Screen Test

Quantico's melodramatic, Homeland pushes buttons

Priyanka Chopra (right, with from left, Brian J. Smith, Johanna Braddy, Yasmine Al Massri) over-acts in Quantico.
Priyanka Chopra (right, with from left, Brian J. Smith, Johanna Braddy, Yasmine Al Massri) over-acts in Quantico. PHOTO: AXN
Claire Danes is a happy civilian, but not for long, in Homeland.
Claire Danes is a happy civilian, but not for long, in Homeland. PHOTO: YOUTUBE

The new series Quantico has been touted as "Homeland meets Grey's Anatomy", a terrorism drama like the former, but with all the flirty fun that comes with seeing a group of hot young things being initiated into an elite profession a la Grey's.

The setting here is not a Seattle teaching hospital, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) training academy in Quantico, Virginia, where the story revolves around star recruit Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra), who soon after graduation, becomes the prime suspect in a terrorist attack in New York.

While she tries to clear her name, there are flashbacks to her time at the academy and all the rivalries and romances between the would-be agents, many of whom are harbouring secrets and hidden agendas.

  • QUANTICO SEASON 1

    Monday at 9.45pm on AXN (StarHub Channel 511)

    ** 1/2

    HOMELAND SEASON 5

    Monday at 10pm on FX (Singtel TV Channel 310 or StarHub TV Channel 507)

    ***

As a whodunit and terrorism thriller, Quantico is way too melodramatic to be taken seriously. It also rehashes countless plot devices from those genres, including the double double-cross and an agent who falls in love with his mark.

It does so while frequently underestimating the intelligence of its audience, which is expected to unquestioningly accept, for instance, the comical ease with which Alex escapes custody after the bombing.

And after the show makes a song and dance about how perceptive she is (in an idea stolen from Star Trek, Alex glibly aces a Kobayashi Maru-like training exercise), the heroine becomes inexplicably gullible, something noticed by her former classmate Shelby (Unreal's Johanna Braddy), who could be speaking for the annoyed viewer when she says: "I thought you were good at reading people."

The dialogue tries hard to duplicate the quippy, pop culture- savvy patter of shows such as Grey's Anatomy, but more often than not ends up sounding cheesy and trite.

Do Quantico instructors really talk to their recruits in run-on cliches, as when one of them says: "One moment can change everything, let's see who you are when you do or die. Will you freeze or will you fire?"

The series has a few redeeming qualities, the most impressive of which is the much-vaunted diversity of its core cast and the decision to cast outside the box when it came to Alex.

She is played by charismatic Bollywood star Chopra, who is so mesmerisingly beautiful that many could be forgiven for watching this for her alone, nevermind the breathy over-acting.

But that is about as edgy as it gets.

Morever, Quantico seems to exist in a curiously post-racial, religiously neutral universe - one where Alex's half-Indian background is hardly referenced, and the religion of twin FBI recruits Nimah and Rayna (Yasmine Al Massri) is somehow no big deal in a country where religious and racial profiling has flourished since 9/11.

Homeland, on the other hand, is still pushing buttons when it comes to religion and terrorism.

Although the fifth season opened by revealing that Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is no longer a CIA agent, and is now living a happy civilian life in Berlin rather than the Middle East, a trip to a Syrian refugee camp by the billionaire philanthropist she now works for promises to continue the ongoing controversy over the show's depiction of the region and Islamic terrorists.

As if further proof were needed of how provocative the latter has been, it was revealed last week that graffiti artists hired to make the refugee camp look more realistic secretly spray-painted "Homeland is racist" on the walls in Arabic - and their protest can be seen on screen in a recent episode.

The once acclaimed series has attracted criticism on many other fronts, too. It has been accused of straining credibility with its increasingly far-fetched storylines from Season 2 and for descending into ratings-pandering trashiness by playing up Carrie's doomed romance with ex-Marine and sleeper terrorist Brody (Damian Lewis).

But Season 5's Edward Snowden- esque storyline involving the leaking of top-secret CIA documents to the press and their exposure of a ploy by the German government to circumvent laws against spying on its own citizens, shows the writers are as committed as ever to engaging the audience on important topical issues.

Granted, Homeland is still prone to the odd logical leap - how the employee of a German porno- graphic website managed to hack into the CIA database, for example, is rather sloppily explained.

And it does rely on its share of crusty old spy tropes, including an unfolding story in which Carrie's former colleague Quinn (Rupert Friend) seems to have been sent to kill her.

That and the other big puzzle of the season thus far - about who was trying to kill her at the refugee camp - are a little flat compared to the intrigues of previous instalments.

But, in the most recent episode, Carrie has decided to go off the medication that has kept her bipolar disorder in check - because, she reasons, the drugs mute her powers of deduction and she needs to go full Nancy Drew to find out who is after her.

The character's unhinged brilliance and paranoia have always been a powerful dramatic engine and one of the most distinctive things about Homeland, so if this is only being unleashed now, it seems worth it to wait and see where it goes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2015, with the headline 'Quantico's melodramatic, Homeland pushes buttons'. Print Edition | Subscribe