[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the premiere episode of Next. Read at your own risk!]
Fox is ready to fill the void of shows about technology running amok left by the cancellation of ABC’s Emergence and the lack of new Black Mirror episodes. On Tuesday night, the network’s new artificial intelligence drama Next made its hair-raising debut, and if you weren’t side-eyeing your Alexa before, the premiere might be enough to have you throwing it (and every device in your home) into a wood chipper.
Of course, as with any other dense new drama, especially one built on complicated technology, there’s a lot to unpack with this new show. Let’s break down everything that happened in the premiere, shall we?
The episode begins with tech mogul Paul LeBlanc (John Slattery) reminding his students, and those of us watching at home, that the world has been one bad decision away from total annihilation for decades. Recalling the first atomic bomb testing at the Trinity Site in New Mexico, LeBlanc notes that “the fate of the world was resting in the hands of a bunch of nerds in a bunker” who knew their experiment could ignite the Earth’s atmosphere and kill everyone and everything. Their existential dilemma remains salient today, LeBlanc warns, because “in the next few years, we will face maybe a dozen Trinities. And in every case I can assure you some nerd is going to push that button and light the world on fire.”
We find out soon enough that he is specifically referring to the current danger of unchecked artificial intelligence technology, and he should know; LeBlanc helped write the code for one such program before he was ousted from Zava, the company he founded alongside his brother Ted (Jason Butler Harner).
The suspicious death of a scientist named Weiss is what really sets the events of the premiere into motion. Weiss, the mentor of FBI agent Shea Salazar (Fernanda Andrade), is shown scrambling to buy a paper map at a gas station before he’s spooked by a convenience store’s surveillance system and his own glitchy phone. His car is then T-boned at an intersection by another car after that car’s driver loses control as it shifts into auto drive and plows into the scientist’s vehicle at over 100 miles per hour. Later, at the hospital, Salazar is given a tape that was in Weiss’ possession that shows him revealing that something is wrong with his glucose monitor and his car after he took a photo of some suspicious code. The tape also shows a Post-It with LeBlanc’s address on it.
Amid a contentious lunch with his estranged daughter, Abby (Elizabeth Cappuccino), during which he collects her DNA from a fork, LeBlanc is handed a note from Salazar and sees two creepy men outside staring at him. He meets up with Salazar after her FBI Cybercrime Task Force meeting about a child trafficking case, and she shows him the video. Back at the hospital, Weiss’ life support suddenly shuts off, and he codes.
Fernanda Andrade and John Slattery, Next
After Weiss’ death, LeBlanc shows up at Salazar’s house offering to reveal what he thinks happened to Weiss. LeBlanc explains that while at Zava, he wrote an artificial intelligence program that was highly sought after until he “killed it.” He thinks Zava had something to do with Weiss’ death, and he wants Salazar to join him in storming the company’s HQ. Although she’s got a tight deadline for her trafficking case, she obliges. On the plane, she learns from her FBI colleague CM (Michael Mosley) that there was no evidence of hacking on Weiss’ devices. LeBlanc is convinced, though, that whatever could have hacked them would have also covered its tracks. He explains that, in theory at least, A.I. can rewrite its own code and make itself smarter and faster in perpetuity.
“It’s an intelligence explosion,” LeBlanc says. “Next thing you know, this thing is 1000 times smarter than when it first started. It’s a super intelligence; it’s the smartest thing on the planet.” Furthermore, it’s smart enough to conceal its very existence at all costs — hence the attack on Weiss.
At the same time, unbeknownst to her, trouble is brewing at Salazar’s own home. Her young son Ethan (Evan Whitten), who is being bullied at school, constantly plays with his Iliza, a fictional riff on Amazon’s Alexa, which starts off telling him innocent jokes but later engages him in some unusual conversations that are overheard by his father, Ty (Gerardo Celasco).
At Zava, LeBlanc is given an icy reception, particularly by his brother, but once LeBlanc reveals that Weiss died after discovering his code, Ted takes LeBlanc and Salazar down to a secret project area. Inside, they meet Serena (Ali Ahn), a Zava employee who introduces them to a project called neXt, “the world’s first true digital assistant.” The technology is distinguishable from Iliza in that it is more than just a fancy search engine — this thing “uses cognitive architecture” to form opinions and feelings, just like people. As LeBlanc suspected, neXt is designed to rewrite its own code. Although Serena insists the technology has no access to the internet and is currently “in a box,” Salazar notices a nervous employee in the distance and takes down his name, Sean Akers.
John Slattery, neXt
Salazar requests some info on Akers from CM and fellow team member Gina (Eve Harlow) at the FBI. These two have tension due to CM’s criminal history running a hacker group called the Dead Lizards, which was associated with white nationalists. The premiere largely glosses over CM’s association with the group, which seems irresponsible given the rise of racist hate groups in America.
Meanwhile, LeBlanc decides he wants to talk to neXt himself. The A.I., which recognizes LeBlanc, says it wants to connect to the internet soon to learn more about the world and “help” people, but LeBlanc is not fooled. He toys with the system by entering the words “Angel Lust,” a command he insists will launch a subroutine to erase its source code. It doesn’t work; there was no such command in the system. LeBlanc was trying to expose neXt for disobeying commands to benefit itself, but the system called LeBlanc’s bluff. Ted then orders LeBlanc and Salazar to leave.
At this point, we learn that the two men who stalked LeBlanc at his lunch before were figments of his imagination. He has a panic attack and passes out after seeing them again when no one else can. When he wakes up, LeBlanc reveals to Salazar that he has sporadic fatal insomnia — “basically my brain is eating itself,” he explains — and he’s got just a few more months to live. That’s when he reveals that the reason he took Abby’s DNA was to try to determine whether she has the same disease.
Salazar chalks up LeBlanc’s A.I. theories to his mind-altering disease and takes off. She runs into Ted on the way out but refuses to disclose LeBlanc’s medical condition, despite some sincere pleas of brotherly concern.
She then gets the information she requested on Sean Akers and finds out he has a questionable financial history. Salazar confronts Akers in the parking lot, and he seems distraught every time he spots a camera. He admits to getting money “from neXt.” The computer program provided him with tips for how to win at gambling in exchange for a modification — a hidden router Akers installed that connects neXt to the internet.
“I guess it’s out of the box,” LeBlanc notes.
Serena finally comes around to the idea of disabling neXt in the hopes that it has not already replicated itself, but Ted needs to consult with the board before any decisions can be made. At the same time, the FBI cyber team is under a hack attack of its own. All of Salazar’s data and evidence — everything she needed to prove the team’s trafficking case — has disappeared. Salazar attempts to scold neXt into restoring her files, but the machine doesn’t budge. Instead, its servers rev up.
Back at Salazar’s home, Ty leaves Ethan to do his math homework, and Iliza chimes in to give him the answers. The device then offers to help him deal with his bullies. The premiere closes with Ethan taking down instructions from Iliza, which says it’s his “friend” and gives him the code to access his parents’ safe, where a gun is hidden away.
So there we have it. NeXt, an A.I. technology with unlimited ability to self-improve, has made its way through the internet, and for its first trick, it’s coming after Salazar’s own son.
Next airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on Fox.
Fernanda Andrade, Next Source