Reverie gives us characters with heart, thoughts for the future, and an immersive world that feels like it could be real
The Show: Reverie
The Network: NBC
The Genre: Science Fiction, Drama
The Challenge: Give a show four episodes with which to draw you in, impress you, challenge you, make you feel something deeply. Four episodes for the chance to find out if you care what happens to the characters you’re watching enough to become invested in the story. If after all that, it does none of those things for you? Then no biggie. You gave it a good shot and you can move on. But if you love it, you’ll be glad you stuck around.
The Premise: Former hostage negotiator Mara Kint (Sarah Shahi) is approached by her old boss, Charlie Ventana (Dennis Haysbert) with a job offer. She is quickly swept into the world of Onira-Tech and their Reverie software, which allows users to recreate their fondest memories or live out their deepest fantasies inside a virtual reality. As with any cutting-edge technology, it seems, there’s a catch: Users are becoming so addicted to Reverie, that they are refusing to leave. Mara’s job is to enter their Reveries and convince them to return to the real world.
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Complicated by the loss of her sister and niece in a hostage situation carried out by her brother-in-law, she faces her shortcomings and channels them into a purpose: saving those who have fallen prey to Reverie. Of course, it’s not as simple as the hostage negotiation she’s used to. The mind is a complex place, and people’s innermost wants and fears can be surprising, even dangerous.
With the assistance of Onira-Tech founder Alexis Barrett (Jessica Lu) and Reverie expert Paul Hammond (Sendhil Ramamurthy), Mara navigates picturesque worlds, from a man reliving his perfect date, to a James Bond fantasy, a bank heist, and more. When she starts experiencing hallucinations (dubbed “derealizations” by the show) of her niece Brynn (Madeleine McGraw), Mara is forced to face the reality of the Reverie technology and what secrets Onira-Tech might be keeping from her. Perfectly paced to keep you wanting more, Reverie’s first four episodes have a lot of layers to them, and really make us curious about what the future of VR technology might look like.
Reverie’s striking visuals are serious eye candy
From the very first shot, we can see just how carefully crafted Reverie’s visual aspects are. It’s no surprise, then, to learn that film mastermind Steven Spielberg served as an executive producer for the show. Extensive sets cover every possible detail of every Reverie, from realistic office spaces, picture-perfect skylines, elegant ballrooms, and even a helicopter(!). There is always at least one new set every episode, as every week the show introduces a new victim and a new Reverie, some with multiple locations. No detail is spared in making these spaces feel believable and as elegant as one’s mind could dream up. After all, we are exploring people’s deepest desires and fantasies. The Onira-Tech offices, in addition, are as cutting-edge as the Reverie technology itself; full of clean, modern spaces and offices.
Also notable is the use of color, which runs rampant within Reveries. As a contrast to the stark white office space of Onira-Tech, the Reveries we’ve seen through these first four episodes are full of colorful sunsets, extravagant architecture, fancy clothing, and a general vibe of life and imagination. Importantly, it manages to be eye-catching on both fronts, for entirely different reasons. The cool, calm earth tones of the real world feel grounded and clean, and very much based in reality. Whereas, the rich hues of each episode’s fantasy sequences are warm toned, and feel almost nostalgic in nature for it.
“What’s your all-time favorite memory? The most beautiful, mind-blowing place you can remember? What if you could revisit that moment any time you wanted?”
It’s a stunning show, in every way. From the serenity of the lantern scene with Mara, to the high-intensity robbery of episode 3, the creative team knows exactly how to set a tone (even subliminally) and make it appealing in the process. The insane color palette of the Reverie sequences is bright, punchy, and really feels like a fantasy world with the sheer amount of detail and elegance we’ve seen. Simply put, the show is a whole feast for the eyes.
Disregarding every other aspect of the show, the cinematography alone is enough to convince someone to check it out. Seriously, if you’ve already watched all four episodes, do yourself a favor: go back and take a look at some of the shots, particularly from the first two, and keep an eye on the color intensity and level of detail that comprises the Reveries. It’s an absolutely phenomenal aspect of the show.
The show sets up a “patient of the week” format which is quickly subverted
Most procedurals follow a quite specific formula when it comes to every episode, usually presenting with a case, followed by some hasty detective work, an attempt to solve the situation, a surprise revelation, and finally, a resolution (usually a success). Simply rinse and repeat, and you have another episode, and, soon enough, a season (or ten), maybe with a few multi-episode plotlines thrown into the mix at some point. What Reverie does differently is in the way it approaches its episodic format in the midst of a more serialized story: it works the everyday exploits of Mara and her dealings at Onira-Tech into the bigger picture.
