For any adult still avoiding animation out of some stubborn refusal to understand its advantages as a both visual and storytelling medium, “Pantheon” makes its ambitions known from the get-go. After the eerie opening theme, scoring a fluorescent string of code smashing through a Greek statue, the show cuts to a high-school classroom, where a blunt voiceover lays the stakes bare. “Most of the girls in my class completely missed the moment when the world began to end,” teen outcast Maddie Kim (Katie Chang) tells us, the laptops blinking in unison as if in agreement. It’s a fittingly arresting start to this unnerving series, which taps an all-star cast to meld micro character work with macro questions about technology that may never have a satisfying answer.
Created by Craig Silverstein, and based on Ken Liu’s short stories, “Pantheon” layers conspiracies on top of the even more bitter truth at every turn. It’s also smart to introduce its increasingly overwhelming world via Maddie’s grief over her father, David (Daniel Dae Kim), whose death left her and her mother, Ellen (Rosemarie DeWitt), at an emotional standstill. In the first episode, Maddie discovers that David managed to live on, in a sense, through the top secret development of “U.I.” (i.e. “uploaded intelligence,” both a play and deviation from the well-trod concept of artificial intelligence). By the fourth episode made available before the show’s Sept. 1 premiere on AMC+, Maddie, David, and Ellen find themselves at the crux of a crucial turning point in history with no roadmap or precedent to follow.
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The combination of angular, occasionally surreal animation from production house Titmouse and profoundly human performances from Chang, Kim and DeWitt make the Kim family feel as real — or at least as personal — as the show’s otherwise lofty concept requires. Other storylines opt for a blunter, more cerebral style, especially when circling the mysterious microchip conglomerate behind David’s regeneration founded by a long-gone Steve Jobs figure (embodied by William Hurt, whose steady voice guides one of his final performances). As embittered co-workers playing house, Taylor Schilling and Aaron Eckhart throw poison darts at each other as Paul Dano, playing their introverted son, leans into a teenage monotone. Raza Jaffrey, as brilliant programmer Chanda, has one of the harder jobs, as his character gets caught in a vicious loop beyond his wildest nightmares. Other notable names in the “Pantheon” credits include Scoot McNairy, Ron Livingston, Maude Apatow and Anika Noni Rose, all lending their voices to scripts that, though strong, need that extra jolt of emotion to keep the show’s ever-expanding mythos rooted in a recognizable reality.
Given enough time and patience, the vast web of the overlapping ideas in “Pantheon” might solidify into a deeply satisfying sci-fi story. Whether or not it will get the chance, or else snag the audience that might be particularly intrigued by it, is another story that only time (and the reach of AMC+) can tell.
“Pantheon” premieres September 1 on AMC+ and HIDIVE.
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