Review: Dick Wolf’s ‘FBI’ reworks the good guy/bad guy formula in surprising ways

Television Critic

There’s a terror plot and New York City is the target in CBS’s new hourlong drama “FBI.” Operatives from the agency’s Manhattan office are scrambling to figure out who blew up a South Bronx apartment building and recreation center, killing 27, before the culprit strikes again.

A young Middle Eastern man named Omar is considered with suspicion. The handcuffs come out. An arrest is made.

But this isn’t what you think. “FBI” reworks the requisite good guy/bad guy formula as seen in every other FBI/CIA/Homeland Security network drama since 9/11 and turns the narrative inside out.

Omar Adom “OA” Zidan (Zeeko Zaki) is in fact one of two lead FBI agents pursuing the terrorists, and his perp is a middle aged white nationalist who believes that people such as Omar are ruining this country. He hoped to fix our nation by blowing up people of color.

“You know what you made possible that is good for our country?” Omar asks the neo-Nazi as he arrests him. “This,” and the handcuffs click shut.


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“FBI,” which premieres Tuesday, offers modern twists inside a familiar format, ripping elements of its story lines from the headlines and social media. The series by “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf is a fast-paced drama that’s engaging and timely but still polished and slick enough to deliver the type of escapist entertainment “Law & Order” fans recognize.

In the pilot episode, two explosions rip through a Manhattan apartment complex, people die and the entire building collapses before the show even hits the 5-minute mark.

FBI agents Maggie Bell (Missy Peregrym) and OA (Zaki) are first responders. “You been catching chatter?” a law enforcement agent asks them. (“Chatter” is usually shorthand for Arabic spoken between Bin Laden types.) The question is aimed at Omar, who we learn later was an undercover operative in previous terror stings.

No, not this time, says Bell. And the MO is different than that synagogue bombing last year. But if not Muslims, then who?

Bell and her partner must get to the bottom of the plot before any more innocents get hurt or killed.

With the help of analyst Kristen Chazal (Ebonee Noel) and Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jubal Valentine (Jeremy Sisto), they uncover a crime ring that includes President Trump’s favorite bogeyman, the MS13 gang. The bloodthirsty gang is in cahoots with South Bronx drug dealers and, oddly, a Richard Spencer-like white nationalist leader. In one scene, the last is shown as a guest on a CBS news show, perhaps a comment from Wolf and his team on the mainstreaming of formerly ostracized hate groups.

“FBI’s” topical themes and references don’t stop with neo-Nazis. Technological advancements aid the crack agents in their investigation, from DNA phenotyping — i.e. constructing a physical description off one’s DNA — to reconstructing a cell phone chip that was melted onto the severed leg of the suspected apartment building bomber. NCI, the NSA and Quantico are rattled off in rapid-fire agent speak as they survey a bomber’s charred limb or the body of another gangbanger-turned-snitch who literally had his heart ripped out.

“Street gangs usually play with guns, not bombs,” says Valentine.

Then there’s the promise to the perp caught with grenades from El Salvador … if he cooperates: “Don’t worry, were not going to deport you.”

Partners Bell and OA don’t have a ton of chemistry, yet, but there is a spark of something between them that hints at a deeper connection in the making.

She lost her husband, though we don’t know how yet, and he’s trying to help her cope, but it’s no easy task. Bell has invested all her energy in her work and doesn’t want to revisit a painful past. Sela Ward is slated to arrive in Episode 2 as a higher-up in the bureau, which promises to add a more complex dynamic to the series.

Wolf practically invented the modern police procedural, so it’s good to see him trying out some new steps with a series that forces its agents — and its viewers — to stay on their toes. This isn’t your parents’ “FBI.”


Where: CBS

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)