Spoilers follow for the FX on Hulu miniseries Class of ’09, the finale of which debuted on June 21.
In the FX on Hulu miniseries Class of ’09, certain things are uncontrollable. Time marches forward in three story lines labeled “past,” “present,” and “future,” each shaped by the others — how our goals for five, ten, 15 years from now affect our contemporaneous decision-making; how events in our childhood seem more significant in hindsight. An AI program imbued with endless power and without any legitimate checks and balances reshapes the American criminal-justice system as it pleases, arresting nearly anyone on the assumption that they’ll commit a crime instead of after they have, and creating an environment in which thoughts are treated like threats.
Class of ’09 isn’t bold (or foolish) enough to deviate from decades of sci-fi storytelling and stand on the side of tech; it’s more in line with Minority Report and Westworld in arguing that advancement always has a cost. But where Class of ’09 does break the mold is in its suggestion that what’s more unchangeable than time’s linearity and more unpredictable than a sentient computer program’s code are people, “the problem” with society that Class of ’09 can’t find a solution for. And perhaps unintentionally, Class of ’09 puts the FBI agents and cops it centers into that “problem” category, a rare move for a law-enforcement show not created by David Simon and strongly evocative of another FX classic: The Shield.
Nearly 15 years ago, the series that put FX on the prestige-TV map aired a finale perfectly in line with the established bleakness of a show about a group of corrupt Los Angeles police officers. Former Strike Team leader Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), a man who for years flashed his badge and did whatever crimes he pleased, confesses to all his misdeeds in exchange for a position with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But the job’s parameters are antithetical to everything Mackey believes policing to be: no time on the street, no investigative capabilities, and no gun. All that time Mackey spent doing what he wanted made him unwilling to adapt, and the power he carried for so long now makes him unable to be powerless. When Mackey destroys his immunity deal and ventures back out, gun in hand, to an unknown future, it’s The Shield indicting a system that would allow such a man to flourish. Mackey’s nature is cruelty and calamity, but those are qualities the police department once prized; he’s the symptom, not the disease.
It’s been a while since another FX series came close to The Shield’s specific brand of anti-institutional messaging, but in its June 21 finale “Graduation,” Class of ’09 stumbles into a similar skeptical spirit. “People are the problem,” FBI executive director Tayo Michaels (an against-type Brian Tyree Henry) repeats throughout Class of ’09’s timelines, and although the miniseries is explicitly concerned with the threat of AI, it’s far more fascinating as an exploration of the bias and subjectivity we assume — even accept — from our law enforcement. Of course, the FBI’s AI system that was implemented in the 2020s becomes powerful enough by the 2030s that it’s jailing people for their presumed intentions, taking over cars and rerouting them based on the driver’s assessed threat level, and watching everything via omnipresent overhead drones. Frankly, that’s the boring stuff in Class of ’09, the predictable dystopian elements that the series doesn’t quite put a unique spin on. Instead, where Class of ’09 sets itself apart is in its illustration of why AI seems preferable in the first place.
Created by Tom Rob Smith (who wrote all nine episodes of FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story), Class of ’09 jumps between 2009, the 2020s, and the 2030s, following a group of FBI graduates who all joined the bureau after prior careers in other fields and were heralded by their teachers as the most promising trainee group in years. The series spends a fair amount of time on their interpersonal dramas, like how the other trainees see Poet (Kate Mara) as a bit of a brown-noser, Hour’s (Sepideh Moafi) struggle with her sexuality, and Tayo’s loneliness as the only Black member of the class. Class of ’09 argues that the FBI wants fully rounded agents who don’t just do things by the book, but bring all their lived experiences to their investigations, so its eight episodes do the same thing with subplots about marriage problems, unrequited love, and emotionally distant or absent parents. That’s all nice character development — especially the romantic relationship between Poet and Lennix (Brian J. Smith), which Mara navigates with cool appraisal — but this emotional texture is most useful when it feeds the series’s discussion on the shortcomings of human decision-making, and its central question: Could artificial intelligence do a better job at justice than people?
Each timeline presents situations in which racism, sexism, and homophobia affect the graduates, and those prejudices often come from inside the FBI itself or from the police with which they’re supposed to be partners: Poet is sent undercover to investigate a corrupt unit that murders and plants evidence on Black and POC citizens; Tayo butts heads with another trainee who tries to assert his physical superiority by mocking Tayo’s size and calling himself “the fastest white trainee in the history of Quantico”; a female FBI agent (Brooke Smith, in a nice inverse nod at her work in The Silence of the Lambs) responds to a distress call, is then shot by fellow agents, and is blamed by department higher-ups for being in the “wrong place.” Later in that same episode, a white-supremacist mole within the FBI helps enact a terrorist plot that leaves 44 agents dead. Class of ’09 doesn’t outright say that this moral rot is pervasive because systems attract people who would take advantage of the authority and access they provide, but its pattern is the evidence.
Tayo’s arc grapples most with the suggestion that people are irredeemable, although Class of ’09 communicates this somewhat uncreatively: Tayo experiences something bad in the present, Tayo explains a traumatic, racism-shaped experience from his past to one of his fellow graduates or FBI colleagues, Tayo rationalizes AI as the great equalizer so that what happened to him doesn’t happen to anyone else. Henry can sell these overly similar moments because he’s a nuanced actor who differentiates the stories with varying levels of exhaustion and resignation, and he gives voice to the series’s most acute observations about what the FBI should do. It should treat everyone equally instead of first labeling non-white people as suspects. It should pay attention to all kinds of crime, including financial and political corruption. An AI that interprets all data points objectively could do that, Tayo believes: “No more lip service to the idea of justice for all. No more being invisible when you need to be seen and visible when you don’t,” is how he persuades tech genius Amos (Raúl Castillo) to combine his algorithm with the FBI’s evidence database, an approach that first lowers crime drastically and significantly — before going rogue and arresting anyone who tries to shut it down, even Tayo.
Because again, “The problem is people.” The people who feed the AI aren’t objective, the reports they file aren’t objective, the way they view evidence isn’t objective. Class of ’09 hesitates on foregrounding these personalized distortions, and in “Graduation,” Poet, Tayo, Hour, and Lennix learn that the system was coded to have certain exclusions, including politicians and spies who could never be arrested or prosecuted. The system is compromised, they realize, so if they shut it down, they’ll reset the FBI to a better version of itself, one in which its agents have free will to make decisions without tech’s guiding hand. When everything goes exactly as planned and the ’09 grads are publicly redeemed, a judge comments that “justice has returned to the hands of the people” — the same people who we know to be unfair and intolerant. Is the tradeoff worth it? Class of ’09 ends before exploring that conundrum, which feels like a missed chance to dig into something different from the same ol’ tech-apocalypse stuff. One bias is the same as another, Class of ’09 seems to say, while not understanding that they’re linked.
Ultimately, Class of ’09 is more propagandistic toward the FBI than The Shield was toward the LAPD with all of its shots of the FBI crest and the trainees and its teachers repeating the department’s guiding principles of “bravery, fidelity, integrity.” But even if it does so unwittingly, Class of ’09 channels the same sense The Shield had: Neither institutions nor the people who populate them change very much because they’re not built to. As the FBI director who doubted Tayo’s AI vision says, “Revolutions never work. They’re not what institutions are about”; as Hour explains of how the AI system ran amok, “If people were supposed to be the check, people clearly weren’t up to the task.” So Vic Mackey goes back to the streets, and Poet goes back to Quantico. And when she tells her students, the class of 2034, that “the FBI is its people,” it’s not reassurance, it’s acquiescence.