“Reverie” Has Many Dreams, but No Ambition

junio 13, 2018 at 7:58 pm (Television) (, , , )

From the very start, Reverie was primed to catch my attention. Between starring Sarah Shahi and being super-reminiscent of my videogaming sacred cow Dreamfall, there was no way I wasn’t going to be interested in the series about lucid controllable dreams, the people who become addicted to them and consequently slip into comas, and the hostage negotiator who attempts to save them. That it looked gorgeous only helped, as does the fact that its primary cast is overwhelmingly composed of people of color.

That said, the more time passed between that first trailer and the show’s actual airing—about a year—the more apprehensive I became. While that trailer did a good job of selling the show’s concept, it made far less of an effort to sell the characters—never a great sign. Furthermore, there was no guarantee that the series’ potential could be met: for every Person of Interest, a series that smartly analyzes the implications of its premise, there’s a Designated Survivor, which despite being about the people tasked with rebuilding the U.S. government, still somehow finds little to say. And sadly, the first episode of Reverie seemed to resemble the latter more than the former, spending too much time on mechanics, and too little time on their implications, or making a case for why the audience should care. The second episode, although a considerable improvement, largely followed suit. And that’s a shame: if I’m never going to get a Dreamfall series—and that’s never going to happen, even though Chloe Bennet and Melanie Scrofano are right there to play Zoë and Saga, respectively—then I’d love to see this become the next best thing.

 

I’m adding pics from Dreamfall because I already have them, and they describe the series just as well as anything from the actual show.

At the beginning of the show’s second episode, “Bond. Jane Bond”, we see how one becomes a Reverie user: one finds about it (Rachel, our client for the week, capably played by Ahna O’Reilly, does so online) and then goes to Onira-Tech, the company behind the dream machine / VR system, where one is screened for physical or mental issues (how…responsible), implanted with the necessary tech, and trained on how to use it. Only then is one able to dream out one’s fantasies for as long as one wishes. Reverie, this suggests, is not only commercially available, it is accessible and affordable. It’s perhaps not an investment you’d make on a whim—maybe akin to a new gaming console or iPhone—but it’s not something that’s likely to break the bank, either. It’s also entirely possible that it’s even cheaper than that—it’s really not clear. It all seems natural enough, except that once you think about this for more than a few seconds, though, the more impossible it all seems.

Consider how much it must have cost for Reverie to get developed and made market-ready, in a world that is otherwise apparently much like our own. It could easily be in the billions, even if you ignore things like marketing costs. Given the expense, anything less than overwhelming success would probably be a failure. It would probably have to be more successful than the most successful movie franchises, and just about as ubiquitous, to stand a chance, and if Reverie were anything less than a complete game changer, that’s a standard it would probably fail to meet. Fortunately, it is a game-changer, immediately rendering much of the existing entertainment industries obsolete. Even if it cost hundreds of dollars to be able to use Reverie, there’s no reason for the user base not to reach millions, very quickly. Being the next Star Wars would be perfectly within reach.

And yet…nothing we’ve seen indicates that’s the case.

When Mara Kint (Shahi) is first approached by Onira’s security consultant Charlie Ventana (Dennis Haybert) with a job offer saving people who have become addicted to Reverie-induced dreams, she has no idea what her friend is talking about. While this detail exists in part so that Charlie can then explain the show’s premise, it’s the very worst kind of exposition bait: the sort that seems almost impossibly contrived, given the setting. No matter how personally uninterested Mara may be in virtual reality, there is still no way she would be completely ignorant of Reverie, given the revolution it is supposed to represent and the fact that Mara’s ability to be observant and empathetic are supposedly why Charlie is interested in her in the first place. Unless she’s been living under the proverbial rock, how does she fail to realize that the entertainment industry is now completely different?

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This is Reverie’s problem, writ large: they seem to have missed the implications as well. The show acts as if the system that exists at its center is something that can exist publicly without completely upending the way the world looks, feels, and acts—that you can still have a world that resembles our own when there’s perfect virtual reality (and the artificial super-intelligences required to run it) around. And so we have a world in which nothing, aside from possibly the dreamlike reveries, makes much sense.

