Welcome to Up Next, a recurring column keeping an eye out for the best new shows on the horizon. This week, TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer checks in with a review of FX’s new drama Class of ’09.
Imagine if AI technology could solve crimes. Free from the bias and limited resources of police, unburdened by human anger or fear, a computer that’s a dozen steps ahead of its users might just be the key to a safer world. Except, if you’ve watched or read any number of sci-fi stories in this vein, from Minority Report to the works of Isaac Asimov, you’ll know that this concept is little more than a shiny pipe dream. The new FX/Hulu series Class of ’09 attempts to mine this familiar plot once more, but its sleek style and intriguing cast aren’t enough to make it feel fresh. Instead, the series loses itself in a hazy sort of mystique that, in the four episodes available for review, fails to coalesce in a meaningful way.
Tom Rob Smith’s (Assassination of Gianni Versace) Class of ’09 tells the story of a particularly important class of FBI recruits, jumping back and forth between their time at Quantico, the height of their careers, and a timeline several decades later when the former colleagues end up back in one another’s lives by strange and mysterious circumstances. Nothing is that strange and mysterious, though, and that might be Class of ’09’s biggest problem; the show keeps the languid, contemplative pace of something like Alex Garland’s Devs but seems to have much less on its mind or up its sleeve. The entire show feels surprisingly muted, even in its most action-packed moments. An odd sense of emotional distance keeps even the show’s most surprising beats from fully working.
The series stars Kate Mara (A Teacher, House of Cards), and while the actress is as watchable as ever, there’s a blankness to her character, Poet. Her classmates are equally dull but at least have more interesting backstories. Tayo (Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta) is underestimated by his teachers and classmates in the FBI program and wants to prove them wrong. He has grand ambitions that tie directly to his own experiences as a Black man. Hour (Sepideh Moafi, Black Bird), Poet’s Quantico roommate, has her own motivations for changing the world, and they stem from the experiences of her immigrant parents.
All of these actors have been fantastic in tons of other projects, yet here, they often take an almost toneless approach to their lines that saps the life out of most scenes. The robots of Class of ‘09 are all of the algorithmic variety. Still, for a few brief moments in early episodes, I wondered if this inexplicably boring bunch was secretly a bunch of androids. Alas, it seems as if the series is purposely going for a cool, detached demeanor, and its narrative simply doesn’t have the juice to pull it off.
Class of ’09 does fit nicely into the sleek sci-fi TV show format in other ways, though. Will Bates’ score is excellent, and the show’s direction is as striking and artistic as one would expect from an FX-related production. The cast is so talented that they’re still sometimes enjoyable to watch, even when the story and scripts don’t capitalize on their full range of abilities. A plot involving a shady, cultish figure played by Mark Pellegrino (Supernatural, Lost) temporarily gets the show’s blood pumping, and each of his scenes is genuinely tense. Yet his scenes are relatively few and far between; instead, the series is focused mainly on presenting us with a series of solemn conversations among coworkers, many of which seem frustratingly vague thanks to the non-chronological timelines.
The series also goes deep on one aspect of its ideology while refusing to illustrate another. Its central technology is pitched as a world-saving crime radar of sorts, but its invention doesn’t quell questions about bias and hatred in the criminal justice system. The show seems poised to explore those moral questions related to racial profiling in-depth, but it still approaches its central topic from a stubbornly retributive justice-based standpoint. This is a “catch the bad guys” show, and its dream of a perfect world doesn’t seem to involve criminal rehabilitation or address the social and economic factors that lead to incarceration: it’s just a skilled bad guy-catching machine. There’s something disheartening about a utopian vision of the future of the criminal justice system that still doesn’t seem to see criminals as humans, and that’s a problem the show only partly addresses.
Class of ’09 is a surprisingly hard show to describe because tonally and emotionally, it leaves audiences grasping for purchase in what might just be a blank wall. The series isn’t offensively bad, and in some ways it’s artful. Still, its strange insistence on favoring the enigmatic over the engrossing or endearing (I came away not caring about a single character) overwhelms whatever it’s trying to pull off. Skip this one and instead watch any number of other projects featuring Henry, Mara, or Moafi – or just throw on Minority Report again.
Class of ’09 is currently airing on FX. Watch the limited series trailer here.