NBC’s Reverie is a new show starring Sarah Shahi (Person of Interest) as former hostage negotiator Mara Kint, who’s brought in by her former boss, Charlie Ventana (Dennis Haysbert, Allstate Insurance commercials) to help revive the comatose user of a new form of technology call Reverie, produced by Onira Tech. The tech creates virtual simulations within the patient’s own mind, making them indistinguishable from reality. It allows the users to bring back, and interact with, lost loved ones, and reenact favorite memories. Some users find the simulated reality better than real life, and try to stay inside Reverie forever. While they’re living out their fantasy life in the dreamworld, their bodies have slipped into comas.
Mara’s job is to enter the coma victim’s dreamworld and talk them out of their Reverie. Because of the nature of the tech, they be involuntarily removed, and once she’s in, neither can Mara. Each patient has a biotech implant that interfaces with their nervous system, allowing the Reverie to feel real, but making it harder to keep the patients safe when things go wrong.
Reverie (the product) was created by scientist Alexis Barrett (Jessica Lu, Awkward). Alexis also created the Jarvis-like AI that runs the Onira headquarters, Dylan. Dylan and Alexis have a past. Mara is trained in the use of Reverie, and her visits are monitored, by Oneirologist Paul Hammond (Sendhil Ramamurthy, Heroes). Oneirology is the scientific study of dreams. Kathryn Morris (Cold Case) plays Monica Shaw, a mysterious Department of Defense official who meets with Charlie to discuss the future of the project and its DoD is funding.
At the beginning of the pilot, Reverie (the product) is still in beta mode and 7 people have gone into comas while using it. The first patient, Tony, is drawing close to death, so the Reverie team decides they need to take drastic action to save him and their product. Bringing in Mara, a hostage negotiator who used to work for Charlie, is the end of the line solution.
The rest of the episode is spent following Mara as she learns about Reverie and investigates Tony’s life in order to find a way to convince him to leave his perfect world, and learning more about Mara’s backstory. Mara was a successful hostage negotiator whose sister was married to a volatile man. When he held Mara’s sister, Jamie, and niece, Brynn, at gunpoint, Mara couldn’t stop him from killing them and himself, even though she was in the next room. Her devastation and loss caused her to leave law enforcement and become a teacher, but she’s never processed her emotions from the murders. Instead, she’s become a raging alcoholic and pill addict.
Tony Lenton was an independent contractor, husband and father who lost his wife, Naomi, to a car accident. He’s become stuck in his Reverie, spending time with the avatar of his late wife, creating the perfect moments he was never able to give her in real life. He believes that he’s only been in his Reverie for 2 days, but he’s actually been there for 2 weeks, while his brother, Jay, and daughter, Iris, keep a bedside vigil over him.
Mara goes through an accelerated training program and learns the Reverie system faster than anyone ever has, even its creators. She moves on to the real thing, and easily finds Tony in his Reverie. But she can’t get him to listen to her, prompting him to throw her off the side of a building. She has to use her safe word (“exodus”) to escape the program before she hits the ground.
This experience leads Mara to realize that her new job is much more like hostage negotiation than she realized. The body is the captive of the soul and the id, who don’t want to let go of the fulfillment they’ve found in Reverie. She does a thorough investigation of Tony’s life, and finds that his wife was terminally ill before she accidentally died. They didn’t have health insurance, so, in order to pay for medical expenses, Tony was working 80-90 hours a week and doing everything to take care of the family.
He was spread so thin and was so exhausted that he doesn’t even remember the car accident that killed his wife. To combat his exhaustion, he was taking an illegal stimulant drug to help him keep going. The drug’s package used a butterfly symbol. The Reverie program misinterpreted the butterfly it saw in his mind and turned it into a symbol of guilt. Reverie creates an actual butterfly which leads Mara to Tony, something that shouldn’t happen. Reverie connected the guilt in Mara’s mind and Tony’s mind and prompted Mara to connect it, too.
Tony’s Reverie mainly takes place in the posh hotel where he proposed to his wife. When he proposed, they were young and poor, didn’t have a room, and were chased out. He’d always wanted to bring his wife back for an entire weekend someday and do it right.
