Flashbacks, flashfowards, and artificial intelligence are key to this uneven FX limited thriller series starring Brian Tyree Henry and Kate Mara.
Plot: Spanning multiple decades and told across interweaving timelines, the series examines the nature of justice, humanity and the choices we make that ultimately define our lives and legacy.
Review: Legal thrillers and series about law enforcement are staples of the small screen and rarely get the chance to play with the conventions of the genre. The new limited series Class of ’09 tries to upend expectations by using now-familiar narrative devices like flashbacks and flash-forwards to give us a series set in three distinct eras. Following a group of FBI agents in 2009, 2023, and 2034, we can see how these individuals change and grow closer and apart over four decades. Class of ’09 also uses the divisive concept of artificial intelligence to tell a prescient story that is not quite as thrilling as it should be. Anchored by another standout performance from Brian Tyree Henry, Class of ’09 is intriguing but uneven.
Class of ’09 carries the weight of three distinct series interwoven together. The first is the period that gives the series its title, following a quartet of rookie Federal Bureau of Investigation agents as they begin their training in Quantico, Virginia. The four main characters have different motivations and rationales for joining the FBI. Each of the four episodes made available for this review centers on one of the ensemble, starting with Kate Mara as Amy Poet, and gives us some background on their journey. Amy was a psychiatric nurse, while Tayo Miller (Brian Tyree Henry) sold insurance. We also have Lennix (Brian J. Smith), whose parents have political aspirations for their son, and Hour (Sepideh Moafi), the child of Iranian immigrants with personal reasons for wanting to become an agent. All four are given their due in the first half of the eight-episode season, and their motivations transform in the latter time periods.
The series shifts dramatically in 2023 as the four agents encounter challenges professionally and personally, but the future of 2034 is the most intriguing. Using vaguely futuristic technology that is both advanced but not beyond where things may end up a decade from now, we find how the FBI may harness A.I. in a manner reminiscent of Minority Report and even 1984. The fearful potential that we are already seeing in things like Midjourney and ChatGPT could take a dangerous turn if unchecked, and Class of ’09 is an eerie portend of that future. It also allows twists to each of the four main characters that enhance their stories through each timeline. Brian Tyree Henry’s Tayo Miller transforms from a righteous protagonist into an antagonist as he harnesses the power at his disposal. It is frightening and challenging to see unfold.
There are many things that work in Class of ’09 and several that do not. The acting is top-notch, especially from Mara and Henry. Brian Tyree Henry, who earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Causeway, has proven he can handle everything from comedy to drama and even superheroes. Here, he is stunning as the same character at three different stages of his life and career, all of which are drastically different than one another. He shares a substantial amount of screen time with Kate Mara, who remains consistent across the eras and is the anchor for the audience into this story. The challenge comes from the constant shifting in timelines through each chapter. Because we see how much these characters change and the fallout of the decisions they have made in the past, the mystery ceases to be as thrilling as it could have been if we found the clues in a linear fashion. It is a nitpick that draws away from the mystery element of the story.
Series creator Tom Rob Smith, who authored the mystery novel Child 44 and created The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, knows how to craft tense moments. Class of ’09 has some standout action sequences involving chases and shootouts, but most of the series relies on dramatic bursts in the form of dialogue between the characters. A mystery involving Amos (Raul Castillo) has repercussions throughout the eight-episode season but sometimes feels bogged down in conversations about fidelity, honor, responsibility, and the law. I am not complaining, as even these moments are interesting to watch. Still, Smith does not strike a balance between the elements that are more interesting than others. That leads to each timeline feeling beholden to the others and never getting enough time to focus on that specific period before the episode shifts yet again.
As a limited series, Class of ’09 has the potential to become an ongoing series, but I say that after having only seen the first four episodes. It remains to be seen if the back half can live up to the potential of the first, but there is a lot of solid foundation here. Class of ’09 succeeds on the merit of Brian Tyree Henry and Kate Mara’s exceptional performances but could have done with some tightening of the narrative tension. Each era this series focuses on could have worked as a season on its own, but the constant shifting from one decade to the next makes the tale feel more superficial than intrinsic. As far as police procedurals and thrillers go, this is better than a lot of what is on the air today.
Class of ’09 premieres on May 10th on Hulu.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/class-of-09-tv-review/