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Since FX moved under the Disney umbrella in 2019, it has sometimes been difficult to find its programming; I’m a professional and I’m often stymied when it comes to which FX shows actually air on FX and which are Hulu exclusives. But FX shows have still felt like FX shows.
The new FX-produced drama Class of ’09 is a puzzlement. One of those Hulu-only offerings, Class of ’09 surely has the air and aura of an FX show, from its sturdy, cinematic production values to a cast topped by FX veterans Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta) and Kate Mara (A Teacher) to its creation by writer Tom Rob Smith (The Assassination of Gianni Versace). But what it feels like? Well, it feels like a broadcast TV show from a decade ago — specifically like ABC’s Quantico, a drama remembered largely by Priyanka Chopra Jonas devotees.
Class of '09
Cast: Brian Tyree Henry, Kate Mara, Brian J. Smith, Sepideh Moafi
Creator: Tom Rob Smith
Quantico, which ran three seasons, used multiple timelines to introduce viewers to a fresh group of FBI trainees and then, in the future, show that class responding to a shocking attack that one of them may be blamed for. In the broadest of strokes, that’s the logline for Class of ’09 as well. And although the series gets a small dose of relevance from its treatment of AI-driven, predictive law enforcement, even that feels like a decently executed remnant from an assortment of broadcast failures rather than something creatively urgent.
In 2009 — “The Past” — we meet the new prospective agents at Quantico, including Poet (Mara), Tayo (Henry), Hour (Sepideh Moafi) and Lennix (Brian J. Smith), as well as their instructors (Brooke Smith and Jon Jon Briones). In 2023 — “The Present” — we see the agents at work, including Tayo’s investigation into a Montana separatist organization, Hour’s development of a powerful new database, and a troubling new assignment for Poet. In 2034 — “The Future” — Tayo has become the director of the FBI and it’s quickly made clear that Something Very Bad happened in “The Present,” which led to the proliferation of an AI system that has made people safer. But at what cost?
It seems like a wholly logical combination of narrative interests for Smith, who made intricate and emotionally effective use of inverted chronology in his American Crime Story season and built his career as a novelist on twisty espionage thrillers. This, though, feels like one of those instances in which the trickiness of the split storylines becomes a cover for the sense that, through the four episodes sent to critics, none of the three timelines would be close to interesting enough to sustain interest. The series’ directors, starting with Joe Robert Cole and Sunu Gonera, establish momentum, but struggle to make the individual pieces feel distinctive.
The “Past” segment is especially familiar, as we meet our main characters and watch them go through the most basic of exploratory lessons. As they learn evasive driving, firearms management and participate in fitness drills, we learn that they each have their own backstories, or backstories borrowed from genre archetypes. Privileged Lennix sees this as a gateway to his political aspirations while Hour, daughter of Iranian immigrants, sees this as an opportunity to feel part of a country that has too often treated her as an outsider. That doesn’t give Moafi much of a chance to play more than pervasively concerned or Smith, a very interesting actor only when the material is right (see Sense8), to be more than blandly handsome.
Perhaps because their motivations are less wholly telegraphed, Tayo and Poet are the most enigmatic characters in the series and thus the most compelling. Watching Mara and especially Henry latch onto specific, small acting challenges — the subtle shifts in Henry’s physicality or Mara’s expressions of empathy over the decades — is less about solving the show’s mystery and more about solving the mystery of what must have drawn them to the project.
For most viewers, the hook will relate to the use of AI, which is at least timely and specific in a way nothing about the show’s political context — non-ideological to a fault — is. It may not be plausible that anybody living in a world in which Minority Report exists would be shocked to learn that when you start arresting people for things an algorithm says they’re going to do, erosions of freedom ensue. But Class of ’09 explores this slippery slope with more nuance than most shows not called Person of Interest. The Very Bad Thing that happens is depicted in a shocking fashion, and there’s a thoughtful exploration of where the aspirations for a predictive policing system might begin and then where they might go astray.
Broadcast audiences have rejected a lot of shows covering similar terrain. You might remember Wisdom of the Crowd and APB and, yes, the TV version of Minority Report. Class of ’09 is definitely more thoughtful than two of those. You can see the conversation the series wants to have and how that conversation intersects with our now-daily conversations about Chat GPT and the like. But those inquiries often get upstaged, rather than enhanced, by the shifting timelines and the threads of flashy future tech in the 2034 period. The show wants to use AI, but not be about it.
Jake McDorman, as an insecure trainee named Murphy, and Raúl Castillo, as a human red herring named Amos, have a big part in the first episode and then vanish for the next three. They’ll probably return, but who will remember? Smith and Briones are both solid enough presences, adding character-actor flavor to underwritten characters. At least Mark Pellegrino, as the leader of that ripped-from-the-headlines separatist organization, has scenery to chew. There are lots of people appearing in Class of ’09, without there being nearly enough characters.
Henry and Mara make for compelling leads and, thanks to episodic running times of under 50 minutes, Class of ’09 never overstays its welcome. But maybe that’s a problem as well. FX is calling this a limited series, but halfway through an eight-episode journey, the show’s world seems limitless and the only limitation is its inspiration.
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