'Quantico' Boss on "Substituting Trump for Terrorism" in Latest Format Reboot

"It's a lighter, sleeker show," Josh Safran tells THR about the decision to make season two more romantic, political and aspirational when it returns in March.
Courtesy of Giovanni Rufino/ABC; Jim Spellman/WireImage
Johanna Braddy, Priyanka Chopra on 'Quantico'; Inset: Josh Safran

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Monday's episode of Quantico, "EPICSHELTER."]

The past finally caught up with the present on Monday's Quantico. After a season of flip-flopping from the CIA trainees to their future involvement in a New York City hostage situation, Quantico merged its dual storylines by ending the season-long crisis and setting Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra), and her fellow FBI and CIA agents, on a new task that will keep them busy through the second-season finale.

Armed with a plot shift and streamlined timeline, viewers should expect a new kind of Quantico when it returns in March.

With nine episodes left in its sophomore cycle, showrunner Josh Safran and his writers plan to tweak the ABC drama's format. Instead of barreling head-first towards a mystery conclusion, like in season one, Quantico will be shifting its tone as it tackles topical, ripped-from-the-headlines stories with each remaining episode.

"What started in this show as conspiracy and paranoia, unfortunately, has become more and more fact," Safran told The Hollywood Reporter of the political TV climate under Trump's presidency. "What’s very odd to us is that right now we’re discussing the last two episodes — and we always had this planned — and yet now it actually seems like it could potentially happen. Whereas when we came up with it, it was a far-fetched Hollywood idea." 

Following a soft move from Sundays to Monday nights on Jan. 30, Quantico will trade in its current lead-in, The Bachelor, for Dancing With the Stars when it returns with new episodes on March 20 after a three-week hiatus. Speaking below to THR, Safran goes inside the decisions to deliver a broader, simplified and yet more politically charged rest of the season — a "lighter, sleeker Quantico," he says — and explains why the looming ratings aren't impacting his approach.

What was behind the decision for this to be the episode where the past and future stories merge into one timeline?

We’d always planned to go one timeline and for the Farm storyline to catch-up with the crisis storyline, now there's just a natural break with the back nine episodes. With the merging timelines, we also knew we would answer all of the questions and spin off into a new direction. We tried our best to streamline things for new people coming in when we moved to Monday nights but looking back, I think some of the things we moved actually made it more confusing. 

How do you think the Monday move is treating you?

I understand that ABC wanted to move us as soon as possible, because our viewership was eroding and it was a way to stem that. I really applaud ABC for moving us because they didn’t have to and it shows their faith in the show. Unfortunately, I agree with the American public that we are not a good fit with The Bachelor. When you watch The Bachelor, you want romanticism and emotional intrigue, you don’t want people being shot in the head. Hopefully when Dancing With the Stars is on people will check us out again and give us a shot. We have some great new castmembers coming and some returning favorites as well.

Do the remaining nine episodes feel like a show revamp, a third phase of the season — what do you call it?

Quantico has always been many things. It has drama, action, tragedy, comedy and all those pieces. But these upcoming nine episodes are probably the cleanest symbiosis of those things. The big thing that changed between season one and two is that season one was a college show. It was about a group of people stuck under one roof with rules, where you can’t date each other. Whereas in season two, the Farm is a version of that but they’re adults and have their own agency and that changes things completely. In this day and age where everything is 12 episodes and not 22 like we are, I try to see this as us being in our fourth season. Any other show would be in its fourth season and at that point, it feels like a nice shakeup and a shakeup that also feels inevitable. It’s the right way. 

By streamlining the show and making it easier to follow, will new viewers be able to jump in?

I hope people come back and I hope new viewers watch it because you can definitely watch the next episode having never seen a single moment of the show. More than ever before, it’s very clear where we are and what’s happening. Maybe we went a little too far with the serialization this year in that everything was connected in every way. Now, moving forward with the one timeline and streamlined story, you can still see the way in which things are connected, but you don’t have to have seen that to understand what’s happening. Our joke here was that Quantico was created to be a show where you couldn’t be on your iPad or computer while you watch because if you look down you’d miss something. Now, it’s more character forward, there are longer scenes. It's easier to follow because the pace is different. It breathes, we're not jumping back and forth in time. You know where you are in any given moment. 

Given what the ratings are compared to last season, are you approaching the finale as a potential series finale?

Every season finale I approach the same way. I love what Joss Whedon did with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There weren’t necessarily cliffhangers; the seasons resolved themselves and there was maybe a tidbit or two to launch you to the next year. I always found that very refreshing because it allowed me to think about the characters in the world over the hiatus, instead of worrying about the fate of somebody when they’d end up being alive anyway. We are definitely wrapping up the season, but we’re also spinning off the next season. If that so happens that is the last episode of the show, I think it’s going to end in a satisfactory place. It’s not necessarily going to end in a happy ending, but it’s going to end in an ending that feels correct for the characters.

So you aren’t ending on a cliffhanger, but you aren't wrapping things up into a neat little bow either?

Exactly. Where the characters end this season, if that’s where they had to be in perpetuity, you’d understand. You’d accept it, even if it was difficult. 

Will the rest of the season tell a complete story? Can viewers come in now and be satisfied by the end?

Definitely. You can come in and watch a nine-episode season of this show. It has a beginning, middle and end. If you know about the characters’ backstories that’s obviously going to help, but you don’t have to. This is also the first time on the show where the “Previously ons” are very clear. In some ways it is a limited series because Madam President Haas' (Marcia Cross) final speech kicks off the remainder of the season: Can they stop what’s coming by identifying the players behind it and taking them off the board before they complete their move? There are twists but it’s not a twist-a-minute. If this is the last nine episodes, I leave very happy because this back nine is a really strong, solid show in its own right. 

