Imagine the possibility that the device you are currently using to read this article could be used against you, and not necessarily by the authority of a human, but something equally malevolent and (even worse) more intelligent. It is a scary, but quite plausible concept and one that the creator and cast of Next, a new thriller coming this fall to Fox, seemed more interested in discussing than the series itself while promoting it at this year’s Comic-Con over video chat.
The drama series, created by former 24 executive producer Manny Coto, follows a tech entrepreneur (John Slattery of Mad Men and MCU fame) who collaborates with the head of an FBI cyber crimes unit (Sons of Anarchy’s Fernanda Andrade) to hunt down an artificial intelligence creating widespread chaos. It is the kind of story that is often serves as the basis of a James Cameron movie or an episode of Black Mirror, but Coto and his Next cast seem to take the concept it a little more seriously than simple entertainment.
During their virtual Comic-Con panel discussion, moderated by Senior Entertainment Writer at Thrillist Esther Zuckerman, Manny Coto, John Slattery, and others dished on their characters, how the concepts explored in Next freak them out, and how the series became even more relevant than they expected amid recent events. Find out all about that and more from the following six coolest things we learned during the interview.
Creator Manny Coto’s Children Helped Inspire The Plot Of Next
A concept as complex, disturbing, and culturally relevant as Next sounds like it could have stemmed from multiple avenues. While Manny Coto does discuss much of the in-depth research on the topic of artificial intelligence he endured while plotting the series, the initial spark actually came from his own children, as he explains:
It started very similar to something that’s actually in the show. I have four kids and I have several Alexas in the house and they’ve become rather addicted to their Alexas. The Alexas tell them stories at night and they play music with them… It’s almost become a member of the family. But, I remember one night my son being particularly tired in the morning and I asked him what his problem was and he said, ‘Alexa started talking to me in the middle of the night….’ I never really found out the answer [to what happened], but that idea stuck with me because I found it very creepy that this thing that we brought into our house, which has brought us a lot of joy, at some point could actually take on a mind of its own and start going slightly rogue.
The mystery behind Manny Coto’s resident Amazon Echo and its lively personality, so to speak, only became more disturbing when tech leaders like Elon Musk or Bill Gates and other experts on the matter began voicing their own concerns over AI. All the Emmy-winner would have to do is develop characters through which he could present these themes and Next was born.
What We Learned About The Next Cast’s Characters
The panel offered some interesting bits of information about the characters in Next.
John Slattery - Paul LeBlanc
Following his role as the husband of a conservative activist on the Emmy-nominated historical FX miniseries Mrs. America, John Slattery leads the cast of Next as Paul LeBlanc, a tech executive with a tendency to speak “what he thinks without considering the thoughts or feelings of other people,” as the 57-year-old actor describes. Despite having intellect crucial to defeating the evil titular AI, his flaws put him at odds with other characters, including his own brother.
Jason Butler Harner - Ted LeBlanc
Former Ozark star Jason Butler Harner describes his character Ted LeBlanc as “the Roy Disney” to his brother Paul’s Walt, with whom he co-founded their successful tech company. While Paul is “the mind” of the company, Ted prefers to focuses more on the business side of things. Harner also teased that, while the siblings do love each other, the premiere season of Next will showcase “some adversarial moments and some slights” between them after chaos ensues.
Fernanda Andrade - Shae Salazar
Affected on a more personal level by that chaos is Shae Salazar, an FBI cybercrimes unit leader played by Fernanda Andrade, who teams up with Paul LeBlanc after he is able to convince her that “a dear friend fo hers who was a father figure to her” was killed by a super intelligence. The actress hinted at some of the secrets that are to be revealed about her character on Next, stating:
She has a very complicated past. She’s made her life here a bit against all odds. She’s an immigrant and she’s tried to stay away from that and this kind of brings all of that out in strange ways. And the FBI is crucial to the story, especially to Paul LeBlanc because he is up against something and he needs help. He’s not a guy that usually needs help, but, in this case, Shae needs him and he needs Shae.
LeBlanc and Salazar are not alone in this fight against the evil AI, however.
Eve Harlow - Gina
Starring as Gina, the nerdy cybercrimes division employee, is Eve Harlow, a bit of a fan favorite in the nerd community herself from roles in The 100 and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The actress mentions in the panel discussion that she was “stoked” when she first laid eyes on the pilot script for Next, being a self-described tech junkie in real life. Harlow almost contradicts that hobby later on, especially when describing how much she misses life “away from keyboard” in the wake of COVID-19, but more on that later.
