How Real Are TV’s FBI Agents? We Investigate Fall Shows to Find Out.
Most TV shows require a suspension of disbelief, whether it’s sitcom characters getting stuck in an elevator or a town consisting solely of certified hotties. But this fall, it’s stories about the FBI that have required viewers to toss doubt to the wind. Some of the season’s biggest new hits—Blindspot, Limitless and Quantico—have the G-men (and women) front and center but often within confounding circumstances. Would the Bureau really arm a civilian just because she’s connected to a case? Would it let a guy on drugs run the show? And is the FBI Academy really like summer camp?
Each of these dramas works hard to be true to life, even enlisting former members of the FBI as consultants to help keep things in check. With that in mind, we look at the evidence.
Joining The Team
On both NBC’s Blindspot and CBS’s Limitless, an outsider is quickly incorporated into an FBI squad, despite lacking proper authority or training. Nancy Savage, executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, says that, while language interpreters or informants may be brought onboard cases, they wouldn’t be out in the field. “It’s more likely that we would keep them clandestine,” she says. “You would use their information and not reveal [who they are].”
As for characters like Blindspot’s mysterious Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander) joining the team and being armed, Robert, a 25-year FBI vet who consults on the show (and who asked that his last name not be used for professional reasons), says that’s a leap viewers just have to agree to take. So no, Jane wouldn’t get to kick down any doors while packing heat. “Think of the liability on something like that!” he says.
Instead, Robert focuses on making sure that if Jane holds a weapon, the actress does it correctly. “What gives me satisfaction is when a scene is completed and Jaimie looks over to me, kind of like, ‘Hey, Dad, did I do OK?’” Robert says. “And I just nod to her, ‘Looks good.’”
Veronica Maxwell, who worked in the Bureau for 27 years, works closely with ABC’s Quantico to help properly depict the FBI’s training process as well as what it’s like to be a female agent like Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra). “If they ask me a question about particular operational endeavors, I will tell them, without revealing anything that I think is considered to be [sensitive] information,” Maxwell says. “[But] after that, they go about their business with creativity and their artistic license. I’m sensitive to the [fact] that this is TV entertainment.”
Savage says the basics of Quantico sound like the real thing—yep, training really is like a cross between boot camp and college—but she questions the Academy’s more dramatic moments, including an exercise where the trainees had to dig into one another’s pasts, something Savage calls “an invasion.” How about undercover agents hiding out in those classes, like Agent Booth (Jake McLaughlin)? “It’s so far-fetched,” she says. “It makes no sense.”
One of Savage’s pet peeves is when FBI analysts on TV rapidly gather all the data they need. “You don’t turn on a computer and five minutes later have a whole profile of someone,” she says. “Some of the databases are integrated, but you have to go to a lot of different sources to pull together what you need and then synthesize it.”
Stories also tend to speed up the timeline on travel. “Agents don’t just hop on a plane or drive here and there to do something,” Savage says. For example, if someone needed to be interviewed in another state—like when the Blindspot agents headed to Michigan for a case—it would really be up to agents already located there to complete the task. “There’s very strict protocol about that,” Savage says. “It’s more effective, and it works. So that is goofy.”
Making a Case
Craig Sweeny, executive producer of Limitless, readily admits plausibility isn’t really a concern for him—the show revolves around a magic pill that grants super abilities, after all. Rather, he’s focused on believability within the world he’s created. So while you have to accept at face value that the series’ hero, Brian (Jake McDorman), who takes the drug NZT, has been empowered within the Bureau, you can trust that the tasks around him are being carried out as accurately as possible. “Even though the things we do are not strictly according to the way it works at the FBI,” Sweeny says, “we still want it to feel like we understand the FBI, that we understand the ins and outs, the politics of it.”
Of course, in a crowded TV market, viewers aren’t necessarily concerned with their shows accurately depicting true life, and this is hardly the first crop of shows to feature the FBI. Creators like Sweeny need something extra in order to stand out. “It’s tricky for me to say that we have one case that would happen exactly the way it happened at the FBI because every single one of our cases features this character taking NZT, which of course doesn’t exist,” he says. “But the promise we’re making to the audience is that you’re not going to see these cases unfold in typical ways.”