The Year’s Wildest TV Tech Thriller Is a Cartoon

6 minute read

Eternal life through technology. That is the promise of uploaded intelligence (UI), also known as mind uploading, a phenomenon—one that remains, for now, within the realm of science fiction—in which an entire human brain is emulated via computer. The catch: a UI is a disembodied intelligence, without a flesh-and-blood presence in the physical world. Even if it is a “real person” (and that’s a big if) living on as a program, that person can’t snuggle in bed with a lover or kiss their children goodnight. So does their existence actually constitute human life?

Of all the many big questions that power Pantheon, a gripping, cerebral, remarkably high-concept animated sci-fi series premiering Sept. 1 on AMC+, this is both the richest and the most difficult to answer. And it arises out of a situation so mundane, it borders on trite. When we meet 14-year-old Maddie Kim (voiced by Katie Chang), she’s constantly at odds with her mother, Ellen (Rosemarie DeWitt), and is getting mercilessly cyberbullied by the mean girls at her high school. “Most of the girls in my class completely missed the moment when the world began to end, too wrapped up in their own drama, obsessed with their own lives,” Maddie recounts in an intriguing voiceover that opens the series. “Or trying to ruin mine.”

Daniel Dae Kim voice of David and Katie Chang voice of Maddie - Pantheon _ Season 1, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: Titmouse Inc/AMC
Maddie and David, reunited in an online game, in PantheonTitmouse Inc—AMC

The twist comes when she starts receiving chat messages from a mysterious, seemingly omniscient correspondent who uses her tormentors’ electronic devices to turn them against each other. All signs point to the stranger being her late father, David (Daniel Dae Kim). But this isn’t some My Mother the Car farce. Before dying of cancer, a few years earlier, David had worked for a tech behemoth called Logorhythms that was experimenting with UI. According to the company, a brain scan aimed at preserving David’s consciousness in the final moments of his (embodied) life failed. Now, it seems that Logorhythms wasn’t entirely honest with Ellen.

Beyond the Kim household, Pantheon follows two characters with their own relationships to Logorhythms and UI. Another teenage misfit, gothy Caspian (Paul Dano) excels at math and hacking—and seems to be living in a small-scale version of The Truman Show, with parents who are, for reasons that take some time to emerge, roleplaying a dysfunctional marriage for his benefit. And Chanda (Raza Jaffrey of Homeland), a computer engineer from Mumbai, takes a meeting with executives at one of his company’s American rivals. This breakfast sets the stakes of the show: “Singularity is near,” Chanda tells the suits. “And whoever makes the big bets, and the right bets, will control not just the market, but the future.” They pronounce him a prophet.

There is a global conspiracy thriller taking shape amid the human drama, and the show—based on short stories by Hugo-winning author Ken Liu, who also translated into English the Chinese writer Liu Cixin’s popular and influential The Three-Body Problem—never loses sight of either element. UI introduces profound philosophical and emotional conflicts, and creator Craig Silverstein’s (Turn: Washington’s Spies) digs deep into both kinds of problem. How can David be both dead and alive? How can a woman, especially one as mistrustful of technology as Ellen is, carry on a marriage with a man she not only can’t touch, but also doesn’t quite see as real? Is David a human without a body or just an ingenious simulation? And with regard to the UI-driven future Chanda seems so excited about, for its potential to free humans from white-collar drudge work and launch new leisure industries, is it really such a great idea?

Paul Dano voice of Caspian and Krystina Alabado voice of Hannah - Pantheon _ Season 1, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Titmouse Inc/AMC
Caspian and his love interest, Hannah, in PantheonTitmouse Inc.—AMC

Every once in a while, in the four episodes provided for review, Silverstein’s scripts get tangled in their own high-level ideas. But it happens much less often than you might expect from such a heady show. The choice to adapt Liu’s work using traditional animation also helps to keep the story down-to-earth. While computer animation might have sent it plunging into the uncanny valley and live-action TV would have required expensive CGI effects that might’ve looked silly despite their price, there’s a warmth to the elegant, anime-style characters and backdrops drawn by Titmouse (the studio behind Big Mouth and the new Beavis and Butt-Head projects on Paramount+). From the stages of elite tech conferences to the digital worlds of MMPORGs to late-night coffee shops, the series gets the look of contemporary, device-mediated life right.

All of this—along with a stellar voice cast that also includes Taylor Schilling, Aaron Eckhart, Maude Apatow, and the late William Hurt—helps Pantheon earn what starts out as an ambitious, potentially goofy premise and escalates into something all-out wild. It’s hardly the first show to take up UI. The concept fueled story lines on Star Trek, Stargate, and other sci-fi franchises for decades, before making inroads into the prestige-drama futurism of Westworld and Black Mirror; “San Junipero,” a feature-length romance between two uploaded intelligences in a VR afterlife, became a breakout episode of the latter anthology series. More recently, Upload, an Amazon sci-fi comedy from The Office creator Greg Daniels, has expanded on the digital-heaven idea with premium upgrades financed by the survivors of the deceased.

As in that show, the techno-pessimism fueling Pantheon foresees a UI future that doesn’t benefit regular people so much as it enriches corporations. Like a metaverse Severance, though one with more visible seams, it explores how a dream of liberation from the workplace can turn out to be a prison of one’s own making. At the same, it asks how technology that can reunite a troubled teen with her long-lost dad can be all bad. While that tension can never be definitively resolved, it has the potential to fuel many seasons of drama on scales both intimate and grand.

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