It is an incredible time for prime-time soap operas.
The steamy hookups, beefy hunks, and breakneck plotting of the over-the-top sort long favored by shows mostly set in hospitals have now expanded to become a staple of just about every genre imaginable. From the Beltway battlegrounds of Scandal to the hip-hop machinations of Empire to the freaking DC Comics Universe in Arrow or The Flash, television has never been sudsier in so many different ways. Suck it, prestige dramas.
Quantico aims to bring the soap revolution to cat-and-mouse spy thrillers exemplified by Homeland and 24, ideally combining the insane twists of the latter with the ill-advised romantic entanglements of the former to form an addictive, must-tweet experience. It is Grey’s Anatomy by way of a domestic terror plot. Also, there are lots of Lost-style flashbacks for good measure. It works, but just barely.
First, the hook: In the aftermath of a terrorist attack in New York City, we see our unconscious protagonist, FBI Academy recruit Alex Parrish. Don’t dwell on that too much yet, though. We’ve got some flashing back to do.
Nine months before all that, Parrish is out for a jog before leaving her hometown of Oakland, California, for the FBI Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Whilst on the plane, she meets the hunky Ryan Booth, whom she lies to and says she’s about to start work with Doctors Without Borders. This is fine, because he lies too and says he’s going back home after a period of military service in the Philippines. Both are perfectly fine things to say to someone you only intend to have sex with and never see again, which is exactly what Parrish and Booth do in his car just outside of the airport after landing.
Only hitch: They’re definitely seeing each other again, as they’re both headed for the FBI Training Academy in Quantico as the newest batch of recruits.
In between Parrish and Booth’s airplane small-talk and crossover-SUV car sex, we’re rapidly introduced to the rest of the recruits (or at least the ones we’re supposed to care about) in their native environs before making their way to Quantico:
- In Augusta, Georgia, the wealthy-looking Shelby Wyatt bids farewell to a massive mansion before grabbing a weird hunk of metal.
- In Salt Lake City, Utah, Eric Packer bids farewell to fellow Latter-Day Saints as he leaves the city’s massive temple.
- In New York City, Simon Asher pays a guy to take a photo with him as they show off their Blue Bottle Coffee cups and Simon surprises him with a kiss.
- In Logan, Ohio, Nimah Anwar deals with a racist gas-station attendant and Takes No Shit (while also picking up what looks like handgun ammunition from the restroom toilet — and switching cars).
Back in the present, Alex wakes up in the wreckage and is found by heavily armed FBI agents as we find out where exactly this disaster took place: Grand Central Station. But, again, we’re not allowed to think about that much, because there’s still lots of getting acquainted to do nine months ago in Quantico.
After being sworn in and sitting through their welcome lecture, we get to know our gang of steamy recruits. (No really, they’re all quite attractive, and not in a general TV-actor sort of way.) These are all people on what I call the Grey’s-Chicago Continuum of Hot. Quantico’s big trick here is to defuse the initial sexual tension between Parrish and Booth by having Parrish put their tryst on blast in front of their fellow recruits. Yeah, you thought they were gonna drag that one out, huh? Quantico’s got your number, Smarty Pants!
The recruits are then given their first challenge: They are to choose a dossier of one of their fellow recruits, which has all the information the Bureau has on them — with one item redacted. In between all of their rigorous training, they have to discover what that item is. Fail, and they’re out.
This is a neat little trick Quantico uses to fold exposition into plot and make one work for the other. It’s the perfect fodder for a pilot, but it’s hamstrung by the framing narrative — that whole terrorist attack in the present. Or maybe it’s the other way around? The end result is just a mess of tonal whiplash as Academy high jinks are juxtaposed against 9/11-esque imagery — I want to either sink my teeth into the training soap operatics or this crazy terrorism thing, and while the two stories are connected, they really just end up sapping momentum from each other.
In a short aside, assistant director Miranda Shaw, who is effectively the Academy principal, welcomes Special Agent Liam O’Conner to the Academy. They have a history — she “saved him from drowning” when he was either her partner or subordinate in the field — but it’s not really clear if that’s literal or figurative, since O’Conner seems like he’s kind of a mess and wouldn’t be in the Bureau if not for Shaw.
Anyway, the recruits take on their investigation assignment during a training montage — and throughout, Mormon Eric Packer is taunted by fellow recruit Caleb Haas, a blond “golden boy” whom his classmates suspect got in via connections, since he’s not particularly good at anything (they’re right). Haas says he’s figured out Packer’s Big Secret, and that it’s a really bad one. Packer becomes increasingly distressed. It also looks like he has a real gun instead of the harmless red training weapons they’re assigned.
The investigation resolves in a series of interrogations, where the recruits conduct lie-detector interviews on their assigned subjects and interview them to see if they’ve successfully found out their target’s big secret. Simon successfully deduces that Shelby lost her parents on 9/11 and carries a small fragment of the plane they were on with her; Nimah pegs Simon for being a secret Palestinian sympathizer raised by Zionists (in the present, this makes him a suspect); and Ryan surmises that Alex Parrish’s big secret is her father — we flash back even farther to her childhood, when her parents got into an ugly fight and her mother shot her father in self-defense.
That’s not even the heaviest scenario here: The real craziness happens when it’s finally Caleb’s turn to interview Eric, after taunting him throughout the other recruits interviews. When they finally get in the interrogation room, Eric barricades the door, shoots the freaking supervising agent, and holds Caleb at gunpoint. Eric has a complete breakdown, shouting about how no one can find out, and Caleb panics, shouting that he was bluffing the whole time.
Finally, Eric says something about how he never thought she would die, and shoots himself.
Later, Assistant Director Miranda Shaw finds out the truth: While doing missionary work in the African nation of Malawi, Packer got a 14-year-old girl pregnant and took her to get an illegal abortion. She died.
In a scene that feels very CW, the recruits all talk and cope, there’s a speech, and it looks like Caleb scrubs out of the Academy. Then, a ridiculous twist: Nimah is in fact TWO people, sharing her life with a secret twin sister, which doesn’t even make any sense. How does that happen in the freaking FBI Academy, where everyone is — you know what, never mind. I’m over it. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
The twists keep coming: Alex’s mother didn’t shoot her father, she did — and found out her father was an FBI agent. She wants to find out more. Ryan Booth is working undercover, spying on Alex for Agent O’Conner — who, in the present day, takes Alex into custody after they watch a live feed of FBI agents raiding her apartment and finding stockpiles of explosives and a dead Ryan Booth. She’s thrown into a van, but the driver is taken out by Miranda Shaw, who tries to make a high-speed getaway and crashes, but not before freeing Parrish and telling her to run.
So she does.
It’s hard to say if that run will be a compelling one — the show seems like it will spend the majority of its time during the agent’s training, and we might flash back even farther as each character’s history becomes more relevant in the grand scheme of things. That already seems like a bit much, but for now? Sure, why not.
A funny thing about this episode’s Big Eric Packer Twist: It was almost entirely spoiled before the episode even aired. The Church of the Latter-Day Saints heavily objected to the Eric Packer subplot, partially because of the crazy dark turn it takes, but mostly because it initially showed Packer wearing his temple garments, a.k.a. “Mormon Underwear.” You might know about these from Mitt Romney.