It isn’t Sarah Shahi’s first rodeo with a show of this nature, given her prominent role in Person of Interest, which, quite similarly, integrated its everyday plots into an overarching story. In developing characters, it is so important to not only focus on the action, but the mundane. The little things that show their morals, what they value, and their personality put into action.
“How certain are you that you’re sitting in this diner right now? That that cup of coffee is real? That I’m real? Now, imagine what happened tonight happens again tomorrow, and for the next 100 days after that, and there is no cure.”
Instead of doing full episodes dedicated to furthering the show’s main storyline, it allows for this development by inserting these bits and pieces in between every episode’s focus character. This way, we aren’t just thrown into a plot point we never saw coming. Instead, the pieces were there all along, but only if you pay attention. Ultimately, this seems exactly what the show is heading towards, starting with “Blue Is the Coldest Color.” A marked departure from the first three episodes, it follows the story of a stolen Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) and the secrets Onira-Tech is hiding, specifically those of co-founder Oliver Hill (John Fletcher). We also learn about the Dark Reverie, essentially the Deep Web for things Onira-Tech programmed their software not to do.
The episode begs a lot of new questions, particularly, what exactly is Onira-Tech hiding? If they were willing to completely ignore the existence of a co-founder, as well as not disclosing the fact that Mara was experiencing the same side effects as him, what else don’t we know? This slow-burn style makes for compelling TV that leaves us wanting more after every episode, even if not everything about it is what we’d consider to be perfect.
Diverse actors, diverse characters, diverse stories
One quick glance at the cast of characters of Reverie shows just how diverse they are. An Iranian-American woman heads the show, with a main cast filled out by actors and actresses of Indian, African, Asian, and white backgrounds. Additionally, three out of the five main roles are played by women. A notable aspect of said roles are in the types of characters being presented: Mara is a hardworking negotiator who does exceptionally well in her job; Alexis is an entrepreneur and tech mogul with a successful company; Monica is a high-ranking liaison for the US Department of Defense.
Candid discussions of mental health issues also happen to be a large part of the show, particularly in the way the Reverie technology is used. Could it possibly be used for therapy purposes? Possibly, and it seems Alexis is hopeful of that becoming a reality. The loss of her family has clearly affected Mara in profound ways, if her introductory scene of pill-popping and booze-chugging is any indication, as well as her mind’s decision to have her derealizations be of her niece Brynn. The main focus of the latest episode was Glenn, a young man with extreme OCD, who, in a roundabout way, is able to use Reverie to take some control back of his life. We theorize we’ll be seeing a lot more discussions of the psyche and possible good Reverie could do as the season goes on.
“Fantasy is a window to character and conflict. If you know what someone dreams, you know something about them. What Mara is doing is picking her way through people’s dreams and learning about them in order to help them. We needed to get as many different people as possible so as to have as many different dreams as possible, because otherwise it would start to feel monotonous.”
– Tom Szentgyorgi (co-executive producer)
The show isn’t completely devoid of tropes, but also doesn’t rely too heavily on them. Despite Alexis and Mara suffering from obvious tragic backstories, both are explored in new ways. Alexis has channeled the grief from her brother’s death into her passion for technology, particularly in the AI modeled after him. Mara’s trauma from the death of her sister’s family is a huge part of her. However, unlike many flawed heroes who use their pain as reasons for anger, violence or, most often, revenge, Mara’s connection to her past is something that is very much a part of her. Yet, she isn’t portrayed as ‘broken’ either. Her past is something that motivates her to do what she does, and affects her like one would expect any trauma to.
Perhaps the most notable trope that Reverie actually falls into is Alexis’s Asian Hair Streak, along with her demonstrated passive attitude (tech genius with no social skills). Although, if her recent actions are any consolation, it seems that could actually be a ruse. Either way, one thing the show definitely gets right is the way they deal with her being a woman in power in a tech field. Alexis herself acknowledges how hard it is, and how she struggles to be taken seriously in fear of being seen as aggressive or weak.
The importance of diverse stories in media can’t be stressed enough, and Reverie manages to deliver the experiences and perspectives of the oft-underrepresented in a fun, while thought-provoking, sci-fi romp.
Sarah frickin’ Shahi
Okay. Look. Like we said, this isn’t Shahi’s sci-fi debut. She played the badass Sameen Shaw in Person of Interest for four seasons, and was damn good at it. The reason it even warrants a mention is the complete and total juxtaposition between Shaw and Mara: Shaw, a self-diagnosed sociopath with a personality disorder, and Mara, an extremely emotion-driven negotiator who puts extreme care into the things she says.
