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GLEN WELDON, HOST:
On the vaguely unsettling but satisfyingly pulpy Fox techno thriller series "Next," "Mad Men's" John Slattery plays a genius billionaire who blows the whistle on an artificial intelligence he himself created called Next. He says it's gained self-awareness and integrated itself with the world's automated systems - cameras, cellphones, anything with a lens or a mic or a sensor. When people who know too much about the AI start dying in mysterious tech-adjacent ways, the FBI's cybercrime unit takes notice and teams up with Slattery to stop it.
I'm Glen Weldon. We're talking about Fox's "Next" on this episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
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WELDON: Welcome back. Here with me from his home in Washington, D.C., we have J.C. Howard, a producer of NPR's TED Radio Hour and How I Built This. Hey, J.C.
J C HOWARD, BYLINE: Hey, Glen.
WELDON: OK, look. The first thing we need to say about this show is that it's already been canceled, though, if you think about it, the writing was already kind of on the wall. I mean, Fox kept referring to it as a Fox miniseries event. So the news, when it came recently, it just wasn't exactly shocking. It does mean, though, that this season has to be considered a self-contained story.
So here's what it's about. John Slattery plays Paul LeBlanc, who gets ousted from his position as CEO of the company that created Next. Fernanda Andrade plays an FBI agent named Shea Salazar, who gets a ragtag team of misfit agents together - the goth girl, the nerd, the ex-con with a secret. And she's also got a family that gets targeted by Next pretty soon. The show is on the clock, not just because it's canceled but because LeBlanc has a rare fatal genetic disease, so he's only got a few months to live.
Now, J.C., the fact that Slattery's character teams up with these FBI cybercrime guys led me to believe that this show would be a procedural where he advises them and they solve a different cybercrime every week. This is very much not that. It's a serialized narrative that tells a relatively lean story that keeps churning through plot and characters at a pretty fast clip. So what'd you think?
HOWARD: Yeah, I think that's a really good way to put it. I thought the same. In the first few episodes, it does have this kind of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Watson kind of feel where they're kind of plodding through. But it does quickly take a turn. I feel like if you ever wondered what it would be like if "Black Mirror" and "24" had a baby, this show is it. It's a thriller that moves at a pretty good pace, I think. But despite some pesky human issues, it's all about this rogue technology thing. That really is the core of the show.
And I feel like it is definitely on the nose. And when I say on the nose, I mean, it is unmistakably, undeniably a show about the dangers of rogue AI. And that part is really built out. It's got believable software, believable technology. It's recognizable as being in our world. And when you compare it to other movies about self-aware robots and self-aware AI like, you know, "I, Robot," "Skynet," HAL 9000, "Ex Machina" - like, when you compare it to those, this - like, "Next" is actually rooted in reality. It's got an all too real premise, I would say, that our technology understands us better than we understand it. And that is really - it's a great premise to be scary. And the elements of the show are just as real. You know, we've got deep fakes, privacy concerns, online white supremacy and conspiracy groups. The show is not set in the distant future. It could happen tomorrow in my house. And that's what's, like, really kind of cool and scary about it.
There are moments, though, where both the story and the acting is kind of turned up to 11. And I'm like, I was totally with you. The surveillance, the all-knowing AI, it's all really scary. But, like, killer robots - like, you almost had me. Can we just bring this back around to Siri is bad? So, I mean, it's not a show that is burdened with subtlety in any way. But as thrillers go, I think it's pretty good so far.
WELDON: I think you're right that when this show sticks closest to our current cultural situation, which is that we have only two happily - gleefully - giving up our privacy and happily submitted to constant surveillance in the interest of convenience, all you got to do is shine a light on that fact, and you're going to be unsettling because that's something we just don't like to think about. But it's very, very true. It's doing good, creepy work when it sticks there.
But when it goes further - and it has to because, like, that is true, but it's not dramatic - it zooms straight past "Black Mirror," which is dark and kind of troubling, right into full-bore cheesy. It is serving up some velvety rich cheese, and I am not lactose intolerant. You just serve that up to me on a charcuterie board, I am going to be eating it up. Give me the smart speaker of doom.
WELDON: There's a scene - we have to talk about this - with the CPU fans of foreboding. They're at the the tech company, and there's banks and banks of computers.
WELDON: And all of a sudden, the fans go on, and there's dramatic music. And we get so many shots of computer fans whirring. I really wanted somebody to be like, what's going on, what's going on? - and for John Slattery to say, it's cooling itself...
WELDON: ...Because that's what's happening. That's all that's going on (laughter) right there. There's a scene in a darkened hallway where Shea Salazar gets, I guess, approached by these kind of cyberdogs or whatever.
