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NBC’s new VR thriller Reverie is a schmaltzy take on techno-dystopia

NBC’s new VR thriller Reverie is a schmaltzy take on techno-dystopia


It’s an ultra-mainstream version of Black Mirror, a pretty but bland new way to stoke fears about technology

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Sergei Bachlakov / NBC

In the first few minutes of Reverie, a new episodic science fiction thriller premiering Wednesday, May 30th on NBC, the protagonist starts ranting about smartphones. Mara Kint (Person of Interest’s Sarah Shahi) is a former hostage negotiator turned college professor, and she complains that her students are living with their nose to their screens. “They get the whole world in their pocket. Is that such a bad thing?” asks her former boss, who’s recruiting her for a mysterious job at a tech company. “It is if they’re not developing the most important tool of all: empathy,” Kint says sagely. “We learn empathy by observing, and we’ve stopped doing that.”

The speech could be lifted from an episode of the tech-wary TV series Black Mirror, and so could Reverie’s premise, which combines some of Black Mirror’s favorite near-future tropes. The series is set in a world much like our own, with the addition of a single transformative technology: a threadlike experimental brain implant that produces virtual worlds called Reveries. A small group of users let a company called Onira Tech trawl their memories and “social media footprint” to vividly simulate a favorite place, or even an absent loved one. The resulting virtual-reality reveries are the ultimate fantasy for some users, who can escape into perfect digital dreams. And predictably, some people are getting stuck there.

Audiences have gotten familiar with this kind of cautionary yarn, where technology offers a lonely simulacrum of human contact. But Reverie’s pilot turns the idea toward optimism and earnest schmaltz — with extremely dull results.

Reverie, developed by 2016 Mars miniseries creator Mickey Fisher, is all about cases of technology gone wrong. But the pilot suggests that this wrongness can be easily righted in a one-hour TV procedural format. At the start of the episode, Kint is stuck in the fog of prime-time-friendly quasi-alcoholism, haunted by a failed hostage negotiation that was personally disastrous. Then Onira Tech hires her to talk users out of their simulations, using her expert powers of empathy and observation. Kint amazes her handlers by blazing through a training montage of mind-freeing exercises, like learning to breathe under simulated water. By the end of the episode, she’s expertly tackled her first Reverie case.

Rather than moralizing over Onira Tech’s invention, Reverie’s pilot simply uses it as a framing device, like a wormhole that takes Kint to new mindscapes instead of alien planets. (“That sounds like a field trip to heaven,” Kint gushes when she’s introduced to the concept.) And while the show is ostensibly about the dark side of Reverie, it revels in idyllic virtual forests and other dreamy landscapes, even when characters are supposed to be trapped in a mental prison. These worlds aren’t even creepily saccharine, just blandly peaceful — a far cry from the action-packed OASIS in Steven Spielberg’s recent Ready Player One adaptation, or the virtual revenge fantasy from the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister.”

For audiences who are used to artificial realities as a metaphor for sterile isolation or untrammeled self-indulgence, this approach is refreshingly idealistic, although it may well change in later episodes. But there’s a reason so few thrillers are set in genuine utopias. Reverie hints at some vague tension around military contracts and strange implant side effects, but the episode’s climax amounts to Kint running through a man’s family photo album, then telling him she knows how he feels.

Reverie is also in the awkward position of depicting tech that’s futuristic by real-world standards, but basically taken for granted in science fiction. It translates ideas from shows like Black Mirror — or even real technologies like Siri — to the absolute lowest common denominator, portraying Kint as oddly amazed at the basic notion of virtual worlds and AI assistants. To their credit, the screenwriters mitigate the potential for corny science fiction technobabble by glossing over parts of how Reverie works. But that might be because the pilot glosses over every aspect of the story, from art design to character development and plot construction.

Technology trapping people in their own memories is a quintessential dystopian premise. Straightforward bleakness in television is increasingly trite, which makes Reverie’s apparent optimism fresh and timely. But the pilot, at least, isn’t written well enough to pair that optimism with real narrative tension. It’s too complex to be a fun, formulaic techno-thriller, but not smart enough to be an interesting commentary on technology. Reverie doesn’t come off as cheap or alarmist, but it’s completely forgettable.