It’s easy to compare the new NBC spy drama “Allegiance” to the FX series “The Americans.” Both deal with Russian sleeper cells in the United States, just in different time frames.
Despite the parallels, “Allegiance” actually is based on the Israeli TV show “The Gordon Cell.” The CEO of Keshet, the company that owns the underlying property, brought the original series to the attention of writer/director/producer George Nolfi.
“It’s a world that I thought was a very interesting way into the kind of national security spy role, which is something I’ve been interested in for 30-plus years. Namely, this sort of central dilemma of a family that has to protect its son by spying on him,” Nolfi says.
In “Allegiance” Alex O’Connor (Gavin Stenhouse) is an idealistic CIA analyst who specializes in Russian affairs. What he doesn’t know is that his parents (Hope Davis, Scott Cohen) and his sister (Margarita Levieva) are part of a dormant Russian sleeper cell that has just been reactivated.
Nolfi asks those who believe this is a modern take on “The Americans” to watch a couple of episodes before passing judgment. Other than the time frame, the other difference is the spies on “Allegiance” no longer want to be part of that world.
There are also differences between the series and the Israeli project. Alex has the sleuthing skills of Sherlock Holmes, but he struggles to deal with social situations. The key storyline in “Allegiance” has him assigned to an investigation that could reveal his parents as spies.
The awkwardness of the character was sparked by Nolfi’s own experiences.
“The notion of feeling like outside the system, outside the normal ways of social interaction but still having your mind work OK was something that I was very familiar with,” Nolfi says. “I would also just say the character has a lot of complexity to him, and it’s going to come out over the course of the season.
“We’ll know a lot more about him by the end of the season than we do in the pilot obviously. So there’s no easy label to put on him.”
Stenhouse is having trouble relating with the character’s lack of social skills. He’s relying heavily on Nolfi’s script to form the character. At least for now he hasn’t had to learn Russian like Davis.
The actress calls it the hardest thing she’s ever had to learn. She’s getting through scenes with Russian by learning the lines phonetically and relying on fellow cast members, such as Levieva, who was born in Russia.
“Because I’m a Russian actress, I do get a lot of Russian roles. But I don’t do many of them because I feel like so many times they’re written in a way that is very stereotypical or very surfacey and don’t really understand the Russian culture,” Levieva says. “The reason I was so drawn to this role is when I read George’s script, I immediately felt like this is something I had to be a part of. … I feel like the way that we deal with the Russian aspect of it is very authentic, and that’s exciting.”
The spy story will be the driving force in the series, but the heart “Allegiance” is a story about a family with a deep, dark secret.