has a more contemporary touchstone in "Homeland;" its heroine is a brassy blond who is often butting heads with her superiors (though there are no signs of a Carrie Mathison-style mental disorder just yet).

Unlike the other spy dramas dotting the television landscape, "The Assets" is based on real-life events surrounding Aldrich Ames (Paul Rhys), a CIA mole who conned the agency in the 1980s and into the '90s. (Knowing the history won't ruin the show's suspense. and the show makes it clear Ames is the rat early on). The Americans are the good guys, and there is no doubt about that. "The Assets" is also not very flashy -- no vampy disguises or Phil Collins power ballads here. It is awash in a grey, sullen color palette; its characters wear frumpy clothes and speak in straight forward, to-the-point dialogue. To say it understated compared to "Scandal" -- the whirlwind hit show whose time slot it is temporarily occupying -- is, well, an understatement.

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Rather "The Assets" lets the circumstances dictate the drama. It is based on a book by two of the agents actually involved in the case, Sandy Grimes (Jodie Whittaker) – who along with the mole is at the center of the show – and Jeanne Vertefuille (Harriet Walter), who has a lesser role in the series.

As CIA assets in Russia start dropping left and right, Sandy, Jeanne and their colleagues realize the agency has a traitor in its midst. Star Wars and Reagan rhetoric is escalating the tenor of the Soviet-USA showdown, and there is a sense the CIA is at the brink of a turning point in the Cold War. The anxiety is palpable and the pared down style of "The Assets" doesn't undermine its stakes. It constantly throws characters and situations whose connection to the narrative at hand aren't initially clear, adding another layer of intrigue and excitement. Much of the show takes us to Russia, behind enemy lines, attending to the agency's business in Moscow as well as the KGB's own counteroperations.

"The Assets" takes a break from the CIA workplace drama -- which is far less glamorous and breathless than in other Hollywood takes on tradecraft -- to give glimpses into Sandy's and the other agents' home lives. Poor Sandy has a bratty teenage daughter growing spiteful of her workaholic habits and a husband who is patient and understanding to the point of cliche, but is himself getting a little wary. The domestic dynamics presented in "The Assets" never reach the breadth and depth of the psychology at play in "The Americans," and the show is better off just letting Sandy do her job.

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This narrowness in scope may be in part due to the fact that "The Assets" was produced by a department of ABC News, rather than its entertainment division. It appears to more interested in dramatizing the stranger-than-fiction events than waxing poetically about their meaning. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, and the fact that "The Assets" is an eight episode miniseries certainly works to show's advantage. These limited series events slowly making their way to networks is a welcome television trend -- particularly considering how "Homeland" and other shows have suffered when their storylines overstay their welcome.

It's hard to imagine "The Assets" as multi-season series, or really competing with a full slate of television dramas. Its ambitions to honor the history rather than rely on the usual splashy spy fireworks sometimes get in the way of it truly hooking the viewer. But in the winter television doldrums, when finer dramas have either wrapped up for the fall, await spring premieres or are on a holiday break, it's a solid asset to have to fall back on.