After decades of speculative fiction about technology coming to get us, “Next” wants to take it to a whole new level. What if, rather than a single piece of tech, an extremely advanced artificial intelligence program became so smart that it could hack the entire plugged-in world? What if it wasn’t just your phone coming to get you, but absolutely anything with an internet connection? In 2020, that’s a terrifying prospect, and one “Next” exploits with intense, frantic urgency.
From “24” producer Manny Coto, Fox’s “ten-episode event series” wastes no time unfolding this technological nightmare to everyone’s mounting alarm. Silicon Valley innovator Paul LeBlanc (John Slattery) immediately recognizes the malicious AI system (called “neXt”) as the threat it is, though he has trouble at first convincing FBI cyber crimes agent Shea Salazar (Fernanda Andrade) to take it seriously. After all, neXt is effectively invisible — and therefore very tricky for the show itself to demonstrate without making it look very silly. So to its credit, “Next” finds smart ways to illustrate the full breadth of neXt’s capabilities. Frightened people round corners looking over their shoulders for security cameras, their eyes widening when they see the telltale blinking of an engaged red light therein. The AI starts talking to Shea’s 8 year-old son Ethan (Evan Whitten) through their home’s “Iliza” (a play on Amazon’s “Alexa” helper) with increasingly sinister intentions. Every phone is a potential weapon; every car with a smart dashboard is a hackable threat. In these moments, “Next” becomes a surprisingly effective horror thriller, with each episode finding new ways to convey just how catastrophic this technology could be.
It’s a shame, then, that “Next” isn’t this streamlined throughout. In its attempts to flesh out the world and characters it’s portraying, the show keeps throwing in more complications and backstory that threaten to swallow the rest of the stories whole. Paul isn’t just a brilliant billionaire, but a brilliant billionaire fighting a hereditary degenerative disease that layers even more paranoid delusions on top of the very real paranoia dealing with something like neXt would engender. Shea isn’t just an FBI agent, but one with a dark history that eventually collides with her present day life with jarring insistence. Her best hacker CM (Michael Mosley) isn’t just a devoted employee, but a former white nationalist whose very existence at the agency offends his co-worker Gina (Eve Harlow), whose only discernable traits seem to be that she’s Latina and mad at CM all the time. Any show needs to establish some personal details in order to make its characters more engagingly layered, but the ways in which “Next” does so mostly ends up cluttering the narrative with blunt, basic complications.
As a whole, “Next” moves appealingly quickly. Using the basics of procedural plotting to make each episode distinct unto itself, the show keeps forcing Paul and Shea to chase new leads and destructive internet avenues neXt can take. And yet, after watching five of the ten episodes, it’s hard to say what exactly neXt’s end goal actually is beyond making everyone’s lives hell. On the one hand, this makes some sense, because neXt is the enemy that needs decoding. On the other, the question of what neXt actually wants to do with its newfound power remains nebulous for far too long. Whether a person or a nefarious AI system run amuck, a villain who wreak havoc just because it can is the least interesting kind of villain.
“Next” premieres October 6 at 9 pm on Fox.