Wednesday, May 30, 2018

REVIEW: 'Reverie' - Mara Gets a New Job Traveling Into the Fantasy Worlds of Others in 'Apertus'

NBC's Reverie - Episode 1.01 "Apertus"

Former hostage negotiator Mara Kint is hired by tech company Oniratech to save people who have lost themselves in a sophisticated virtual reality program called Reverie.

It has gotten increasingly more difficult to know what to expect from a show that was announced at the broadcast upfronts but then delayed airing until the following summer after the regular season had ended. Of course, the metrics of what the regular season is are becoming more and more irrelevant. The networks are moving towards more year-round scheduling. They want to keep original content flowing on their airwaves throughout the year so that they can remain competitive with streaming and cable. Sure, the broadcast networks don't air as much content in the summer as they do between September and May. They aren't programming three hours of programming every night of the week. Moreover, they rely on unscripted reality shows to draw the attention of audiences. It's been awhile since there was a big scripted hit in the summer for the broadcast networks. And yet, NBC has done relatively well in this space as of late. The Carmichael Show and Marlon both started in the summer and they were brought back for additional seasons. The Night Shift began in the summer and ran for four seasons. Midnight, Texas aired last summer and is returning this upcoming fall. That's a promotion for that show. So, there is still some optimism to be had about the prospects for Reverie. It can't just be seen as summer burn off because the season didn't come in as well as the network hoped after a promising pilot. That still may be the case. There are still many shows on the networks that struggle to form an identity after focusing so much of their attention on the pilot. Most shows simply don't know what they are. Many don't have the time to figure it out either. Reverie seems like it understands what it is aspiring to be. And yet, it should be very interesting to see how much of the ongoing series focuses on the procedural aspect in comparison to the serialized element.

Reverie presents itself as a procedural told through a science fiction story. It imagines a future technology where virtual reality has developed enough for the users to actually enter into their own individual worlds. It allows them to live in their dreams and have any kind of reality they want. As such, it's understandable why some don't want to ever leave the virtual reality. The dream could be more appealing and safe than reality. As the premiere explains, the people who use the Reverie program can actually trick their brains into believing that painful situations actually aren't painful at all. Sure, it takes some practice to actually build up that tolerance and know that this reality isn't real. But that disconnect also has some profound complications as well. It gives the people trapped in the program the freedom to create whatever worlds they want that can change in an instant. It makes them dangerous targets to face for whomever goes inside with the direct purpose of pulling them out. But it also provides a sense of peace and wonder. Sure, they build these specific worlds themselves. They are only living out a very specific set of scenarios. As such, it could grow old after awhile living the same experience over and over again. But it can be just as wonderful too. Every experience is different because human brains react to the program in different ways. So, there's not an easy way to know what to expect when walking into this world. That carries a certain amount of risk especially when this company decides to send a second person into that reality. They don't know how that will affect the program. It could easily lead to both of the subjects losing their tether to reality for good. They would be trapped in a permanent coma never being able to escape. That's absolutely terrifying.

And yet, it's important to note that this is still a procedural after all. Every episode of the series will focus on hostage negotiator Mara Kint traveling into the Reverie of one person who finds themselves trapped in the fantasy refusing to leave. In the premiere, she deals with the story of a man who has lost his wife in a car accident. He escapes into Reverie because he is able to relive his life and their perfect memories together all over again. He doesn't want to lose her again because he blames himself for her death. She was sick. They didn't have insurance. As such, he was working every hour of the day just in order to afford the treatments. He was running himself into the ground trying to take care of everyone. He was using drugs in order to stay awake and active. When he hit his breaking point, it just happened to be while he was driving. He doesn't remember the accident. But he knows that it was his fault. His wife died not because of her illness but because of his actions trying to help her through that difficult time. That has been a very emotionally draining experience for him. It's much simpler for him to exist in this world where he can cherish this precious memory with her for as long as he likes. He also doesn't see anything wrong with this fantasy life. He has lost all sense of perspective as well. He believes it has only been a weekend. He arranged for his brother to take care of his daughter. He had every intention of returning to her. But it has actually been two weeks and his family is scared that he may never return to them because this fantasy is better than the reality with them. Mara has to figure all of this out and make an emotional appeal to him. She's the one who has to try to understand what he's going through and help him find peace with the experience he has gone through. As such, it should be rewarding when she is ultimately successful in that goal.

