In the “Black Mirror” episode “Be Right Back,” artist Martha (Hayley Atwell) makes a last-ditch effort to deal with the overwhelming grief of losing her boyfriend Ash (Domhnall Gleeson). After his fatal car accident, Martha uploads all of his social media into an AI that allows it to mimic the way he thinks, speaks, and acts. NBC’s new summer series “Reverie” also allows people to revisit loved ones via their social media footprint, although in a different setting.
While “Black Mirror” brought the AI to life into Martha’s sphere of existence first via text and phone chats and then in a bio-enhanced android, NBC’s series makes the user enter a virtual world for the reunion. (Charlie Brooker’s Netflix series is not the sum total of all science fiction ideas, but the shared conceptual DNA must be acknowledged.) Not bound by the mundane rules of physics and logic, this alternate existence allows “Reverie” to take fanciful flights that lead to exciting visual and psychological explorations.
“Reverie” stars Sarah Shahi as former hostage negotiator Mara Kint, now a college professor teaching students —who’ve never learned interpersonal skills because they’re so immersed in their screens — how to navigate social interactions. Mara’s recruited to help a company behind Reverie, an advanced and immersive program that allows users to live out their wildest dreams in virtual reality. Unfortunately, it appears that some people are far happier in Reverie than they are in the real world, leading their physical bodies to lapse into comas. It’s up to Mara to enter their reverie and convince them to return to reality.
It’s refreshing and long overdue to see the winning Shahi anchor a series again after the dearly departed “Fairly Legal” and more than pulling her weight in “Person of Interest” and “Chicago Fire.” Dennis Haysbert is appropriately authoritative with a touch of mystery, Sendhil Ramamurthy brings the brainy charisma, Kathryn Morris is charming and intriguing, and Jessica Lu is already a promising scene-stealer as the sullen programmer masking personal pain.
From a sci-fi point of view, the technology appears just within reach. Tablets and talking AI are commonplace, while scintillating mandalas add a touch of beauty to the mechanics of the Reverie program. There’s just enough familiar lingo and concepts to make the whole endeavor seem plausible, even though the way these virtual worlds are presented is a little too seamless and neat for now. The psychological aspects of how we interact with such technology is what’s at stake here.
Judging from the first episode alone, “Reverie” is set to enter some dark emotional spaces. After all, the wish-fulfillment aspect of the program requires that the user be unhappy with their current life. In addition, Mara needs some repairing as well since a horrifying tragedy is responsible for her drastic career switch. But this is a broadcast summer series, so we’re not expecting this to venture too far beyond a handful of scenes of poignant, cathartic mourning.
Unlike “Black Mirror” though, NBC’s series doesn’t seem like it will get too bogged down with misanthropy and nihilism. The virtual reality setting is a blank canvas that invites play, and the procedural element of Mara regularly retrieving lost souls gives the series an optimistic and hopeful bent. There’s plenty of fun here, but with enough pathos to add weight.
Jaume Collet-Serra directs the brisk and arresting pilot, complete with an imaginative take on various mental and psychological playgrounds, ranging from breathtaking woodland settings to a frenetic Chinatown celebration. Hopefully, the vibrant visuals and lush virtual landscapes continue — if “Extant” creator Mickey Fisher is smart, different directors could switch up the moods and tones for each episode. Everyone’s mental landscape is unique.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of “Reverie” is that it embraces that the science of mimicking neurology with software is imperfect. How the mind works isn’t completely knowable yet, and no amount of advances can quite keep up with biology. Hints of unexpected side effects and bugs lend an element of foreboding and low-grade horror when one’s mental state post-Reverie is affected.
It’s not clear where “Reverie” will head next, but that uncertainty is part of the fun, and we’re willing to go on this journey of endless possibilities as long as the show can keep the creativity coming.
”Reverie” premieres on Wednesday, May 30 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.