Second Screen: FBI is Procedural TV Done Right

Jim Hemphill admires the latest addition to the small-screen realm of Law & Order creator Dick Wolf.

Writer-producer Dick Wolf is one of those filmmakers who’s so prolific and so successful that it’s easy to take what he does for granted – and even easier to make incorrect assumptions about the breadth and depth of his work based on its sheer volume. The fact that he has created not only multiple long-running episodic dramas like Law & Order and Chicago Fire but multiple offshoots (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: SVU, Chicago Med, Chicago P.D., and so on) might give the impression – if you’ve never watched the shows closely – that Wolf is grinding out the TV equivalent of fast food. After all, how could one possibly create so many thousands of hours of story without relying on repetition and formula? Yet what’s remarkable about Wolf’s career is that even a casual look at any of his series reveals he’s incapable of phoning it in; Law & Order: SVU is better than ever in its 20th season, both haunting and energetic in its engagement with current events week after week, and Wolf’s newest series, the CBS procedural FBI, is as good as anything he’s ever done.

FBI, which Wolf created with The Good Wife scribe Craig Turk, focuses on the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and takes Wolf’s usual approach of generating narrative drive via journalistic details. Special agents Maggie Bell (Missy Peregrym) and Omar Adom “OA” Zidan (Zeeko Zaki) anchor the series, which follows a typical procedural format of delving deep into the particulars of a different case each week. If the general shape of the structure is familiar, however, the execution is anything but – Wolf and his collaborators seem fully aware that the world they’re inhabiting is so intrinsically compelling that they let their research speak for itself and avoid cliché in the process. There are no creaky narrative mechanisms designed to drive the plots forward, and no forced sentiment to elicit an emotional response; instead, the audience is pushed to the edge of their seats by the sheer fascination of the process, of witnessing the work that goes into law enforcement one piece of minutiae at a time. The writers behind FBI – a superb team led by showrunner Rick Eid, a Law & Order: SVU and Chicago, P.D. veteran – depict both sides of the law with the kind of anthropological detail we used to get in the films of Sidney Lumet or Alan J. Pakula, and the deep dive into the logistics of both crime and its investigation is riveting.

Whenever the physical action kicks in, it’s both more shocking and more involving than what you get on most TV series, because it evolves organically from the show’s observational quality. The explosive moments have a way of really sneaking up on you, particularly in a skillfully directed episode like the recent “A New Dawn,” in which helmer Terry Miller deftly shifts tones in a manner that allows the quieter, more relationship-driven moments to add urgency to the action sequences and vice versa. Miller and cinematographer Tari Segal (whose spectacularly effective blend of gritty realism and eerie expressionism throughout the series is one of FBI’s chief assets) are brilliant at conveying a threatening quality in the most quotidian locations – coffee shops, classrooms, churches – while also getting across the banality of evil in a manner as chilling as it is authentic. In general, FBI is dependably impressive when it comes to the dynamic visuals; Niels Arden Oplev set the template in the show’s kinetic pilot, and since then directors including Norberto Barba, Nick Gomez, Nicole Rubio and others have turned in impressively vibrant work.

The dynamism of the directing is matched by the complexity and clarity of the writing, which started strong and has only improved under Eid’s guidance. I don’t want the praise I gave the show as a procedural to obscure the fact that FBI, in its own subtle way, is every bit as praiseworthy as an ensemble character study – and I don’t want to overlook the fact that it gives as much attention to its peripheral characters as most series give to their leads. The heroes played by Peregrym and Zaki are both beautifully conceived and acted; as with everything else on the show, the key to the performers’ success is their unwillingness to force their effects, and instead to find the natural intensity and poignancy in their situations and surroundings. They’re joined not only by a pitch-perfect supporting cast that includes Sela Ward and Jeremy Sisto delivering energetic performances episode after episode, but by guest actors who create fully realized lives in relatively compact time frames. The best installments of FBI, such as the “Identity Crisis” episode written by Eids and directed by Barba, make the most out of the moral, legal and emotional complications created by undercover assignments, creating challenges and opportunities for actors in the process. In “Identity Crisis,” for example, guest star Milauna Jemai Jackson simultaneously has to make her character’s undercover act convincing and convey to the audience the reality of the situation – a situation made more complicated by the fact that she might be simultaneously deceiving two sets of characters on opposite sides of the law.

Characters like Jackson’s Gina and writing like Eids’ sophisticated screenplay for “Identity Crisis” are the norm on FBI, not the exception. But what’s incredible is that they’re the norm across a whole television landscape Dick Wolf oversees. The Chicago franchise that Wolf launched with ace screenwriters Derek Haas and Michael Brandt, for example, has developed into an Altman-esque symphony of a city, a sweeping and lively epic that delves into work, family, and the social structures that define them, and does it as well as anything I’ve ever seen on network TV. And then there’s Law & Order: SVU, which takes advantage of television’s speed to hold a penetrating and affecting ongoing conversation with American culture. In the best episode of that series so far this season, last October’s “Zero Tolerance,” writers Richard Sweren and Céline C. Robinson dramatize the human cost of Trump-era immigration policies with an immediacy made all the more chilling by director Michael Pressman’s concentrated, harrowing compositions and camera moves – his brutally effective final image of children in cages is powerful and unsettling material for an ostensibly “escapist” TV drama.

There’s unsettling material in FBI too – and exciting material, and funny material, and thought-provoking material. Each episode, just like each episode of SVU and the Chicago shows, feels considerably longer than its 42 minutes, because there are enough satisfactions for a story a half-hour longer. The quality control Wolf exerts over these series is awe-inspiring to me, though given the cross-over of personnel between shows I think I’m on to his secret: he clearly has great taste in collaborators. The universe he created starting with Law & Order back in 1990 (not his first show, but the one that put him on the map as a mogul) is remarkably consistent in numerous respects – the concern with how law enforcement officials and public servants do their jobs and the tools with which they do them, the insistence on engagement with social issues, the strong women – but there are also infinite variations and digressions provided by the talented likes of Haas, Brandt, Eid, Miller and others. Regardless of where the credit is due, the result is one of the most admirable, entertaining, and impassioned bodies of work in the history of television.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker Magazine, American Cinematographer, and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.