First look UK TV review: The Peripheral
James R | On 21, Oct 2022
“It can all be rather confusing, even for us. Perhaps we should stick to the most urgent matters at hand and trust that the secondary details will fall into place.” Those are the words of Lev (JJ Feild) in the dizzying sci-fi Peripheral, as he tries to explain to Flynne (Chloë Grace Moretz) what’s going on. You suspect he’s talking to the audience as well, and that attempt to be at once smart and simple is where the series both succeeds and sometimes stumbles.
Created by Scott Smith and based on the William Gibson novel of the same name, the ambitious thriller takes us forward in time to 2032, where Flynne and her brother, Burton (Jack Reynor), are struggling to look after their sick mother, whose medical bills are getting steep. They make ends meet by playing VR games, with Flynne stepping in to help when things get too difficult for Burton. One day, Flynne tries out an experimental piece of kit to get some extra cash, immersing her in a sleek mission that sees her pretending to be a man and tasked with wooing a woman. What we later learn, though, is that it all feels so real because, well, it actually is: the simulation transports Flynne’s consciousness almost 70 years further into the future, where she is running around 2099 London in someone else’s avatar.
That’s where the title comes from – a “peripheral” is an avatar that a user can digitally hop into in the future. But as well as peripherals, we’re also introduced to sims, stubs and a wealth of other terms, some of which are common sense – haptics – and others that slip past without really sinking in. This isn’t initially a huge obstacle, because the show is busy whisking us through the shiny streets of a future-city that’s as jaw-dropping as it is sinister. People swiftly pop up with weapons that fire sonic waves while motorbike chases and shootouts are slickly mounted. But then, suddenly, things pause so characters can share lots of exposition, except none of it particularly helps to make sense of anything.
That imbalance in the screenwriting can make for a frustrating watch, especially as the show feels so concerned with its glossy VR world that we don’t get much of a sense of Flynne and Burton as real people in their actual world – even a romantic subplot with a cop (Alex Hernandez) is swiftly forgotten in favour of introducing more convoluted concepts and plot twists.
The cast are all game for the genre hijinks, from Charlotte Riley’s mysterious Aelita to Gary Carr’s seemingly friendly Wilf, and Chloë Grace Moretz is excellent at capturing the excitement and trepidation of finding one’s self in a whole new environment where people are immediately hunting her down. The result, then, is an entertaining ride but one that can’t decide how clever or simple it wants to be – the fact that this is exec-produced by Westworld’s Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan feels very apt, especially when a set piece involving some body horror becomes too gruesome for comfort. With less intellectual posturing than HBO’s cyber-Western, there’s a hope that The Peripheral’s elaborate world-building will settle down into something more satisfying. Until then, well, there are enough urgent matters at hand to keep viewers distracted.