‘The Peripheral’ Is a Grim Vision of the Future From ‘Westworld’s’ Creators: TV Review

A gloomy, disconsolate future; the possibility of escaping it by plugging into a thrilling parallel world filled with danger as well as diversion; the emergence of real-world peril from that game. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

In the wake of their disappointing fourth season of HBO’s “Westworld,” Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy return as executive producers of Amazon’s “The Peripheral.” The Scott Smith-created drama tells the story of Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz), living in a near-future North Carolina bleached of hope and spirit. Flynne is seeking pharmaceuticals to help her ill mother; on her quest, she helps out her brother (Jack Reynor) by taking his place testing out a simulated virtual world that feels eerily real. She’s in London in 2099, in a body she controls as a “peripheral” force, guided by a benevolent new friend (Gary Carr) and facing down a powerful malevolent force (a very strong T’Nia Miller). Soon enough, Flynne is under actual threat, with a multimillion-dollar hit having been placed on her in the real world.

The series, based on a novel by cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson, boasts competently directed action that rubs up uneasily against deeply indulgent running times; no matter how good the chase scenes, we need a break as individual installments plod past the hour mark. This insistence on keeping audiences on the hook doesn’t consistently grant insight; despite how much time we spend with her, and despite Moretz’s best efforts, Flynne is little more than an archetype. Reynor, with an outsized Southern accent, fares little better, although both Carr and Miller, inhabitants of the virtual world, get more notes to play — suggestive of how much more interested in its gameplay this show is than in Flynne’s lived reality when unplugged.

There seems, consistently, a taste-level issue here, a shame for a show that is clearly the beneficiary of serious effort and money to impress us. It’s as if the way this series is to distinguish itself from other, similar stories is by going further, or the way to keep us from tuning out Flynne’s grim life is by amping up the surreality. The violence is often grotesque, as when a mercenary sees an adversary’s arm blasted off, then runs him over with a car; the victim is shown cowering with fear, pleading despite being unable to move. I’d be hesitant to meet someone who thinks this is effective storytelling, just as I think I’d be bored silly by anyone who finds the sixth episode title “Fuck You and Eat Shit” more than juvenile posturing.

The ambition here seems to be to rub our faces in the brutality of where humanity is headed. That’s been among the disappointments of “Westworld,” a onetime investigation of the potential of edge-case artificial intelligence that’s lost its soulfulness, and its nerve, as time has gone on. The moment I felt most connected to Flynne, a character whose traversing two realities barely ever registered as real to me, was a scene in which, in virtual-reality, she receives a prophecy about what lies ahead for her, and humankind. It’s bad news, of every possible stripe, so much so that the mind boggles; as with the rest of “The Peripheral,” it exists more as information than narrative. And it’s illustrated by a technically impressive shape-shifting orb that comes to emit smoke that obscures everything. “Make it stop!,” Flynne shouts. I knew exactly how she felt.

“The Peripheral” premieres its first two episodes on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, October 21, with new episodes to follow weekly.

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