Can a CIA agent during the Cold War really have it all? This and other low-stakes storytelling devices are the primary assets for ABC’s mini-series The Assets.
The year is 1985 and Sandy Grimes is a CIA agent trying to balance work, family, and survivors’ guilt after an agent and espionage asset get compromised in a botched dead drop. Some investigating reveals that there may be a mole within Langley that could cause an irreversible shift in the Cold War.
Interesting premise, right? You have a little bit of The Americans and a little bit of Homeland. However, you have the hybrid getting watered down by not only appearing on broadcast, but ABC—the great laminator of female characters and realistic violence. Also, “inspired by true events” means that there are tentpoles that must be preserved regardless of how they are connected. The result: a boring mess.
The first act of the premiere episode focuses on the dead drop, which artfully undercuts any potential for tension. You know immediately it isn’t going to go well and it’s safe to assume that every single person in Moscow is a KGB agent. As a result, the first 15 minutes are not unlike watching someone play Frogger until the agent gets captured. To its credit, this sequence is the only section where “showing” is valued over “telling.”
We then get a more thorough introduction of our protagonist Sandy, who can’t bear the fact that a drop she advocated for resulted in an operative getting captured and perhaps killed. I don’t fault her for being human, but if that risk did not enter your calculus when making your case, you are in the wrong line of work. She doesn’t fully recover from this until she gets a speech from her husband (with violins swelling in the background) about how she is the most heroic person he knows and to win one for the Gipper. Again, you picked the job; the job didn’t pick you, Sandy.
The arc of the eight-episode story will be Sandy figuring out who the mole is1 and then capturing him in the act. But wait! There needs to be sexy results and Russian accents! The show basically has the Argo problem, where the full story can be told in about 45 minutes, but you need to add elements that may or may not have happened (usually the latter). What hurt both the movie and ultimately The Assets is that a quick look on Wikipedia or asking your parents will reveal that everything turns out okay.
I do admire ABC trying to tie-in its own journalism with the show from an historical perspective. Though as a piece of entertainment, The Assets is significantly overvalued.
- We, the audience, know who it is. Hint: look at the photo. ↵