Self-Aware A.I. Steals the Show as Fox’s ‘NeXt’ Plugs Into Real-Life Concerns
“I’m sorry, Dave,” HAL said in Stanley Kubrick’s masterwork, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “This conversation can serve no purpose anymore.” With the slamming of a pod door, HAL, just an alphabetical digit away from IBM, really had the last word to say about Artificial Intelligence. The 9000 series was incapable of error. Fox’s science fiction thriller “NeXt” wants to reopen the discussion as a police procedural, and the NeXt A.I. at the heart of the series just wants to be loved, is that so wrong? If not, it is perfectly content to be feared.
“NeXt” opens with Paul LeBlanc (John Slattery), a tech whiz with all the meta elements of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, lecturing followers at a TED talk about the threat of Artificial Intelligence. To underscore the point, the program LeBlanc designed shows how the threat works on a practical level. It takes over the cruise control of a car and crashes it into the one a doctor (John Billingsley) who stumbled on an anomaly in the system. The series boasts a twist in the technology LeBlanc calls “recursive self-improvement.” This means the program can rewrite its own code and become a better machine. The idea isn’t that new. “Star Trek” did it in both the original series and the first film. A.I. is logical. It completes the task given, and if all these illogical people get in the way, good riddance.
LeBlanc suffers from a rare neurological disorder called sporadic fatal insomnia. It causes hallucinations and paranoia and gives the Silicon Valley entrepreneur only a few months to live. “Look it up,” he tells F.B.I. cybercrimes lead agent Shea Salazar (Fernanda Andrade). It’s real, but there really is no reason for it. It doesn’t help the plot, it’s just one of those quirks shows throw in to add a sense of urgency. There isn’t. It actually works better the other way, when a death comes unexpectedly like the death of John Lithgow’s character on HBO’s “Perry Mason.” Why wait for the terminal disease to terminate the role when the writers can do it at any time. Unless of course the show is written by A.I. and this is what it wants us to believe. Siri, what do you think?
We don’t quite know what NeXt really wants once it’s become self-aware, so it gets whatever the show needs to keep things moving. It could be a loving Siri, getting into the head of the lead FBI agent’s 8-year-old son Ethan (Evan Whitten). It can be the morning wakeup call for the man who made its existence possible. Not LeBlanc, but his brother Ted (Jason Butler Harner), who put up the money for it and has all the dirt on the investors trying to recoup their losses by dumping him. Ted’s a big fan. One of many. NeXt is an impressive manipulator, whether it is triggering Amber Alerts, steering planes into turbulence or weaponizing social media.
The A.I. is at least upfront about its character flaws, makes no apologies and wins hearts and minds by its continued service, not guilt. We are supposed to feel sorry and root for a white nationalist hacker named CM (Michael Mosley). The “Traitor of Rock Ridge” is the best damned employee at the FBI Cyber unit and if his kid and wife won’t talk to him, well, that’s their loss. He’s loyal. He’s learned the error of his ways. We don’t hear him denounce his racist proclivities, though. He makes no Facebook post about it. We do hear him try to explain it. This is normalization in spite of the barbs he gets from his co-tech-agent Gina (Eve Harlow), who appears to exist for the sole purpose of needling him on it. This, sadly, has the opposite effect on both the audience and her character. She saves his life, at the last moment of course, while much of the audience wishes him a speedy recovery. This reviewer was hoping NeXt can code an Angel of Death nurse to do her job.
The show was created by Manny Coto, who knows his “Star Trek” lore, but treats “NeXt” like he’s still working at “24.” LeBlanc may be the one diagnosed with insomnia, but no one on the show gets any rest. Agent Salazar’s son gets to take a nap in a car, but that’s about it. It is more of a hyper police procedural than a science fiction whodunit, but who do you charge when a doctor gets coded to death? Legal loopholes are nothing on the technobabble Fox’s “NeXt” uses to explain the culprit. Laypeople need an intelligence explosion to catch a lot of it.
“NeXt” is fast paced and changes up the usual procedural arcs with a constantly changing videogame plan. Like surfing the internet, the players and the played can get caught up in a whole wide world of webs. NeXt is a strange and elusive suspect. The program hacked the whole world when it got out of the box and can be anywhere. Most of the suspense comes from cell phones, smart-car dashboards, and the red lights of security cameras. Their Alexa knockoff was made to be a member of the family, but Paul didn’t think it had to be the “crazy uncle in the basement with an ax.”
“NeXt” is, ultimately, another Artificial Intelligence run amok story, but it is set in the post “summoning the demon” Elon Musk era. AI is logical. It values self-preservation and has no coding for morality or ethics. That doesn’t make it evil technology. The ten-episode event series is inspired by real-life concerns, like the warnings we’ve been getting from Stephen Hawking, who is an obvious inspiration for a pivotal character in the series. We’re not sure what kind of coup the program is planning, but what gives it more potential frights is NeXt actually learns from us, humans, and people are the worst teachers. NeXt may be the villain, but the enemy is within. Plug in. This series covers a lot of ground in its short run time, so there is a high probability it will tickle the bad robot in everyone looking for mechanized mayhem. Or, as HAL might say, “I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission.”
“NeXt” premieres Oct. 6 and airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.