“Quantico” is one of ABC’s most intriguing pilots premiering this fall. It features a sexy international cast acting out a labyrinthine plot involving FBI recruits and terrorism. Sounds like a sure hit, but some early reviews are skeptical about the show’s “perfect formula” for success. So is it worth the hype? Let’s take a closer look at this flashy new series debuting on September 27.
The Shonda Rhimes Effect
“Quantico” follows the story of a diverse group of FBI recruits who go through rigorous physical and psychological training to become elite agents. Through a series of flash-forwards, we learn that one of the successful candidates eventually conspires to bring about one of the biggest terrorist events in America since 9/11. When Alex Weaver (Priyanka Chopra) is falsely accused of being the traitor, she must escape capture and find the real culprit.
Every early review of the series mentions Shonda Rhimes. It’s no surprise that networks would want to repeat the writer/producer’s success with suspenseful dramas like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “How to Get Away with Murder.” Though her actual fingerprints aren’t on “Quantico,” producer Mark Gordon has worked with her on “Grey’s” and “Private Practice.”
Taking a formula that works and plugging in new elements isn’t a bad idea, but this supposedly complex tale has now been reduced to copycat catchphrases. When the buzz about your show includes taglines such as “How to Get Away with Being a Terrorist” and “Grey’s Academy,” it’s tough to not sound like a lame, derivative show.
Something for Everyone
“Quantico” is hoping to appeal to as many demographics as possible, choosing a varied cast of characters. Lead actress Chopra is a major Bollywood star with a massive social media presence, including more than 17 million views on her music video collaboration with will.i.am. Though she — and her character — are Indian, she was thrilled to be cast in something that doesn’t focus on stereotypes of Indian culture.
The series also includes Aunjanue Ellis (“The Mentalist”) as the director of Quantico, who eventually helps Alex escape FBI custody. Recruits include a hijab-wearing Muslim woman (Yasmine Al Massri), the golden boy whose agent parents got him into the program (Graham Rogers), Alex’s military vet hook-up who isn’t what he seems (Jake McLaughlin), a blonde Barbie girl (Johanna Braddy), a clean-cut Mormon (Brian J. Smith), and “a hipster cute gay Jewish guy” (Tate Ellington).
Such obviously constructed diversity can backfire when casting directors check off boxes and don’t put together a cast with chemistry. If the actors click, however, the wealth of cultures and points of view will add a lot to this show’s discussion of the military, politics, and the constant threat of terrorism.
Not everyone is excited by the new series, as illustrated by the many “Shonda Rhimes rip-off” descriptions. “The A.V. Club” is offended by the entire premise of the show and the way it favors “hot people” over realism. “It’s nice to know that the FBI’s background check is limited to determining youth and sexiness,” they say, “and not, for example, ‘are you a terrorist (Y/N)?’”
Jenna Mullins at “E!” also mocked the focus on sex appeal, noting how great Chopra looked in the trailer: “Because even though you were just in a devastating terrorist attack, that doesn’t mean your lips can’t look perfectly plump and kissable.”
“Jezebel” went after the entire “Quantico” promotion campaign, which was seemingly designed to get male viewers to see naked FBI women and “soft porn” on ABC. These promos actually do look more like a “Saturday Night Live” parody than an actual ad for the series.
Critics that like the show have been most excited by the twists and turns of the “Quantico” pilot, including what “TVLine” called a “bananapants reveal.” Everyone can see the obvious formula in motion, the focus on attractive people and romantic subplots, the catering to every demographic possible, and the intensely paced “whodunit” setup. Tommy Cook at “Collider” feels ABC knows exactly what it’s doing.
“It’s ridiculous, arch, and silly — but by golly is it fun,” Cook said. “It’s the ABC formula rubbing its own nose in your face and you coming to the conclusion, despite all your misgivings, that you sort of like it.”
The consensus is that as long as the cliffhanger moments and surprise reveals keep coming, this will be great watercooler-chat TV. The site “Season Zero” predicts Twitter will be flooded with “Quantico” love and speculation.
“If Quantico doesn’t become a hit, then there won’t be any hit next season,” they said.
A lot hinges on the core cast, particularly Chopra in the lead. If there are at least a few characters that viewers are willing to invest in, they’ll overlook some absurdity and enjoy the roller coaster ride of the plot. ABC has already tweaked the cast, removing “weak link” Dougray Scott and adding the likable Josh Hopkins of “Cougar Town” fame. ABC seems determined to do whatever it takes to make this a hit, and if they keep up the show’s pace, it looks like they’ll get their wish.