Nowadays you see a show with the hype line “from the creators of” is not necessarily a call for excitement. The amount of homework that must follow in its tangled final seasons is just silly. The good news is, if you’re still doing that homework, you can drop it now. Your time studying intricate sci-fi narratives should be better spent with The Peripheral.
The main reason: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s new series is much easier to follow. That’s not to say it’s not a challenging mind-bender. The General Overview: Two worlds are linked by advanced technology exploited by different factions for good and evil.
Helpfully, the events of The Peripheral unfold through the eyes of a young blonde female protagonist – not unlike Westworld’s Alice in Wonderland character Dolores. Except Flynne Fisher isn’t a murderous, sentient robot. It comes from the pages of source material from The Peripheral: a 2014 novel by influential cyberpunk author William Gibson. In case you haven’t heard of Gibson, that’s how influential he is: he invented the term cyberspace.
Chloe Grace Moretz could be the perfect choice to play the friendly Flynne. Moretz is from Georgia, so her lilting southern accent is how a southern accent is supposed to sound. Flynne and her former brother Burton — Midsommar’s Jack Reynor, whose accent also sounds realistic despite not being from Georgia — live somewhere in rural America about 10 years in the future. They provide medication for their ailing mother (Melinda Page Hamilton) by working various jobs including playing a virtual reality video game known as “Sim”.
The alternate reality holds great rewards and even greater dangers for Flynne and Burton. The best part is seeing Flynne, a more experienced gamer than her brother, become the chosen one vital to the grand schemes of a secretive group in the game’s future London.
The even better part is every time Flynne gets over her innocent-girl-stick-in-a-small-town schtick. Unexpectedly, she will hit someone in-game, which makes up for her many real-life vulnerabilities, including being bullied by the local drug dealers.
In contrast to Amazon’s recent sci-fi efforts –and — The Peripheral has much more than a few cinders to fuel its narrative. More than one major plot point explodes in the first episode. The intense, sometimes unforgiving action scenes abound.
However, for better or for worse, over-the-top Westworld-like characters have made their way into this new world. The London of the future will be populated by a group of smartly dressed rulers, gesturing, speaking and preaching in grand fashion. While making a stark distinction between future Londoners and rural Americans seems like a deliberate choice, it nonetheless occasionally causes a grin.
The worst (and funniest) part of The Peripheral is a character who literally says, “It can all get pretty confusing, even for us. That sounds like Clemence Posey’s character in Tenet (directed by Jonathan Nolan’s brother Christopher) saying, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”
Still, The Peripheral isn’t as overwhelming as it could be. Sure, the alternate realities and the unfamiliar technological terms are starting to pile up. You need to learn “stub” (parallel timeline); “jockeying” (playing games on behalf of other people); and “periphery” (an android into which one’s consciousness can be inserted). But the design of the show’s dual near future is surprisingly minimalist and intelligently integrated. Some of the technology – digital arrows on the road showing where automated cars are going – should exist in our world. The dystopia looks like what Joy and Nolan actually wanted with Westworld.
Sometimes simple really is best. Joy and Nolan strike the right balance between likeable, relatable protagonists and their journey down a labyrinthine rabbit hole of technology gone wrong. In other words, The Peripheral summons just the right amount of mind-altering power without destroying the illusion.
Episode 1 of The Peripheral arrives on Prime Video on Friday.
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