Michael Mosley - CM
Also part of the fight against cybercrime is CM, played by fellow Ozark vet Michael Mosley. The actor, also known from hit crime procedural series Castle and Criminal Minds, revealed that his character, a former hacker, may work with the FBI, but he is not necessarily one of the good ones:
He’s an ex-con. He was affiliated with some questionable kind of alt-right fringe group… He gets arrested, but part of his plea is he gets an ankle bracelet and gets to go work for the good guys, [but] we’re not sure if he’s really atoning for his past yet. We’re not sure where his loyalties lie.
One thing that is certain is the super intelligence at the center of Next is danger of unimaginable circumstance. Just ask John Slattery.
John Slattery’s Description Of The Next AI Sounds A Bit Like Ultron
Manny Coto likens Next to a classic “manhunt thriller” in response to Esther Zuckerman’s inquiry of what to expect from the series. Star John Slattery uses that phrase to segue into a full-scale description of what his character’s digital enemy is capable of, which quite frankly, reminds me of a certain MCU movie villain:
As Manny said, it’s a manhunt, but there’s no man. So, we don’t know where it is and we don’t necessarily know what it’s going to do. What we do [is] that it’s in its infancy, that it gets exponentially smarter, but it takes time and it has physical requirements. It has to find a place where it can incubate… Say, right now it’s the size of a microwave oven. If we catch it right now, we could beat to death with a shovel. If we wait a week, it’ll be the smartest thing on the planet. So, we’re not really sure how fast this thing is leapfrogging and getting smarter, but every time we think we know where it is, it’s already left the building.
While the similarities are clear, perhaps hearing this description from Tony Stark’s father is why I cannot help but think of Ultron. Comic book movie references aside, the mere idea of such a threat is enough to instill much distrust in the technologies society holds dear today and the cast of Next is living proof.
Working On Next Made The Cast A Lot More Tech Paranoid
The entire Next panel seemed to come prepared with their own indictments on the current (and plausible) state of technology, such as Jason Butler Harner’s frightening scenario in which all the devices we use on a daily basis “could suddenly communicate with each other… and then [decide] that it wants you to be gone.” Arguably, the most sobering insight regarding these fears came from Fernanda Andrade, who said the following:
Usually when something is new and scary, the more you read about it and the more you learn about, it gets a little bit demystified and you understand it more and it gets a little less scary, but I feel like with the subject of AI and super intelligence and its capacities and its potentials and its dangers, I feel the more you read about it and the more you learn it, the more terrifying it is… It’s truly something that is so beyond our capacity to grasp if it slips from our fingers.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect to these potential dangers is how rapidly these new technological developments seem to come about these days. Manny Coto especially felt the weight of that while mapping out the series.
The Story Of Next Would Change As Technology Advanced
Moderator Esther Zuckerman rightfully insinuated that technology was “moving as fast as the writing” of Next during the panel discussion. Manny Coto was always careful to keep the plot up to date, and even made one of the most popular topics in technology today a late addition to the story when he realized its potential for concern, stating:
One instance was the deepfake technology improving in such magnificent - I mean, not magnificent - but scary ways. That wasn’t a big part of it at one point and I ended up putting it in an episode because… the idea that images can be changed so quickly and so efficiently to reflect whatever the person who’s altering them wants, it’s going to be very difficult in not too long to tell what’s real and what’s not.
It almost makes you look at that recent deepfake imagining Bill Hader as the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day differently, doesn’t it?
The Panel Was Also Shocked By How Relevant Next’s Topics Became Amid Quarantine
If there was one thing that the makers of Next were not prepared for, in terms of thematic relevance, is how the series would reflect the circumstances of COVID-19, and not just by how the series made headlines after a crew member tested positive for the virus. Without going into specifics, Manny Coto calls the similarities “jaw-dropping… because it’s going to look like we based this all on recent events when we finished shooting right before the virus hit.” Jason Butler Harner would comment on the comparisons, and shed light on how reliant we seem to be on these technologies especially in the pandemic’s wake, earlier in the conversation, revealing he had to use a friend’s wi-fi to participate in the panel after his went out.
Hopefully, our future does not look as bleak as Next aims to prophesy after it premiers on Fox on Tuesday, October 6, 2020. Be sure to check back for additional information and updates on this technophobic thriller, as well as even more insight into the best panel discussions at this year’s virtual San Diego Comic-Con, here on CinemaBlend.