Based on the book of the same name (by William Gibson – pioneer of the cyberpunk genre), The Peripheral boasts that it’s “from the creators of Westworld,” and there is little that would give audiences a better idea of the style and character interplay. From the perspective of simply the viewing experience, this might as well be a spinoff focusing on one of the other worlds.
As we are introduced to this world, Flynne (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her brother Burton (Jack Reynor), are living in rural America in the near future. Burton is a veteran of a Haptic Recon unit, which implants soldiers with complex tech that, in a somewhat nebulous way, connects their brains. Burton has a job hiring himself out to assist rich gamers in a virtual world, but it turns out Flynne is even better at getting through such sims. When Burton is contacted about beta-testing a new sim, it’s actually Flynne’s performance that opened the door, and Burton wants her to do the work as him, because it’s a serious paycheck.
Flynne immediately discovers that something very strange is going on, because she can feel and nothing about what’s happening seems like a “normal” sim. Before long Flynne discovers that she’s become caught up in something no one could have imagined, and she isn’t going into a sim at all, but into a peripheral, a robotic frame that her… mind enters and controls, and she’s far in the future when she does.
Suddenly a key player in the machinations of high-rollers in the future, Flynne doesn’t know who to trust, but now a new figure from the future, Wilf (Gary Carr), needs her to come back to the future so he can help her stop the people who are sending killers after her and her family in her own time.
The Peripheral moves the balance somewhat from something like Westworld, relying more on shootouts and action than drawn-out conversations exploring the philosophy driving various actions, but they are still wound around the same cerebral maypole. It builds using the same blocks, mostly the peeling of layers while putting the audience in the position of the protagonists who have no idea what’s going on, and having characters who act in accordance with motivations that make sense. But, as is the case in Westworld, those two drivers can sometimes knock each other out of sync. When the show progresses far enough, the bad guys seem a little silly, and “it’ll make sense later” just doesn’t cut it like it does when settling into the slow unveiling of an unexplained future.
Luckily, the series goes to great lengths to capitalize on its cast of underappreciated actors and the easily overlooked “little future.” Chloë Grace Moretz pulls the story along through what is not only a deceptively difficult task, believably being utterly lost in circumstances, but one that in this instance could easily become almost cartoony. More importantly, Gary Carr is engrossing as a character who is equally wedged into the schemes of others and while he’s more aware, he isn’t in control. Similarly, Reynor, who starts off a little rough because he is initially written as mostly a stereotype for the convenience of establishment, delivers a level of charisma that draws you in while proving up to the task of selling a kind of super soldier. The story offers intriguing fun, but these people make it worth watching.
It’s ultimately a series that is as much sci-fi, dystopian mystery as it is noir-esque adventure and bouncing between times actually serves the story instead of simply being the gimmick du jour. It may feel a little “game-y” at times when we travel to the future, and it seems clear that the experience working on Westworld opened the door to a lot of the ideas in play here, but it’s also mesmerizing. Plus, it conveniently functions as a connection to Flynne’s experience.
There’s no shortage of this sub-genre that takes some sci-fi world and throws people into it so that they can be lost and scared while trying to figure out how to survive. A few come out every year and the difference is largely summed up by dialing up or down the stupidity to see where audiences will gravitate. The vast majority of these shows go wrong by being about their gimmick, jump scares, and nonsensical drama, leaving the characters to morph to facilitate whatever idiocy is now dictated by the goofball twist of the moment. The Peripheral is about its characters and how they dodge and weave through the world crashing down on them. It isn’t the best of television, and things stumble a bit around episode five, but it’s close and also balances how serious you should be about it.