Thank you to AMC+ for providing early screeners for Pantheon and making this review possible. Pantheon premieres on September 1 on AMC+.
Since the beginnings of the early society, there has always been that philosophical question about what makes someone really human. Is it something physical, mental, emotional, or universal? Being a news writer, I’m not that educated on the subject, but I can say that this idea has been explored multiple times in many forms. Whether that be through movies, shows, books, or games, this confounding topic never ceases to fail in sparking such diverse interpretations and Pantheon presents this in a realistic way through the modern world.
Pantheon follows an interconnected storyline following Maddie (Katie Chang), a teenage girl who gets bullied at school and resorts to online anonymity to cope. However, she soon finds help from a mysterious stranger who turns out to be her deceased father David (Daniel Dae Kim), who was transformed into an ‘uploaded intelligence’ thanks to a secret experiment. With this revelation, Maddie soon uncovers a global conspiracy that could change the world forever.
Inspired by Ken Liu’s short story “The Gods Will Not Be Chained” from The End Is Nigh, this show takes full advantage of its source material and actually manages to create something that does a great job addressing its main themes all while setting up an intriguing story about ‘real’ and artificial humanity. From the very first episode, the show makes its clear about what its main story is about: the creation and usage of technologies, more specifically what the show calls “uploaded intelligence” or UI. While the show may throw you in quickly in the first two episodes, it allows itself to take its time in the later episodes, utilizing Maddie’s familial conflict to develop some depth that was only touched on in the beginning through flashbacks. Those mid-season episodes also provide more helpful context, both emotional and somewhat philosophical, as to Maddie’s situation between her mother and father and why they have differing views on this technology. Even though I had a hard time understanding from those first episodes, these episodes actually helped me out and I can see why Silverstein decided to get the setup out of the way.
While this show does have its focus set on Maddie’s journey to discover what’s really going on, it offers different perspectives on the topic through two other characters: Caspian (Paul Dano), a teen who’s in a similar situation to Maddie (though with a more complex family life), and Chandra (Raza Jaffrey), a back-end developer whose life changes after a secret meeting. Both of these characters have their impact on the overall story, but their incorporation completely differs from one another. Caspian’s story provides more of the emotional progress in the show whereas Chandra’s story contributes more to the mystery and conspiracy aspects of the show in a straightforward way. In these few episodes, I could see myself sympathizing with Caspian more than Chandra and taking some time to see his life and the world around him slowly unfold made me actually feel somewhat emotional. Watching his high school life (which I definitely relate to as a Gen Z-er going through a similar phase) and his at-home life provide these different environments for his character does a good job capturing a realistic view of that living situation. However, seeing the twists and turns that came with each character involved in his story honestly made me feel both heart-warming and (sort of) heart-broken for a character like Caspian and seeing how his story plays out overtime made me emotionally invested in this show.
Paul Dano voice of “Caspian” and Krystina Alabado voice of “Hannah” – Pantheon – Season 1, Episode 2 – Photo Credit: Titmouse Inc/AMC
That’s not to say Chandra’s story isn’t important at all. From the trailer, you could have guessed that he’d have a role in the assimilation of these UIs. However, the steps that it takes to get there impact the overall world where as Maddie’s and Caspian’s stories are more focused on the familial and emotional elements. Chandra is an integral character to the conflict between two opposing companies whose purpose is to utilize these UIs for their own benefits, though it expands later on into the bigger issue that comes with competition and technology. From what I’ve seen so far, I can only describe Chandra’s journey in this show as being a Groundhog Day situation. However, once you get further into the series, you’ll be able to grasp on what’s really going on and how the show’s setup with all these characters impacts the greater conflict of understanding humanity.
In several ways, the stories within Pantheon have similar tones and themes to a more recent video game, Detroit: Become Human. If you haven’t heard of this game, it takes place in a near-future timeline where billion-dollar companies have developed androids to provide services and tackles the same topic as Pantheon. Detroit and Pantheon both follow a similar format, utilizing the three character storyline and setup to provide multiple perspectives on their worlds and their societies. In their own ways, Detroit and Pantheon both benefit from their interpretations of the relationship between humanity and technology. Where Detroit presents its story through the creations of mankind and their adaptation to all walks of life (provided the player’s choices throughout), Pantheon shows its story through mankind and their connection and understanding of how these UIs could really be the ones they loved. The show brings the concept down to a level that could be easily understood through linearity while adding twists and turns that challenge the viewer’s past notions throughout each episode that build to the bigger world of Pantheon. The show clearly knows what it wants to tackle and recognizes how its presentation of the themes can create a basic foundation for sociology and I can commend this show for its take.
However, while some viewers appreciate what this show has to offer, there are some problems in the show that slightly hinders the potential this show could have. As said before, the show will throw you straight into its main story while saving its depth in the later episodes, so expect a really quick beginning that slowly develops its substance. This might be the show’s biggest problem as it gets through showing the circumstances of these characters briefly to provide the basis for their personalities and lifestyles. For example, Maddie is shown to be constantly bullied at school by a gang of girls and the show only addresses that for just a bit. Luckily, Pantheon does build up the connection between those secondary plots into the main storyline and the show’s execution of these plots integrates its main and side characters together well.
Besides this, there are some cultural references that feel a bit basic, as seen in the first episode, but I was able to get over that pretty quickly and continue the rest of the show. There’s some dark web/conspiracy bits here and there, though it’s mostly limited to the communication between Maddie and Caspian. However, the shows plays this off as another aspect of its themes of curiosity and comprehension. However, it does so in a way that feels more realistic and contributes to how the show tackles the way these characters view the world. Maddie, Caspian, and Chandra have this growing curiosity about the secrets of technologies that impact them on so many different levels and even though the conspiracy bits are a bit overplayed, Pantheon doesn’t have a need to fully rely on this part of the show for anything more but for advancing its thematic message. As David says in the first episode, “You should always seek out proof and you should never stop asking questions.”
Overall, Pantheon‘s understanding of the definition of humanity through the familial lens helps create not only a great and needed emotional conflict, but an in-depth, creative look on how our interaction with technology is changing everyday. The use of animation in this show helped create its characters feel fluid and realistic as I nearly felt each and every character on a deeper level. The worlds and environments in this show are continually diverse, from the digital realm to the ‘real’ reality and the artistry is pretty beautiful. The stakes are progressively getting higher as these characters discover more about what’s really happening and everything just seems like it’s heading into a “curiosity killed the cat” scenario. Honestly, there’s a lot I really want to touch on in this show since it definitely knows where it’s going, but we’ll have to wait and see where the lives of Maddie, Caspian, and Chandra are heading as Pantheon is proving itself to be one of AMC+’s more visually and emotionally intense shows.
Pantheon premieres September 1 on AMC+.