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Espionage hits home in NBC's 'Allegiance'

Rival family spies keep home fires churning in NBC's new midseason series 'Allegiance'

When the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened, Scott Cohen recalls, the actor's son Liam was just 5 years old and had a particularly traumatizing view of the day's events.

"He was sitting in his first-grade classroom in downtown Manhattan, watching it right from the window," Cohen said. "I can't imagine the fright, the fear — what you do with that, what it does to you."

Cohen has the chance to explore that question and many other psychological and political ones in his new series "Allegiance." Equal parts espionage thriller and family drama, the cable-style NBC series — which also stars Hope Davis — will debut Feb. 5 after the network's similarly oriented hit "The Blacklist."

Creator George Nolfi ("The Adjustment Bureau") adapted the show from an Israeli drama, taking a look at the modern intelligence world via Russian and U.S. spies — who, oh, yes, also happen to be part of the same family.

When the series begins, Mark and Katya O'Connor (Cohen and Davis), a U.S. businessman and a deactivated KGB agent, are living an anodyne life as a married couple in suburban New York. Their daughter has been brought into the Kremlin-centric family business while, on the other end of the spectrum, son Alex (Gavin Stenhouse) is a brilliant and idealistic 24-year-old who came of age in the wake of Sept. 11 and now works for the CIA, oblivious to his mother's past.

The family's complicated loyalties quickly end up on a collision course, as an agent from the Russian security agency SVR seeks to reactivate Katya and conscript her for a massive terrorist attack on her adopted country. Meanwhile, Alex is assigned to root out the very plot that his Russian-spy mother has been tasked with carrying out. "Allegiance," in essence, is a post-9/11 series with a Cold War spin.

"I wanted to create a show of people caught in a vise, between satisfying their handlers and not betraying the country they call home," Nolfi said. "Like many people in the modern world, the O'Connors don't have a blind allegiance to one ideology or country. They're struggling with the cross-currents."

The filmmaker, who also wrote "The Bourne Ultimatum," studied subjects such as policy and diplomacy at Princeton and UCLA. He has been active on geopolitical issues for years and drew on dozens of friends and contacts in the foreign-relations world to craft "Allegiance." (Nolfi serves as creator and show runner and is its main creative driving force.)

By upending traditional television lines between Russia and America — the heroine, after all, is an ex-KGB agent — the show seeks to interrogate our absolutist notions of right and wrong.

"There's always a reason for people to do something," Cohen said. "The most evil people in the world have reasons for what they do. There's humanity to everybody no matter what they do."

Though Nolfi began working on the series before Vladimir Putin's incursions into Ukraine, the show taps into the realities of the so-called new Cold War, in which political and economic tensions between Russia and the U.S. have been rekindled. It also examines generational divides between people like Alex, who were impressionable children when 9/11 occurred, and his parents, for whom the Cold War is a defining memory.

But it also tries for a certain timelessness. In setting up competing agendas between mother and son, "Allegiance" looks at problems that bedevil even the most ordinary families, a shot of "Parenthood" amid the Robert Ludlum twists.

"In any family there are the issues of what are we hiding and whether we really know what other people are feeling," Davis said several hours after production broke for the holidays last month. "The idea of unconditional love and is it real, that's very much the question of the show."

"Allegiance" differs somewhat from its Israeli progenitor, called "The Gordin Cell." That show has a more immigration-themed bent, landing differently in a country with a large population of Russian émigrés. The Hebrew-language series also lacked the device of parent and child engaged on the same mission; Nolfi tightened the web so that the O'Connors will at times directly have to choose between country and family.

Viewers of "Allegiance" might also make the comparison to another post-9/11 show based on an Israeli format, "Homeland," which similarly explores the murky 21st century business of rooting out those who would do harm to American citizens. (The properties originated with the same Israeli production company.)

But Nolfi says he has taken pains to be accurate in a way he believes the Showtime hit has not.

"I saw an opportunity with this show to really look at how intelligence is conducted on the ground. How do you debrief someone who's unsavory? Where are the red lines for a nation-state supporting rogue activity? How do the FBI and CIA work together?" he said. "Every other show I've seen is so inaccurate in its portrayal of things like that. In 'Homeland' the CIA is doing all kinds of things that would be criminal if they did them in real life."

"Homeland" also puts its enemies on a wide swivel — from stateless jihadists to Iranian government forces to nefarious Pakistani intelligence elements. Nolfi keeps matters largely focused on the throwback villain of Russia, a move that allows the show to look at modern crises through the prism of a perceived safer rival.

This of course opens up the show to comparisons to FX's "The Americans," which also examines mistrustful family members and ex-Soviet sleeper cells. But Nolfi plays down the comparisons, saying that, beyond the setup, the family and political dynamics evolve in very different ways.

"Allegiance" is a particular example of film personalities migrating to TV. Davis, a queen of indie drama for many years, said she decided to sign on for the show because she wasn't reading film scripts she liked. Nolfi said he was skeptical of making the jump to television until he was assured by NBC executives that the limited run of 13 episodes and larger budget would give it a more cinematic feel.

Ultimately, he said the show fits a post-9/11 zeitgeist — it comes, after all, a short time after the congressional torture report has again raised questions about U.S. intelligence-gathering — but also hopes it can deepen our engagement with issues of terrorism and security.

"There seem to me to be two conversations happening about how to answer these questions — the one in entertainment and the public on the one side and the more sophisticated one of academia and congressional reports on the other," he said. "I think this show can bring these conversations together."

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