‘Class of ’09’ Is an Ambitious AI Thriller

When Tayo Michaels arrives at Quantico, his instructors ask him why he wants to become an FBI agent. Shrewd, self-possessed, and played by 2023 Oscar nominee Brian Tyree Henry with the same preternatural stillness he brought to a very different character in Atlanta, Tayo explains that he used to work in insurance. “I discovered that premiums vary 60% depending on who the assessor is,” he says. It made him realize: “This isn’t the kind of injustice I wanna spend my life fixing.” In other words, Tayo is here to reform a biased criminal justice system from the inside.

Class of ’09, an unorthodox FX thriller that will stream exclusively on Hulu beginning May 10, traces how that laudable dream devolves into a surveillance-state nightmare. Following two protagonists—Tayo and his Quantico classmate Ashley Poet, played by Kate Mara—over the course of their FBI careers, the series weaves together three distinct timelines. In 2009, they navigate their training and bond with other agents-to-be. Stories set in 2023 find each character immersed in a case that will change their lives. Finally, it’s 2034, and Tayo has ascended to become the Bureau’s director. His AI-enabled regime really has slashed crime rates across the country. But at what cost? That is just one of many philosophical questions that creator Tom Rob Smith (The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story) raises in this cerebral, ambitious, but frustratingly paced tale of human fallibility and technological overreach.

It takes two full episodes, out of only eight total, for Smith—who wrote every episode—to set the scene. The first sticks close to Poet, whose name is freighted with meaning. An empathetic soul, she was a psychiatric nurse when she received her invitation to apply to the Bureau, from an agent who was impressed with the gentle way she subdued a hysterical inmate. “We’re looking for different kinds of people, outside of law enforcement,” he says in a flashback. Poet’s human intuition primes her to be a star undercover agent, infiltrating seemingly closed worlds. But then an ex from her Quantico days, blue-blooded company man Lennix (Brian J. Smith), assigns her to watch their colleague and her former roommate, Iranian refugee Hour (Sepideh Moafi), a genius data analyst who has created an algorithm that pools the knowledge of every FBI agent to improve decision making. The problem is, it has to spy on all of them for as long as they’re on the job. Here’s where an already complicated premise gets ethically thorny: Hour’s creation would violate agents’ privacy, but isn’t Poet doing the same thing by surveilling Hour?

'Class of '09' Is an Ambitious AI Thriller

By 2034, these questions are no longer hypothetical. Poet and other agents wear devices in their eyes that are connected to an AI that, in turn, uses the data it collects to issue arrest warrants. But it’s becoming apparent that the system isn’t just going after criminals—it’s also predicting who seems likely to commit a crime and rounding them up, too. Made aware of this injustice, Poet has to decide whether she can ignore it, in the name of serving an unprecedentedly effective Bureau led by her old friend.

Tayo has his own reasons for deploying an AI to not only apprehend criminals, but also prevent crime from happening. What he, a Black man, and Hour, an outsider in both the U.S. and her own family, share is experience with a justice system in which individual agents’ prejudices often work out tragically for people like themselves. Hour’s innovation promises to moderate such bias. And Tayo survives enough violence in his high-risk FBI assignments to consider that preemptive arrests might be justified in the name of keeping millions of innocent people safe.

Because I was only able to screen the first half of the season, I can’t say for sure whether Class of ’09 justifies its slow, cluttered start with a brilliant conclusion. But the third and fourth episodes improve greatly on the pace of the first two. Not only does the plot accelerate, but the heaps of character development and backstory start to pay off on a thematic level. As in Versace and his cerebral espionage thriller London Spy, Smith strikes a delicate balance between using characters as vehicles for ideas and ensuring that they also read as coherent, specific people. This is crucial as the show progresses and an argument coalesces around the inevitability that individual experience will, in one way or another, shape a system that determines whether people live or die, thrive alongside loved ones or mourn them, walk free or languish behind bars.

The success of the series will hinge on where Smith ultimately takes this idea. In the meantime, it’s his ambition—at a time when so many thrillers seem to be about nothing at all—and the central performances that merit attention. Mara is smartly cast as Poet, whose sensitivity coexists with a deep reserve of courage and determination. Henry, a highlight of every show and movie in which he appears, deserves awards consideration for his poker-faced portrayal of a man who keeps his own counsel and quietly channels the worst moments of his life into policy. The yearbook has yet to close on Class of ’09, but the 25th reunion seems bound to be a doozy.

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