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For a show with a forward-looking title, Fox’s new drama NEXT arrives this week feeling unexpectedly retro.
Our unsteady current moment has provided plenty of cause for sleepless nights. It isn’t that malevolent artificial intelligence has ceased to be a cause for concern, but on my own list of personal nightmare fodder, it has fallen comfortably behind such preoccupations as a global pandemic, ongoing inequities in the justice system, a ticking clock on climate change, a contentious presidential election and the inevitable comeback of the murder wasps.
Air date: Oct 06, 2020
It’s bizarre, but even since I first watched the NEXT pilot back in January (critics have now gotten five episodes of what is being called an “event series”), NEXT has transitioned from being a peripherally timely show to a trailblazer in what might almost be a new genre: Escapist paranoia.
NEXT exists in an almost hermetically sealed bubble where even if you know that its warnings are probably grounded in something plausible, it feels no more real or substantive than Bigfoot or a vampire.
That’s not an entirely glib analogy, because NEXT is really framed as a horror thriller, a ghost-in-the-shell saga about an artificial intelligence system created to be a virtual assistant — like Alexa or Siri, only actually useful. Instead of letting you know when there’s a new episode of Family Guy or if you’re running low on milk, however, the AI system — its name is “neXt,” but Fox prefers the show to be called NEXT, even though the letters don’t stand for anything — has gone rogue. It uses “cognitive architecture” not only to learn from its mistakes, but just to learn in general. And what neXt has learned about humanity is that we’re disposable.
Our villain is basically computer screeners filled with code, black-domed surveillance cameras and flashing red lights. Terrifying, right?
Meanwhile, our heroes are an FBI cybercrimes task force led by Shea Salazar (Fernanda Andrade) and featuring a good-hearted former white nationalist (Michael Mosley’s CM), as well as even less defined Gina (Eve Harlow) and Ben (Aaron Moten).
The team starts the series working on a human trafficking case, but that’s just one of many actual hot-button problems — school shootings and online militarizing of the alt right are in the same bucket — that the show uses as flimsy representations of things we probably should be less scared by than our smart phones, smart cars and generally networked existence.
Shea joins forces with eccentric billionaire Paul LeBlanc (John Slattery), the co-founder of the tech company that developed neXt, but now an increasingly unhinged outsider battling his own demons or something.
NEXT was created by 24 veteran Manny Coto and after months of watching acquired international imitators on streaming platforms — Peacock’s The Capture and Departure come to mind — there’s something reassuring about experiencing the vapid polish closer to the authentic item.
The best thing I can say about NEXT is that it moves breathlessly, building momentum in 24 fashion by splitting the characters into as many parallel narratives as possible and, whenever the tension might lessen, raising the stakes either by putting children in jeopardy — Shea’s kid Ethan (Evan Whitten) in particular — or introducing characters who only exist to do stupid things and put the smarter characters in harm’s way.
By the time the series gets to its third or fourth episodes, the writers seem to have run out of ways to make inanimate objects scary and the bad guys are people basically brainwashed by the AI into going after our heroes. That interpretation turns the AI into a supernatural Stephen King monster instead of a bunch of zeros and ones tied to a server. After all, brainwashed people can wave guns at each other or strap explosives to themselves, while it’s really easy to just beat your Alexa into smithereens with a baseball bat.
The actual humans in NEXT aren’t going to keep anybody watching. There are backstory details that keep Shea from being completely generic, yet even those details, emerging primarily in the fifth episode, don’t give Andrade anything more to play than “dogged” or “determined.” The show is so anxious to keep you from thinking of Mosley’s character as a bigot that he’s constantly given moments to bend over backwards to justify his misspent youth; I guess Mosley plays “lovable ex-bigot” as well as anybody could.
After five episodes, the only things I could tell you about Gina and Ben is that they don’t inherently trust CM, though I think Gina may be gay? Or not. It’s impossible to know or care. They have no personalities and they have no voices, but they definitely don’t want the earth to be taken over by evil artificial intelligence. That’s a low bar for heroism.
Ostensibly first-billed here, Slattery has space in the opening episode to give Paul some of the caustic wit that makes the Mad Men veteran such a great addition to any cast. But once everybody is on the run, he’s just a primary source of exposition and an overqualified one at that. I’d love to have seen Slattery, as both a star and a director, get a better vehicle than this.
Over five episodes, I don’t think NEXT conveyed any knowledge that caused me to re-examine my own relationship with technology (unlike, say, the chilling documentary Coded Bias, due out Nov. 11) or to make me reevaluate which of several pre-existing conditions are likely to bring about the end of civilization as we know it. Maybe that’s ultimately how the show functions best. It was supposed to fill you with technophobic unease, but nothing here is smart enough to stick. It’s a distraction cosplaying as prescient.
Cast: John Slattery, Fernanda Andrade, Michael Mosley, Gerardo Celasco, Eve Harlow, Aaron Moten, Evan Whitten, Elizabeth Cappuccino
Creator: Manny Coto
Airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Fox.
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