Once in a while, craving a nostalgic chuckle, my mind wanders to J. Edgar—a film that paints the civil liberties-trampling former FBI director as a tragic, closeted figure driven to heinous acts by the iniquities of his time. If only Leo-in-a-fatsuit could have loved Armie Hammer freely, he wouldn’t have done all the racism! The audacity. Nine months later, Clint Eastwood carried on a lengthy conversation with a chair. This was, in a sense, far crazier.
Now, Clint Eastwood’s rendition of Call Me by Your Name notwithstanding, Hollywood has a long, embarrassing history of whitewashing the Bureau, from Brick Davis in G Men to Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice Starling to The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully. They are always the whitest—and I do mean whitest—of knights, devoted to nothing but truth, justice and the American way. This one-sided picture will no doubt be bolstered by FBI, a new CBS crime procedural from the legendary Dick Wolf.
Wolf claims that he and his team have taken pains to make the show as apolitical as possible, even delaying it from its scheduled 2016 release in order to avoid coinciding with the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. “[FBI agents] are assiduously nonpolitical. 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 [tuned out] from the first frame,” Wolf said, rather defensively, at this summer’s TCAs. “I don’t know how to answer except to say we’re celebrating the troops on the ground.”
But FBI does arrive at a fraught political moment—one where a large portion of the U.S. population, or The Resistance, has elevated a former FBI director to near-mythic status in Robert Mueller, and by extension cast the Bureau as noble warriors in an ideological war against Trumpism—a development the series is all too aware of.
This being a Dick Wolf procedural, it comes equipped with a dramatic cold open (in this case, a South Bronx apartment building leveled by a pair of bomb blasts); a female empath, Agent Maggie Bell, partnered with a hotheaded guy, Agent Omar Adam “OA” Zidan (Missy Peregrym and Zeeko Zaki); a tough-but-considerate boss (Jeremy Sisto); and some fun POC sidekicks. Where FBI sets itself apart is its relentless pandering. Much like the kookiest ripped-from-the-headlines episodes of SVU, the premiere of FBI sees the agents unravel a complex terrorist plot wherein MS-13 and the alt-right have joined forces (!) to bomb a ring of black drug-dealers in the Bronx out of business. Yes, you read that right: a cabal of racist neo-Nazis has somehow partnered with a gang of tattooed Salvadoran immigrants. Oh, and the alt-right movement is led by Robert Lawrence (Dallas Roberts), a well-coiffed figure in the Richard Spencer mold who lives in… Scarsdale.
And this being a Dick Wolf procedural, there’s also plenty of gratuitous violence, with the first offering giving us a cell phone melded to a body-less leg, a 9/11-esque building collapse that covers everyone’s face in dust, and an MS-13 informant whose heart is cut out of his chest behind bars. All the chaos and carnage moves along at a brisk enough pace thanks to the direction of Niels Arden Oplev, who helmed the original Girl with a Dragon Tattoo.
Given that it hits all the familiar Law & Order beats, the success of FBI is contingent on the charisma of its two leads, and the first episode does little to convince that Maggie Bell is even playing the same sport as Olivia Benson. Granted, it’s only been one episode, and Lt. Benson is an extraordinarily high bar, but here’s hoping that FBI does a passable job navigating Agent Bell’s curious backstory—her husband died in a terrorist attack—and, more compellingly, Agent Zidan’s potential dilemma as a Muslim man forced to bend the law in pursuit of his own people.