Between the numerous Law & Order series and the string of Chicago shows on NBC, it’s safe to say Dick Wolf has assembled something close to a television empire. And as all empires are prone to doing, Wolf’s has begun to expand outward, to conquer new territory, which he’s aiming to do with the CBS procedural, simply titled FBI. Only Wolf could get away with a title so bland and matter-of-fact. It tells you everything you need to know about the show and at the same time it tells you nothing about why you’d want to watch it. It is, like the series itself: no nonsense, but mostly uninspired.
That Wolf’s brand of procedural cop shows would eventually be of interest to CBS is an inevitability. They’re a match made in broadcast heaven, and the pilot for FBI is so slickly produced and so sure of itself and its television agenda that by the episode’s end you’ll almost be convinced it’s been running on CBS for years. That kind of synergy isn’t easy to come by, especially in a pilot, but considering the well-oiled Wolf machine has been traipsing across the television landscape for decades now, it’s no surprise to think such a thing can be manufactured.
The pilot for FBI is meant to be a showcase for the network’s fall lineup, and it impresses with a cold open that sees the bombing of a New York apartment building claim the lives of several residents when the entire building collapses in a cloud of CGI. That cloud covers series leads Missy Peregrym (Rookie Blue) and Zeeko Zaki (Valor), who play special agents Maggie Bell and Omar Adom ‘OA’ Zidan. The two become the lead investigators in a case that takes them down an ever-winding path and introduces them to a host of likely suspects, some with affiliations to criminal organizations like MS-13, which has seen its profile increased in the news cycle as of late. This is part of a familiar brand of fear mongering these kinds of shows are known to dabble in. If it helps make the world seem like a scarier place, and it paints the authorities as the only thing keeping society from becoming a cesspool of criminality and violence, then you can bet it will have an outsized presence in the narrative.
But FBI also finds time to add white nationalists to the fray with Dallas Roberts as a sleazy Nazi who’s really behind the bombings in a campaign of terror that's mutually beneficial to him and the street gang. His plan involves a number of individuals, many of whom become easy targets for the FBI, like a former military man named, of all things, Brick Peters (Mac Brandt), who’s now in charge of a community center. It’s a paint-by-numbers case that has Bell and Zidan chasing leads, apprehending suspects, and then questioning them back at HQ, sometimes with the help of tech guy Ian Lentz (James Chen), under the supervision of Jeremy Sisto’s brilliantly named Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jubal Valentine. Jubal answers to (in the pilot anyway) Connie Nielsen’s Ellen, who will be replaced by Sela Ward, as a new character, Special Agent in Charge Dana Mosier, starting with the second episode.
It’s all fairly standard stuff that a Wolf production could probably do blindfolded and with one arm tied behind its back. The scenes are snappily written and well-paced, even when Bell crosses the line and threatens a suspect, a Dominican immigrant, with legal troubles befalling the rest of his family if he doesn't cooperate. In the same scene, Zidan shows the suspect a drawing of him with a knife wound in his neck gushing blood. The tactic works, but the suspect dies anyway, having his heart cut out after being mistakenly thrown into general population where he was an easy target.
In that regard, FBI seems intent on bringing a darker edge to its procedure as a way of legitimizing and differentiating itself from the rest of the pack. It’s grounded in a way that’s different from the dark but sometimes silly elements of, say, NCIS or Criminal Minds or the absolutely ridiculous, tabloid-y plots of the miserably salacious Law & Order: SVU. In taking this track, however, FBI doesn’t so much legitimize itself as it falls into the same trap that plagued later seasons of 24 and its sequel series 24: Legacy, as well as Amazon’s recent foray into action-adventure television, Jack Ryan.
There’s little doubt that this will translate into a sustainable series for CBS. After all, FBI offers an attractive (already interchangeable) cast and a basic enough premise that’s built to run for years. The show hints at some interesting background details for its two lead characters, which may help fill in the many blanks evident in the pilot. Whether or not these details help give the show a more personal touch remains to be seen, but it’s doubtful that they’ll matter too much. FBI is meant to churn out content as quickly and consistently as possible, regardless its characters’ personal histories or proclivities. In that regard, the show is as impressively reliable as its remarkably unremarkable.
FBI continues next Tuesday with ‘Green Birds’ @10pm on CBS.