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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Slattery’s charm goes a long way in selling Next’s high-stakes cyber terror

Illustration for article titled John Slattery’s charm goes a long way in selling iNext’/is high-stakes cyber terror
Photo: Ed Araquel / Fox
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You’ve got to give Next’s premiere episode some credit for throwing the viewer right into the deep end. After an ominous quote by Elon Musk (“With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon”) and a somewhat explanatory TED-ish talk by billionaire tech company founder Paul LeBlanc (John Slattery), we follow scientist Richard Weiss (John Billingsley), who’s trying fruitlessly to outrun electronic systems like the surveillance camera in a gas station, a smart car’s auto-drive, and a medical monitor in a hospital. It’s like Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive, except instead of just the trucks taking over, it’s everything electronic we depend on in our day-to-day world. Only a few minutes in and we’re chilled by an invisible, all-powerful, all-enveloping menace exponentially capable of constantly improving itself: congratulations, Next, we’re hooked.

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Those first few minutes are crucial, because Next could easily lose the viewer with what follows. Billed as “from the producer of 24” (creator and executive producer Manny Coto), Next features a Cyber Security division of the FBI that certainly looks familiar to fans of 24’s CTU. But so far that cast of characters is less-than compelling: There’s the requisite nerd (Aaron Moten) and an edgy hipster (Eve Harlow) clashing with an apparent white supremacist (Michael Mosley, and really?). Unfortunately, Fernanda Andrade doesn’t really hold a candle to Kiefer Sutherland’s compelling charisma as the steadfast and oddly expressionless Chief Shea Salazar, and her family of affectionate husband (Gerardo Celasco) and adorable moppet (11-year-old Evan Whitten) is too cute by half. Fortunately, that adorable moppet is a pretty good actor, so that his too-close relationship with the family’s “Ilixa” becomes disturbing almost immediately (who among us doesn’t have a dependent relationship with those ubiquitous devices?)

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Next ambitiously tries to weave together all these disparate narrative threads: Salazar’s connection to Weiss seems the most tenuous (are they friends? colleagues? It’s mentioned that he saved her life, but how?), but Ilixa’s determination to seek out Salazar’s son is satisfyingly sinister. And wherever Salazar stumbles, fortunately Slattery’s Paul LeBlanc—the creator of the original AI program who returns with Salazar to his old company to try to contain Elon Musk’s demon—is there to pick up the narrative pieces. Or to try to salvage the faltering dialogue in on our leads’ introductory, woof-worthy exchange:

“Mr. Leblanc, [I’m] Agent Salazar. welcome to the Cyber Crime Task Force.”

“Where do you burn the coal?

“I’m sorry, the coal?”

“These computers run on steam, right? What am I doing here?”

“Besides making a bad impression?”

Yeesh. Fortunately, as John Slattery’s long scene-stealing tenure on Mad Men proved, he is overdue for his own shot as a series lead, able even to rise above this gawky dialogue. In fact, with most other actors, the unimaginably wealthy, smarmy Paul LeBlanc may be just too unappealing to endure, the kind of guy who says he has Aspergers when he’s really just being a dick. To complicate matters (somewhat excessively), LeBlanc is also suffering from sporadic fatal insomnia (he said “Google it,” so I did). In a way, his illness makes him the converse of the dangerous AI program he’s created: While Next’s brain keeps making itself better, LeBlanc’s brain is turning on itself, resulting in hallucinations and bound to kill him in less than six months (a fate that will likely get resolved if the series gets renewed! But, we’re looking ahead). Paul is less concerned with the brother who ousted him from the company he founded than with his estranged daughter, who has a 50/50 chance of suffering from the same disease. His paranoid visions are also pitted against the realities of Next: In any other circumstance, he would be considered the one in the tinfoil hat, but his suspicions, like Weiss’, are seemingly spot-on—judging by the menacing red dots of light that seem to appear everywhere, from hospital rooms to elevators to parking garages. Things are frightening enough: Do we really need Paul’s imaginary thugs holding hypodermic needles?

After all, what’s scarier than the unseen, the unimaginable? Weiss offers the most terrifying line in the episode when he reveals, “Whatever it is that I found is not happy that I found it.” The voice of Next itself (Dann Fink) has an icy calm, reminiscent of 2001’s Hal, with a similar degree of menace. But even that vocal takes a back seat to the deceptively sweet voice of Iliza (Olenka Wos Kimball), effortlessly able to penetrate what should be a safe domestic haven.

Paul tries and fails to make Next self-destruct, setting things up for a high-stakes-filled season. Thanks to its ability to secure the assistance of a developer with a chronic gambling problem, Next and its code-writing, cognitive architecture is already out there in the world. The episode’s (unintentionally) funniest moment may be when Salazar yells at Next for destroying all the files from a case her team has been working on for months. Yes, we’ve all pointlessly yelled at our computers on occasion—but we’re not the head of the FBI Cyber Crime Task Force. It sets up a campy angle for Next that may help temper some of the terror; if AI is actually an inevitable future, as Paul posits, the scariest thing about the show may be its title.

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Stray observations

  • As bad as that original bad banter between Paul and Salazar is, C.M.’s “Then again, I thought Britney and Kevin were gonna go the distance, so what do I know” is even worse. That is some kind of weird-ass 14-year-old pop-culture reference.
  • Also suspect: Salazar’s accusation to the gambling addict: “You were acting nervous, riding the backspace key, making a ton of mistakes especially for a programmer at a top-tier company like this.” Sure, she’s probably good at her job, but how did she discern all that just by walking by his computer screen?
  • And welcome to weekly A.V. Club coverage review of Fox’s Next! It’s been a while since I reviewed a weekly series (anyone remember The Affair?) so I have to say, I’m pretty psyched to hang out with you all on Tuesdays. And not just because I may have peeked ahead a little in the screeners. See you next week!
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Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.

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