There are three bombs within the first 15 minutes of Dick Wolf’s new law enforcement drama FBI. I don’t mean that metaphorically — they’re not big storytelling twists or disastrous flubs. Within the first 15 minutes of FBI, there are three huge explosions of the sort that destroy buildings and murder children and send clouds of gray debris into the air. It is FBI Special Agent Maggie Bell’s job to figure out who did the bombings, and that’s good, because Special Agent Maggie Bell is exactly the kind of person you’d want on the case. She’s firm and she’s dogged, but she’s sensitive too. She’s seen tragedy. She can’t shake the face of a grieving mother, and she’s gonna get that mother some justice.
So yes, FBI is like every other crime procedural you’ve already seen, and if that’s what you’re looking for in a TV show, then nothing here will come as a revelation. It probably won’t come as a disappointment, either: Star Missy Peregrym is good at playing Bell, and everything else runs with the smooth, easy regularity of a thoroughly tested machine. It works because it’s always worked.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about those three explosions, and the significant violence that follows them. Even more than Law & Order, FBI is soaked through with fear and threat, and in this franchise, the danger is for hundreds of people rather than a mere handful. There’s so much violence that it feels pointed. In a panel for the Television Critics Association press tour in August, Wolf was asked about the potential political angles of a show based on the FBI. He punted. “[FBI agents] are assiduously nonpolitical,” he said, adding, “If you go back over the years, you can’t find evidence of anything I’ve done being politically oriented. If you do that, 50 percent of the audience is [angry] from the first frame.”
There’s a way to read the thin surface of FBI to understand what Wolf means. Within the context of depicting a world perpetually under siege from life-threatening horrors, the pilot episode aims at a lip-service kind of balance. Sure, it’s got several brown, tattooed, gang-affiliated drug dealers, but there’s also a suit-wearing white supremacist. It’s got white FBI agents, but some of them are women, and people of color are sprinkled around the periphery of the office. The tech guy is Asian. Two decades ago, this sort of thing might have been (tragically) lauded as impressive. Now it seems intentionally myopic.
Dick Wolf saying that his work is not and has never been political is the height of willful ignorance. His shows include the decades-long, culturally pervasive Law & Order franchise, as well as dozens of other titles (many of them also police procedurals), and each of them is every bit as political as The West Wing or Last Man Standing or Roseanne. All police procedurals, and especially Wolf’s, reinforce the idea that crime is caused by evil individuals, that stopping those individuals is the best way to stop crime rather than looking at deeper systemic causes, that firearms are quotidian sorts of objects, that governmental institutions are imperfect but largely effective in delivering justice, that the vast majority of policing culture is unbiased, and that renegade hero cops disobey the rules in order to do what’s right.
None of that has the immediate, slap-it-on-a-bumper-sticker political value of statements like “I’m pro-choice” or “Build the wall,” but all of it is a mere centimeter away from being a #BlueLivesMatter advertisement. The politics of a Dick Wolf police procedural are simply less visible to many — including, apparently, Wolf himself — because they mirror the politics of the privileged. For middle-class and affluent white people, a pro-police, pro-institution worldview is apolitical because it’s neutral to them. It is neutral to Dick Wolf. That worldview is not politically neutral for black men, or trans people, or victims of sexual assault, or impoverished people, or basically anyone who isn’t a wealthy white person. Wolf may feel that FBI skirts “political orientation,” but a statement like that only emphasizes how utterly blind he is to his own politics.
Even in a generous reading, one where FBI’s pilot is “balanced” because the Big Bad ends up being a white guy, the show kicks off with a default statement about who law enforcement protect and from what that’s steeped in threat and fear. Again: Three bombs go off in the first 15 minutes. The world around you is defined by danger and alarm, FBI tells us. Special Agent Maggie Bell is here to stop you from getting blown up.
“It’s a Dick Wolf show about the FBI,” you might be thinking. “What else is it supposed to be about?” Yes, the FBI does investigate terrorism. But it’s also responsible for cracking down on white collar crime, cyberattacks, and the corruption of public officials. The pilot episode of FBI could’ve been a story about Special Agent Maggie Bell investigating, say, a credible allegation of sexual assault against a Supreme Court nominee. (Do not tell me this would’ve been too boring.) It could’ve been about FBI Special Agent Jubal Valentine, played very competently by Jeremy Sisto, explaining that a United States senator has been accused of accepting bribes in exchange for giving information to the Russians. Heck, it could’ve been about the recent recovery of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. It’s not about any of those things. It’s an episode about how every day your life is under immediate threat of a violent death, and why the FBI is the only organization that can save you. Pesky details like why extremists exist in the first place, or why the prison is filled with furious tattooed gang members — these things don’t really matter.
We do get an explanation for why one white dude was radicalized into espousing horrible racist beliefs, though: It’s all because he had a bad mom. See, individuals are the problem! It’s definitely not a tribalist variety of nationalism fed by a sense of threat against one’s racial identity and a steady diet of exploitative us-versus-them rhetoric from a news organization claiming to be fair and balanced! It’s bad moms.
If you turn on your television and want to watch a comfortably simplistic police procedural fairy tale about a brave band of heroes who save lives in the face of incredible odds, I do not blame you. It is a very reassuring story, and I can’t blame viewers for enjoying it, especially when it’s as proficient as FBI. But it’s also as political as your tax bill, your slashed local library budget, or your gerrymandered congressional district, and it’s time Dick Wolf stop pretending otherwise.