ABC's Quantico Is Familiar in All the Right Ways

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It's like college, but the FBI. Photo: Guy D'Alema/ABC

It's Grey's Anatomy, but at the FBI. It's How to Get Away With Murder, but at the FBI. There's a thread of The Fugitive, a little of Silence of the Lambs (mostly the training montages), a little bit of the 2006-era post-Lost sprawling ensemble dramas where everyone's connected but there's a mystery to unravel. Toss in a few scraps of Homeland in that it attempts to criticize, but might also perpetuate, American anti-Muslim sentiment, and you've got Quantico, one of the better pilots of the fall season. If it's reminiscent of a bunch of good things, that's a good sign … right? Mostly.

Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra stars as Alex Parrish, one of the FBI's incoming recruits. She's enthusiastic about casual sex, she has incredibly beautiful hair, she's very observant even though her investigative training has not yet begun, and — dun-dun-duuuuuunnnnnn — she's now a suspected terrorist! Quantico starts with Alex finding herself in the rubble after a bombing in Grand Central, and we bounce back and forth between that investigation and flashbacks to a few months earlier, when she first joins the bureau. Her and her classmates' first assignment is to find out each other's secrets. Guess what? They all have secrets! We also meet her instructors, who, believe it or not, also have secrets themselves. So many secrets, some of which are easy to guess if you've ever seen television before, some of which are not at all. Props to Quantico for pulling off some genuine surprises, even if there's a lot of predictability in there, too.

The pilot moves right along, sometimes straining to get in those exposition moments ("I'm not your girlfriend anymore; I'm your boss"), but mostly efficiently checking things off the pilot to-do list: Set up a world, define what each character wants — ideally in a way that is inspired by his or her past — create stakes, develop a sense of forward-moving momentum, plant seeds for stronger relationships to develop between certain characters, and, even when you're moving through boring setup conversations, try to make the show's voice identifiable. Quantico isn't necessarily excelling in every single one of these categories (be more distinctive, please!), but it is trying and mostly succeeding.

Chopra's a huge star overseas for a reason: She's very compelling onscreen, and you immediately get why ABC thinks she can anchor a show. Her love interest, Ryan (Jake McLaughlin), is scruffy and squinty and appropriately hunky. UnREAL's Johanna Braddy plays a fellow newbie, a little boy-crazy and a little gun-crazy. Cougartown's Josh Hopkins is the grumpy instructor, walking everyone through the basics of how to conduct an interrogation. There's the Jewish guy, the Mormon guy, the blond guy, the Muslim girl, plus an FBI administrator who wishes she could climb higher. Amid strong performances, it's hard not to wish that the material was just a bit smarter, a little sharper or more distinct.

ABC only sent out one episode of Quantico, and as zippy and engrossing as it was, there's so much up in the air. Will the show focus on the FBI training, or the terrorism investigation, or the blend of present and past we see in the pilot? Will the mystery threads woven in here develop in satisfying ways over the course of the season, and will those developments feel substantive enough to take us past these initial stories and into further seasons? Can creator Joshua Safran (Gossip Girl, Smash) pull off Shonda-esque without Shonda Rhimes herself? These would all be good things to know.

But alas, there's neither a crystal ball nor a more robust screening site for ABC. So we're left with just a sense of promise. And Quantico is a hell of a promising pilot.