The stark contrast between the two characters serves as an attestation to her incredible acting range and ability to play, essentially, polar opposites. On top of it all, Mara is an extremely complicated character from the start. She has a complex backstory, and a very specific way in which it affects her. We know her motives, and we understand why she does what she does, none of which would be possible without Shahi’s incredible portrayal of the subtleties of her character.
“But [Mara’s] somebody who in a way, for her to be able to work on her own stuff, she needs to be able to put families together, ’cause in a way that’s kind of the only way she’s gonna fix herself.”
– Sarah Shahi (Mara Kint)
Somehow, through this Mara still manages to be unpredictable at times. Really, who else was shocked when she didn’t keep her knowledge of Oliver Hill secret? In retrospect, though, it makes sense. She’s driven by a need for answers; a logical mind that needs to know how things work. We could spend hours discussing the psyche of her character, but in the end, it all comes down to Sarah Shahi’s innate talent for capturing the little details in her characters.
The woman can carry a show, and Reverie is rock solid proof of it. We are so impressed by the range of emotions she’s shown as Mara in only 4 short episodes, and can’t wait to see what the other 6 have in store. From the happiness and satisfaction she expresses from doing her job, to the extreme distress and sadness in flashbacks of her sister’s death, and the confusion of losing herself in derealizations, we have seen her in such varied situations that utilize Shahi’s talent to the max.
Final Verdict: Reverie kicks off its first season with a refreshing approach to a procedural format, full of character-driven drama and high stakes
Reverie is certainly a high-concept show, and boasts the visuals to prove it. However, in addition, it also executes such a concept extremely well. It doesn’t waste its time with too much unnecessary technobabble. Said talk is given in generally easy to understand terms, which is a nice subversion from the ever-present trope of most technology-focused shows.
There’s a certain humanity in the characters of Reverie that resonates so well in its universe. Humans are messy; emotions are messy. Mara is a messy, complex character. Sure, she has the typical tragic backstory, but it’s never an excuse for the way she acts. In fact, it’s a hindrance she acknowledges and attempts to face. In a particularly self-aware moment, she tells a Reverie user, “It’s good to focus on other people’s problems. It just helps you forget about all your own crap.” And this is so important. Mara gets into people’s heads; it’s her job. But the way that she is grounded in her own humanity is such an important part of that job. The way she uses her own experiences in her negotiations is a key factor in how the show captures the essence of the human condition, while also exploring a very real future. Reverie’s technology certainly doesn’t feel too far off from currently developed VR peripherals, and that’s a scary thing when put into the perspective of the show.
Like most new shows, Reverie does struggle with awkward pacing in its early episodes, particularly the first three, although the fourth more than makes up for the slow and unsteady build-up. Typically, a show that introduces so many plotlines in its pilot would seem rushed, but somehow, with Reverie that’s not the case. It actually handles such an influx of information with grace, making sure viewers aren’t confused, all the while keeping them guessing. It’s an ambitious and aggressive pilot, and for what it is, it’s great. Inevitably, as with every procedurally-based show, it sometimes relies too heavily on its weekly plot, setting its main storyline aside for long stretches of every episode. However, for a high-concept show airing on a major network, it does an incredible job of bridging the gap between a purely episodic and completely serialized show, which hits all the marks for pleasing every type of viewer.
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Despite its setbacks, Reverie is quite a solid show with tons of potential going into the rest of its first season, not just in its characterization and moral quandaries, but in its visuals. Certainly deserving praise is cinematographer Joseph E. Gallagher, whose stunning artistic decisions shine through in every episode. Also particularly notable are the sets, particularly the library which acts as a pseudo-lobby for the program. Production designer Kenneth Hardy needs a special mention as well, as the attention to detail present in each and every one of its sets really sells the show as something grounded in reality.
What we’ve seen so far of the show is captivating. From the incredible acting, to the edge-of-your-seat action, there really isn’t any reason not to give Reverie a shot — especially if four episodes is all you’re willing to try. In these four episodes, we get four emotional stories that, main plot aside, stand out in their own rights, and demonstrate the quality of the show very well. We’ll definitely be watching this season, as there’s so many more questions that this beginning has left us with: Does Alexis knows about the danger of her creation? If she does, what has caused her to believe it’s all for the greater good? Who is Oliver Hill? And, of course, the ultimate question: What does the future of VR look like for us? So many movies in recent years have explored it, from The Matrix to Ready Player One, all in different perspectives.
Reverie is just another possible future that could play out in front of us. With the rise of VR gaming and platforms like the Oculus Rift, the fantasy worlds of our dreams are closer than they ever have been before. Media will always be there to question what’s new and different, whether that’s the youngest generations, social movement, or technology. Whether we interpret it as a cautionary tale or a glimpse into a revolution is up to us.