NEW YORK (AP) — Under bright lights in a Montreal studio, the stars of “Quantico” are filming a new episode of this ABC thriller cast as hotshot trainees at Virginia’s FBI Quantico Base. With their sworn mission to uncover domestic terrorists, these recruits would never guess that, less than a year down the road, one of them, Alex Parrish, will be framed for orchestrating a ghastly crime: blowing up New York’s Grand Central Terminal.
“Quantico” is a suspenseful, fast-paced saga filled with action, intrigue and hanky-panky among its sprawling ensemble. Meanwhile, it unfolds along two distinct time lines, whipsawing between training sessions and, months later, the bombing’s aftermath as Alex (series star Priyanka Chopra) struggles to prove her innocence and flush the real culprit from her FBI ranks.
With storytelling this knotty, it’s always worth remembering that “Quantico” just doesn’t write itself. Knock on a door nearly 400 miles due south of Montreal, in a converted factory space in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood — that’s where the multi-layered narratives come to light and where scripts emerge.
The season’s 15th episode airs this Sunday (10 p.m. EDT) boasting the latest dose of drama, derring-do and dirty tricks. But 15 is old news for the four-man, four-woman team of writers who, on a recent morning, gather around a conference table led by Joshua Safran, the series’ creator and executive producer. They are there to tackle Episode 21.
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Weeks earlier 21 had been, in writers’ lingo, “broken” — painstakingly charted from start to finish, then transformed into a scene-by-scene memo for submitting to the network for approval. But ABC had balked at one throughline, so before the episode’s designated writer, Cameron Litvack, can start the script, the room must tie up those pesky loose ends.
While they’re at it, Safran wants to make sure 21 smoothly paves the way for Episode 22, the season-ender, for which he will do the honors.
“Getting to the end and making sure we resolved everything and didn’t leave anything out — that’s been the toughest thing the last couple of weeks,” Safran says. “Everything has to connect!”
Did we mention that Litvack must have his script done in less than a week?
“Right now,” says Safran, “the issue for me with 21 is that it’s very talky. I want to add a little bit of energy.”
Energy seems to be Safran’s stock-in-trade. Animated, jovial and boyish-looking (though a seasoned veteran with “Gossip Girl” and “Smash” among his past TV credits), he crackles with energy, propelling ideas at Mach speed while kneading a well-thumbed deck of playing cards. (“I don’t smoke,” he notes, “so I shuffle cards.”)
“Cam, are you OK with this idea?” he says after making a suggestion.
“It’s better that way,” Litvack agrees. “Not TOO much Alex.”
“We won’t get her in the story right now,” says Safran, “but we set up what her point of view is with Shelby (a fellow FBI trainee and frenemy of Alex), so we can get to it in 22.”
The vibe of this Writers Room, and those who inhabit it, suggest nothing so much as a spirited seminar in a graduate writing course. The air bristles with story twists, character refinements and other interplay that keeps assistant writer Braden Marks busy at his laptop capturing the give-and-take while, on the wall, a white board mapped out scene by scene is continuously tweaked.
Safran says he always meant to create a show that challenges the viewer, “something that requires active watching as opposed to ‘I’m going to drink wine and play Candy Crush while my television is on.’ For some people that’s too much. But for other people, going on that ride is the way to hook them.”
And, for the record, if at season’s end any viewer feels inclined to re-cut all 22 back-and-forth-plotted hours into a start-to-finish epic, “everything would line up so neatly that what might seem confusing when we fold it over every week like a calzone would be a really delicious pizza once it was unfolded.”
Already, Safran has “a thought,” he hedges, for next season’s “calzone” (“Quantico” has won a sophomore renewal), but that remains to be seen, as does whether filming will remain in Montreal or migrate somewhere thriftier.
A geographic gulf between writing and filming, while not ideal, isn’t uncommon in series TV, and such tools as Skype, email and stop-overs by a visiting writer help bridge the gap.
But the fact is, it doesn’t really matter where the Writers Room is. However disembodied from production and all its razzmatazz, however undercover the writers convene, here in this inner sanctum resides the brain trust that devises how the actors will perform and what the viewers will see.
Come afternoon, after a communal writers’ lunch of brought-in deli fare, Litvack will peel off from his fellow scribes. In his mid-30s, he has written for “Charmed,” ”Ugly Betty” and “Forever,” and now, suitably battle-hardened, he displays no stress over this, his latest unforgiving deadline.
“We have a hive-like mentality when we break these stories,” he explains, “so we put enough detail in them that it makes the script-writing process much easier.”
For the rest of the crew, Episode 22 is waiting.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore