Kate Mara and Brian Tyree Henry Can’t Save FBI Drama ‘Class of ’09’ From Getting Weighed Down by Big Ideas: TV Review
The premise of the limited series “Class of ‘09” is a familiar form of dystopia: in the near future, law enforcement has come to rely on technology that skirts the line between police work and a police state. “Class of ‘09” shares a blueprint with classics like “Minority Report,” then adds a timely twist. The FX show’s Orwellian innovation is an algorithm powered by artificial intelligence, the kind of tool now at the center of all kinds of public anxiety, including the ongoing writers strike.
“Class of ‘09” is created and written by Tom Rob Smith, the British scribe best known to Americans as the force behind “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” the second installment of Ryan Murphy anthology “American Crime Story.” That season, an underrated masterpiece, scrambled the typical chronology of true crime, beginning with the titular murder and winding backwards through Andrew Cunanan’s serial killing spree. “Class of ‘09” takes an equally unconventional approach, splitting its story into three separate timelines to tell a cautionary tale that spans decades.
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As the show’s title suggests, the first of these timelines takes place 14 years ago at the FBI’s training facility in Quantico, Virginia. There, we’re introduced to four aspiring agents “Class of ‘09” will follow into 2023, then 2034: Poet (Kate Mara), a former nurse who tends to take care of others before herself; Hour (Sepideh Moafi), the closeted daughter of Iranian refugees; Lennix (Brian Smith), a child of privilege fulfilling his parents’ expectations; and Tayo (Brian Tyree Henry), an insurance executive who will eventually become the Bureau’s director. They’re guided by Drew (Brooke Smith) and Gabriel (Jon Jon Briones), two instructors who mentor the recruits who excel — and ruthlessly cull those who underperform. The connections, conflicts and disagreements among this group start from their earliest days at the academy, then snowball into wider rifts and higher stakes.
To its credit, “Class of ‘09” keeps a clear distinction between its three main threads. Directors Joe Robert Cole, Amanda Marsalis, and Steven Canals craft separate aesthetics that situate the viewer in each timeline, avoiding the confusion that can come with overcomplicated thrillers. 2009 has a warmer palette, tinged with nostalgia; 2034 has subtle bits of science fiction, like self-driving cars and Poet’s new prosthetic eye; 2023 is a straightforward drama. There’s no “Westworld”-like attempt to hide the ball, and as “Class of ‘09” continues, it’s apparent each subplot serves a purpose. The flashbacks lay the story’s emotional foundation, the present tense lays out the crisis that led the FBI to change its entire MO and the future shows the fallout from that pivotal decision.
The problem is that “Class of ‘09” is almost too cleverly constructed. It’s a show better designed to explore hypotheticals and advance an argument than forge a deep connection with the audience. This distance is due, in part, to the multiple timelines, which pull the action forward or backward before the viewer can get comfortably situated in any one scenario. But it’s also rooted in how, in the four episodes of an eventual eight provided to critics, Smith’s scripts treat the characters more like ambassadors for ideas than individuals with quirks. Hour’s identity, for example, is largely used to explain her early evangelism for a program that can move decision-making away from flawed, biased, individuals. The show’s primary antagonist is sketched in broad outlines as an Ammon Bundy-like white supremacist holed up on a Montana ranch. But his primary purpose is to turn the Tayo of here and now into a leader who forcefully advocates for the new status quo. To him, peace of mind is worth the price of a system that’s rendered almost all of his agents obsolete, makes decisions on their behalf and sometimes arrests suspects before they’ve ever committed a crime.
After four seasons on “Atlanta,” “Class of ‘09” marks Tyree Henry’s return to FX in his first leading role since earning an Oscar nomination for “Causeway” earlier this year. The actor remains a performer of profound sensitivity, but the chilly, cerebral remove of his latest project calls for more muted turns by both Tyree Henry and his co-lead Mara. When Poet, in 2034, joins the search for agent turned anti-algorithm dissident Amos Garcia (Raul Castillo), she finds footage of Tayo playing in an endless loop. “Not only are we now one of the greatest countries on Earth,” he drones. “We are also one of the safest.” He’s an ideologue who’s always on message.
“Class of ‘09” poses worthwhile questions about the competing risks of human error and technological overreach. But even if the specific application is relatively new, questions of freedom versus security are as old as the idea of an armed state. By erring on the side of intellectual exercise, “Class of ‘09” deprives itself of the chance to give a fresher take on this evergreen dilemma. It’s a show more engaging to think about than it ultimately is to watch.
The first two episodes of FX’s “Class of ‘09” premiered on Hulu on Wednesday, May 10, with new episodes airing weekly on Wednesdays.
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