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The time-hopping limited series predicts a tech-heavy future
Once a concept reserved for science fiction, it's become impossible to ignore artificial intelligence as it transitions from theory to a part of everyday life. What's true in the real world is true in fiction, too. Even if you never even glance at the headlines, AI has come to play an increasingly prominent role in movies and television. Many take the idea to its furthest extremes, but some are more interested in exploring more practical implications of new technology and the impact it might have on our lives.
AI never gets mentioned directly in the first four episodes of Class of '09, a slow-burn limited series created by Tom Rob Smith (London Spy), but it lurks in the background of a series concerned with the ways technological breakthroughs have aided surveillance and what might happen if those charged with keeping us safe began relying less on human judgment than on computers' predictive powers. The series opens in the near future of 2034 with the image of a man staring at rapidly changing screens, whose information he'll use to make life-and-death decisions and maybe prevent disasters rather than respond to them, regardless of whether or not his preemptive decisions meet the definition of justice. Class of '09 unfolds its story across several timelines, but the opening feels like a statement: No matter what happens to its characters, they're unavoidably headed to this morally suspect place.
The man, we'll soon learn, is Tayo Michaels (Brian Tyree Henry), an FBI director whose record of success allows him to boast, "Not only are we now one the greatest countries on this earth. We are now also one of the safest." But Tayo wasn't always this commanding. Thanks to the structure of Class of '09, we soon see him as one of a handful of recruits training to become FBI agents after being recruited from fields that don't traditionally provide springboards to law enforcement. Tayo, for instance, has left behind a successful career in insurance after suspecting his analytical skills could be put to better use. His classmate Amy Poet (Kate Mara), though people just call her "Poet," was a prison nurse with an unusual gift for empathy. They're joined by, among others, Lennix (Brian J. Smith), the scion of a political family, and Hour (Sepideh Moafi), the daughter of Iranian exiles.
As trainees, each has to overcome preconceptions and the challenges thrown at them by a pair of tough instructors (Brooke Smith and Jon Jon Briones) while developing relationships with one another and, in one dramatic issue, realizing there may be an enemy within their ranks. In scenes set in the present, those relationships have deepened. By drawing together information that had never previously been cross-referenced, Hour has developed a threat assessment system of the sort never seen before, and one with some disturbing implications. Elsewhere, Tayo finds he might need that system, implications be damned, as he pursues a white supremacist organization. Then, in the future, Poet and others bear literal scars of their time in the field as they attempt to unravel a mystery that might have Tayo at its center.
It's a complex setup, but one Smith and his creative team make easy to follow. Where Class of '09 struggles is in finding ways to remain dramatically compelling. It's best in smaller moments that put the focus on the cast's dramatic abilities. Henry is, unsurprisingly, a standout, particularly in a monologue recounting an instance of youthful racial injustice that's shaped his vision of the world. But it's telling that scenes focusing on Tayo's ability to pass a fitness exam feel more gripping than the series' action sequences or moments that attempt to build tension around each timeline's central conflict.
That may change as it moves past these early installments. By the end of its fourth episode, Class of '09 clearly still has much to reveal as it hints at mysteries to come. And maybe those revelations will prove involving enough to alleviate some of the problems with the often poky pacing of these early outings. It's a smart and timely series. But by its halfway point, it's yet to feel like a vital one.
Premieres: Two episodes premiere Wednesday, May 10 on Hulu, followed by a new episode each Wednesday
Who's in it: Brian Tyree Henry, Kate Mara, Sepideh Moafi, Brian J. Smith
Who's behind it: Tom Rob Smith
For fans of: Speculative crime stories
How many episodes we watched: 4 of 8