Class of '09 is an AI Crime Thriller With No Thrills
Brian Tyree Henry and Kate Mara star as two federal agents on opposite sides of the AI debate.
The FBI isn’t as interesting a subject as it used to be. The ideals that once might have shaped the organization — and the intrigue that once made espionage kind of glamorous — have since been tainted by decades of controversy. It’s hard to understand now why anyone would want to join the organization, even with the intent to combat its history of prejudice and shady oversight. A little over a decade though, there was still a hope (however naive) that such a flawed system could be reformed from within.
In the new FX series Class of ‘09, creator Tom Rob Smith spins that hope into a hypothetical. How do we divorce bias from justice without losing sight of our humanity? Is artificial intelligence the only way to combat human error? It will fall to the FBI’s quixotic class of 2009 to answer these questions ... and to deal with the consequences that follow.
From the very beginning, there’s something very different about the class of ‘09. This specific batch of FBI recruits is still populated by its fair share of cis white men — legacy candidates, former cops and lawyers — and that’s to be expected. But there’s also Hour Nazari (Sepideh Moafi), the daughter of Iranian refugees. There’s Ashley Poet (Kate Mara), a psychiatric nurse whose savior complex earned her a personal invitation to Quantico. And then there’s Tayo Michaels (Brian Tyree Henry), a soft-spoken intellectual who’s always put more faith in facts and figures. None of them fit the bill of the archetypal FBI agent, but each were recruited for a reason. The Bureau’s gone out of its way to find “individuals” with unique perspectives. They need to evolve, fast — and they need fresh blood to do it.
The class of ‘09 may just be the Bureau’s best. They each want to better the system in their own way. And in Smith’s hypothetical reality, they actually manage to do so. After graduating from Quantico, Hour develops an AI-supported criminal database. But for all of Hour’s good intentions, the Bureau is naturally hesitant to adopt the tech. Elsewhere, Tayo’s hot on the trail of dangerous white supremacist group; he has no qualms with being Hour’s guinea pig. Their combined efforts will make the FBI more efficient than ever before — but flesh-and-blood agents will be all but obsolete by the time they’ve made their mark.
The rise of AI doesn’t happen overnight; Class of ‘09 straddles three separate timelines for a reason. The series charts its eponymous group from their training at Quantico (“the past”) to their formative steps within the Bureau (“the present”). When we catch up with them in the near future, it’s 2034, and Hour’s tech has grown unwieldy to the point of thinking for itself. Tayo, now director of the FBI, is also the chief executor of Hour’s program. Under his watch, America has reaffirmed its status as a global superpower. “Not only are we now one the greatest countries on this earth,” he states, “we are now also one of the safest.”
Still, there’s a sense that he knows more than he’s letting on. It’s up to Poet, now one of the Bureau’s last great agents, to uncover a sprawling conspiracy.
With all that’s going on in our real-world battle against AI, Class of ‘09 comes at an opportune moment. The eight-part series from Hulu and FX has a lot to say about our current dystopia, and where criminal justice could be heading in the future. Sadly, it’s lacking a considerable amount of juice — at least in the four episodes provided to press for review. It’s Minority Report without the propulsive action, it’s Quantico without any steamy intrigue. The bones are definitely there, and its jigsaw format definitely allows for intrigue and mystery. Class of ‘09 juggles three timelines with remarkable care, but its lifeless direction almost discourages audiences from coming back for more.
For a series so entrenched in its man vs. machine argument, Class of ‘09 fails to capture what makes humanity so compelling. The series has tapped some of the most electric performers in the game to form their core quartet, but said performances are frustratingly restrained. Of course, there are exceptions: Brian Tyree Henry is always great, and he’s no different in Class of ‘09. Though he’s playing it more subdued as Tayo, the chip on his shoulder is tangible — and it’s exhilarating to watch Henry adapt that across three timelines.
As the tender Poet, Mara is positioned as the antidote to Henry’s calculated director — and to the dangers of AI — but there’s not much warmth or substance to her character. Moafi’s performance as the wounded, curious Hour is actually a much better match (pray she gets a larger role in the second half of the series). Brian J. Smith (Sense8) also delivers a great work as Lennix, the heir to a political dynasty with a soft spot for Poet.
Class of ‘09 peels back the layers of each character with an expert touch. Smith is just as interested in the “why” as he is in the “how.” While the series’ attempts to humanize state intelligence often fall flat, it’s worth sticking around for the intimate character study.