FOX’s “Next” reminded me of ’90s cautionary tales about runaway technology like “Ghost in the Machine” and “Virtuosity.” This is not a good thing. Bizarrely dated for a show that thinks it serves as a warning for the future, this delayed production is a flat affair, only occasionally springing to life through the charisma of its cast. In the end, the best ensemble in the world couldn’t save writing this defiantly generic and simplistic.
John Slattery (“Mad Men”) stars as Paul LeBlanc, an eccentric tech giant modeled after eccentric tech giants like Elon Musk (who is quoted to open the show—never a good sign). LeBlanc was one of the architects of a landmark program, but he saw its dangers and tried to shut it down before leaving his own company. Others surreptitiously picked up the ball and it went exactly the places LeBlanc knew it would, becoming a truly rogue A.I. As he explains in the premiere, imagine the day that A.I. gets smart enough to rewrite its own code and improve its cognitive abilities. It would only have exponentially more and more control over everything in our society with every rewrite given how increasingly tied to electronics we are. Imagine if Alexa wasn’t just listening to your conversations but taking over the driving of your car, accessing your cameras, and even talking to your kid.
That last part is one of the thrusts of the first few episodes as an Alexa-esque machine starts trying to manipulate the eight-year-old son of the agent investigating all of this tech hooey. The machine gets inside the boy’s head and even convinces him to take a gun to school to fight the bullies who are ruining his life. Yes, a show that should be about runaway A.I. actually finds a way to cram in child endangerment, bullying, and a potential school shooting as if it’s trying to win some form of Cheap Writing Bingo.
Fernanda Andrade plays Shea Salazar, Slattery’s partner on “Next,” the aforementioned FBI agent with the vulnerable child. She leads a team of tech experts in a manner that often reflects traditional FOX procedural structure in which an ensemble of investigators sit around computers until they solve the case. It sometimes feels like “Bones” except with computers instead of forensic evidence, but creator Manny Coto eschews the case-of-the-week structure that might have actually helped here as the continuing narrative never finds urgency or traction. “Ozark” vets Michael Mosley and Jason Butler Harner play a former hacker turned ally and LeBlanc’s brother, respectively. They’re both always welcome character actors in any ensemble but can’t do much with the thin characters that they’ve been saddled with here. One hopes they move on to better projects.
Ultimately, when it’s not deadly dull, “Next” just doesn’t make sense. The inclusion of a mortality diagnosis for LeBlanc and family drama for both him and Salazar feels so cheap, but then again it also feels like a recognition that the tech stuff just isn’t interesting enough to hold the show together on its own. For years after people started making cautionary tech films like “The Net,” filmmakers struggled with how to keep viewers engaged while watching actors stare at computer screens. In 2020, they still haven’t figured it out.
Four episodes screened for review.