Published 6:40 PM EDT Sep 25, 2018
CBS' "FBI" makes clear why we need the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an elite law-enforcement agency whose leadership has been pilloried by President Donald Trump.
But besides looking admiringly at the skill and dedication of bureau agents and efficiently weaving a complex tale, "FBI" (Tuesday, 9 EDT/PDT, ★★ out of four) isn't distinctive enough in a crowded field of TV cop shows – especially on CBS.
“FBI” has the finest pedigree, coming from megaproducer Dick Wolf (NBC's "Law & Order" and "Chicago" franchises). His first CBS show since 1997's "Feds" mixes his lean, “just the facts, ma’am” approach with a penchant for pyrotechnics that's a central element of CBS’ own procedural empire.
The series centers on special agent Maggie Bell (Missy Peregrym), a three-year veteran of the bureau's Manhattan office, and her partner, Omar Adom “OA” Zidan (Zeeko Zaki), a bureau newcomer and Queens, New York, native who previously worked undercover for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
There's plenty of action, as the pilot opens with a Bronx apartment explosion, the arrival of Bell and Zidan and then a larger blast. If that doesn't suggest terrorism, the dramatic implosion of the building, a none-too-subtle but visually impressive reference to the collapsing Twin Towers of 9/11, does.
Terrorism puts the investigation in federal hands, as Wolf has promised that “FBI” will only deal with crimes beyond the scope of police departments, the kind you see in “Chicago PD.” However, that alone doesn't differentiate it.
In a plus, "FBI" appears to be on top of real-world law-enforcement technology. But Bell and Zidan collaborate with a by-now-too-standard support team.
Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jubal Valentine ("Law & Order" alum Jeremy Sisto) orchestrates investigations from the bureau's high-tech Manhattan office, and tech-savvy analyst Kristen Chazal (Ebonee Noel) is so brainy and multitalented she seems too good to be true and a too-easy solution to plotting problems. Connie Nielsen is unremittingly dour in the pilot episode as the bureau chief, but she'll be replaced in the second episode by Sela Ward.
New partners Bell and Zidan are trying to connect as they search for the bomber. There's potential for a good partnership, and "FBI," to its credit, doesn't immediately jump into the kind of relationship melodrama common to many shows in the genre.
Peregrym's Bell displays a brittle toughness – likely a result of her own loss of her husband, an agent who died in the line of duty – that ideally will be chipped away through her partnership with Zidan, revealing more of the character. Zaki convincingly portrays the inside/outside nature of Zidan, a fast-and-loose undercover agent constrained in a by-the-books culture.
The "FBI" cast is racially and ethnically diverse, a reflection of CBS' efforts to increase representation on a network criticized for shows fronted by white men. The presence of Zidan, a Muslim and Arabic speaker, makes practical sense for the FBI in establishing community relationships and for "FBI" in developing intriguing plot lines.
The pilot displays the storytelling DNA of the great "Law & Order" in a mix of twists and turns that lead you from an obvious suspect to an unlikely one, with a red herring or two (and another explosion – this is CBS) along the way.
Although the story isn't ripped from the headlines like those in many Wolf shows, it employs contemporary lightning rods that will resonate with viewers on both sides of the political aisle: MS-13, a gang with Central American roots frequently cited by President Trump in his arguments for stronger immigration enforcement, and white nationalists, the scourge of Trump's opponents.
Unfortunately, the premiere episode's last-second resolution is a bit hard to swallow, dependent on a superhero bureau member and, more ridiculously, the use of a how-to guide to prevent catastrophic death. This isn't James Bond.
"FBI" has inherited good bone structure from its "Law & Order" ancestors, with its promising partner chemistry and intricate plot structure.
But it needs to flesh out a stronger identity if it wants to be more than just another cop show.