Television executives are increasingly trying to sound clued-in and committed when they talk about diversity, but when it comes to walking the actual walk, ABC continues to be far out in front of the other broadcast networks. And the longer that network head Paul Lee’s experiment in dishing up soapy, kinetic shows to audiences underserved by less diverse — and less juicy — offerings goes on, the more examples ABC provides of ways diversity can be put to use for storytelling purposes. “Quantico,” which premieres Sunday, flashes back and forth between two timelines, one in which a new class of recruits arrives at the Federal Bureau of Investigation training center, and a second one, where one of their number is accused of a bombing that’s just leveled Grand Central Station. It’s as if a Shonda Rhimes series hooked up with a paranoid ’70s political thriller.
It’s no surprise that “Quantico,” like a lot of ABC’s shows, is stocked with a cast that’s diverse in just about every way — though they all share the same shocking good looks. The new FBI class includes Simon Asher (Tate Ellington), a Zionist who spent time in Gaza and a gay man with relatively little sexual or romantic experience; Shelby Wyatt (“UnREAL” star Johanna Braddy), a blonde with an internal steel disguised by a hyper-feminine exterior; Nimah Amin (Yasmine Al Massri), an observant Muslim recruit with a secret; and Ryan Booth (Jake McLaughlin), the sort of hyper-competent straight white guy who often shows up as sexual catnip in Shonda Rhimes’s shows. In a particular nod to the increasingly powerful international market for American entertainment, Bollywood megastar Priyanka Chopra is series lead Alex Parrish, who is eager to forge a reputation independent of her agent father’s, and who in the pilot is accused of the devastating terror attack that occurs a year after the class begins its training.
It would be one thing for “Quantico” to use all that diversity to “present the world as we want it to be, not as it necessarily is,” as series creator Joshua Safran put it when we spoke in Los Angeles in August. “You’re not just watching people who have struggled to achieve places of power and they’re there,” he argued. “This show is about the struggle to achieve that. Their politics and their racial makeup and their religious backgrounds are very important to their characterizations and who they are … I really am interested in looking at how every culture handles stress” — and in particular, how people from all these different backgrounds find their place in the FBI, an agency that has historically fraught relationships with gay people and people of color.
Simon was inspired by one of the first FBI agents to be out of the closet; as Safran puts it, “they were very late to the game … Don’t Ask Don’t Tell might not have been an FBI thing, but it was still in there, people did not want to come out, but there clearly were gay agents.” And executive producer Mark Gordon pointed to J. Edgar Hoover as evidence of the bureau’s contradictions on gay rights. “He was a cross-dresser! And probably gay!” Gordon pointed out. “And yet was the most homophobic bureaucrat that we certainly, publicly, that we know of.”
For Alex and Nimah, the tension is about race and religion. We meet Nimah when a gas station clerk won’t let her use the bathroom unless she buys something; she picks out an American flag key ring out of spite. Both women are motivated to prove they are “as much of an American as anyone else,” Safran said.
Nimah’s religiosity in particular opens up not just political options for “Quantico” but new storytelling opportunities. “When I was down [at Quantico], there was someone who, for religious purposes, had to wear a garment in their daily lives,” Safran recalled. “And I said: ‘Isn’t it hard to have an agent pass through who will never take off that religious garment? Is that something that you look for or not?’ And they said it’s great, because they can’t go undercover everywhere, but they can go undercover in that group. They’re the real deal.”
Those opportunities don’t always turn out well. In the pilot, we meet a Mormon member of the recruit class who explains why the FBI likes Mormon officers: “Mormons respect authority, don’t drink or take drugs, spend time in foreign countries, and they speak several languages.” That’s all to the good in theory, but this character has intense internal conflicts that manifest themselves in shocking ways.
Even Caleb Haas (Graham Rogers), a recruit who fears that he’s not living up to standards during training, and that he was accepted into the recruiting class only because of his family connections, provides a way for Safran to get into issues of the bureau’s history.
“What’s interesting about these institutions in the government, and in corporate America too, is they wish that everybody was slightly robotic and everybody was exactly the same, that they all follow the same rules,” Gordon explains. “When we think of FBI guys, we think of buttoned-down, buttoned-up, all kinds of buttons. And the fact of the matter is in some ways what they want is antithetical to what they need. Because if everybody’s the same, how can you have different points of view? And the only way to solve a problem is to have different points of view, to be asking questions.”
The diversity of the cast isn’t the only way in which “Quantico” is a political show.
“When I pitched I said, ‘It’s a sexy soap,’ because you have to tick that box, but it’s also a character study and a political thriller,” Safran told me. “I love ‘Three Days of the Condor,’ ‘The Parallax View,’ ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ These things won’t necessarily show up in the show, but that’s what my first love is … It was a way to do a political thriller instead of, like you said, a military show. It is not ’24’ — we talk about that a lot.”
He also cites Sundance’s Israel drama “The Honorable Woman” and the fifth season of “The Good Wife,” particularly the episode that followed National Security Agency agents tapping a law firm’s phone, as inspirations. “What they did so well,” Safran said of “The Good Wife,” is portraying how that wiretapping, “It’s just people’s jobs, it’s not their actual politics. You could be very much against spying on these people, but it’s still your job and you have to do it.” Those tensions might play out as generational debates in “Quantico,” pitting new recruits against their trainers.
Safran and Gordon are also interested in how our assumptions work against us. Gordon pointed to “The Wrong Man,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 thriller about a man, played by Henry Fonda, who struggles to prove his innocence after he’s accused of a crime, as one template. Simon’s Zionism or Nimah’s faith are both potential assets for the bureau, but they’re also beliefs that potentially make them targets when Grand Central Station is demolished. And the central mystery gives Safran a way to talk about racial profiling, policies such as stop-and-frisk and the continued operation of the American detention center at Guantanamo Bay while keeping them tied closely to the plot.
And beyond any of the specific Trojan horses Safran has built into his show, he wants to emphasize a central tension that he believes Americans have to learn to live with.
“I believe, unfortunately, that terrorist events on American soil are inevitabilities, and not something that can be avoided,” he said. “It’s a fact of life. That’s what I took from being in New York on 9/11, and the Boston bombing, and all the shootings. You can turn turn a blind eye to it and not read about 240 mass shootings in 240 days in this country. Or you can look at that and say this is not going away, you can’t fix that.”
The pilot episode ends with a very specific shot: the sight of Grand Central Station burning from the perspective of someone who would be seeing the damage from inside the Freedom Tower.
“We rebuilt, but it is not forgotten, and it will happen again, and it is happening again. And while the rebuilding is incredibly important because it allows us to move on, we also cannot ever forget. And we cannot ever stop trying to prevent it, trying to stop it, trying to find it. It will always be there, there will always be a hole in New York; there will always be these holes in our hearts,” Safran said of that image. “It was very politically important to me: Rebuild, but don’t forget.”