WELDON: It's so doofy, and I just dug it. But let's you and I talk about John Slattery.
WELDON: For me, this show is a John Slattery in smarmy jerk delivery vehicle. And that's what I get from it, and that's what I love about it. What about you?
HOWARD: Yeah, no. I think Slattery's performance is really great. He owns the screen, I think, any time he's on it. Like, there's this moment where he just pauses to muse on why people say things like have a nice day or there's no need to be rude. And I appreciate both, I think, the delivery and the writing. But Slattery's performance itself, I think it's great because his character often has to go from that cool, calm, collected character into having a psychotic break.
HOWARD: And it's like - it's really interesting to see him have to do both.
WELDON: Yeah. And they gave him this degenerative disease, I think, because they knew that when you cast John Slattery, who is so unflappable as an actor, as a person, as a persona, that he is undercutting the tension of your show - right? - because, like, he'll undercut the tension in a scene with a joke or an aside. But also, you just look at that guy, that silver fox, and you're like, he's got it. Like, what are we worried about? He's got it covered. He's like - we'll be fine.
Now, earlier you mentioned the show "24." That figures here because Manny Coto created this thing. He worked on the final season of "Star Trek: Enterprise," the fifth season of "Dexter." And he was the showrunner on "24" for seasons. And you can tell that this show is aching for that kind of urgency and twistiness. I feel like it doesn't quite get there because one of the things it's doing - when you churn through your plot so quickly, it doesn't allow the characters to get in the way of them. So as soon as somebody's standing in her way, he doesn't stand in her way for very long, which really keeps the tension from arising. But do you feel the "24" DNA in this thing?
HOWARD: I mean, of course, "24" was a lot more kind of intense in its pacing. And this is - as you kind of mentioned, it has some ebbs and flows. It gets a little bit tense, and then it kind of eases up on that.
But at the same time, I feel like it's not exactly easy viewing for this moment. I mean, it's not too scary or anything. There are plenty of moments of levity and kind of laughter. John Slattery, as you said, he kind of eases up on some of that. But I personally - I watched "Social Dilemma" recently. It's a documentary on Netflix. And in that documentary, they place the blame on the tech giants. You know, they place it on YouTubes and the Facebooks and the Twitters. But "Next," I think, kind of takes that premise a step further and asks, what if all those dangerous things were suddenly not only out of the control of humanity but were hostile against humanity?
HOWARD: And, like, that - that to me, even though it doesn't have this, like, you know, super intense pace, I think that that question and that, like, slow burn of a question is really interesting. Now, that said, my mom watches the show, and she said that it is a lot less terrifying than she thought. My mom was expecting for her own devices to turn on her as, like, inspired by the show.
HOWARD: So - but - if you have any existing fears of technology, I mean, I think that it may not be very easy to watch.
WELDON: Well, help me put my finger on something. I'm watching this thing. And I am like, this is network TV. This is not prestige streaming. This is network TV. And it's not just the 45-minute running time, although that is kind of nice (laughter). If you've been watching a lot of Hulu and Netflix over the past few years, having a show that clocks in at 45 minutes without commercials means that even when they screw up the pacing, it doesn't feel like they're screwing up the pacing because it's over so quick and the next episode can start if you're bingeing it. What is it, do you think, that makes it feel like network TV? Is it the stakes?
HOWARD: I think really, for me, it doesn't have that kind of mature audience quality to it. Like, there's nothing happening on it that is - that I'm like, oh, I need to shield my children's eyes from it. There are a few things with, like, you know, some hinting at school shootings and things like that that are a little bit kind of heightened in their tension. But I think that overall, the show is just - I mean, it's kind of tame, which kind of fits the network TV kind of mold.
HOWARD: So it's just kind of, like, plodding along as a network television show.
WELDON: Right. And when it does carve out some space for, like, character moments, a lot of them are between the - Slattery's character and his estranged daughter, Abby, played by Elizabeth Cappuccino. And there is so much time devoted to them trying to repair their relationship, and she's so virtuous and understanding and imperiled that I - look; I have no advanced knowledge of this, but if this show is really leaning into that "24" vibe, you want to keep an eye on that daughter. That daughter, there's something going on there. I'm not saying she's a robot from the future. I'm just saying she might be.
WELDON: Think about it.
WELDON: We want to know what you think about "Next." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @PCHH.
And that brings us to the end of our show. Thanks for being here, J.C.
HOWARD: Thanks for having me.
WELDON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. And if you have a second and you're so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And we will see you all tomorrow.
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