Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s best efforts, the metaverse has a long way to go before it becomes a reality. The only newsworthy thing the social media founder achieved with his costly virtual reality platform is applying functional legs onto stiff digital torsos. Even then, a report from UploadVR revealed that the keynote presentation at Meta Connect, Meta’s annual conference, was staged with motion capture animation. Perhaps we will not see the theoretical concept in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, science fiction animated shows such as Pantheon give us an idea of what awaits us in the years to come.
Helmed by Craig Silverstein and animated by Titmouse, Inc., Pantheon is the first adult animated show to premiere on AMC+. As with many firsts, Pantheon has a lot riding on it, considering many entertainment studios are removing animated works without notice. Fortunately, AMC+ exceeds expectations by exploring how uploading a person’s consciousness to a digital world can have real-world ramifications.
Based on a series of short stories by award-winning author Ken Liu, Pantheon follows Maddie (Katie Chang), a teenage girl from the near future. Like many adolescents her age, Maddie is going through a rough stage of her life. She has no friends, her peers ruthlessly bully her at school, and she has an estranged relationship with her mother, Ellen (Rosemarie DeWitt). To make matters worse, her father, David (Daniel Dae Kim), died from an experiment gone wrong, or so she thought.
Late one night, Maddie receives a mysterious chat message on her laptop computer, which reveals himself as her deceased father. Eventually, the teen discovers that a tech company named Logorhythms secretly uploaded David’s consciousness and trapped him in their servers. Though David’s digital resurrection shocks the teenager, she soon realizes he is not the only one in the Cloud. With the assistance of digital wunderkind Caspian (Paul Dano) and investment manager turned avenged uploaded woman named Laurie (Heather Lind), Maddie attempts to free her dad from his digital prison. At the same time, she uncovers a conspiracy that threatens the world as she knows it.
Plenty of television series explore what happens when humans transform their physical bodies into a bunch of zeros and ones, like the comedic darling Upload and The CW cult teen drama The 100. However, what makes Pantheon a worthwhile experience is that Silverstein and his team do not overwhelm the series with boring exposition and technobabble. Instead, the science fiction drama highlights the relationship between Maddie and David with the utmost care. Within the first two episodes, we witness the teenager and her father bond over their love of open-world video games and wacky conspiracy theories with the utilization of flashback sequences. Thanks to these moments between the two characters, David’s first phone call to his child from the digital realm is earned in Episode 2.
As much as the characters are enjoyable to watch, the voice cast is sometimes lackluster. Pantheon may have a stacked, talented cast with heavy weights, such as Kim and Dano, but they do not bring anything special to their roles. Let’s face it—they sound a little too much like themselves than the characters they are portraying. One can argue that it is a missed opportunity for the series to overlook established voice-over actors for live-action stars as they have the training and experience to produce livelier takes on the characters. With that said, the actors in the show do an admirable job as the adult animated show calls for a more natural performance.
Trepid voice acting aside, the show’s real star is the animation. With animation production powerhouse Titmouse, Inc. crafting the animation, Pantheon’s real and digital world becomes a visual treat for fans of the medium. The character designs and movement may be more grounded than cartoony fares such as Adventure Time and Bee and PuppyCat. Yet, the scenes become vibrant when Maddie or Caspian transports to the digital world via VR headsets and gloves.
One sequence that shows the animators cutting loose is when Laurie explains to David how he can manipulate his source code in Episode 4. In the scene, Maddie pushes David violently to realize that the true source of his power is his love for his family. Once he evolves past his illusions, the scene transforms into a smorgasbord of data and code. It is a trippy moment emphasizing the power, and perhaps danger, uploads can bring to humanity.
Pantheon is not a groundbreaking animated series by any means. Still, it is the type of science fiction drama that asks big questions about humanity’s place in an increasingly digital world. Thankfully, the series is keen enough to know that as much as its high-concept ideas appeal to audiences of the genre, the elements that will get them to invest in the AMC+ show are the highly developed characters and conflicts. Mark Zuckerberg may have a hard time convincing us of the benefits of the metaverse and virtual reality, but Pantheon makes it look cool.
All episodes for Pantheon season one are now available on AMC+.