Israeli and American Television Share a Fear of Putin

‘Allegiance,’ a NBC remake of the Israeli series ‘The Gordin Cell,’ portrays a common fear of Russian spies pretending to be immigrants

During the Cold War years Hollywood enjoyed presenting extremely cruel Russian bad guys with heavy accents. With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the improvement in relations between the United States and Russia, the image of the Russian bad guy disappeared, to be replaced by Muslim terrorists – until recently. But thanks to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who once served in the KGB and whose relationship with the U.S. is tense – because of his treatment of the LBGT community in Russia and the occupation of parts of Ukraine, among other things – there are signs of a comeback of the Russian bad guy.

Alongside films such as “Salt” and the Jack Ryan series, the tension between the two great powers also inspired the highly regarded drama “The Americans,” which replaced the caricature of the arch-villain with complex, human and primarily realistic portraits of Russian spies. The plot of the series is based on an espionage scandal that was exposed five years ago, which involved the arrest of sleeper agents who were living under fictitious identities and carrying out clandestine assignments in the service of Russia.

There was a similar incident about two weeks ago, when it was revealed that the FBI had arrested a Russian banker in New York on suspicion of spying for Russian espionage services.

In light of the American suspicion and paranoia regarding Russian spies on American soil, there is now an American version of the Israeli television series “The Gordin Cell,” which aired last week on NBC and is called “Allegiance.”

The original Israeli drama was about a family of immigrants from Russia who were in effect a sleeper espionage cell. Their past returns to haunt them after a Russian espionage officer arrives at their home and demands that their son becomes a secret agent. As expected, the creators of the American version preserved the basic plot of “The Gordin Cell,” but totally changed the Israeli context and the main characters from the original series.

The emphasis on the integration of the second generation of Russian immigrants into Israeli society was replaced by the realistic fear of Russian spies pretending to be Americans. The character of the grandmother has disappeared, and in addition to the parents (Hope Davis and Scott Cohen) they have added a third young daughter, the reason for whose existence in the American version is not clear at this point, except for the probability that she will be kidnapped and serve as a bargaining chip later in the season.

The major difference between the Israeli series and the American remake is the change in the main protagonist. Ran Danker has been replaced by the relatively anonymous Gavin Stenhouse, who plays Alex O’Connor, a young analyst just starting out in the CIA. Because an outstanding decorated officer who is hiding a secret from his past would probably not have a similar effect on American viewers, the creators of the remake decide to reinvent his character and chose to join the wave of brilliant and socially inept protagonists, and to place Alex somewhere between Sherlock Holmes (“Sherlock”) and Sheldon Cooper (“The Big Bang Theory”).

Alex is a speed reader who can effortlessly recall every detail. Although he seems to have better social skills than those of Holmes, he is presented as a clumsy, hesitant and even childish young man. His background story tries to make his brilliance credible, and gradually we discover that Alex decided not to speak until he was 8 years old.

Despite the teachers’ claims that he had difficulty reading, the first book he read was Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” Today he is capable of reading over 400 pages a day, quickly processing the information and drawing conclusions at a dizzying pace. His unusual abilities may make life difficult for his parents and the espionage agents, but they create an unrealistic impression and complicate the story unnecessarily.

“Allegiance” doesn’t win points for originality. In addition to the use of a main character whom we have already seen in many other series, and the similarity to “The Americans,” which concluded its second season with an almost identical conflict, the drama also alludes to “Homeland,” with the revelation that the husband is an American who decided to betray his country.

Nor does the series excel in character portrayals; it’s a throwback to the days when Russian enemies were caricatured as a cruel bad guys. For example, Victor Dobrynin (who is parallel to the Israeli character Yaakov “Yasha” Lundin) leaves an impression of a bad guy who lacks depth or complexity, and his operators slowly burn an agent suspected of treason, while he is still alive (in a scene that was almost shelved after the burning of the Jordanian pilot by Islamic State).

Even if we forget about the comparison to “The Gordin Cell” and allow “Allegiance” to stand on its own, the drama does not rely on strong characters and doesn’t succeed in creating believable psychological tension. Although the series compensates for that by the use of effective action scenes orchestrated by scriptwriter and film director George Nolfi (“The Adjustment Bureau”), I wouldn’t bet on its chances of becoming more than a light spy thriller.