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FX’s timely ‘Class of 09′ explores how AI may impact the FBI

Brian Tyree Henry in "Class of '09." (Richard Ducree/FX/TNS)

In the second episode of the new FX on Hulu drama “Class of ‘09,” a senator in 2034 confronts FBI chief Tayo Miller (Brian Tyree Henry) about what she dubs “inexplicable arrests” of people who “have done nothing wrong.”

The FBI by this time has developed a system in which people who might do something criminal are arrested to prevent them from doing so. Tayo righteously sees this as just and fair and makes society safer.

The senator disagrees: “Not everyone sees this system as a savior.”

“People fail, Senator,” Tayo says, his voice dripping with contempt. “Their most basic duty is to watch out for one another. People are just not (expletive) good at it.”

That is indeed the crux of how artificial intelligence could reshape one aspect of society. “Class of 09,” which debuted earlier this month, grapples with this question through the eyes of a handful of FBI agents from the graduating class of 2009.

The series was shot in Atlanta but is set largely in Washington, D.C., and its outskirts.

Showrunner Tom Rob Smith, who likened Atlanta to Sweden given its heavy tree coverage, said the spark of the show was his quirky habit of studying photographs of graduating classes and wondering what became of them.

“How do you take that idea and turn it into a TV show?” Smith said. “So I married it with the FBI. I was inspired by this amazing podcast by a retired FBI agent Jerri Williams, who is a consultant on the show. She interviews retired agents on the show. They’re really detailed and they talk about their lives and their careers and their dreams. That was the spark for it all.”

Taking a cue from shows such as “Lost,” “This is Us” and “Quantico,” this drama runs on multiple timelines. The three key lines are 2009 when the agents are training at Quantico; 2023 when they are at a key juncture points in their career; and 2034, where technology has become even more weaponized than it has today and has impacted each of their lives differently.

The trio of timelines “should not feel like a gimmick,” Smith said. “We aren’t throwing this in to be clever or ostentatious. The points of contrast are really interesting. There’s an emotional truth we’re using in all three timelines.”

Four FBI agents are primarily featured in the show. “These are people who joined an institution who don’t normally join an institution like the FBI, who don’t feel like they belong,” Smith said. “They would normally be advocating for change from the outside but are doing it from the inside.”

Indeed, each of the four Class of 2009 graduates contribute in different ways to what will happen in 2034, for better or worse.

The most notable actor on the cast is Henry, who broke it big on the critically acclaimed show “Atlanta” on FX. He brings his brooding, contemplative persona to his Tayo character, who over the years seems to have good intentions but arguably lost his way once he gained power.

“Brian is very collaborative,” said Joe Robert Cole, another executive producer for the show who wrote for both “Black Panther” movies. “He’s just emotionally available in a beautiful way. He takes a small note and lets it ripple right through a scene.”

The whole issue of AI in which Henry’s character embraces with moral rectitude in the future is a topic society is facing now.

“This show mirrors a lot of the real life conversations playing out,” said fellow executive producer Jessica Levin (”His Dark Materials,” “True Detective”). “We’ve seen plenty of the ‘robots are going to take over’ stories. What if we approached this in an unexpected way? What if AI could be a force for bias reduction? We look at that tantalizing promise and the way it goes awry.”

Brian Smith (no relation to the executive producer), who plays Lennix, an FBI agent with a privileged background and a strong moral compass, said ChapGPT and its ilk was actually still in the future when they shot “Class of ‘09″ last year in Atlanta.

“Now it feels like it’s multiplying,” Smith said. “We’re now in the throes of it. God knows where we’ll be in a year.”

He already has fiddled with ChatGPT to create sonnets but so far, he isn’t all that impressed: “I am not quite convinced these language models will ever be able to truly replicate human thought authentically.”

Sepideh Moafi, who plays FBI agent Hour Nazari, the creator of the AI template Tayo ultimately takes and uses for his own needs, said AI “is seductive but we have to be careful and wary of it being abused by those in power. These are questions we need to probe. We have to be sure we’re able to contain it. I don’t think that’s happening. This show is a good case study of what could happen.”


© 2023 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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