- Swamp Thing. The CW. Tuesday, October 6, 8 p.m.
- Next. Fox. Tuesday, October 6, 9 p.m.
At last, a TV show especially for Hillary Clinton. In one of the lesser-remembered themes of her dismal 2016 presidential campaign, Clinton used to mutter apprehensively about the sinister aspects of artificial intelligence and technology. Voters, more interested in where all those classified documents from her computer had gone, noticed little. But her campaign aides were increasingly fretful that Clinton was losing it. As Clinton admitted in a book after the election, “My staff lived in fear I’d start talking about ‘the rise of the robots’ in some Iowa town hall.” And, she added, “Maybe I should have.”
No need; Fox’s Next does it better than she could have, so much better that you’ll soon find yourself racing about your house just like the characters on-screen, driving nails through smoke detectors and security cameras, smashing computers with Luddite glee.
Next is just half of a splendid Tuesday night of sci-fi as the networks start to wrap up their abbreviated fall season of premieres. The other half is The CW’s Swamp Thing, a black lagoonish-ish piece of reptile goth that was unaccountably canceled after a single episode last year on the now-defunct DC Universe streaming service. The CW has retrieved all 10 episodes, snipped a few bare butts and naughty words here and there, and the result is a wonderful if slightly-out-of-season piece of Summer Popcorn TV.
Both Next and Swamp Thing riff on a traditional sci-fi theme, that of science running amok. I almost expected John Agar or Richard Carlson to step out of either one to solemnly warn us that “there are some things man and Siri were not meant to know.”
But Next, with its deranged riffs on the existential threats of coffee pots and cell phones, seems more of the here and now than the proudly old-fashioned Swamp Thing, a television adaptation of the DC Comics character first introduced in the 1970s.
Hollywood has been poking sharp sticks at AI for at least five decades, ever since the computer HAL 9000 lost its marbles on a mission to Saturn in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And in terms of technology becoming self-aware, it’s hard to top 1977’s Demon Seed, in which a smart-wired house decided it wanted to boink Julie Christie.
Next, however, takes paranoia to a whole new level. When one character remarks to resident mad scientist Paul LeBlanc that robot dogs are cute, he nods his agreement: “They are cute, until they open the bedroom door and strangle you in your sleep.”
LeBlanc, played by John Slattery with the same deadpan snark he brought to his alienated advertising maven in Mad Men, was until recently head of a Silicon Valley corporation of Gatesian proportions. But when he noticed that “NeXt,” the company’s prized AI project, was getting a little too big for its britches, he was promptly fired.
The biggest obstacle LeBlanc faces in convincing anybody that the wired world is not a boon but a threat is that he’s, well, crazy—the victim of a progressive neurological disease that gives him hallucinations and will kill him within months. Luckily, he crosses paths with FBI agent Shea Salazar (Fernanda Andrade, The First), whose grandfather was killed in a mysterious car crash after he began documenting a series of dirty tech tricks played on him by his cell phone, his insulin pump, and other seemingly innocent gadgets.
That’s the key to Next: the vastness and invisibility of an enemy that’s woven itself into our world with insidious intent, not unlike Joe McCarthy’s communists or Don Siegel’s pods. Manny Coto, the 24 veteran who writes and produces Next, has macabre expertise at introducing potential new villains—a GPS, an automobile cruise-control—with a single glance. And a young boy, puppy-love smitten with the female-voiced digital assistant on his cell phone—are they really just engaged in clumsy pre-pubescent flirting (He: “I just farted.” She: “I’m glad I don’t have a nose.”) or are they plotting? In Next, always assume the worst.
Swamp Thing, as its name implies, is less subtle. It starts with a couple of backwater pirates who’ve been hired, without explanation, to dump a few cans of unidentified stuff into the depths of the swamp.
When something under the water grabs hold of one of the cans and won’t let go, the fellows respond like any good Florida Man and start tossing lit sticks of dynamite into the water. (Swamp Thing actually takes place in Louisiana, but this is not the sort of show to get all technical about.)
The result is that the pirates wind up looking something like Stephen King in the final scene of “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” segment of Creepshow. Meanwhile, cases of a mysterious malady start popping up in the nearby town of Marais.
All this comes to the attention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sends rough-and-tumble epidemiologist Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed, Teen Wolf)—who just happens to be a long-departed native of Marais—to find out what’s going on. She promptly hooks up with her old boyfriend, cop Matt Cable (Henderson Wade, Riverdale) and, more intriguingly, renegade biologist (every swamp has one) Alec Holland, played by Andy Bean of Power.
So, lots of scenes in an eerily underlit swamp; complications induced by ghosts of the past; oh, and did I mention the arrogant one-percenters (Will Patton and Virginia Madsen) who prefer to use their gazillions of dollars to live in a fetid swamp instead of Park Avenue or the French Quarter? Yeah, nothing sinister about that. What’s not to like?
Yet while Swamp Thing is determinedly derivative—or rip-off-ish, if you prefer—its extraordinary execution makes it a lot of spooky fun to watch. The cast is taking things seriously, not camping it up, and the characters are finely crafted. And the flirtation rivals that of Next in innovative nerdiness. What epidemiologist could resist a come-on line like “How much do you know about mutagens?”