DRAMA SERIES "The Assets"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Thursday night at 10 on ABC/7

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Spies (are) like us -- they're just regular folks who go to work at the CIA or KGB and end up with poison pills tucked inside their mouths. So much for James Bond glamour. It's a dreary world, really, at least in "The Assets," which might explain why a nebbish like Aldrich Ames (Paul Rhys) would turn traitor.

That big real-life '80s CIA mole case forms the basis for this eight-week tale of Cold War dead drops and executions, Russian country fishing trips and late nights at the office for Sandy Grimes (Jodie Whitaker). Your everyday suburban wife and mom, Grimes works overtime to nail her country's biggest turncoat since Benedict Arnold.

MY SAY "The Assets" doesn't waste time. Its first frames show a nervous guy eyeing papers with TOP SECRET stamped blood-red, and there's soon a long, winding spy chase through the streets of Moscow. Yet the show's tension takes awhile to take hold. Its professional cool works against it at first, as do an odd reserve and curious enunciation that make sense when you learn the cast is largely British and trying not to seem so.

Like "Broadchurch," Whitaker's previous limited-series mystery, "The Assets" isn't flashy, but boy, is it effective. It just grinds away, laying down intriguing details of "asset" care and feeding, made vivid through determined performances and intense crescendos.

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BOTTOM LINE You can hear critics across the country complaining that ABC's screener ended after two episodes.

GRADE A-