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Steven Soderbergh’s secret TV show is the weirdest PSA I’ve ever seen

Can watching TV make you a better person? Maybe

A disembodied Michael Cera head is projected on the wall in front of three people in a shabby living room in Command Z. Image: Extension 765

No one claims to know what Command Z is, even the people who made it. Best described as a web series, available directly on director Steven Soderbergh’s website after a $7.99 charitable donation, Command Z comprises eight episodes of varying length. (It was also announced mere days in advance of its release, roughly at the same time that Full Circle — a more traditional TV series directed by Soderbergh — debuted on Max). A second, secret Soderbergh series? ¡Que maravilla!

With a trailer proclaiming that the show is “from the ass of Steven Soderbergh,” Command Z mostly looks like an experimental web series centered around three people in the future commissioned by the disembodied head of Michael Cera to go back in time to fix their present. And it is that. Mostly. It’s also a bizarre PSA, a comedic plea to the viewer to both see the problems in our world as fixable and to get involved in fixing them — and maybe to watch more movies.

A given episode runs anywhere from eight to 20 minutes in length (for a total runtime of about 90 minutes) and centers on Jamie (JJ Maley), Sam (Roy Wood Jr.), and Emma (Chloe Radcliffe), three people who work for the AI version of Kearning Fealty (Michael Cera), a long-dead billionaire who has a time machine that looks like a dryer in the basement. Turn the dryer on, drink a gross brown fluid, put on a helmet, and Jamie, Sam, or Emma can send their consciousness back in time to influence the minds of select people, which Fealty tells them will make the world a better place.

Consequently, the issues Kearning sends his employees to fix are also real-world issues that the presumed American audience (and beyond) also faces, from climate change to social media and beyond. The team identifies someone about to do something awful in the present of 2023, like a Wall Street tycoon played by Liev Schreiber, and enters the mind of someone who can influence them to make a better decision — like a dog.

The whole thing is a strange experience, more sketch show than proper comedy (casting comedians like Wood Jr. and Radcliffe helps in this regard) and not terribly satisfying. It doesn’t take long to see Command Z for what it is, which is a weirdo attempt to raise money for some good causes (namely, Children’s Aid and the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research) from one of our most experimental filmmakers, one that will hopefully remind viewers that small differences matter and that it’s easy to make them.

Yet Command Z, for all its lack of subtlety, is also interested in getting viewers to think about how art engages with the world around it. Each episode ends with three film recommendations about the episode’s subject, and the selections run the gamut from blockbusters to cult classics to family films (a climate change episode, for example, recommends Soylent Green, The Day After Tomorrow, and Ice Age: The Meltdown).

The implication seems to be that, yes, Command Z is about as subtle as an ocean liner, but we are surrounded by art that is engaging with the world around us. Being open to recognizing that could be the first step to getting involved in the world, instead of watching it decay.

Each episode of Command Z ends in success, as its trio accomplishes every mission given them. Yet according to their AI boss, their efforts only amount to a tiny output of actual change, usually less than one percentage point. That, more than any of the hot-button issues it attempts to rally viewers around, is maybe the most worthwhile takeaway Command Z has to offer: the reminder that small wins are still worth pursuing, as long as we trust others to also make their own small efforts in the shared cause of a more equitable world. Maybe you didn’t need a weird web series to tell you that, but if you know someone who does, maybe it’s worth it.

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