Somehow Pantheon is AMC Networks’ first traditionally animated series, a style that contrasts with its near-future tale of technological horrors—and how love just might be able to transcend them. Based on short stories by multiple Hugo-winning author and translator Ken Liu (“The Paper Menagerie,” The Dandelion Dynasty), the eight-episode series boasts a tremendous voice cast and a morally complex mystery at its core.
Created by Craig Silverstein (Turn: Washington’s Spies, Nikita)—who’s also writer, showrunner, and executive producer—Pantheon is animated by Titmouse, Inc., whose style you might recognize from shows like Big Mouth, Star Trek: Lower Decks, and The Legend of Vox Machina. The show has several interwoven plot threads, but it’s grounded by the story it begins with: that of young teen Maddie (Katie Chang) and her mother, Ellen (Rosemarie DeWitt). After mourning the death of Maddie’s father, David (Daniel Dae Kim), following a terminal illness, Ellen’s done her best to move on—but Maddie isn’t ready to let go yet. This yearning explodes into something resembling hope when she starts receiving computer chats from a mysterious sender... making Maddie believe that while her dad may no longer have a physical form, it sure seems like his consciousness exists somewhere in cyberspace.
As we, and Maddie, soon learn, there’s a high-tech conspiracy afoot that has massive stakes, not just for her family but the future of the human race, as the plot begins exploring the possibility of “Uploaded Intelligence” that could preserve the human mind after death. (Note: io9 watched the first four Pantheon episodes, but we won’t be spoiling any plot points here.) Elsewhere in the story, we meet Caspian (The Batman’s Paul Dano), an intriguing blend of high-school goth misfit and math genius whose startlingly violent home life with father Cary (Aaron Eckhart) and mother Renee (Taylor Schilling) isn’t what it seems; various shadowy employees of Logorhythms, a mega-corp still slavishly fixated on the philosophy of its late founder (William Hurt); and Chanda (Raza Jaffrey), the star engineer at Logorhythms’ biggest competitor.
While Pantheon’s larger ideas are certainly intriguing, the series’ execution isn’t always pulse-pounding or even dynamic; there are a lot of scenes of people hunched over computer screens, as well as talky sequences in which the various characters hash out their relationship dramas. In those scenes (and there are, again, a lot of them) Pantheon can feel a bit static—but the use of animation justifies itself once we slip into the cloud and experience the surreal world that David and his fellow UIs must learn to navigate and control. Pantheon also has some fun with the idea of what it might be like to have a “ghost in the machine” on your side; early in the series, David hacks the phones of the bullies who’re making Maddie’s life hell, causing Mean Girl chaos galore. There are also scenes in which UI characters communicate with the outside world by taking over every available device and blasting songs with special meaning to whoever needs to hear them—and a particularly lovely moment in which Ellen and David find closure over their fraught relationship by meeting each other as avatars in a fantasy VR game called Reign of Winter. The series also explores the reverse of this (what happens when a UI uses their godlike power to target their enemies?) with chilling results.
Whether or not Pantheon finds its way to a satisfying conclusion remains to be seen, but at the end of the first four episodes there’s still plenty of mystery left for the final four—as well as a lot to unpack about the future of humanity as we know it. The Caspian plot line is the one that’ll keep us watching, as he’s just begun to catch on that his entire life is built on a sinister foundation that could collapse at any moment. Catch the first two episodes of Pantheon today on AMC+ as well as anime streaming service HIDIVE; then, new episodes will drop on both platforms every Thursday.
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