In Prime Video’s sci-fi thriller The Peripheral, there are plenty of newfangled things to worry about: sound-wave guns that can crack your ribs, androids that are programmed to maim you, and even cups of tea that make you attract killer bees. But no matter how futuristic it gets, the show is fundamentally rooted in an ancient anxiety -- the fear of acting.
Scholars of antitheatricality, which is the umbrella term for any hostility to performance, will tell you we’ve mistrusted actors from the second they took the stage. Plato himself said that since everything on Earth is a copy of an ideal form, then acting is a copy of a copy, which makes it doubly debased. Later, early Christian leaders argued that simply by mimicking sinful actions, we invite sin into our souls. It went on and on like that for centuries. The reasons were changed or amended, but the goal was always the same — to stop people from performing. And for a long time, it worked. Theater was outlawed across continents and eras. Actors were considered fundamentally disreputable. Even when early Hollywood was turning performers into megastars, musical comedy was banned at Yale University as late as 1939 and productions around the country were regularly shut down for being obscene.
We can’t simply shake off that kind of prejudice — not when it’s been around since the beginning of recorded history — and you don’t have to look very hard to find it today. Think about all the famous actors who say their profession is stupid, or the way performance artists make the entire country furious. Even our essential debates about representation in casting — about who should portray whom and why — contain a seed of worry about acting’s power to cause harm. No matter how much we love performing or watching performances, this fear is going to stalk us.
That can be great news for a storyteller. Every body-snatcher thriller, for instance, is essentially about the horror of being fooled by a creature that acts like a regular person. The same goes for stories about shapeshifters and twins who switch identities, not to mention comedies like Freaky Friday and Big, where it’s both funny and unnerving to see a young person performing as an adult.
The Peripheral puts a modern spin on that tradition. Based on a novel by William Gibson and created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, the series centers on Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz), a woman in the near future who earns extra money by playing virtual reality video games that drop her into lifelike adventures. In the first episode, we see her take on the role of a WWII-era soldier, and her strategic thinking helps her fellow players conquer a seemingly impossible level.
So far, so good. Flynne assumes her avatar’s identity for fun and profit, and it doesn’t hurt a soul. Granted, there’s an extra wrinkle: When she plays these games, she’s logged in as her brother Burton (Jack Reynor), and she doesn’t tell the other players she’s impersonating him. That’s a second layer of acting, but again, there doesn’t seem to be a problem. As long as everyone keeps winning, they’re happy.
Then things get complicated. When a mysterious group notices “Burton”’s skill, they offer him the chance to play something new. It’s vastly more sophisticated, and if he wins, he’ll make a fortune. But since Burton isn’t the gifted player, he convinces his sister to pretend to be him. When she slips on a special headset sent by the shadowy employer, her consciousness gets sucked decades into the future, where she inhabits an android that is designed to look just like her brother. She quickly has to adjust her voice and her mannerisms to make her performance believable, but before she can congratulate herself for pulling it off, she realizes she’s not playing a game at all. While she’s inside the cyborg Burton, she’s expected to do terrible things.
You can practically hear Plato saying he told her so. If Flynne hadn’t been so many steps removed from her actual identity — if she hadn’t let her acting breed lie upon lie — then she wouldn’t have been forced into a terrifying future.
Not that she’s alone. By the third episode, it’s clear the entire series is defined by the consequences of performing. We learn there are cyborgs everywhere in the future that are designed to look like regular people, and that even some humans have been implanted with technology that lets them experience life from within another person. “Be careful about merging with someone,” says a brooding fellow in future London. "Two souls coming together as one can kind of feel like love, if you don't know any better." In other words, acting like someone else endangers the spirit as much as the body.
This makes The Peripheral a progression from other stories that worry about pretending to be someone else online, from documentaries like Catfish to roughly a hundred episodes of Law & Order. In this show, it’s not only the technology that has advanced, but also our desire to be consumed by it. The spiritual sickness that seeps into the characters echoes the final scene of Being John Malkovich, when a puppeteer who has been jumping into the titular actor’s body decides to live permanently in someone else’s consciousness. There are also echoes of HBO’s Westworld, another series created by Nolan and Joy. On that show, the androids in a theme park become self-aware, but they’re forced to keep performing the roles the guests expect them to play. The robot-to-person journey is the inverse of what happens on The Peripheral, but there are still consequences for acting like someone else.
Any viewer who's overwhelmed by this antitheatricality, or who doesn't want to feel guility for enjoying acting class, can find a reprieve in Dr. Ben Song. He’s the hero in NBC’s reboot of Quantum Leap, and he represents a type of rebuttal to all this dread. In the series, which is a continuation of the 1980s original, Ben (Raymond Lee) is stuck in a space-time disruption that sends him into a different person’s body in every episode. He has to figure out who they are, then convincingly act like them until he can solve some kind of problem in their lives. The good news is that he always succeeds. Whether he’s preventing a murder or keeping an entire team of astronauts from dying in space, he’s able to access information from the future that positively changes the destiny of the person he’s pretending to be. With apologies to Thespis, he’s arguably the most meaningful actor who has ever lived.
Quantum Leap nods to a familiar pro-acting argument — that embodying another person creates empathy and understanding. HBO's Barry rests on this priniple, and in its own truly outrageous way, so does the cult cartoon series Jem and the Holograms. It matters that stories like these keep popping up in spite of our historical fear, insisting that acting can be powerful without being deadly. After all, that’s probably what most of us believe, considering how many of us watch actors every day without demanding they be banished from society. We might notice the ancient warnings, but we mostly act like we don’t.
The Peripheral premieres on Prime Video Friday October 2. New episodes drop Fridays through December 9.
Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.
TOPICS: The Peripheral, Amazon Prime Video, NBC, Quantum Leap (2022 Series), Westworld