‘Quantico’ Review: Priyanka Chopra Scores in Silly Spy Drama

ABC series provides sexy fun, but not smarts to match

Beautiful people and juicy twists await the viewer of “Quantico,” but also a lot of silliness. Created by Joshua Safran, a former showrunner on “Smash” and executive producer on “Gossip Girl,” this drama-thriller wants to be a sleek, edgy mystery in which a talented FBI recruit (striking Indian actress Priyanka Chopra, making her American television debut) must track down who’s responsible for a deadly New York terrorist attack before federal authorities catch her first, believing she’s the perpetrator. But for a show about highly trained, incredibly intelligent agents, “Quantico’s” pilot often succumbs to lame-brained plotting and a less-than-convincing portrayal of its specialized milieu.

As this ABC show opens, Alex Parrish (Chopra) is lying amidst the rubble of a Manhattan building that’s just been detonated. Flashing back about eight months, we see Alex taking a plane from the Bay Area to the FBI’s training academy in Quantico, Virginia, where she and a group of other recruits will see if they have the mettle to be federal agents. Indicative of the pilot’s soap opera-like qualities, though, before Alex gets to Virginia, she meets a dashing stranger (Jake McLaughlin) on her flight, whom she impulsively screws in his truck once they land, assuming she’ll never see him again–except, of course, he’s a fellow recruit, Ryan Booth, which means they’ll be spending plenty of time together.

The pilot, written by Safran, cuts back and forth between the aftermath of the blast and Alex’s introduction to Quantico and her fellow recruits, which include Booth, a likably nerdy gay man (Tate Ellington), and a reserved Middle Eastern woman (Yasmine Al Massri) hiding a secret that one would assume the FBI would have known about before inviting her into the program. But this logic leap tends to be a feature, not a bug, of “Quantico,” which prefers going for narrative surprises rather than troubling itself about plausibility.

In the present, Alex’s interrogators inform her that they believe a member of her recruitment class was behind the attack, which is breathlessly described as the worst terrorist strike on American soil since 9-11. In the flashbacks, viewers watch scenes of Alex interacting with the other recruits, as we quietly try to figure out which of them is the mastermind.

But regardless of time frame, characters often speak in an overheated tough-guy manner that’s meant to suggest elite training and taking-care-of-business grittiness–that is, when the dialogue between the recruits doesn’t resemble freshman-dorm flirtation. Last year, ABC described “Quantico” as a cross between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Homeland,” and Safran’s connection to “Smash” and “Gossip Girl” only makes this new show’s fluffy, dishy style all the more predictable, which doesn’t fit so well with the darker, somber tones meant to be struck by the introduction of a cataclysmic terrorist attack.

That straining to play serious-drama dress-up also can be felt in plotting and action scenes that can be awfully dopey. Alex’s escape from the FBI after she’s accused of orchestrating the attack only works if the bureau is so stunningly incompetent that it literally can’t catch a woman a block away from where she was arrested. Similar narrative conveniences–such as characters stumbling upon important clues just lying around waiting to be discovered–litter this first episode, which wouldn’t be so egregious if these agents and recruits weren’t supposed to be the best of the best.

A singer, actress and former Miss World, Chopra has a poise and sexual spark as Alex that suggests a formidable potential FBI agent whose mind and beauty are equally stunning. But “Quantico” doesn’t give her much opportunity to show off her brains. Like her attractive costars, Chopra captivates on a superficial level, alongside the showy plot machinations and skin-deep intrigue as Alex goes into hiding to clear her name. The chase is on in “Quantico,” but at this early stage, smarts are trailing far, far behind.

“Quantico” premieres Sunday, Sept. 27 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.