Quantico and the pilot problem
Note: Spoilers follow for Quantico.
Halfway through the series premiere of Quantico, the new drama being sold to viewers as Homeland meets Gray’s Anatomy, it occurred to me that they had filmed the pitch for the show without bothering to write an actual episode. A second later, I realized that this is exactly what a network pilot is supposed to be. If democracy, as Churchill is supposed to have said, is the worst form of government except for all the others, the process by which shows are picked up on the basis of standalone pilots is the worst possible way to get good television, except that nobody has managed to come up with anything better. A pilot is less the proper opening for an ongoing series than a commercial for what the show could become, and if the industry were smart about it, it would treat those two objectives as totally separate: the network could be sold on the premise with a highlight reel alone, or, maybe better, with an extended trailer followed by the real thing. Instead, we’ve somehow come to the conclusion that these two functions are really the same, which means that nearly every series starts off with an overstuffed, vaguely desperate advertisement for itself. And in a television environment in which the pilot may be all a show ever gets, it’s no wonder that so many series—especially dramas—burn themselves out within the first couple of installments.
It’s too early to write off Quantico entirely, but the omens aren’t particularly promising, as much as I enjoyed a lot of what aired on Sunday. The series certainly has a nice, juicy premise: it’s a soapy look at a class at the FBI Academy, intercut with a flashforward that reveals that one of the trainees—we don’t know which one—is a sleeper agent who will later be responsible for a devastating terrorist attack at Grand Central Station. We can set aside, for now, the issue of how blithely the show trades on images of terrorism in New York mostly as an engine to drive a show in which pretty people sleep with one another: viewers, including me, are ready to forgive almost anything if the result is slick and entertaining. But the show hits all of its beats with such robotic precision that it’s almost unsettling. It isn’t particularly curious about what it would actually be like to be an FBI trainee, or really about anything except how to keep its own plot in motion: within a few minutes, it’s clear that the vision it presents of the academy itself doesn’t have much to do with reality. This isn’t to say that the result can’t be watchable on its own terms, and there’s plenty to like here, particularly in the primary cast. In the leading role of Alex Parrish, Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra more than lives up to the hype. I was pleased to see more of Johanna Braddy, who made such a strong impression on UnREAL. And it might be a lot of fun to see these characters collide.
What’s less fun is how impatient the show feels: it wants to do everything at once, rather than let the story unfold at its own pace. Every network drama these days starts out with a series bible, a document that outlines the premise and characters in enough detail that the writers can draw on a consistent body of material. One of the unwritten rules of these bibles is that every important character has a secret that will only be exposed later on. Quantico, hilariously, discloses all those secrets in the pilot in the most guileless way imaginable: the trainees are told to investigate one another to find out their secrets, which are then laid out for us in a series of mock interrogation scenes. This isn’t to say that there aren’t more surprises coming, or that the ones we see here won’t reveal additional wrinkles later on—at least one of the trainees, after all, is allegedly a terrorist. But having the characters essentially deliver their secrets to the camera is such a blatant narrative shortcut that it almost starts to feel inspired. I’m not even mad; I’m just impressed. Still, it gets old pretty quickly. At one point, there’s a conversation between two supporting players in which one all but says to the other: “Hey, remember how we used to date?” That kind of bald exposition is standard for any pilot, and we’ve learned to accept it. But nearly every scene serves the same kind of double duty. It’s like a briefing on the show that we could be watching, but aren’t.
That said, the pilot is full of punchy moments—a trainee who commits suicide out of fear that his past will be exposed, the reveal that one of the characters is actually a pair of identical twins—that have an undeniable impact. But they’d be much more interesting if we’d spent more than ten minutes with these characters beforehand. The showrunner, Joshua Safran, is clearly an intelligent guy, and he presumably knows that a character’s death is more powerful if we’ve gotten to know him over the course of a few episodes, or that it’s more fun to produce a set of twins if the series has managed to mislead us for most of the season. But he doesn’t have the time to do it properly, or he’s afraid that he won’t get it. Quantico is like a shaggy dog story that repeatedly tells us the punchline before the joke is even finished, out of fear that we’ll stop listening before it’s over. It shows us a twist as if describing the episode to somebody who hadn’t seen it, and then invites us to admire how great it would have been if it had been allowed to unfold for real. It’s possible that it has more up its sleeve, but precedents here aren’t encouraging: shows that make a point of burning through ideas rarely have enough to sustain a whole season, let alone an extended run. (Even The Vampire Diaries started to run out of steam after its third year.) But it’s exactly the kind of show the pilot system was designed to create. And until somebody comes up with a better way, it’s the best we can expect.