Mara uses her new knowledge of Tony’s life to get through to him, along with sharing her own story of tragedy, guilt, and despair. He comes back to the real world willingly. Once he’s awake, he’s grateful to her for saving him and saving his family the pain of losing him.
Mara is hooked on helping people in a way she couldn’t help her own family, and wants to continue with this work. She’s inspired to go home and clean up her messy apartment, including throwing out her alcohol and pills. She’s almost done, and just needs to flush the pills,* which seems to be the hardest part, when her dead niece appears in her hallway. Mara drops the pills on the floor, and her niece disappears again.
The show has an interesting, timely premise. Reverie was created by Mickey Fisher, creator of Extant and National Geographic’s Mars pseudo documentary colonization series, and an executive producer on The Strain. The potential is there for this show to incorporate cutting edge science and explore its impact on human physiology, culture and the earth.
We all do spend too much time staring at screens and living our lives through devices. We take photos and videos rather than experiencing the event we’re attending. Reverie (the product) is a metaphor for device addiction, or any addiction, taken to it’s potentially fatal extreme. The pilot is fairly blunt about the comparison between escaping pain through staring at screens and using chemicals.
But that’s only the beginning. Reverie is also a version of the astral plane, a self-created alternate reality. The pilot only hinted at the potential directions they could go in to explore Mara’s Reverie world, and eventually the other cast members’ as well. There’s even the potential for shared worlds.
We saw Mara put her hand in fire and breathe water. We saw objects float, so chances are that people will fly eventually. We saw Mara’s niece, the source of her worst nightmares, appear unbidden in someone else’s Reverie while Mara was visiting. Then the ghost appeared in the real world.
We saw the Reverie program creatively interpret the meaning of a symbol, a butterfly, and present the symbol, out of context, to Tony, again and again, as if the program itself was trying to send him a message. The message that he was staying in his Reverie out of guilt, and he needed to wake up. It didn’t work on Tony, but it gave Mara the clue she needed to help him.
The Reverie biotech implant fully incorporates itself into the users neurological system. It becomes a part of them. When Mara goes into Reveries, she’s using an updated, prototype program (Reverie 2.0) that was designed to allow multiple users to interact within the same Reverie. She’s literally the first test subject to try out the first prototype model, though she isn’t told that it’s quite that new.
Because of this she’s monitored very, very closely inside Reverie, also without her knowledge. To be fair, she hasn’t told them she’s an alcoholic and addict, either. Later, she doesn’t tell them about the anomalies she sees inside (or outside) Reverie. By the end of the episode, there’s concern from both sides about her mental health, but neither side has communicated with the other.
Then there’s Dylan, the JARVIS-like AI who runs the Onira building. Or the Alexa-like AI, if you want to go real world. He speaks with a little boy’s voice, and is helpful and eager to please. He is, of course, everywhere in the building. By the end of the episode, we discover that he’s patterned after Alexis’ little brother, but her backstory isn’t filled in any further. We don’t know for sure that human Dylan is dead, or if they’re separated somehow. We don’t know when he died, or if she used a recording of his voice to create Dylan the AI’s voice. There’s an ominous War Games reference in Alexis’ scene with Dylan though, so chances are the AI isn’t as harmless as his voice sounds.
On the other hand, it seems clear that, just as Mara is working for Reverie to help keep other families from suffering the kind of terrible loss she went through, Alexis must have a similar motivation for creating Reverie. The loved ones in each Reverie are created by uploading everything the user has from that person: social media, photos, videos, etc. Was the first Reverie made for Alexis to reconnect with Dylan, using whatever she has left of her brother?
Reverie itself is acting strangely. The biotech implant is alive. Mara is the very first person to use version 2.0. Might it be bonding/imprinting with her in some unique way? Might Dylan and the live implant merge at some point in an android body to create a new little brother?
