Nowadays, seeing a show with the hype line “from the creators of” isn’t necessarily a call for excitement. The amount of homework required to follow in its convoluted latter seasons is plain silly. The good news: If you’re still doing that homework, you can drop it now. Your time for studying complicated sci-fi narratives is better spent on The Peripheral.
The main reason for this: The new series from Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy is a lot easier to follow. That’s not to say it isn’t a challenging mind-bender. The general outline: Two worlds are connected through advanced technology, which is exploited by different factions for good and evil.
Helpfully, the events of The Peripheral unfold through the eyes of a young, blond, female protagonist — not unlike Westworld’s Alice in Wonderland figure Dolores. Except Flynne Fisher isn’t a murderous sentient robot. She comes from the pages of The Peripheral’s source material: a 2014 novel by influential cyberpunk writer William Gibson. If you haven’t heard of Gibson, this is how influential he is: he originated the term cyberspace.
Chloe Grace Moretz might be the perfect choice to play the kind Flynne. Moretz is from Georgia, so her lilting southern accent is what a Southern accent is supposed to sound like. Flynne and her ex-soldier brother Burton — Midsommar’s Jack Reynor, whose accent also sounds realistic, though he’s not from Georgia — live somewhere in rural America about 10 years in the future. They provide medicine for their ill mother (Melinda Page Hamilton) by working various jobs, including playing a virtual reality video game known as a “sim.”
The alternate reality sets Flynne and Burton up for big rewards and even bigger dangers. The best part is seeing Flynne, a gamer more skilled than her brother, become the Chosen One crucial to a secretive group’s grand plans in the game’s Future London.
The even better part is every time Flynne overcomes her innocent-girl-stuck-in-a-small-town schtick. Unexpectedly, she’ll batter someone in the game, offsetting her many real-life vulnerabilities, including being bullied by the local drug dealers.
Unlike Amazon’s recent slow-burn sci-fi efforts —and — The Peripheral has a lot more than a few cinders to fuel its narrative. More than one significant plot point detonates in the first episode. The intense, sometimes merciless action scenes are aplenty.
Yet for better or worse, over-the-top Westworld-esque characters have found their way into this new world. Future London is populated by a cast of chicly dressed people in power who gesticulate, enunciate and pontificate in grand fashion. While striking a stark difference between the Future Londoners and the rural Americans seems to be an intentional choice, it’s still occasionally smirk-inducing.
The worst (and funniest) part of The Peripheral is a character literally saying, “It can all be rather confusing, even for us. Perhaps we should stick to the most urgent matters at hand and trust that the secondary details will fall into place.” This 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 start to stack up. You’re going to have to learn “stub” (parallel timeline); “jockeying” (playing games on the behalf of other people); and “peripheral” (an android that someone’s consciousness can be inserted into). But the design of the show’s dual near-futures is surprisingly minimalist and smartly integrated. Some of the technology — digital arrows on the road pointing where automated cars are going — should exist in our world. The dystopia looks like what Joy and Nolan were actually going for with Westworld.
Sometimes, simple really is best. Joy and Nolan have struck the right balance between likable, relatable protagonists and their journey down a labyrinthine rabbit hole of technology gone wrong. In other words, The Peripheral conjures just the right amount of mind-bending force, without snapping the illusion.
Episode 1 of The Peripheral hits Prime Video on Friday.