With ponderings of uploaded intelligence pulsating through the entire project, fascinating questions about what it means to be human, alive, or whole come to a head in this new hourlong animated series on AMC+.
Virtual reality currently occupies the public imagination as one of two things: the future or a complete joke. Look no further than the highly meme’d Metaverse, a billion dollar investment from Meta (formerly Facebook, Inc.) with graphics similar to The Learning Company’s educational games on CD-ROMs in the late ‘90s. Though, at the same time, virtual reality feels like a future inevitability worth taking seriously. Critically and commercially lauded films like The Matrix franchise have marinated within pop culture for decades now, and yet, even with the release of Pantheon, VR still feels like a concept both over-litigated and misunderstood in equal measure.
The premise of the 8-episode Pantheon (which has already been renewed for Season 2) adheres to some cliches. Chronically online and grieving the recent death of her father, Maddie (Katie Chang) meets a mysterious online acquaintance who converses only in emojis. When Maddie’s bullies get quickly dispatched by a bizarre data breach of their information at school, her phantom-like online confidant appears to be the likely source of the attack. Like the series’ name, the cast of supporting characters fan out to provide missing information around the emoji conversationalist, and technology operates as the string that braids all characters and plot points together. (The series boasts an impressive voice cast, including Rosemarie DeWitt, Paul Dano, Aaron Eckhart, Taylor Schilling, Scoot McNairy, and on and on).
A powerful and foreboding tech giant, Logorhythms, looms as a thinly veiled replacement for an Apple-esque corporation. All the while, flashbacks to Logorhythms’ research and development race collide with the present-day happenings of Maddie’s virtual experience. The lynchpin information? Maddie’s terminally ill father (David Dae Kim) worked for Logorhythms, and key decisions he made at the end of his life spell out startling possibilities for what it now means to be alive.
Created by Craig Silverstein and modeled off of Ken Liu’s sci-fi short stories, Pantheon’s clearest strength as a series is its willingness to engage with the ethics behind uploaded intelligence: the process of downloading one’s consciousness into the Cloud. Put more simply: what happens when the mind leaves the body and becomes code? Pantheon excels when it juxtaposes the reality of uploaded intelligence against the reality of the corporal world and its analogous VR users. How does one connect across such spaces? What do cross-consciousness relationships hold? The more arcane the questions that Pantheon delves into, the richer the payoff.
Beyond the ethics of the tech itself, Pantheon refuses to shy away from the material harm this technology poses within real life. Living under capitalism, the series takes a hard look at the consequences of UI arms races within the corporate sphere. A presumed Fortune 500 company like Logorhythms is expected to make strides towards uploaded intelligence. The catch is that underdog competitors with even less incentive for obeying oversight laws will take any opportunity to get ahead. While dabbling in a total virtual competitive space, the damage falls upon flesh-and-blood people—the poorest and most vulnerable.
Pantheon’s most vivid accomplishment centers on emotion. Unlike the Metaverse’s flat and lifeless animation, Pantheon’s key interrogation of virtual consciousness and emotion almost operates like a recipe, questioning how much a dash of sadness or a pinch of joy defines the human experience. Ultimately, it ponders if any of this could be truly felt beyond the vessel of a body, or explored beyond dimensions that the physical brain couldn’t comprehend, if given a sufficient technological platform.
Admittedly, Pantheon’s visual display constructed by Titmouse (Big Mouth, Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butthead) isn’t what makes this animation shine its brightest. But at the same time, Pantheon as a project almost beckons the audience beyond processing on a visual level. This is a series that swings for the fences with a heart made out of code. Take or leave the cliches, the gods Pantheon makes out of its series are painfully close to regular people. Is it a deus ex machina if people are the gods? The machines?
Pantheon premieres September 1 on AMC+ and HIDIVE.
Katherine Smith is Virginia-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste Magazine. For her musings on popular culture, politics, and beyond, find her on Twitter @k_marie_smith
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