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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the series premiere of Quantico.]
If it seems like there’s a whole lot going on in the series premiere of Quantico, it’s because there is. The ABC rookie piled mystery upon mystery and plot twist on plot twist in Sunday’s debut, which employed a similar flash-forward structure to the network’s How to Get Away With Murder.
It’s a lot to keep track of — even more so for the show’s writers. Creator Josh Safran tells The Hollywood Reporter that the show’s writers’ room has “the most whiteboards you have ever seen in any writers’ room ever.”
“We specifically chose a different room when we came to these spaces in Greenpoint to be our writers’ room because we needed more wall space for boards,” he says. “We have, no joke, about 15 boards — I think 16, actually — because there’s so much to keep track of at all times. But it’s fun — when you’re in there, you actually feel like you’re inside of a math problem.”
Safran also talked with THR about the touch points for the show — which don’t necessarily include HTGAWM, the familial inspiration for the show and how it will play out over the course of the season.
This is some job you’ve laid out for yourself. Where did the idea for Quantico come from?
I knew I wanted to do something in law enforcement. I very much enjoy soaps, I enjoy character dynamics, I enjoy political thrillers. I was thinking about doing something about the NYPD in the wake of a Sept. 11-like attack. I’m from New York and I was in New York on Sept. 11, and it always stayed with me, but I had never really tried to write about it…
Also, I have a family member who either is a pathological liar or has been involved with a government agency my whole life. I’ve always struggled with knowing that I would never know the truth, because there is no real such thing as the truth with regard to somebody who may or may not be telling the truth. That struggle informed the character of Alex.
What are the upsides and downsides of structuring a show like this, opening on the big event in the future and then circling back to introduce your characters?
It’s by far the most difficult show to break that I’ve ever worked on. … The fun of it is when it does come together — which it ultimately does; it just might take us longer than we want it to — it’s a big relief. You just feel really great about how it comes together, and I think that really shows in the episodes. But it’s incredibly challenging. The strangest thing is, I always thought going in that what we call the present-day story, the story of Quantico, would be the easier part of the story to break, and the future would be more difficult, but it’s actually the other way around. In the future, Alex is a bullet fired from a gun at the end of that pilot. She’s on the run and people are chasing her, and that is a very clean line. Even with twists and turns, when somebody’s running and somebody’s chasing you, there are just certain avenues you’re going to go down.
That’s actually become more easy than the present-day stories, because we’re trying very hard to offer viewers the ability to play along and see the connections in the present and future stories. So it’s not just coming up with a present-day story that involves all of the character complications and dynamics and relationships, but also what they’re learning at Quantico and how that pays off in the future with Alex on the run.
The balance has definitely shifted. I would say the pilot is probably 15 percent the future and 85 percent the past. It’s definitely 60-40 now, 60 percent [in the] present and 40 in the future.
And since Alex is on the run, you have to move that future story ahead rather than just catching up to it, right?
They both move forward. The present, every week is another week at Quantico, and the future is a couple of hours. The future story will all take place within a week of the bombing.
That’s interesting, because How to Get Away With Murder came in for some criticism last year when its future story got a little bit static.
Lost was where the idea came from for me. When you flashed into characters’ back stories you saw a lot of their life, ultimately. You didn’t just see a day in the life. The thing with this show is while the pilot does share some things with How to Get Away with Murder in that there’s an inciting event and flashing back from that inciting event, moving forward it is very clearly two separate storylines running at the same time. It becomes like two shows put together in a way.
The twins played by Yasmine Al Massri may seem like obvious suspects at first…
It should not feel that way.
Or rather, a lot of people might make that assumption given their secret, but presumably you want everyone to be under some suspicion?
One of the plays I love the most is Hapgood by Tom Stoppard. It supposes the KGB’s use of twins during the Cold War, and I was always very inspired by that play. … With Nimah and Rayna, the audience will get to know both of them individually, and it does talk a lot about being Muslim in America and being recruited because of that… and it also talks about how, like with anyone, being a Muslim is not one thing, it’s many things. So Nimah and Rayna’s relationship to their religion is very different, and that’s a fun thing to explore. Yasmine has informed a lot of that as well.
… All of them are suspect, but just because somebody’s Muslim doesn’t mean they’re more suspect than a Southern belle.
Can viewers also assume the mystery surrounding Alex’s dad plays into the main story?
That relates directly to the plot. It’s all connected. In a weird way this show probably would benefit from binge-watching. … You would see all the connections very easily, I think. But it was always meant to be a network show, and I hope the audience that is used to binge-watching is now able, when not binge-watching, to still pick up those clues and that things don’t feel like stories are running in place. Her father’s past is very much present in the story going forward.
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