[This is a review of Quantico season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
If new shows were judged solely on the amount of twists they could cram into a pilot episode, then Quantico would be the highest-rated series to premiere this fall. In the span of one hour, the FBI thriller throws in twist after twist, as though attempting to fulfill an unspoken quota and earn itself a prize – like the television equivalent of the Subway Sandwich Card. Whatever the intent – or the motivation – by the end of the first episode, the series is definitely making a statement, taking a fairly straightforward Fugitive-meets-[Insert any Shonda Rhimes series] storyline and reshaping it into a perplexing labyrinth of flashbacks, reveals, and yes, twists (many, many twists).
In a sense, this "nothing is as it seems" set up is like Quantico future proofing itself against the uncertainty of success. By establishing how easily the focus can be shifted away from the A-plot of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil and the fugitive status of FBI recruit Alex Parrish (played by Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra in her first major U.S. role), the series demonstrates the control it has over the momentum and direction of that storyline. It is, in effect, the writers telling the audience they believe they can keep this going for as long as they want.
Chances are good this will remind viewers of Lost, another high-concept ABC series about a group of people caught in a unique set of extreme circumstances. Lost also employed the flashback method to its storytelling, allowing the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 to explore the mysterious island, while the audience was exploring who those characters were. The effect was – at least in the early seasons – a crafty trick from which the advancement of the overarching narrative could remain gratifyingly piecemeal, so long as the characters remained interesting.
Quantico lacks a potentially supernatural island at the heart of its mystery; instead it has the aforementioned terrorist attack – an element that may reach more of a consensus amongst the audience, as the answer to who was responsible will seemingly have less mythology to wade through when it comes time to cross that particular threshold. The answer, as the audience is told through one of the few present-day scenes, is that one of the impossibly good looking new FBI recruits was responsible for the blast, and, because of some evidence presented in the pilot's clunky way of asking and answering its own questions, Alex is now the number one suspect.
Even though 'Run' opens up with an aerial shot of the attack's aftermath, the episode takes its sweet time connecting the dots (in reverse) from Alex Parrish's surreptitious journey to Virginia all the way to her eventual escape from FBI custody. Most of that time is spent watching Alex mingle with and learn about her fellow recruits, including Johanna Braddy from this summer's UnReal, Tate Ellington from The Walking Dead, and Brian J. Smith of Sense8 fame. And while it seems counterintuitive to think that wading so far into the waters of everyone's backstories (and, occasionally, terrible, terrible secrets) would be a smart choice, considering there is a massive terrorist attack that needs investigating, it actually turns out to be the right choice.
As much as Quantico could be a propulsive thriller (and may yet prove to be one), wherein Alex Parrish follows in the archetypal footsteps of Dr. Richard Kimble, its ambitions, structurally at least, are somewhat grander than that. This is both a hindrance and a blessing for the series. For one thing, as far as the pilot goes, the grandness in Joshua Safran's script is only interested in the other FBI recruits as far as the flashbacks layered upon flashbacks go. The result is a serious sense of disconnect when the episode jumps from the present-day to eight months prior to an entirely different POV, in order to insert those convenient, late-game, drama-exaggerating twists.
At the same time, though, getting to know Alex's supporting cast, often through the lens of the character in question – especially Tate Ellington's personal-space-ignoring Simon Asher – gives the series an unusual edge. When 'Run' focuses its attention more on the ensemble than the ostensible star of the series, revealing secrets and, in the case of Smith's Mormon-with-a-past, killing him off in an admittedly surprising moment, there is a hint of recklessness in Safran's approach that is as admirable as it is risky.
By burning through so many secrets, reveals, and twists in its pilot episode, Quantico finds itself in a unique place; one that ostensibly says: The central mystery can wait. It's a sleight of hand technique that keeps the audience guessing, by continually setting up potential suspects as a point of diversion, and then instituting a twist from left field – e.g., Yasmine Al Massri's Nimah Anwar actually being twins – to distract from having to focus too much on the overarching plot.
The risk, then, is that burning through the mystery too quickly, Quantico will have to find another way to define itself beyond the question of "Who bombed Grand Central?" Viewers of Homeland will know exactly what that means, as the series has still not crawled out from the under the shadow of its first season's mystery. Meanwhile, should the mystery at the center of Quantico continue on for a season or more, the series runs the risk of diluting the importance of its own conceit.
Is this show built to sustain a second or third season? That's a question seemed to be asked with increasing regularity as the fall season gets underway. While many programs insist they can prolong their lifespans by slipping into a prosaic procedural formula, Quantico hints at something less routine. That may spell disaster or it may be this program's ticket to success. Either way, despite its overstuffed plot and heavy-handed characterizations, watching this series figure out how to burn the candle at both ends and make it viable in the long term may be reason enough to keep watching.
Quantico continues next Sunday with 'America' @10pm on ABC.