Dylan the AI appears to either have Dylan the boy’s memories, or to have been told about him by Alexis. Like JARVIS, Dylan has a personality and emotions. Is Dylan part of Reverie? Dylan seems very attentive to and eager to help Mara. Could he be moved by her story and the plight of the people in comas, especially if he’s part of the Reverie programming? Could he be trying to help fix Mara, and trying to help within Reverie?
The idea that the implant is alive is as fascinating as the Reverie VR simulation itself. Things that are alive inherently have the ability to grow and evolve. To have agency, even their own plans and dreams. We need to know a lot more about how Reverie works.
Mara really should have read the fine print before she accepted the implant. Will she and Reverie become symbiotic? Will she and everyone who gets a 2.0 implant develop telepathy with each other? Will they be able to meet
on the astral plane in a shared Reverie at will?
Will she become a slave to the Reverie code, if the show takes a darker turn? DoD involvement suggests they want to be able to send out orders telepathically, or use Reveries for training exercises. They could theoretically want Reverie to help with veterans’ PTSD, but, realistically, the Department of Defense doesn’t pay to develop that kind of technology.
They only pay to develop tech that gives them an advantage in combat or surveillance. As a surveillance tool, the Reverie implant could eventually be tweaked to transmit data to a satellite, in addition to its use as a communication tool between implanted soldiers/spies. And implant wearers could be forced to follow the orders that come back through the satellite or from other implant wearers, with embedded punishments also included in the Reverie package, of course.
But right now, let’s think about the current warm, fuzzy purpose of the show. This premise is more uplifting than most science fiction these days, since Reverie itself appears to be a benign tool for now, and Mara has been called in to do good work. I’m going to bask in that for a while, and wait to see which dystopian direction it will go in if it gets a season 2.
Onira definitely needs to do a psych eval on prospective clients for this thing, but they probably won’t. What for-profit company would? Users should have a certain amount of mental stability so they don’t give in to the seduction of their perfect world, then end up in a coma or dead.
Tony complained that he didn’t consent to having someone sent into his Reverie to save him from himself, so there’ll be another legal form for Reverie clients to sign before their adventure from now on.
Reverie’s portrayal of Mara’s alcoholism and addiction was like the Disneyland version of the illnesses. Her only symptom was a messy apartment? She was so lively and engaged during her class, you couldn’t even tell she’d been drinking moments before. Which, okay, functional alcoholics often don’t appear drunk, since it’s their normal state. But she should have had duller eyes, been late for things, and shown other types of erratic behavior and physical symptoms. Especially if she was skipping drinks and pills while working with Reverie. I’ve never known an alcoholic to maintain that happy, sweet, patient, outgoing personality when they were missing a drink, or their drinking schedule was even threatened. That’s without even taking the pills into consideration.
Reverie did take advantage of the fantasy scenes to give us some stunning visuals, from a sky full of hot air balloons, to mandala doorknobs, to Mara’s luminaria labyrinth memory, to the gorgeous interiors of Tony’s hotel. Alexis’ holographic checkerboard and the guilt butterfly weren’t bad either. I’m looking forward to seeing what else the Reveries will bring us as Mara visits new worlds. While the show very clearly has the glossy look and camera work of a broadcast network show, that budget does allow them to do some great CGI work if they want to.
The code words that Mara says to enter and exit Reveries:
Apertus– Latin for open, but also free, public, exposed, clear, manifest, frank, uncovered. That has some interesting implications, doesn’t it? Reverie could be used as a therapy tool, or a torture/interrogation device.
Exodus– a sudden mass departure; the book of the bible that describes the sudden, mass departure of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, led by Moses across the Red Sea. There could also be implications for the future here. Wouldn’t the manufacturer want clients to see Reverie as the place one escapes to, not the place one escapes from?
*Please don’t flush unused meds down the toilet. Other than a short list of hardcore painkillers, the FDA asks that you find a drug take-back center, which most US communities have set up, or crush them and mix them with something unpalatable like dirt or kitty litter, then toss them in your household trash. There are measurable levels of prescriptions drugs in our waters which affect fish and wildlife in a harmful way, and will eventually affect humans if the concentration continues to grow.
Images courtesy of NBC.