This fall’s class of new drama recruits is laden with bullshit. Blindspot isn’t merely a Bourne Identity-esque amnesiac mystery—its Jane Doe also has an almanac of future crimes tattooed across her body. Limitless isn’t just an adaptation of a half-remembered Bradley Cooper vehicle—it’s a sideways sequel in which the film’s mind-expanding drug becomes a law-enforcement aid. The Player isn’t your grandaddy’s thriller about a security expert foiling crimes in Las Vegas—it’s some crazy, high-stakes Trading Places nonsense where the ultra-rich wager on whether or not that security expert can prevent Sin City from sinning.
ABC’s soapy espionage tale Quantico isn’t immune to this trend: Joshua Safran’s pilot script unfurls like a firework snake, stacking flashbacks on flashbacks and twisting the plot until the very last scene. The difference between Quantico and other new dramas is that Quantico totes its bullshit with a sense of wit and style. Running its FBI cadets through an exercise in which they must dig up their classmates’ dirtiest secrets, the premiere demonstrates a strong grasp on who these characters are—down to the confidential information that’s for dramatic irony’s eyes only. With its photogenic cast, indie-pop soundtrack cues, and conspiracy-laden whodunit, the show invites comparisons to ABC’s Shondaland stable; one of this summer’s hottest TV critic pastimes involved giving Safran’s show a new, TGIT-ready title. From the ratings and spectacle perspectives, there are worse models to follow, and the heat generated by How To Get Away With Murder undoubtedly helped Quantico blossom, what with its in media res opening (the aftermath of an attack on New York’s Grand Central Terminal) and intimidating Annalise Keating figure (Aunjanue Ellis as Miranda Shaw, assistant director of the FBI’s training division). But Safran has his own methods for throwing off dramatic sparks, as evidenced by his work on Gossip Girl and Smash.
At the center of the ongoing terror investigation and anchoring the cast of new FBI meat is Alex Parrish, played by Bollywood superstar, recording artist, and former Miss World Priyanka Chopra. At 33, she’s already had a full career—with attendant ups and downs, declines and rallies—in the Hindi film industry, showbiz experience evident in Alex’s steely determination and Chopra’s onscreen magnetism. Its ensemble drama status puts Quantico in a bit of a bind: Alex’s fellow recruits get their share of compelling character beats and shocking reveals, but this is a show that’s still learning how to share. The focus of the present-day material is so squarely on Alex that it’s more than a little whiplash-inducing when scruffy military vet Ryan Booth (Jake McLaughlin), sarcastic Southern belle Shelby Wyatt (Johanna Braddy), or even assistant director Shaw becomes the POV character in flashback.
But that’s also a welcome sign of Quantico’s willingness to leap before it looks. The premiere reveals things about its characters that other shows might hold onto for entire seasons. A lot of it is utter nonsense—violent pasts, unspoken agendas, hidden family members—but it’s utter nonsense that piques curiosity. That nonsense is continually one-upped, and it’s hard to imagine the show maintaining such a pace week to week, especially with the added strain of its serialized mystery. Sketching out its characters, laying out the ground rules for their time at Quantico (via scene-setting monologues from Ellis and her partner in agent education, Josh Hopkins), and smoking some red herrings for down the line, Quantico sprints for one hour so it can jog later.
Because if it moves too fast, it’ll wind up in the same minefield that felled its other obvious touchstone, Homeland. Putting Alex on the trail of the Grand Central bomber—whom her superiors suspect was a member of Alex’s recruiting class—sets up a potential Nicholas Brody situation for Quantico: A central mystery with a built-in expiration date. Chase the quarry too long, and the show risks losing its urgency. Solve the case too quickly, however, and the show risks removing its sense of purpose in the process. It’s taken Homeland multiple seasons to answer its own version of this paradox; How To Get Away With Murder has just begun to face the prospect.
And so Quantico’s chances of long-term survival come down to the bullshit. Can a TV show sustain itself on a diet of secrets? At what point do shocking revelations undermine careful character work? Is Chopra’s star power enough to buoy a show that’s engineered to make mincemeat of her castmates? Quantico’s true central mystery might just be “How long can you make bullshit look good and feel entertaining?”
Reviews by Joshua Alston will run weekly.