To be fair, the show appears to have two long-term storylines about Reverie’s effect on the world. The first involves Onira-Tech’s backers, which include the Department of the Defense, represented by Monica Shaw (Kathryn Morris). It has also given multiple hints that Reverie is a privacy advocate’s worst nightmare, keeping not only track of users’ activities, but also the activities of people close to those users. When Mara asks Dylan, the A.I. that manages Onira’s systems, about a person tied to a Reverie user—Reverie, despite its high concept, operates using detective procedural logic—Dylan immediately responds by noting where she is, based on a status update on her social media. Furthermore, Onira appears to keep remote track of users’ activities and vitals: when Rachel is brought in for heart irregularities that popped up while she was busy playing out her fantasies, it is noted that Onira discovered those irregularities as soon as they occurred. While the company appears to have no knowledge of what exactly peoples’ reveries consist of, this is apparently the only concession to privacy in the whole system, and doesn’t prevent the company—and especially the two employees closest to the software, Alexis Barrett (Jessica Lu) and Paul Hammond (Sendhil Ramamurthy)—from exuding a subtle air of menace.

So not like this, as far as we know.

While these elements hint at promising directions and the creators’ thinking—and feel consistent with a world in which Reverie is a more niche product than it should be, as the show suggests—their actual execution feels lacking: there’s a lack of shading and detail that makes me think that, again, not enough thought has been put into them.

Consider the military angle. If the system is available to anyone willing to pay for it, what exactly does DoD hope to obtain from it? What’s stopping potential enemy combatants from figuring out how to game Reverie, or from creating their own versions, nullifying its advantages? A world in which the military-industrial complex was using the system before it became commercial makes sense; the opposite just raises too many questions I’m not confident the show can answer. Meanwhile, the show’s hints that Reverie is Facebook (but VR), while less immediately baffling, feel too large to be played as subtly as the show does. Even in a world in which the sense of privacy as a right has been eroded by technology, Mara, as our outsider POV character and skeptic, should be asking many more questions about Reverie and its implications than she does; instead, her questions feels performative—there to facilitate the plot, rather than to develop her character and help make the setting more complex—and it contributes to a world in which it feels as if Reverie doesn’t exist outside the walls of the Onira-Tech building.

As world-changing technology, Reverie can’t exist in a vacuum: it’s big enough that its footprints should be seen everywhere, in a way they currently aren’t, and means that the show is arguably focusing on its least interesting aspects. At this point, it’s hard to really care about random dream addicts, which we may never see again. The waking world feels much more interesting, and yet we’re barely spending time in it. Heck, consider that a world in which commercially viable perfect VR finally exists suggests the existence commercially not-viable, imperfect VR. An episode about Onira’s rivals, or the not-quite Reveries for people who can’t afford the real thing, interest me far more than Mara’s hostage negotiating, and it’s only been two episodes.

(On a similar note, the show’s Turing-test-passing artificial super-intelligences are also quite distracting. Is this technology that every technology firm has? Is it something only Onira-Tech has? Is it commercially available? If not, why not? As is, the series treats Dylan as both perfectly normal and extraordinary, depending on the effect it wants on a particular scene.)

The most interesting thing about Reverie should not be the questions it raises. There should be questions, true, but they should arise because the ideas the show presents are interesting in and of themselves, not out of a perverse desire to see to what extent one can break the show. And while it’s perfectly fine if Reverie just wants to feature Sameen Shaw being a crisis counselor in various virtual worlds—the series doesn’t have to be Dollhouse or Person of Interest or Westworld if it doesn’t want to bethat isn’t incompatible with a world that makes sense. One doesn’t need to explore a concept in depth in order to give an indication of how it affects the world. It doesn’t have to be plotlines—it can just be lines. One doesn’t need focus to indicate ubiquity—that’s what ubiquity means. Have people who aren’t Reverie users be curious about it. Treat it as if it were the actual big thing people say it is. And for God’s sake, don’t have allegedly smart people who created a way for people to indulge in perfect escapism be surprised when perfect escapism turns out to be addictive, or that people may prefer it to the real world.

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