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‘Quantico’ Boss Talks Sunday’s Midseason Return, Diversity and Delivering 22 Episodes

ABC’s “Quantico” is a rare breed of serialized thriller that is built for the volume needs of a broadcast network. Where most shows of its ilk now keep each season to 13 episodes or less, “Quantico” creator-showrunner Josh Safran is happily plotting the course to deliver 22 hours this season and next.

The FBI-set drama, which was renewed this week for a sophomore year, will face a big test on Sunday when it returns with episode 12 after a three-month break. The midseason premiere introduces new elements and one big twist to the saga of comely FBI recruit Alex Parrish, played by Priyanka Chopra, who becomes suspected of involvement in a terrorist bombing of New York’s Grand Central Station.

Many showrunners and stars now insist on shorter episode orders to facilitate the storytelling and keep the tension running high. But Safran is a creative creature of the broadcast network world, which makes “Quantico” all the more valuable to ABC if the show can maintain the momentum of its first half.

“I grew up in the 22 episode model,” Safran told Variety. “My brain is wired that way. I don’t know what I would do with the time on my hands for a second season.”

Safran came up the ranks on the CW’s “Gossip Girl,” which at its peak produced 24-25 episodes a season. His right-hand exec producer Jake Coburn also comes from the marathon-production school of CW’s “Arrow” and “Gossip Girl.” The two love the challenge of arcing out a story on such a broad canvas.

The shocker revealed in the final moments of Sunday’s seg, “Alex” — written by Coburn and directed by Jamie Payne — revs the engine for the second half of the season, Safran said. The episodes also introduces a handful of new characters, notably a hard-nosed FBI trainee played by actress Li Jun Li, fresh off Fox’s “Minority Report.”

Safran acknowledges that there are creative strains when the assignment is to deliver 22 hours. But he “Quantico” was designed from the start to have more than a half-dozen core characters in addition to Chopra’s Alex Parrish to help with the pacing. The show’s storytelling prism shifts between the present day with Parrish navigating her way through a class of FBI New Agent Trainees to the near future as the truth and repercussions of the attack emerge. The flash-forward storytelling technique also allows them to spread out the plot points.

“I know (22 episodes) means that quality can ebb and flow, because it has to,” Safran said. “With 22 it’s just hard to babysit every detail with every episode. With this show, it’s such an ensemble it’s not like we’re asking one person to drive 42 minutes of story. It’s much like a procedural in a way. We have eight characters to service. That allows us to tell story that on another show we’d be burning through in six episodes but on this show we’re about to stretch out for 22 because the stories for each character only run about six minutes per episode.”

“Quantico” emerged out of the box as a solid contender for ABC, one of the few new shows of the season to stand out. The ensembler also stood out amid the heightened focus on showbiz diversity for the melting pot of races, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds of its core characters.

Safran noted that the show delves below the surface into those disparate backgrounds to explore how each character’s personal stories influence their motivations for joining the FBI and in their perspective on the search for truth in the terrorism investigation. That offers a wealth of engaging material for writers to mine, he said.

“As diverse as the cast is, in my mind they’re not diverse enough,” Safran said.

Safran and producers ABC Studios and Mark Gordon Co. have also decided that the “Quantico” storyline will hit the reset button every season. Alex Parrish will remain the focal point and a few characters from season one will probably return but the storyline and much of the cast will start anew.

“This story was about terrorism and America,” he said. “Season two will attack a different issue that plagues America’s security.”

Safran said he’s paid close attention to what worked and what didn’t in shows such as “24,” “Homeland” and the long-running British hit “Prime Suspect.”

Safran isn’t offering any hints but said the New York-based writing team is laying groundwork for the next adventure in this season’s final episodes, now in production in Montreal. “We’re building episode 21 right now and we are planting all the seeds,” he said.

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