Monday, September 24, 2018

TV REVIEW: CBS' 'FBI'

CBS will launch its new original drama series FBI on Tuesday, September 25 at 9/8c. following the season premiere of NCIS. The drama stars Missy Peregrym, Zeeko Zaki, Ebonée Noel, Jeremy Sisto and Sela Ward.

Read on for my thoughts on the police procedural after screening its first episode.



Dick Wolf is one of the most successful executives for broadcast television. He has already launched two widely popular franchises for NBC - stemming from Law & Order and Chicago Fire. Moreover, he was the creator of two dramas that are now tied with Gunsmoke as the longest-running live action drama series airing in primetime - Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU both airing for 20 seasons. In fact, it seems incredibly likely that SVU will break that record because it continues to be a success for NBC. Sure, it will once again have to weather a time slot change and executive turnover in the months to come. But it seems extremely likely that it will make it to Season 21 and be the sole show holding that prestigious title. As such, it's a big deal when Wolf's latest series was ordered by CBS instead of NBC. CBS famously passed on Law & Order. NBC picked it up and even aired the original pilot that was produced for CBS as one of the episodes in its first season. But NBC did its own version that when on to completely reinvent the genre and launch multiple shows. Of course, CBS has had no program launching franchises either. It is home to the CSI shows and the NCIS shows. It is still airing three shows set in the NCIS universe on a weekly basis. In fact, the universe extends even further when you take into account the various crossovers with Hawaii Five-0, MacGyver and the new drama Magnum P.I. It's actually starting to seem like all of CBS' shows are set in the same universe which allows for numerous crossovers to take place whenever the executives feel like it. That could be both a blessing and a curse. The new drama FBI is launching with the full intention of it becoming another franchise player for Wolf. He went to CBS only because NBC no longer had the space on its schedule to continue accommodating him. Of course, they are still healthy creative partners because he still has an overall deal with Universal Television and has sold a new Law & Order show to NBC for next year.

All of this really has nothing to do with what's actually on the screen for the premiere of FBI. It's just useful background information to know about the various players involved. And yet, it's much more engaging to talk about because the premiere of this new show is a mess. Above I have listed a grade associated with the new series. However, it should really be an incomplete instead of a C. That's largely because the network only sent out one episode for critics to review. That has been standard operating procedure for the broadcast networks for years when it comes to their fall lineups. They have the pilots that were produced earlier in the year. But sometimes the second episodes aren't completed until closer to their actual airdate. Of course, it would always be beneficial for reviews if second or third episodes were made available. It would help us get a better sense of what is going on in the new shows and whether or not they are tackling their premises in an interesting and engaging way. It's easy to have a strong pilot but a lackluster series or vice versa. It's hard to judge a show by one episode. Sure, plenty of viewers do exactly that. If they aren't hooked immediately, then they have no incentive to return to see if it gets better. If they go looking for reviews to confirm what they already suspect about the show, they won't find any help with FBI because it's just one episode that we're basing this opinion on. And yet, the premiere of FBI should have been tossed completely because it is not what the show is going to be on an ongoing basis. As such, I really don't know what all I should say about the show other than that it is a mess in an episode the network still chose to air even though it realizes that there are problems with it.

Craig Turk wrote the premiere. He is the creator of FBI and was set to serve as showrunner for the first season. He has another show at CBS - The Code co-created with Craig Sweeny - that will debut at midseason. However, he was replaced by Person of Interest's Greg Plageman as showrunner when the series started production earlier this summer. It's not the first time that there has been a behind-the-scenes change for a new CBS show or a project from Dick Wolf. There's been a lot of turnover with the various Law & Order shows with each new executive bringing their own take on the material to the forefront. However, the premiere is the version of the show that Turk was writing. That's a version that will not be produced for the remainder of the season. Now, Person of Interest was one of the best things that CBS has done in the past decade. It was a phenomenal and timely drama. It could be a procedural at times but it was more engaging as a serialized narrative. It's doubtful that this show will make that same transition though. Wolf believes in the power of procedural storytelling. There will still be personal stories with the agents at the New York field office of the FBI. However, the premiere is mostly centered on a case-of-the-week story. Moreover, the premiere features Connie Nielsen as the Special Agent in Charge of this unit of the FBI. She is the person making the decisions about how the investigation should conduct itself. She will not be continuing on with the series. Instead, Sela Ward will join the cast in the second episode as a new character filling the same position. And so, only having one episode for review means I have absolutely no idea what kind of energy she brings to this project.

All of this basically amounts to a show that is difficult to review. CBS probably made the right decision in making all of these changes. But again, the premiere is bad because it is so contradictory with its aspirations. At times, it presents as the typical CBS procedural meant to scare older conservative audiences that their worst fears about immigration are true. Then, it also tries to balance a story of the agents confronting white nationalism and the lead to resist from the other side of the political spectrum. The show could be telling the story of how the FBI needs to deal with all kinds of threats. But the overall story of the first episode just wants to go big and broad in nature. It wants to feature a bunch of explosions and a ticking clock to find the person responsible. Niels Arden Oplev once again does a solid job in establishing a template for a new series in directing the pilot. But he is also allowed to go for some big visuals as well like when a bomb leads to an entire building coming down. However, it's probably more damning that none of the cast really stand out in a remarkable way. Jeremy Sisto and Missy Peregrym have toplined shows before. They have even succeeded in making procedurals work. The show better finding their skills as performers and giving them strong material to work with is what's necessary moving forward. Otherwise, this is just a wishy-washy show that really has no idea what it's doing.