For the TV viewer burned by “Westworld” and burned out by Marvel, Star Wars, and epic fantasy, Prime Video has an offer.
Unfortunately, “The Peripheral,” based on William Gibson’s 2014 novel, is not a comparable alternative to any of the dense, engrossing genre series it aspires to emulate. It has time travel, gaming, and the lure of a post-apocalyptic backdrop, but manages to suck the thrill out of these promising elements and deliver something decidedly mundane.
Created by Scott Smith, who serves as head writer, the series takes place in an approximation of our present, with slightly advanced technology that Flynne Fischer (Chloë Grace-Moretz) uses to dabble in a virtual reality “sim” procured by her brother Burton (Jack Reynor). Shockingly, the sim turns out to be the very real future, and suddenly saving both realities falls on Flynne’s charming Southern shoulders. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy of “Westworld” executive produce, along with Smith, Athena Wickham, Steve Hoban, Vincenzo Natali, and Greg Plageman.
“The Peripheral” has a lot of groundwork to lay in its first few episodes, and mostly fails to do this in favor of predictable action (Episode 2’s perfunctory gunfight boils down to nothing but noise) and a bloated roster of barely-introduced characters. The plot might be straightforward, but suffers due to sloppy execution and a lack of meaningful relationships. Flynne is singularly focused on her sick mother (Melinda Page Hamilton), but she and we spend far more time in the sim’s deteriorating society than at dear Mama’s bedside. Like so many sci-fi heroes before her, Flynne turns out to be the most important ordinary person in the world, for reasons “The Peripheral” does not care to explain or illustrate in any fashion, instead plunging viewers and this manic pixie gamer girl into arbitrary stakes and stories.
It doesn’t help that the burden of exposition is doubled by splitting the show between Flynne’s world and the dystopian future of 2099; two timelines in which to build out setting, character, rules, and risks. Flynne’s present is full of two-dimensional supporting players and hokey emotional beats, while the future boasts clunky exposition or flowery substitutes. When her avatar asks someone “What is this place?” the actual verbatim answer given is “Infinity in the palm of your hand. Eternity in an hour.” It could be written by a bot fed enough sci-fi action and mediocre television drama scripts (“Peripheral” itself is not defined until Episode 2).
Sleek though it is in the hands of director Vincenzo Natali and cinematographers Stuart Howell and Roberto Schaefer, “The Peripheral” can’t clear the rising bar for genre storytelling in television. It can’t compete with the popular fantasy of “House of the Dragon,” the masterful writing of “Andor”; it arrives just on the heels of the subversive “She-Hulk” and Prime Video’s own rich mythical world in “The Rings of Power.” All of those shows also happen to build on known commodities and established cinematic universes, a luxury that “The Peripheral” does not have and which it sorely could use. Building a world from scratch requires…actually building a world, which the show does not seem interested in doing, even with Gibson’s source material.
Moretz gives it the old college try making Flynne remotely likable or interesting, but she’s working with scant material. The premiere episode misses a chance to put her at the forefront of its action by making Burton the face of the hero in the game; Reynor does a fine enough job leading the sequence, but it ultimately blends into every Bond-esque white-man-secret-mission-turned-car-chase committed to film. Gary Carr manages to load charisma into his character from future London, even if nothing about his purpose and connection to Flynne is clear after the first two episodes.
“The Peripheral” has nothing new to offer its target demo of sci-fi, action, and drama fans, but if more of the same is an itch that needs scratching, it will satiate the unadventurous viewer. It’s hard to find an audience in a television climate dominated by the aforementioned Goliaths, but it’s a challenge that rewards or at least requires effort. “The Peripheral” is a lazy attempt to accomplish whatever it set out to do — that is, if it had any heroic quest to begin with.