Quantico may not be the best network pilot of the new season, but it’s certainly the most exciting and most promising. And in its own way, it’s the most culturally significant. The September 11th terror attacks have given rise to a lot of television storytelling, beginning with 24, which wasn’t inspired by the attacks but arrived just in time to feel of the moment, through to directly influenced shows like Homeland and shows inspired by its success. Quantico is one of the shows born of Homeland’s influence—creator Joshua Safran pitched it as “Grey’s Anatomy meets Homeland”—but it’s unlike any of its peers. The deliberate attempt to inject sex, scandal, levity, and humor is not an approach that would have been accepted from a show about this subject matter a decade ago. 9/11 is far enough in the past that counterterrorism can get the same treatment Shonda Rhimes brought to medicine and crisis management.
And God bless Quantico for being exactly what that fortune-cookie pitch promises. It’s about as close to being a half-Homeland, half-Grey’s hybrid as one can imagine, and the pilot is a rather deft execution of that concept. For one thing, “Run” is impressively dense. Too often high concept dramas like this don’t go quite far enough in fully laying out the premise, and the audience ends up more curious about the viability of the show than about what could potentially happen next in the story. No one can accuse Safran of failing to build out the soapy, twisty premise with tons of subplots and narrative time bombs. The flashback format works wonders, jumping from Alex at ground zero to her very first days at the FBI Academy to increase the density of the story. There are so many shows following a similar format, but this pilot is a good example of why it works. Telling a story this way enables the writer to build a lot of foundation in a short period of time, and by the time “Run” is over, just about everybody has something to do.
Naturally most of the responsibility falls to Priyanka Chopra, who is more than able to hold up her end of this show. Chopra is one of those performers who reduces you to the language of a old-Hollywood agent type. She’s just got that thing. She’s got zazz. She pops on screen. Chopra is not just gorgeous, she’s naturally charismatic. It’s no wonder she’s already such a huge star abroad, and casting her in Quantico is a genuine coup. That said, while she knows how to nail the flirtation and the pathos, we have yet to see Alex kicking ass or engaging in some cool spycraft. She’ll probably excel at whatever the show throws at her, but in order to really flesh out Alex, Chopra will need to demonstrate combat skills and look comfortable doing MacGyver-type stunts to get out of jams. It’s hard to co-sign Chopra’s performance without reservation until she’s gotten a chance to display more of that.
There’s no question she’ll get to do some of that soon, but I’ll admit I expected some of it sooner just because the pilot reminded me so much of the first 10 minutes of Salt. And that movie gets off to a really brisk start. Angelina Jolie has to immediately make a daring escape, which communicates to the audience what a bad ass she is. Alex doesn’t get a moment like that in “Run.” She does get a cool, very-Grey’s opening scene in which she winds up hastily hooking up with Ryan Booth, a random guy from her plane ride to Virginia who turns out to be one of her fellow trainees at the academy. But she hasn’t had her Salt moment yet. Of course, Alex is a brand new agent with little practical experience, just what she’s learned so far. Part of the fun in Alex’s journey will be watching her learn how to put her skills to use in this most unusual set of circumstances. There’s a hint of Burn Notice to the premise that could be really satisfying if the show doesn’t get as muddled as that one.
Some element of the story is bound to get muddled, though, because Quantico is crammed so full of plot. “Run” throws out ridiculous plot elements left and right with no hesitation or apology. The new crop of FBI recruits arrives and is greeting by their instructors, Miranda Shaw and Liam O’Connor, who share a complicated romantic history. The recruits are given an assignment to investigate a classmate and find out what part of their story has been redacted from their file. In the process, which culminates in polygraph tests, Alex reveals the death of her father, Shelby admits she lost both parents in 9/11, and Simon admits having traveled to Gaza to live among Palestinians despite his conservative Jewish upbringing.
Then there’s the sad, strange tale of Elder Eric, which would be enough to fuel most network pilots. Elder Eric has the worst secret: He impregnated a 14-year-old Malawian girl during his mission abroad, and she died while having an illegal abortion. Caleb, the golden boy who can’t shoot straight, needles Eric about knowing his secret out of desperation about how poorly he’s doing at the academy. Thinking his darkest secret is about to be revealed, Eric shoots himself in front of his classmates, and Caleb is drummed out of the academy. It’s a pretty sound story, so long as you can forgive the notion that a secret like Eric’s would be easily concealed from the FBI. Hopefully that development continues to reverberate through the season rather than being contained to this episode.
But I wouldn’t be shocked if “Run” was the last we heard about Eric, because Quantico has a lot on its plate. There’s the fate of Ryan, not to mention the truth about Ryan’s undercover arrangement with O’Connor, the presence of secret twins at Quantico, which is delightfully insane, the mystery of Alex’s father, Miranda’s relationship with O’Connor, and, of course, the investigation to figure out who’s behind the New York City bombing near the site of the Democratic National Convention. Quantico is definitely overstuffed, but in a way that feels generous rather than out of control.
- Simon is a jerk for barging into Nimah’s room without waiting for permission to enter from Nimah. Or her twin, whose name is apparently Raina.
- The use of pop music cues is so, so Shondaland. Really, everything about the look and sound of the show is straight out of the Shondaland playbook.
- Naturally, sleeping with Alex wasn’t part of O’Connor’s plan for Ryan, and he’s none too pleased about it.
- There were a ton of pictures up on that glass, and if the terrorist isn’t someone we saw in the pilot, I’m going to be livid.
- The terrorist just has to be Johanna Braddy’s character, right?