Rewatch: “The Assets”

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Some television programming demands that it be watched again. It could be because it was that good, was a bit confusing or other times you just need to see it again too form your final opinion.

In the case of the ABC “mini-series”* “The Assets”, this show desperately needed a second opinion. With a massive gap between airings, it’s no wonder things were forgotten.

This “mini-series” stars Jodie Whitaker (“Broadchurch”, “One Day”), Paul Rhys (“Borgia”, “Da Vinci’s Demons”), Harriet Walter (“Downton Abbey”, “Law & Order: UK”) Ralph Brown (“Elementary”, “Walking with the Enemy”), Stuart Milligan (“Doctor Who”, “Land Girls”), Christina Cole (“Second Sight”, “Mutual Friends”), Catalina Denis (“Brick Mansions”, “The Tunnel”), Julian Ovenden (“Downton Abbey”, “Smash”), and Lex Shrapnel (“Seal Team Eight: Behind Enemy Lines”, “Hunted”).

It is based on the book “Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed” by Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille.

This “mini-series”, was written and directed by a bunch of different people, so that could explain a few things. More on this later.

The “mini-series” originally began airing on Jan. 2, 2014 and after the second airing, it was cancelled due to low ratings. The network began airing the remaining episodes starting on June 21, 2014, and after the June 28 airing, ABC had once again pulled the plug. After almost a month, the network aired the final four episodes, concluding on Aug. 3, 2014.

*I feel it necessary to briefly talk about why I have the word mini-series in quotation marks, on the off chance it isn’t apparent. I don’t believe it deserves that title because of the way the network presented the show, which ultimately was in a rather disastrous fashion. With this particular series, when I see the word “mini-series”, I think crap! Just because it’s got the requisite number to technically qualify, from a Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe perspective, does not having this title make it so. Emmy rules list this qualification as saying it, “consists of two or more episodes with a total running time of at least four broadcast hours (at least 150 program minutes)”. The Golden Globes have a similar standing rule at which to qualify. It states that a mini-series “consists of two or more episodes with a total running time of at least 150 program minutes…” Fine and dandy if you’re going to submit for an attempt at a nomination for either award, but when you’re throwing it around, for kicks, not so much. It’s not an interchangeable word. It should be met with the same definition once held back when a mini-series was really good. The 1970s up until at least the mid-2000s knew how to do this.

Now that that is out of the way, time now too focus on the really important aspects of this piece. These are the things that made “The Assets” work and not work so much, but ultimately ended up leading to a very intriguing viewing experience.

Right there, I mention it. It’s intriguing and it’s also quite compelling. You get to watch multiple sides. The good guys, the bad guys, and the Russians, who could be classified as either. This approach really set it apart because there’s no need for guessing games. Even if you knew nothing about this particular moment in history, you know right away from the plot summary what’s going on and who is who. Or, simply, you did extra research on the players. It’s not a weekly who-dun-it, but a dramatization of actual events of the CIA’s history.

It’s what made this fascinating. The story is based on true events, that began almost 30 years ago, and came to a conclusion 20 years ago. These events are probably not talked about much, at least, in the general public, or remembered all that much. For those that are younger, myself included, this may come as a complete surprise. Also, it makes watching this a bit more fun, all things considered.

Fortunately for this particular series, it was populated with fully capable actors. Each one had solid performances and that gave way to multi-faceted characters. You could see all the different reasonings behind what they did, which helped when trying to like or dislike them.

This level of talent is the reason I could find Rhys’ portrayal of Aldrich Ames good and seriously dislike him too. Rhys manages to look like Ames, which is eerie and creepy. He gave the character enough layers to make one wonder, how did he not get caught for so long? Things seemed so obvious, and I don’t think that was just from an entertainment, story development design.

The portrayal that Whitaker gave as Sandra Grimes was incredible. Her character has been doing this for some time, and rightly so, cares about all aspects of her job. So, when this starts to unravel, she takes it serious. She’s determined to find and understand how and why this is all occurring. As things go along, I felt like I sort of understood her frustration with the whole process of discovering the leak. I was getting angry at how long and how much red tape there was. I was surprised I could be moved that much with something like this.

However, while these actors were very good at portraying real life people, you didn’t know who they were. That small aspect is just unfortunate from a talent perspective, but it clearly didn’t help this ABC program. Among the many mishaps this project suffered from, under the care of ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee, this choice to use unknown, outside of the UK or something you may have caught on PBS, British actors made for a less appealing program. There was no true incentive to watch, and so no one did.

