John Slattery solves crimes as a mad scientist genius in FOX’s creaky, familiar police procedural.
For a gossamer time from the ’90s to the 2000s, network and basic cable TV was positively stuffed with police procedurals featuring unconventional geniuses teaming up with cops to solve crimes. Psych, Monk, Elementary, Limitless, Castle, and more filled our watching life with quirky characters unraveling mysteries, usually of the murderous variety. If you missed those shows, don’t you worry: FOX’s neXt is here for all your throwback needs.
Paul LeBlanc (John Slattery), the unconventional genius in question, has been fired from the tech company he helped build with his intellect and his brother Ted’s (Jason Butler Harner) money. The FBI, via agent Shea Salazar (Fernanda Andrade), ends up roping him into their ranks to solve a mysterious set of crimes. You see, Salazar’s mentor/father figure, Richard Weiss (John Billingsley), suffered tremendous trauma in a car accident; the only hint of foul play is a sticky note in the vehicle with Paul’s address on it. LeBlanc quickly suspects, an AI project of his (one he shut down before he was fired) has been resurrected and has since gained sentience.
Immediately, the stink of familiarity settles over neXt. Besides the ‘quirky genius solves crimes’ bit, the show borrows Person of Interest’s techno-paranoia, as our heroes fight technology so advanced it may as well be magic. It feels very much like a cousin to 24, which makes sense, it’s a show creator Manny Coto oversaw for four seasons. Like 24, it awkwardly insists on blending the personal with the professional, as we frequently cut to Salazar’s husband Ty (Gerardo Celasco), her son Ethan (Evan Whitten), and Paul’s daughter Abby (Elizabeth Cappuccino) as they struggle with school bullies and dating. It also boasts 24‘s pacing, which somehow always managed to feel both bloated and breakneck.
For those who struggled with 24’s politics, don’t worry, neXt has you covered on that front as well. One member of Agent Salazar’s anti-tech terrorism task force, CM (Michael Mosley), joins the team as a means of commuting his sentence, after hacking for a racist terrorist organization called The Dead Lizards. God love him, Mosley does impressive work with the character, making him smart and resourceful, but it feels so wrongheaded to this moment (especially since he seems to be the Latinx Salazar’s right-hand man). By the end of the five episodes provided to critics, it seems clear that the show suggests there’s more to CM than there first appears. But with the season half over, it feels odd to ask viewers to cheer for a largely unapologetic white supremacist.
It’s not all bad — the familiarity does make neXt a pretty smooth watch, the kind of show you can pair with laundry folding or doing the dishes. There’s genuine tension in the show, too, such as when the FBI office suddenly finds itself under siege by a collection of militia and nationalist types. The third episode, (which unfolds in the basement of a Dartmouth academic building) does some downright unnerving things with robotics. It takes online jokes like those Boston Dynamic android dogs and turns them into figures of legitimate horror. Even something tired like ‘Alexa, but evil’ is enough to chill the blood.
It is hard to imagine this being anyone’s comfort viewing in 2020, no matter how familiar it feels.
In the end, though, neXt just feels mediocre. Slattery is good as the prickly smart guy, but never as wonderfully nasty as Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House, as fun as James Roday Rodriguez’s Shawn Spencer, or as damaged as Johnny Lee Miller’s Sherlock. The diverse supporting cast is good but bland. And the domestic dramas of the LeBlanc and Salazar families are just…well…you saw 24 season 1, right?
I’m never one to begrudge anyone their warm bath television, but neXt never quite feels like the right choice for that. The presence of a white supremacist protagonist is too noticeable, and the moments of tension and horror go a bit too deep. It is hard to imagine this being anyone’s comfort viewing in 2020, no matter how familiar it feels.