TV review: ‘The Assets’ sets story of Aldrich Ames at a low boil

It has been a long time since the Cold War crumbled to dust, making a small mockery of decades of mutually assured paranoia. Those nuclear arsenals, those drop drills, those bad dreams — what were they all for? Kids these days have no idea. Frankly, it’s hard to remember myself.

One corollary benefit of that time is a great lore and literature of espionage, fictional and factual, a cornerstone of pop culture and childhood play over the last half of the 20th century — and with a change of players, into this one. (Hello, “Homeland.”)

“The Assets,” which unrolls as an eight-part miniseries beginning Thursday on ABC, tells the true story of Aldrich Ames, the American CIA officer who, from 1985 to 1993, sold secrets to the Russians — most significantly the identities of America’s moles and secret agents. Based on “Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed” by Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, the patient pair who caught him, it’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” without the great dialogue, or FX’s “The Americans,” seen from our side, minus the disguises and the sex. It is tonally odd yet quite likable.

Ames, a sweaty type previously played by Timothy Hutton in the 1998 Showtime movie “Aldrich Ames: Traitor Within,” is played here with twitchy serial-killer blandness by Welsh actor Paul Rhys. For whatever reason, all the American roles are taken by British actors, including Jodie Whittaker as Grimes and Harriet Walter as Vertefeuille.

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The uniformly foreign casting, along with the series having been shot in Lithuania, adds a thin but perceptible film of artifice to the enterprise, shifting it an extra half-step from reality, as when people from outer space impersonate Earthlings. Accents are slightly overstressed or not quite achieved; American habits and postures are adopted as if from guidebooks and old movies.

And yet that things are slightly out of joint and the play-acting often evident — it’s hard to fix the blame, given that players have performed expertly elsewhere — feels appropriate to the subject matter and oddly charming. In a strange way, I like “The Assets” as much for what it gets wrong as what it gets right.

Except for departures from the main action, in scenes where outed spies are chased, caught, interrogated, tortured and/or shot, the opening episodes run mostly at a low boil. This is appropriate given characters whose work it is to escape notice.

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When the story follows Grimes home, it takes on the feel of a Lifetime movie. (“Mom, where have you been, I need to talk to you about Saturday night, because Benjy [somebody] wants to take me to this party and — " “Not now!”) It’s hard juggling a family and the fate of the free world, but as her husband (Julian Ovenden) reminds her, “You are a warrior protecting your country.”

In the morning, things look better. “Nobody leaves this house without a nutritious breakfast,” Grimes announces. There are pancakes on the table.

‘The Assets’

Where: ABC

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for violence)


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