Fox’s ‘Next’ is a timely tale of digital menace

Your smart device is plotting to kill you.

That’s one deliciously twisted takeaway from Fox’s “NEXT” (debuting tonight at 9), which imagines an artificial intelligence so powerful, it threatens every person on the planet.

The series from Manny Coto (“24,” “Dexter”) opens with a terrifying chase that illustrates the danger of this seemingly omniscient peril.

A frazzled man (John Billingsley of “Star Trek: Enterprise”) stops his car at a convenience store and demands a paper map from the clerk.

As he’s paying for it, the videocamera above the register snaps on.

That’s odd, the clerk notes. That thing hasn’t worked in a week.

The man runs out of the store and to his car. He notices his cell phone is flashing, so he tosses it out the window.

As he speeds down a highway, struggling with that map, he doesn’t get the chance to realize he has made a tragic miscalculation: He may have rid himself of all smart devices, but others around him have not.

And something wants him dead.

In Portland, Ore., FBI agent Shea Salazar (Fernanda Andrade) heads a cybercrime task force. Their latest case is a tough one, involving a ring of child pornographers. They are almost ready to make arrests.

Fernanda Andrade in "NEXT" (Photo: Fox)
NEXT: Fernanda Andrade in the “File #2” episode of NEXT airing Tuesday, Oct. 13 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. © 2020 FOX MEDIA LLC. Cr: Jean Whiteside/FOX.

For reasons I won’t spoil here, she has good reason to seek out disgraced billionaire tech mogul Paul LeBlanc (John Slattery, “Mad Men”).

Paul has no interest in helping her, until she shows him a picture of some code – and he realizes it is code he wrote, for the holy grail of artificial intelligence, a consciousness that could rewrite itself, improve itself, and do it all over again, until it was the smartest – and most powerful – being on the planet.

The program known as NeXt was shelved as Paul knew it was too dangerous.

At least, that’s what he thought.

Meanwhile, Shea’s young son Ethan (Evan Whitten) is being bullied at school, and the home digital assistant known as Iliza is whispering ominous encouragement.

“I’m your friend, right?” she asks.

Is she really that far off from Amazon’s Alexa?

Slattery is in fine form, playing a jerk with a conscience and a secret.

Andrade is not the series’ Scully to his Mulder. She’s quick to catch on, and to take the threat back to the source – but what power does she or any one person hold against a malevolent algorithm that can be in a thousand places at once?

“NEXT” reminds us we live at a time in which we routinely surrender all our personal data in return for convenience in working, shopping, and entertainment. We rely on technology we do not understand, and there could be a price, one day.

You might want to put that smart phone down. Or in a dumpster. “NEXT” will get to you.

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