Netflix's latest blockbuster binge bait is a big pretty box, the quality of whose contents remains to be seen.
Seems fitting that Netflix wound up being the delivery system for a TV show about a world where humans live in a post-body existence, given its status as the network that showed us all what it's like to live in a post-network existence. Altered Carbon revolves around a fundamentally new paradigm, and the show — Netflix's latest, developed by screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis — does not exactly bear the burden of this responsibility gracefully.
Look, there's a lot to unpack here. Altered Carbon has a ton going on, and being that it takes place in the far future where completely different social and technological power structures exist, it's only natural that its early installments are going to be weighed down by the necessity to lay out the way its world works. Our main character is Takeshi Kovacs, a former supersoldier/freedom fighter who has been woken up and "re-sleeved" into a new body after being dead for 250 years. His status as an outsider makes the exposition dumps make sense, as Kovacs has to be eased into the new world at about the same pace as his audience, but this doesn't excuse the clumsiness with which it's executed.
The writing is frequently sloppy, in an egregious and experience-breaking way: I found myself rewinding to the beginning of scenes (or to previous ones entirely), assuming I had missed some sort of detail that would make the following moment make sense, and I was wrong every time. There's a moment in the first episode where one character says to another, "Last chance! Give me a name!" This request had not been made before, however. In the second episode, Kovacs is told "You shouldn't have come back" when visiting a place he's never been to and speaking to a disposable character that neither he nor the audience has ever seen before.
Pardon the lore, but one of the key concepts in the Altered Carbon universe is that of a "Meth," which is an individual wealthy enough to afford perfect clones of his or her original body, effectively granting them immortality. How is this explained in the show? Someone says to Kovacs, "...and the days of Methuselah were over 969 years. It's Laurens Bancroft. He's over 360 years old." Apparently we're supposed to glean the details of what a Meth is from that sentence, because the concept is not further elaborated on by the start of the third episode (I only found out through some independent Wikipediary).
Granted, the series could intend to flesh out these details as it progresses, but the way it's handling these concepts in its early going seem to assume that the audience is already familiar with them. That, coupled with awkward scene-to-scene slapdashery create a lot more groan-worthy moments than a show asking this much of its audience to afford.
I digress. Why has Takeshi Kovacs been "spun up" from the dead in Joel Kinnamon's body? Because he's been enlisted to solve the murder of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), the world's richest man and one of the oldest Meths alive. Bancroft was killed while in a locked room that nobody else had access to, with a weapon only he and his wife would have been able to use. Without having read the source material, it seems increasingly likely that this impossible situation is going to have one of the two most obvious outcomes, and we'll find out that either Laurens or his wife was the responsible party rather than some elaborate solution we hadn't thought of before having it revealed to us. And honestly? Boring. There's nothing interesting about the murder case itself except for the futuristic box it's wrapped up in, and at two episodes out of ten, this is an accurate description for the series as a whole.
Obviously it's a little early to be dismissing the entire run, but "Out of the Past" and "Fallen Angel" boast a level of sloppiness that does not inspire confidence. Characters are seemingly without motivation (seriously, Takeshi's sole reason for taking the case is that a hallucination of his old commander/lover told him that doing so would be how he completes his mission once and for all. Why someone as supposedly smart as Kovacs would actually think solving Bancroft's murder (which seems, at this point, entirely disconnected from Kovacs' past and backstory) is the key to the completion of his 250-year-old failed mission is beyond me, but hey. The wrapping paper's real nice, so let's see what's in the box.
Oh, and also...
- Altered Carbon is by far the most beautiful thing Netflix has produced; its special effects are giving Star Trek: Discovery a run for its money.
- Each of Joel Kinnamon's pectorals is the size of a standard-issue prison cafeteria tray.
- I really, really hope this show goes somewhere super interesting, because there is a lot to be played with here.