The show has grown increasingly topical — has the paranoia of Quantico caught up to the real world?

The show’s always been weirdly prescient in certain areas, but never in the overarching area. Season one was about a female American terrorist on the run — and that’s not something that has occurred — but within that, it allowed us to deal with personal politics that will always be dealt with in this country. With season two, we took a more global approach and wanted to look at issues plaguing America and its place in the world. We had characters that were more global with backstories that were more global. We knew going in we were going to talk about divided America, so even the first 13 episodes were about these warring factions inside our own government: One wants absolutely no oversight and the ability to do anything they see fit in order to keep America safe; and another wants to do the right things to keep America safe that the public knows all about and is all fully sanctioned.

What changes did you make now that Trump is president?

The only change we made after Trump was elected president is that we definitely looked at the people around him that allowed that to happen. We had a plot that our blockbuster brains came up with, which was about all the different elements required to make terrorism happen. It was our Hollywood brains making a plot. Then when Trump was elected, we decided to substitute Trump for terrorism. Even though we don’t have a Trump in our show, we are looking at the way America can be hijacked and all of the party players that help that to happen. The plot stayed the same for the upcoming episodes, but we focused them to be more analog to the real world. We were suddenly able to rip from the headlines in a way the show never had before, and that’s very depressing on one hand but cathartic on the other, and we are enjoying looking at our version of Steve Bannon, of Mike Pence, of Paul Ryan and our version of Hillary Clinton and all that entails. 

Do you anticipate these topical storylines — like fake news and having a female president — to end up luring more viewers?

No, I don’t. I wish that it would. But I think it’s hard to get multiple bites of the same apple. In a world where there are 420 shows on the air, it’s hard ask to ask viewers to come back. I hope they do because I think the show is the best it’s ever been and these back nine episodes are something not on TV right now. There’s a lot of conspiracy, action and paranoia shows — 24: Legacy, Blindspot, Blacklist. We were in that group and chasing the same things, but that’s not at all what the show is now moving forward. In many ways it has a lightness to it, even though it’s dealing with dark stuff. It has emotion and in some places it’s even a romantic comedy. The episodes are not heavily serialized, though there are links between them. But I think it’s going to be difficult. 

What can we expect from the ripped-from-the-headlines episodes?

The format’s very linear. On one hand there are procedural elements to it, like The West Wing or season one of Scandal or The Good Wife with the case of the week. Our group is going to be looking into something, but that something is a piece of a larger puzzle. In that we’re taking from the headlines but turning them into plots for ourselves. If we're doing an episode on fake news, what we’re talking about is how people use fake news to get what they want. Weirdly the ability to use what’s happening in the world has made the show clearer. While you watch it, you realize this is a real thing and not something you have to use your brain to imagine and piece together yourself. We have a female president who, even though she wasn’t elected on our show, is held to a higher standard, her opposition is coming after her harder, which is probably what would have happened. The fact that they’re still going after Hillary Clinton even though she wasn’t elected shows you what probably would have happened had she been. 

Why not have a Trump character?

We didn’t introduce one early enough. Last season when Claire Haas (Cross) became vice president we never showed the political rival to her and President Todd, so it felt wrong to shoehorn one in now. Instead we made somebody from that team the stand-in, but did not give them Trump’s personality. That photo of all the white men giving their thumbs up behind Trump were basically all those people, but there’s no one in the chair where Trump is sitting.

Do you stand by the decision to forgo the sexy soap opera Quantico was in season one to tackle more real-world issues, despite the ratings?

In some parts in season one, I think I was chasing an audience to get them to watch and in season two, we all decided to make the show that we wanted to watch. As the season has progressed, that’s more so than ever. We were able to get into deeper issues and focus on them. Now we’re also able to get into the topical stuff that’s plaguing us, so at the end of the day, you have to come to work and you have to be inspired and write from your heart. It’s made the show what it was about initially: something viable and true and worthy. In the beginning it was called a "popcorn thrill ride" by [then-ABC Entertainment president] Paul Lee. I always thought it had more to say than that, based on the cast and where the characters came from and their identify politics, and yet I had to deliver a popcorn thrill ride as well. This time around, we’re letting the characters’ politics be the popcorn thrill ride. 

How do you describe what's in store for the rest of the season?

In line with great ABC shows, it’s an energetic, romantic, funny, sharp look at the current political landscape through the points of views of law enforcement working to protect America. It’s a lighter, sleeker Quantico while still dealing with big issues. It’s not super dark. It’s about a group of people at the top of their fields coming together. The joke in pilot was that it was “Grey’s Academy,” but the difference in the Quantico pilot is that those people were harboring dark secrets and dark things. This has the vibe of season one Grey’s Anatomy because the characters were new to each other and hopeful and idealistic, working together for a greater good. And that’s where we find our characters actually now.

What can we expect from Caleb’s [Graham Rogers] return?

Caleb is returning for more than one episode, but I can’t say that he returns immediately. It’s really fun to have Graham back on the show because Caleb is sort of a wise-cracking, button-pushing personality and is going to create a bunch of sparks, especially with the group of people that you will know about in the next episode. You’ll see the connections and why Caleb is coming back.

What was the bigger message behind President Haas' episode-ending speech?

The show now is really about these characters in the CIA and FBI working together to protect an America that we wish existed, but are constantly seeing that maybe it doesn’t. What the election of Trump has shown a lot of people is what we mistook for progress was in some places progress, but in other places was things becoming dormant and just waiting for their moment to reveal themselves again. And that true progress is more than just laws being passed. It’s education and educating people on the issues, not just forcing them to accept something new. Now we are all seeing that we have a long way to go. That’s why everyone’s having their point of view they’re having now. The show relates to that. It shows these characters trying to believe in a world where progress can be made more quickly than maybe it truly can be.