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“Altered Carbon” Presents a Grimy World, but Plodding Plot

Series Premiere

Altered Carbon Netflix
A still from "Altered Carbon" on Netflix.
Netflix’s latest original show has sent us 300 years into the future, when they still curiously use the phrase “get laid.” “Altered Carbon” is a sci-fi series based on Richard K. Morgan’s novel of the same name, and stars Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs, a prisoner who has been forced to return from the dead to solve a rich man’s murder. In the show’s future time period, everyone has “stacks” stored within their consciousness so that when they die, they can be put in another “sleeve” (body). If the stack is destroyed, they’re dead forever. The main character is Takeshi Kovacs, a dangerous prisoner who’s committed more murders than he can count, who has been re-sleeved to work for Laurens Bancroft, a man with a mansion in the clouds and more money than he knows what to do with.

At first, the beginning of the episode is a bit hard to understand because the exposition is somewhat convoluted. The pilot’s director, Miguel Sapochnik, lets the first few minutes unfold with several different indications of what the premise could be. Is this a zombie show? Is this a zombie show about zombie prisoners? If you watch, don’t allow yourself to become sidetracked with the new lingo and prison setup. All will be explained.

Some details about the future, in case you’re feeling curious: drugs delivered through eye–droppers, all of us appearing to be polyglots, shape-shifting strippers, a new name for the United States, hovering limos, and very cool visuals. The premiere suffers somewhat from inconsistent anachronism—the people of the future don’t use the word “body” anymore, but still have those red, white, and blue barber-shop poles—but the overarching concept is exciting. It’s a mystery, but it’s also an exploration of how society will change in hundreds of years. Capitalism is taken to the extreme, as we see that wealth gives people autonomy over the sleeves they’ll inhabit. At one point, a seven-year-old from a poor family is put in the body of an old woman.

Aesthetically, the best part is the contrast between the grimy city and the almost “Alice in Wonderland”–esque color scheme of Bancroft’s world. Its grand interiors are breathtaking. Laurens is married to the regal Miriam, who was the first of many women throughout the pilot to have her breasts exposed. I note this not as an inherent criticism of nudity, but as a reminder that intention is relevant. The periodic female nudity does not ring as a stab at a “free the nipple” sort of gender equality. Instead, it feels gratuitous. It feels like they were just working under the theory that sex sells—most, if not all, of the women in the show so far express some sort of attraction to Kovacs.

Some of the show’s best imagining of the future is done with technology. An artificial intelligence hotel (run by “Edgar Allan Poe”) is an A+ concept, and there are several mind–bending “what’s real and what’s a hologram?” moments. Of course, to get there, you have to push through some painful dialogue and some almost–flashbacks that feel like shoehorned emotion. We don’t know Kovacs or his backstory well enough for flashbacks of his previous life to be as interesting as intended. But the pilot is inventive, the show is a murder mystery, and the guy who plays Benicio in “The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo,” Antonio Marziale, is in it. The show would do well in future episodes to explore further what life might be like in 300 years rather than sending us to Takeshi’s past. Emotional backstories are great, but so far, the show has done a better job handling the sci-fi aspect.

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