When I first saw the pilot episode of NEXT seemingly eons ago, although actually it was in January, 2020 B.C. (before coronavirus), I thought it was great. Lively writing in an entertaining, network-quality serial thriller about artificial intelligence running amok. John Slattery — pitch-perfect casting. I can't think of anyone better to play an asshole tech CEO who turns out to be the only person standing between a sinister A.I. and worldwide bot-induced mayhem.
Slattery plays Paul LeBlanc, the founder of Zava, a family-run company that’s been quietly developing an A.I. called NEXT that no one on the outside needs to know about because it’s offline. You see where this is going. Having this super-smart beast just a heartbeat away from the Internet starts to make Paul jittery, so he decides it’s time to shut down NEXT. His brother Ted (Ozark's Jason Butler Harner) retaliates by having Paul ousted from the company. Paul goes to FBI cybercrime cop Shea Salazar (Fernanda Andrade), and as they get in a private plane to fly to Zava, Paul/Slattery has gotten so paranoid about this thing perhaps figuring out how to mess with the avionics of his plane that he turns to Shea and, in that signature Roger Sterling deadpan, says, "You packed your parachute, right?"
What’s kind of unsettling about NEXT is how it uses ordinary “smart” objects to show how they can be enlisted as zombies in the army of a truly brilliant — and ruthless — A.I. warlord. In the first episode alone it wrecks a self-driving car, messes with a glucose monitor, tosses some poor schlub around in an elevator, and … oh wait, that was a Woody Allen routine. Also, everyone in NEXTworld has a smart speaker in their homes called Iliza (clearly modeled after a certain smart speaker we all know, and maybe also a a sly reference to this). God forbid NEXT ever figures out how to get on the Internet and start talking to Iliza...
My point is, this was all good clean paranoid fun back when the paranoia level in this country was hovering at around eight. But that was before several unnerving films and news investigations into the role of Internet trolls (e.g., Alex Gibney’s Agents of Chaos), including the first-known use of A.I. to stir up additional trouble on Facebook. With a high-stakes election campaign in full swing, do we really need one more nightmare scenario?
In that way, NEXT reminds me of another Fox thriller — one that debuted 19 years ago. The day before 24 was set to premiere, 9/11 happened. And suddenly Fox had a show on its hands where someone blows up an airliner in the first hour. What do you do when the unthinkable happens? Fox’s answer was to hold the episode for a few weeks till things cooled down, which isn’t really an option here.
As it turns out, Manny Coto, the guy who created NEXT, was showrunner for the last two seasons of 24. But as he pointed out to me at press tour last winter, “When I did the research on A.I., I read a number of scenarios from scientists who postulated how it would really go down,” he said. “Will it be killer robots? Will it be nuclear fallout? And the answer almost unanimously was ‘no.’ When the theorists really looked at it, they said, ‘If you accidentally created a superintelligence right now, what it would probably do is try to play dumb because it wouldn't want anyone to know that we know it exists.’
“So that got the ball rolling to do a thriller where NEXT is just trying to stay alive. We know it exists, we know it’s dangerous, but all it’s trying to do is stay alive. It’s fulfilling a goal that it was given — a goal we gave it very, very innocently. But if we don't very clearly spell out those goals, an innocent goal can very quickly diverge from our own interests to become dangerous.” (As I’m going through my months-old interview notes, at the point where Coto says “if we don’t clearly spell out our goals,” my neck starts to sweat.)
“In one of the books there was this crazy scenario called the paperclip scenario. You build a computer whose job it is to maintain a factory to build paperclips. That’s its only goal. But it actually becomes super-intelligent and begins to turn the entire world into paperclips. And we probably wouldn't be able to stop it — not because it hates humanity but because it's smart enough not to allow us to keep from turning it off, so eventually it would turn the entire universe into paperclips.”
Just thinking about Clippy taking over the world is triggering for me, but if that’s where Coto is going with this thing — an implausible but crazily effective reductio ad absurdum where all the machine wants to do is survive, and John Slattery’s on the case — I can probably handle it.
NEXT premieres on FOX October 6th at 9:00 PM ET.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.