The new FX on Hulu series “Class of ‘09” boasts one of the year's most intriguing premises and casts so far. Not only does it star recent Oscar nominee and all-around great actor Brian Tyree Henry but it almost promises three shows in one, taking place across three distinct timelines. Cutting between the three gives the project a deeper sense of mystery as viewers are engaged to connect the characters, themes, and experiences across them. When we witness training exercises by young FBI cadets in the “Past” and then see them hardened in a dark vision of the “Future” many years later, we wonder what lines the writers want us to draw from one timeline to another. Luckily, the writing here isn’t overly explicit—there’s a much worse version of this show that dramatizes past traumas to reflect them in future decisions—and that allows us to appreciate “Class of ‘09” more like literature than traditional television. There’s a sense at times that it might have actually worked better on the page, as some of the characters and timelines feel more fleshed out than others, but "Class of '09" is never boring, playing with structure and theme in a way that doesn’t feel like anything else on TV.
Henry stars as Tayo, an unusual trainee who struggles with some of the physical requirements of training at Quantico in the first timeline. So what happened in the future timeline that made him end his tenure as a divisive and transformative head of the F.B.I.? That path seems to open in the second episode in a riveting sequence in which Tayo is confronted with a vicious domestic terrorist, one who stages a Waco-esque tragedy before fleeing and planning greater carnage. Tayo discovers that the evil he has been trying to contain is far-reaching and unafraid of crossing personal lives, putting his loved ones in danger. How far will Tayo go to defeat him?
The theme of how much we should sacrifice for privacy and due process becomes a clear center of “Class of ’09.” Without spoiling, let’s say it’s a show designed to provoke conversations about modern crime-fighting techniques, asking us how technology could be both a blessing and a curse in that department. The future material echoes the final act of “The Dark Knight” and even “Minority Report.” When tech develops to the point that it can help defeat crime, who controls that tech could be one of the most important decisions in our history.
The underrated Kate Mara stars opposite Henry as Ashley Poet, a successful undercover agent who doesn’t come from the same kind of law-and-order background as many FBI cadets. Without resorting to melodrama, Mara plays her as a more empathetic law person who feels designed to balance out a show that can be heavy on techspeak and moral discussion. Mara does her best to distinguish the timelines, really carving out three versions of Poet. In the past, she was a keen observer, and her success makes her a confident leader in the present timeline. But the weary version of Poet in the future is the most distressing, as if she no longer can muster the empathy that got her into the job in the first place.
Henry and Mara aren’t alone. Sepideh Moafi matches her great work on last year’s “Black Bird” with a strong, vulnerable performance as Hour, a cadet obsessed with data and how the FBI uses it. She realizes there are so many law enforcement officers out there who aren’t sharing information and strives to find a way to connect everything, but that effort leads to the aforementioned conflicts regarding the overreach of tech.
Rounding out the core quartet is Brian J. Smith as Lennix, who seems like just another love interest for Mara in the past timeline but will clearly play a crucial role as he climbs the ladder himself. Jon Jon Briones and Brooke Smith also star as instructors at Quantico.
“Class of ‘09” is tough to review because of FX’s habit of never sending an entire season, and this show's success is a bit unclear without knowing exactly where it’s going. Sometimes, it feels like the timelines aren’t equal in terms of storytelling or viewer interest, but the writers and editors are smart to let long scenes play out within them before zipping to the next. I hope the show doesn’t get more manic with the time jumps because it’s right on the verge of doing that a bit too much already, and I wondered if this wouldn’t be a richer story told chronologically. I’m not yet convinced it’s not a gimmick, even if it’s entertaining.
Despite that, I respect FX for taking a risk on a dramatically unusual show with such high thematic aspirations. A lot of fiction right now is asking how we got here. “Class of ‘09” also wants us to consider where we go next.
Three episodes were screened for review. The first two episodes of "Class of '09" premiere on FX on Hulu on May 10th.