Something is brewing on ABC, notorious for its primetime soap operas and baroque plotting, especially after the rise of Shonday, the full block of Shonda Rhimes helmed programming on Thursday nights that draws millions of viewers. Television fans have always loved schlocky drama — and the ability to say it’s highbrow by virtue of not airing during a daytime slot — and ABC is catering to them with incredible skill. In slides Quantico, one of the few new shows airing in the US this fall that’s actually not terrible, and, in a strange way, oddly good.
The show is a bit of a sleeper, debuting to ‘meh’ audiences, but it has started to experience a ratings uptick, especially on delayed viewing. Since young viewers are still more likely to use DVR and other delayed viewing options like streaming — including, of course, less legal ones — the numbers would seem to indicate not just that Quantico is engaging and intriguing audiences, but that it’s feeding to the desires of young audiences, which is perhaps not a surprise, as it’s a police drama set firmly in the post-11 September landscape in a country obsessed with the catastrophic events of a single day in its history. For an entire generation of US youth, the 11 September attacks have becoming a defining moment in the cultural landscape, and the programme plays to post-11 September anxieties in a very calculated way.
The setup for Quantico feels utterly prosaic, making nothing about it that remarkable from the standpoint of viewers with access to scads of dramas featuring police officers, federal agents, agents in training, investigators, terrorism, radicalization, and so forth. However, it’s the execution of Quantico that’s making it intriguing, drawing viewers in despite themselves because from the start, we learn that this is a television show about secrets.
Quantico operates along two different timelines. In one, a batch of recruits arrives at the namesake elite FBI training centre to develop their careers as agents. The other takes viewers to the “worst attack on New York since 9/11,” in the show’s narrative, and it comes with a twist: One of the new recruits is believed to be the culprit behind the massive explosion. Very quickly, viewers learn that Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) is the suspect, and now she’s on the run to clear her name and find out what really happened.
In the past timeline, each recruit is hiding something — often more than one something — and in addition to the web of lies they all surround themselves with, some are sleeper agents planted by people from elsewhere in the FBI with agendas of their own. In that landscape, it’s easy to imagine sleeper agents of a different kind, and with viewers knowing from the start that one of these young men and women is a radicalised terrorist, there’s a heightened sense of tension as we attempt to figure out who it is while watching the already rippling waters of the trainees’ lives.
In realtime, Alex is presented as the victim of a frameup job, whirling through New York City as she collects the damning mounting evidence against her and tries to figure out who’s responsible. Viewers are set up to root for Alex, but it’s clear that other things are also going on — even as the FBI responds to the attack, the internecine struggle between multiple higher agents elevates the stakes with internal squabbling.
Aside from an unexpectedly rather interesting plot that takes the long view rather than the short, Quantico has a few more surprises. Yes, there’s soapy drama ripped straight from the pages of a Shona Rimes programme — perhaps not a surprise, because one of the producers, Mark Gordon, was involved both with Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy — but something else has been ripped from Shonda’s book as well.
The show features not one but two women of colour in prominent roles, including the lead and the Deputy Director at Quantico, Miranda Shaw (Aunjanue Ellis). Shaw finds herself breaking not just the glass ceiling but also the color line, something echoed in many Shonda dramas, and it’s exciting to see the trend trickling across to other programming — and given the recent strong performance of shows with leading ladies of colour, it seems probable that a snowball effect is on the way, with networks pushing for diverse casting and producers responding. That makes the unexpected success of Quantico, which just ordered its back nine, all the more important, showing that US television doesn’t need to revolve around white leads, or men, to succeed — and perhaps the same determined attack on traditional notions about what sells in television will spread to disabled acting talent, trans talent, and more.
Shonda Rhimes is often lauded for breaking the color line in television and pushing aggressively for changes in the television landscape, and this is a sign that her work is having an effect. For Rhimes, who entered an extremely hostile field and continues to fight for herself and her shows on a regular basis despite her runaway success, events like this one must be heartening, illustrating that incremental change is starting to happen. In her acceptance speech at the Emmys, Viola Davis noted that the lack of roles in Hollywood for Black women — and by extension other women of colour — were a substantial barrier to diversity and success, because how can you appear in a role that doesn’t exist? The purposeful creation of roles for women like Davis and Ellis is a huge step for hidebound Hollywood.
While Hollywood should be opening up all roles to all races, it doesn’t, and that makes roles explicitly written for women of colour — or cast open-mindedly — especially important. Ellis, Davis, and many other women aren’t just amazing women building up acting credits, but pioneers making it possible for others to follow them.
Photo by redjar, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike 2.0 Generic license