Every so often, there are actors who will emerge as being so routinely outstanding each time you see them that any project they join becomes one worth seeking out for them alone. Brian Tyree Henry is one such actor. Each character he embodies, even when part of an ensemble, is the one that everything feels like it is orbiting around. He is a reliable center of gravity who can make the most of even the flimsiest of material, bolstering it by the sheer force of his presence that always ends up making you sit up and take notice. In FX’s “Class of ‘09,” a new limited series from creator Tom Rob Smith of “American Crime Story,” Henry is tasked with doing much of the heavy lifting to hold together a story that is often scattered. Over the course of the first four episodes of this eight-episode season, it is every moment with him that manages to work. As for everything else, that’s a different story entirely.
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Taking place at three different points in time (the past in 2009, the present of 2023, and the future of 2034) the series traces one class of aspiring FBI agents as they train, grow, and grapple with their work. Though not the most insightful of portraits, it is hardly your run-of-the-mill copaganda series where the police and authorities can do no wrong. Instead, there is a healthy skepticism to how it is that these structures operate and begin to grow into using new artificially intelligent surveillance. It plays like a riff on Steven Spielberg‘s “Minority Report,” though without the same directorial vision and narrative heft. While it has ambitions of being more than just your average procedural, the first half of the season still gets tangled up in itself as the leaps between the timelines can be tiresome as opposed to thrilling. Though there are many engaging chapters, there are many that remain less so.
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Beginning in the past with a group of strangers who all arrive at Quantico to begin their training, we get glimpses of their past lives via the occasional flashback or monologue about what brought them here. Though there are others we will come to know, the main two are Tayo Michaels (Henry) who used to work a desk job in insurance and Ashley Poet (Kate Mara) who was a psychiatric nurse. Where many of their fellow classmates are callous and even cruel, the two look out for each other when no one else will. As it turns out, both will end up having an instrumental part to play as the years turn to decades and criminal justice in the country as we know it becomes reshaped by artificial intelligence. In particular, seeing Henry shift into being an antagonist is its most intriguing element.
As for what he is given to work with, that still leaves much to be desired. For all the ways the series hints at being a more thoughtful interrogation of the way technology can actually become just another tool of repression when an unchecked government runs wild with it, there remains much that is holding it back. A smattering of action sequences, from a shootout in a remote area to a fight in a parking garage, are serviceable though much less interesting than the underlying questions and anxieties it is playing with. Though Henry is just as convincing when his character takes up arms to defend himself, there is something distinctly chilling about seeing his character gradually become more and more corrupted. For all the ways Tayo thought he could have made a positive change, it is clear that it is he who has been changed. It delicately calls into question how much we can reform from within.
There is obviously plenty that is still unknown in how it will continue to build upon this, but there is still something to be appreciated in just seeing Henry work. Regardless of whether the attempts to age him up will be convincing in the eyes of the viewer, his performance is what draws us in despite all the noise. Mara is similarly effective though her character feels more static and less dynamic than Henry’s. Where the series begins to find its footing is when the cuts back and forth across time create juxtapositions about how each has become someone who might be unrecognizable to their past selves. This is especially true for Tayo who we see dismissing the concerns about how this system of policing is targeting people who haven’t even done anything. It would have been something his younger self would have been deeply concerned about, but his perspective has clearly become warped over the many decades. While the show teeters on the edge of science fiction, the way Henry grounds it in a richer character study of a man who becomes utterly lost in the power he has gained feels all too presently terrifying.
There are elements that feel extraneous with other characters seeming to exist primarily to drive the plot to where we know it is already all going. Some of this comes down to the framing of the three moments in time showing some of what will happen and then filling in the gaps of how it gets there. What doesn’t work is how this creates rather laborious and vacuous scenes where characters speak in clunky dialogue to set up some of the ideas to be explored later. One presentation about the central technology doesn’t feel natural, especially when this same character tries to distinguish what they were talking about from what it became. It comes across as hair-splitting, which could very well be the point as a way this character distances themselves from it out of guilt if it only were more emotional and less expositional. It is in these moments where the characters can get lost in the hustle and bustle.
Yet, even with these many hang ups where the series doesn’t have nearly enough necessary dexterity or tact, Henry elevates it above the trappings it could fall into. There is still much that feels like it is being withheld about how his character rose to such a point of power just as he fell from grace, though there is a willingness to go with it as long as he is at the helm. No matter how many times this limited series gets tied up in the past when its connections to the future are where it is strongest, Henry’s performance makes it worth seeing where it will go. [B-]
Class of ‘09 debuts on Hulu on May 10.