Photos: Chuck Hodes / NBC

The Spycraftsmanship Of Crisis

It lets its characters, and us, be smart.

I'd planned to cover Crisis through the most recent episode, "If You Are Watching This, I Am Dead," but probably no further, because the most recent episode is where the screeners would end and the "why must 70 percent of the shows I watch air on Sundays" DVR Rubiksing would then begin.

Then came the scene when the FBI is questioning the chunky kid, Anton, about what happened after the hijacking and he went on the run with Finley. The FBI agent is using the big, loud, "you are five, and hard of hearing" voice people who don't "get" kids use, and is in the middle of booming "SOME-times, when you're REALLY REALLY SCARED" when Anton cuts him off to say that actually the theory that fear alters the memory has been conclusively debunked, and what he told them happened is what happened.

At that point, I paused the screener to set a season pass, and so should you, because Crisis is a good, smart show that thinks you're smart too.

Among the things Crisis is doing right:

It moves fast.

I can't tell you how nice it is to see plot churn this foamy, especially in a sophomore episode, which is usually when the adrenaline wears off and the writers go back to over-explaining "inside" lingo and setting up character beats via flashback. Hostages had a bunch of problems, none worse than poky, boring "And here is the baddies' plan. And here is how it will go wrong. And here is how it going wrong offers our hero an opportunity. And here is how our hero will waste that opportunity." plotcraft that let the audience get seven steps ahead of characters we didn't like enough to watch figure things out. This isn't to say that plotting an action show tightly, down to the scene, is easy -- but Crisis proves it's possible.

To get as much done as Crisis did in its sophomore episode would take most thriller TV three or four hours, but in "If You Are Watching This," Meg Fitch gets jobbed on a money drop; Susie figures out from what Meg does tell her, which is not everything, that the Pakistani ambassador is about to get jobbed in a similar way; she and Finley, ordered by the Director to work together, have yin-yang reluctant-partner fun times en route to the embassy, where the ambassador admits what's going on without too much delay, whereupon Susley (…"Finsie"?) knock out the intelligence chief to get his keycard and find a secret Space Odyssey-looking subbasement containing two Army Rangers hooked up to tranq IVs, and a safe with a walkie in it that's transmitting CIA black-site code sequences; the First Son and Dermot's Daughter bond; there's a drone; Anton helps Finley; a girl has a meltdown about her Juilliard audition; Finley spots his shooter, now driving the ambulance that's picking up the Rangers and kills him; Dermot decides to give the ambassador back his kid anyway because he followed instructions; and Meg's husband comes home just as Susie is realizing that Meg snuck Amber's tracking device into the FBI but we don't know why.

Other stuff also happened but I need a drink of water.

…Ahhhh. Okay, so: a lot happened. I had to pause a few times to keep up in my notes; the scene in the ambassador's office is still practically illegible. I can make out a couple of little happy faces from that section of the episode, because I was thrilled at the elegant way one clue would lead to the next, Hurst to the embassy, Meg's truck traded for a clue in the trunk of another car.

I think I missed a few things, too, because…

It expects you to keep up.

A lot of shows believe we're…well, not that we're dumb, but that if it's not easy to follow along, we'll get frustrated and give up. I don't know where that idea comes from. A predictable procedural, the Pringle of TV, is a thing of beauty, and sometimes I would rather watch that than something knotty and over my head like The Wire that I have to pay attention to and wait for a payoff from. Crisis isn't The Wire, but it understands that an action show should, you know, contain a lot of action and trust that the viewer will put together on her own, for example, how Susie figured out that Hurst took his "personal time" a block from the Pakistani embassy and pairs that with the burner phone Meg got. How did she figure that out? She's FBI. They're mostly not idiots.

Meg's another example. Note that, in retrospect, she's obviously dissembling when she calls Susie to say she screwed up and she needs her help; she just wanted to get the photo and its cargo into the FBI as instructed. But 96 shows out of 100 will direct Gillian Anderson to stammer and cut her eyes all shady so we know she's lying. Crisis doesn't; it knows we saw that there was a photo AND a sheet of paper. It also knows a woman of Meg's position is neither unwilling nor unable to lie to get shit done.

It expects its characters to keep up, and they do.

I love that Susie puts that together on the spot. I love even more that, unlike parents of kidnapped TV children since time began, the ambassador doesn't continue being like, "WHAT I'M FINE CAN YOU GET OUT KTHXBAI" and, after only a couple of pointed questions, is like, so they said I have to kill this guy, I don't know why, I want my son back, help. Thank you.

I love that the kids don't spend their kidnapped time rocking silently and freaking out. Okay, a couple of them do, but they also spend a lot of time comforting each other and discussing amongst themselves why certain things are happening -- why is Amber getting a proof-of-life picture taken, but Aziz isn't? Why are the bad guys making them stay quiet on the ground? (A drone, which will detect noise, is passing over.) I love that Finley turns the "every TV channel within a thriller will have a pertinent news report airing right when you turn the set on" trope to his advantage to calm Valens down; I love that he recognizes Anton as a bright kid who might help him with background info on the other kids. (Their "we're both kind of dorks" bonding moment is great too. Why did Finley pick Anton to save? Finley, who's been getting a ration for either being in on the operation or being too green on the job to stop it, has to admit Anton was the only one Finley could reach. Anton thinks it over, then says, "I usually don't get picked for stuff." Aw.)

Crisis does cheat a little sometimes; they didn't have to go to slo-mo to let us catch up to Finley realizing he'd heard that ambulance driver's voice before. We saw the "…bitch" line in the previouslies. We got it. But it's a far less egregious geddit?! than you might expect, and it leads to Dermot having to think out loud about his own Plan B -- not think one up, mind you. He's already got one. But it's nice to know he's one of the few villains on TV who came with some contingencies.

The characters aren't smart when it suits the plot. The plot suits smart characters.

I sense the presence of a currency nerd.

It's just a hunch, but the writers must have done a fair amount of research into the Treasury Department, the parent cabinet of the Secret Service, and then Meg's attaché used the term "folding money" for physical cash. I wouldn't expect to hear it from that character; if someone says "specie" next week, then I'll know for sure.

2014-03-23-crisis-02

…The wig is still risible.

It's horrendous. There's a Borders inside of it. I don't understand why it's necessary, but it makes me laugh and laugh.

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