WHEN|WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on Fox/5
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Silicon Valley pioneer Paul LeBlanc (John Slattery) thought he had shut down a potentially dangerous artificial intelligence application before he was forced out of the company he founded. But when FBI agent Shea Salazar (Fernanda Andrade) asks him about some mysterious code involved in a possible murder, he realizes that so-called "neXt" — which he created — is still up-and-running. More ominous still: It may also be running amok while getting smarter by the minute.
MY SAY "NeXt" has the distinction of being one of the first new series of this deferred 2020 fall season and the first regular series role for Slattery since "Mad Men" wrapped in 2015 (besides playing Phyllis Schlafly's husband in the recent Hulu limited series "Mrs. America"). And one more distinction: This comes from Manny Coto, who has produced some of the most influential TV of this still-young 21st century, including "Star Trek: Enterprise" and "24."
While the honor roll ends there, these are not insignificant and possibly auspicious. "NeXT" was supposed to launch late spring but instead joined some other stockpiled Fox series like "Filthy Rich" and "Cosmos: Other Worlds" which laid the groundwork for the only mostly-all-originals premiere week of the fall in late September.
That's good for those viewers who still have a vestigial need for new shows when the weather turns colder, but it's meaningless to just about everyone else. There was no shortage of originals during the pandemic, and millions of shu- ins had little trouble finding them. Such bounty tends to refine tastes, or harden them: Give me something spectacular, many now say, or don't bother giving me anything at all.
"NeXt" meets these ruthless expectations exactly half way. It draws on one of the oldest tropes in science fiction (Artificial Intelligence run amok) without bringing anything new other than a vaguely compelling twist called "recursive self-improvement" — a computer program that self-improves in small increments, leading to a moment of "technological singularity" when nothing can stop it from taking over the world.
It's as if the ghost in this machine is Dr. Evil himself, and you almost expect NeXt to say something like "Oh hell, let's just do what we always do — hijack some nuclear weapons and hold the world hostage."
"NeXt" was inspired by AI prophet of doom/Mars-or-bust futurist Elon Musk who said "we are summoning the demon [with AI."] But this prophecy isn't based on some notion that AI is inherently evil but instead remorsely logical: Give it a simple task and it will achieve that task, unintended consequences be damned. That seems like a better twist for a TV show, or at least a more chilling one.
What's good about "NeXt" is Slattery. His LeBlanc channels some of Roger Sterling's vainglory, some of his wit too. Told that NeXt, like Alexa, is engineered to become "a member of the family," he rejoins: "The crazy uncle in the basement with an ax."
Slattery has been busy these last few years ("Mrs. America," "Avengers: Endgame") but not busy enough for me. At least "NeXt" reminded me just how much I've missed him.
BOTTOM LINE Slattery is fine in this bland AI thriller.