One of my favorite songs is Cat Stevens’ “Moonshadow,” a song about not being particularly dismayed at the prospect of the human body completely deteriorating bit by bit. Hinting that when we are free by the shackles of flesh, we find a new inner peace and freedom from the burdens of life. Pantheon, the new animated series from AMC deals with a similar quandary. What if losing the body was just the beginning of something grander and more terrible? Now on AMC+ and HiDive (in the United States, anyways), Pantheon is adapted from KenLiu's short stories "The Gods Will Not Be Chained,, "The Gods Will Not Be Slain," and "The Gods Have Not Died in Vain,'' published in The Apocalypse Triptych series of books, which I suppose hints that things don’t exactly go swimmingly for the world at large in the series, but I’ll try to avoid spoilers.
Pantheon mixes many elements of conspiracy, speculative sci-fi, family drama, and apocalyptic predictions, but for the sake of brevity I’m inclined to call the show a techno-drama. MaddieKim (KatieChang) is a freshman highschool girl who’s bright, bullied, and feeling lonely after the death of her father, David(Daniel Dae Kim). When she starts receiving mysterious messages on her computer, she realizes that David did not completely pass from the earthly plane of existence and that his brain was scanned and uploaded into a hard drive by Logorhythms, a thinly veiled stand-in for Apple, complete with its own deceased founder, StephenHolmstrom (played by WilliamHurt in his final role). Maddie and her father begin to realize that he’s not the only Uploaded Intelligence (UI) out there. At the same time, an aloof but clever high school boy named Caspian(Paul Dano) is exploring Logorhythms and UI, only to realize they’re keeping an even closer eye on him.
Perhaps AMC was feeling some trepidation taking on their first animated series as the producers, showrunner, writers, and most of the acting talent don’t come out of animation. CraigSilverstein, who spearheaded the series, previously worked on the 2010 NikitaTV series, among similar shows, with the cast including Paul Dano, Katie Chang, and Aaron Eckhart, who have either minimal or no voice acting roles. This initially gave me some pause since celebrity stunt casting from actors that don’t engage with animation can backfire, resulting in stilted performances (see most American Ghibli dubs) but I found the cast to be enjoyable, especially Katie Chang as Maddie, and Rosemarie Dewitt as her mother, Ellen. And it’s not too much of a reach for Paul Dano to play an aloof weirdo anyways. Pantheon eschews a 20 minute runtime for 40 minutes, giving the show a pace akin to Better Call Saul, or its cartoon contemporaries, Invincibleand Arcane. All these elements combine, for better or worse, to create a feeling more akin to “prestige” TV than other animated shows. This can be reflected in the understated and more reserved animation from beloved studio Titmouse (The Venture Bros, The Legend of Vox Machina). The animation has a clean aesthetic, and at times it’s almost a little too grounded and sterile looking, with nary a single smear, stretch, or bounce throughout the series. Early on, the show depicted mostly regular people in regular suburbia and I wondered why they even bothered making this a cartoon. As the show carries on it introduces grander visual set pieces combined with how the UI’s now interact and perceive themselves even though they no longer have flesh and blood bodies. So while it doesn’t have this grandiose spectacle element, it does show a very particular vision in distinguishing between the real world, the virtual world, and how they encroach on each other.
There’s been a recent uptick in “mature” cartoons recently, but there was something kinda refreshing about the bulk of the characters being adults and the show addressing themes like loss, surveillance, parenthood, and technology’s effect on the world around us. A lot of what is being sold as “mature” animation is stuff like Love, Death & Robots which is basically warmed over Heavy Metal or shows shamelessly cribbing from Rick & Morty’s playbook. Pantheon is a world where corporations purge the mind into perpetual indentured servitude and the world’s equivalent of Steve Jobs has become a messianic figure within his own corporation. There is a throughline of the inherent callousness and inhumanity of corporations and the depths they’ll sink to (not unlike Cyberpunk: Edgerunners), but the spiritual and philosophical implications of Pantheon really grabbed me. But these are plot points that could be hard to feature in ads for an animated show, especially when the bulk of contemporaries are very action focused. The key image/poster of the show features Maddie alongside her avatar from a thinly veiled World of Warcraftreference, a game which also becomes a sort of ersatz home for her digitized father. While this fantasy world is certainly an aspect of the story, it’s not really the crux, and this image makes it seem like the show is about Maddie having dual identities rather than a combination of family drama and conspiratorial techno-thriller (not to mention having a plot point revolving around MMORPGs feels a tad mid 00’s).
Pantheon feels a bit like the sort of show that might go unnoticed only for years later people go “hey remember Pantheon? Why didn’t they make more of that?” The season is 8 episodes long, with the final episode premiering on the 13th of October (though true to the nature of the show, it's been leaked out online). Pantheon certainly isn’t as flashy as Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, which is currently the talk of Twitter, but that understated quality makes it stand out all the more. In the landscape of streaming animated shows Pantheon is very singular and very much worth your time.
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