When the episodes began airing again, which I almost missed in the few entertainment outlets that talked about this, I was lost. I hadn’t thought to go back and rewatch the first two episodes and just jumped in. Later I was afraid I’d missed them as I’d forgotten they started airing on a Saturday, but, as it turns out, they had stopped airing altogether. So much for finishing.

After the remaining ones aired I was somewhat satisfied, but didn’t get the feeling that I had the whole story. By going back and rewatching the entire show, since yesterday, I got a clearer picture. It made more sense. It flowed better than before. No huge gaps or waits, save for necessary commercials and picking the next episode. The closest thing to a continuous three or four, two hour chunks, like a normal mini-series would have, and this one should’ve had.

Then there was the change in the feeling of screen time for the actors. Originally I felt that Whitaker had less screen time in many of the first few episodes. Now, it doesn’t seem that way. She has to share with others as it wasn’t just one person trying to solve this horrific crime.

I think the only major upside to the eight episode divide, like some sort of BBC broadcast show, was that the suspense at the end of the episodes worked. While it was still annoying, it gave me enough incentive to want to get to the next to see what would happen next in this decade long hunt.

While there was a lot to love and enjoy, including the fact that you would never know the cast was not American, but British donning American accents, there were so many things wrong with this program.

Like the whole flashback approach. While there weren’t many, and they were necessary, the only thing this accomplished was to further slow down an already oddly paced show. Something possibly avoidable if this had been a typical mini-series.

Then there was, and this I don’t understand, the lack of any actual advertising, if any at all, for it. It was set to debut two days into the new year, yet I’d failed too see that many spots for it. Somehow I did, but can’t recall how.

As previously stated, there were no familiar names. Now, I’m not saying grab an actor like Susan Sarandon, but there could’ve been a lot of people with a bit more name recognition. When trying to get a big audience, which clearly ABC was, a higher level of name recognition would be best. There are several of those types of actors out there, so why not do that?

Because of the desire to fill time during the winter, ABC went with eight hour long episodes. This, to me, ultimately slowed the momentum and definitely dragged a bit. Mind you, the canceling of the program didn’t help at all. This particular story would’ve worked so much better in a traditional mini-series format. Over the course of a few nights, the audience would be treated to a lot, but not have to wait for several weeks to see how things get resolved. It definitely could’ve helped with some of the story structure, which contributed to a slow moving feeling.

Ratings… oh, ABC. Networks live and die by the ratings, or, at least their programming does. All I can ask is, really ABC? This is an open and shut story. It’s not like you’re making this stuff up to give your viewers a new show worth watching. It’s not “The Americans”. It was meant to be a filler until “Scandal” returned. Why not just keep the show running during the eight weeks it was supposed to? This is the ideal definition, even if I hate this term too, of “Limited” series. It’s not coming back. It’s meant to have a beginning, middle and end. Something like the also low rated, “Killer Women”, also on ABC. Clearly this approach isn’t working. Maybe, Lee will think about returning to just airing reruns during the Winter hiatus, or any hiatus.

Lastly, what was really an odd choice was to go with the happy ending, if you can call it that. This included the desire to write a book so soon after the hunt for the mole ended. That didn’t happen. But, that’s not what’s irritating the most. The producers, or someone, decided to explain what ultimately happened, post arresting Ames and his pleading guilty, in the form of writing. This writing, which usually accompanies films or shows based on true events, detailed the exact opposite of what you’d just seen at the end. Why not just go with that ending to begin with? It’s factual. I still enjoyed the ending and was happy that the decision was made to detail what’s happened in the 20 years since, but I could’ve enjoyed an honest ending too. It would’ve been just as emotional. At the end, it’s shown that Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille wrote a book, which is true, but not that it occurred “5 years later”, which would’ve been 1999. In reality they published the book in 2012, shortly before Vertefeuille sadly died. That kind of ending would’ve packed an equally emotional punch.

While “The Assets” was not handled well, and had many things working against it, it ended up being a well constructed “mini-series”. Even if it was in an eight episode format, it still should’ve been able to capture the public’s attention. At the very least, it should’ve been able to run in a consecutive manner, and not take the better part of eight months to air. I’ve read that Lee hopes to team with the ABC News division president for similar types of programs, which it is said, is where “The Assets” originated from, but I hope it’s done better. There could be many interesting stories in history to detail to those that may have forgotten or never known about. Just because it’s entertainment, doesn’t mean it can’t be historical and teach us something new.

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