'FBI': TV Review

Probably a better match for CBS' core audience than for critics.
9/25/2018

Dick Wolf heads to CBS with an FBI-based procedural that delivers a very basic version of what its title promises.

Out of my way, elusive shows!

Get lost, pilots that expect me to figure out what seemingly random numbers are supposed to represent, that keep referring to unspecified pronouns without telling me who "he" or "it" are, that utilize highfalutin epigraphs to establish a faux-literary pedigree, that climax with a twist reversing everything from the previous 42 minutes I watched.

Hello, FBI!

Whether or not I'll ever watch a second of Dick Wolf's new CBS drama after its Tuesday, Sept. 25, premiere — and I probably won't, mostly owing to the shortness of life and the finiteness of time — I admire that it's exactly what it purports to be, exactly what you'd expect from it based on its title and basic premise and its creative pedigree.

FBI, which brings Wolf's brand of procedural proficiency to what feels like its most natural home on CBS, focuses on the hard-working agents of the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They're going to tackle major cases every week, keeping America and New York City safe. And if enough viewers watch the first episode, you can bet that plans for FBI: Los Angeles and FBI: Chicago and FBI: Miami will begin almost immediately.

The pilot, written by Craig Turk (since replaced as showrunner by Greg Plageman) and directed by Niels Arden Oplev, begins with an explosion at a New York apartment. Special Agents Maggie Bell (Missy Peregrym) and Omar Zidan (Zeeko Zaki) are first to the scene and they're there when a second explosion levels the entire building. You know the drill. Who was involved? Is there another attack forthcoming? And if the first suspects aren't responsible, who's making the moves behind the moves?

In addition to Agents Bell and Zidan, we're quickly introduced to ultra perspective analyst Kristen Chazal (Ebonee Noel) and their boss Jubal Valentine, played by Jeremy Sisto, who has now aged out of portraying rebellious law enforcement figures who don't play by the rules and has become a level-headed voice of professional reason. It's up to fans of Six Feet Under to decide if they're uncomfortable with Sisto's transition into playing "the reasonable guy."

In the pilot, the team is watched over by Connie Nielsen as the resident Special Agent in Charge, but Sela Ward will be joining the show in the second episode as a different character in the same hierarchical capacity. Nielsen isn't bad in the pilot, nor would she have been a primary reason to keep me watching — and with only one episode made available to critics pre-premiere, there's no way of guessing if the additions of Ward and Plageman will have any notable impact and how quickly.

Following a general Dick Wolf Productions blueprint, the FBI pilot is full of headline-mining lip service, including lots of paranoia about MS13 gang members and also about the threat of the alt right, embodied by a deliciously reptilian Dallas Roberts in the sort of juicy nemesis part that a cable drama would surely stretch across a full season. There's nary a hint of any of the controversies surrounding the FBI and its objectivity and whatnot that have been circling the discourse over the past year. It's all just straightforward follow-the-clues, rinse and repeat, with no real twists or high drama, but a steady pace.

When the characters in the FBI pilot aren't poking around in rubble, they're expositing, and it's rare to see one show utilizing such a variety of expositional devices in such a limited window. There's visual exposition, like when Maggie opens her desk drawer and quickly reveals a hidden, happy picture with a husband we know is no longer around. There's my favorite clumsy sort of exposition where characters tell other characters things from their own résumés for our benefit, like when Nielsen's boss instructs Agent Zidan, "You're no longer undercover with terrorists making your own rules," or when Agent Zidan tells Maggie, "When we're in Indiana, you can navigate" (she replies, "Just because you're from Manhattan…" and he says, "I'm from Queens" and, on my couch, I say, "And I'm from Los Angeles!"). There's gratuitously volunteered exposition like Agent Zidan finding a clue and declaring, "I haven't seen grenades like this since West Point." Almost none of the character-based exposition in the pilot feels fluid and easy — still artistic compared to something like Bull — yet it's done in a way that lets the pilot move along and, after 42 minutes, I know a few things about several main characters.

It's also just enough character development for the core cast members to do solid work. Peregrym's procedural chops are strong after her run on Rookie Blue and she's a pro at keeping her jaw set in concern, while conveying just enough emotional investment. Zaki's got good screen presence and just when you worry his character might be just a bit too cool and assertive, he's given a humanizing fear of spiders for no real reason. Sisto and Noel's performances fit the very serious tone of the piece, even if they are perhaps a bit less used in the pilot. I'm sure they'll be quoting their résumés at each other in upcoming episodes.

FBI has a similar "They call it the Concrete Jungle, so surely everything ought to be pervasively gray" aesthetic that marked early episodes of CSI: NY and it will probably fit as smoothly into CBS' lineup as the cavalcade of CSI and NCIS spinoffs that have found traction over the years. Barring the promise of a long-term arc for Roberts (and probably not even in that case), I can just accept that FBI is a good match for its network audience and not an especially good match for me.

Cast: Missy Peregrym, Zeeko Zaki, Ebonee Noel, Jeremy Sisto, Sela Ward

Creator: Craig Turk

Showrunner: Greg Plageman

Airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBS, premiering Sept. 25.