Mara is able to connect to this work and this case in particular for a number of reasons. She was a very skilled hostage negotiator. She now teaches a class that tries to get her students to understand empathy and nonverbal communications with one another. She wants her students to see the world around them and not have to rely on technology in order to connect with one another. As such, it's a pretty significant change for her to get a job working for a company that has built a technology that can allow people to escape their lives completely and just live in their fantasies. It's also a building with an all-seeing artificial intelligence named Dylan that is easily able to assist Mara in her investigation by being able to pull up the exact location and character insights into anyone she needs to talk to about her latest case. That's scary and should start a conversation about the surveillance state and whether or not humanity is giving up too much of its privacy in an increasingly changing world. Mostly though, the show just wants the audience to see Dylan as this cool program who helps move the story along. It's significantly more important for Mara to be given a tragic backstory that helps her make that emotional appeal during her first case in Reverie. She was a brilliant and talented hostage negotiator who was able to connect with strangers but not the people most connected to her own life. When her brother-in-law was pointing a gun at her sister and niece, she couldn't defuse the situation in time. All three of them died and she blamed herself for failing at the job she has always been good at. As such, she drowned her sorrows in drugs and alcohol. It's a pretty conventional tragic backstory. There really isn't anything new or nuanced that Reverie adds to it. That basically just makes it a little lackluster instead of the tragedy it clearly is.

Plus, it's already clear that Mara's tragic past will be having an ongoing impact on her time in Reverie. The program's creator and head of dreams, Alexis and Paul, don't know how Reverie will change if multiple people enter the same reality. It could be so completely destructive. They haven't tested it before. Mara is the first person doing it. As such, they have to monitor her closely. They don't know how her past will affect this dream that the other person has created for themselves. Both Mara and the person trapped in Reverie have the ability and tools to leave at any time. Mara can go in and out hoping to understand what is going on in this person's head. It's a mystery that she has to solve. She does so here. But it's also clear that her tragic memories of her niece may be coming to fruition as well. She is actually seeing her niece on several occasions. At first, it's just a fleeting glimpse of her in a crowd while she's chasing her target. It only distracts her for a second. It doesn't stop her from confronting him quickly about what is going on in this version of the program. But it's enough to make many people worry that something more is going on. It's even more ominous when Mara sees a vision of her niece when she's not connected to Reverie. She is simply at home cleaning her apartment up from all of the drugs and alcohol. She has found new purpose in her life. She has a job that intrigues her and makes her feel useful on a very practical level again. She's connecting with people during the time they need it the most. And now, she may be tormented by visions of her niece who couldn't possibly be appearing in this reality. That may build over the course of this season until Mara is the one who needs rescuing from Reverie. That could be very enticing if also the expected route for this story to take.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Apertus" was written by Mickey Fisher and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra.
  • Charlie is the former chief of police who worked with Mara and knows all about her history and why she would be good for this new job. He found himself transitioning to the private sector and getting this job working for the Reverie company. And now, he seems to be the only one who is genuinely looking out for Mara's best interests. That's important because she is risking a lot by traveling into this program not knowing what the consequences will be.
  • Of course, it's also clear that the Department of Defense has an interest in this company and its developing technology. They have helped finance this technology to see how far it could go and if there would be any practical applications for the government. But now, they worry that the rising number of people in comas is too daunting to continue investing in the program. And yet, it seems like Charlie is the only one interacting with this contact.
  • It's heavily suggested that Mara may have a personality disorder as well. That's such a cryptic tease here that ultimately goes nowhere. There is nothing to rationally worry about as she does this job and is able to connect with people. She's still very capable of being empathetic. But the technicians worry because of the spike in her brain activity at a specific moment. Of course, this thread could be interesting if the show actually wants to flesh it out moving forward.
  • Alexis is given the hints of a tragic backstory as well. She has built Reverie as a place for people to escape and live in their dreams. It's her achieving her greatest fantasy. She dreamed of creating this program one day. But it's also clear that Dylan is based on a brother she lost in some tragic way. There is only the brief introduction of this backstory but it will also help the audience better understand what's going on with her.
  • Because Reverie is built by whatever pictures and social media postings the user upgrades, the audience shouldn't be surprised to see just how fake some of the special effects in that world can be. Yes, it can bounce between worlds and situations quickly to make the danger seem very real to Mara. But there is also limitations to the design as well. That's a part of the structure of the programming. Meanwhile, the production design of the actual offices where the characters interact is pretty impressive.