Brian Tyree Henry and others give FX’s sci-fi FBI drama a clue but not enough to close the case.
Welcome to the future. America is “the safest country on Earth,” as FBI Agent Tayo Michaels (Brian Tyree Henry) assures us. And it is all thanks to a program that is one part Minority Report, one part that computer Lucius Fox gets all bent out of shape about in The Dark Knight. It started as a sort of interrogation tool, but it has blossomed into a prediction machine that lets the FBI anticipate criminal activities. Comic book fans, think Force Works. Law enforcement has gotten “proactive.”
That’s what’s happening in the 2034 of Class of ’09. However, the story also unfolds in 2009 and the present, 2023. In 2009, our protagonists are training to become FBI Agents. The aforementioned Michaels is an insurance adjuster who jumped ship when he realized his work’s inherent injustice and inequality. Most in line with his disposition is people pleaser Ashley Poet (Kate Mara). A nurse in a prison/mental health facility, she’s lured to the FBI by a veteran agent that sees her gift for getting people to talk.
Joining them is Poet’s roommate Hour Nazari (Sepideh Moafi), a first-generation Iranian American defying her parents’ wishes for her life. Then there’s Poet’s inevitable love interest, Daniel Lennix (Brian J. Smith). He’s an old money golden boy rejecting his family’s business—a high-powered law firm. Finally, there’s a former beat cop Murphy (Jake McDorman, late of Mrs. Davis). He seems likely to be important, but he hasn’t yet differentiated himself in the four episodes provided to critics.
In the alternate 2023, the group has begun to rise through the ranks. Poet has proven herself an adept undercover agent. Tayo, in exile, has just stumbled over into a violent cult/human trafficking racket. Nazari’s eschewed field work for research, where she’s gone all in on a controversial new computerized coordination system. Finally, Lennix has risen quickly in the FBI’s bureaucracy, already getting a “Director” appended to his name.
And then there’s the soft apocalypse of 2034. Unfortunately, where Class of ’09’s world-building needs to be strongest, it’s weakest. America’s future is ill-defined at best. We know things are bad because people line up to tell us so. However, besides how the computer program affects our quartet, we see little evidence it has turned the US into an authoritarian paradise of technologically enforced order. Four episodes should be enough time to sell viewers on the future’s danger.
[W]here Class of ’09’s world-building needs to be strongest, it’s weakest.
Under normal circumstances, that would be enough to write off a show. If the purpose is to tell a tale of how a group of people gets from idealistic newbies to cynical actors in a fascist hellscape, the series has to sell that hellscape. However, the Class of ’09 stays in the game thanks to excellent performances.
Chief among them is, unsurprisingly, Henry. Unwilling to compromise, including with himself, he sells Michaels’ journey naturally. It’s easy to draw a line from the numbers-oriented trainee who couldn’t stomach insurance’s lack of consistency to the lead advocate of the FBI’s supercomputer/oppressor. Most impressively, he’s done it so far without casting Michaels as an obvious villain. He’s in the wrong, but he never reads as monstrous.
Mara and Moafi deserve similar praise. The idea of Mara as a bitter 35-year vet of the Bureau seems difficult to swallow at first blush. Her simultaneously too much and too little old age makeup doesn’t help. However, throughout the four episodes, she nicely embodies Poet’s journey. Mara captures how tired the former nurse is and how that is not just a desire for justice, pushing her to no longer accept the FBI’s company line.
Moafi gets less time to flesh out Navari and thus hasn’t entirely pulled her past, present, and future selves into a cohesive whole. That said, each version of the character feels rich, honest, and consistently in conflict with herself and the world around her. Class of ’09 just needs to give her the space to make the three incarnations feel like one person.
Alas, the actors aren’t enough in these episodes. Even beyond the poorly realized future, the series has a blandness that even Henry can’t lift. It lacks acid. There’s a wicked joke in the idea that an insurance adjuster turned supercop would bring the US to the edge of fascism over-reliance on algorithms, but the Class of ’09 seems either unaware of that or unable to make it land. Without that discordant note to give the series bite, all it has is its triple timeline hook. That’s a neat idea, for sure. So far, though, those three timelines haven’t yet provided viewers with compelling evidence that it is more than just a neat idea.
Class of ’09 starts fighting crime in a future time May 10 on FX.