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Netflix’s Altered Carbon is TV’s raddest science fiction show

This is the best first season of a Netflix drama since The Crown debuted in 2016.

Altered Carbon
I love the nightlife. I like to boogie.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

There are a lot of serious topics covered in Altered Carbon, a new science fiction series from Netflix.

The show touches on income inequality and classism. It delves into misogynistic power structures and the nature of identity. It touches on just how much of our morality is driven by the fact that we die and what might happen if death suddenly stopped being an endpoint and, instead, became a minor stopgap in an ultimately immortal life. It even touches on environmental issues in a few sidelong glances.

But that is not what I’m here to talk to you about. Because while watching Altered Carbon — even the stuff I didn’t like all that much — my primary critical reaction was, “This is so RAD!!!!” Imagine me sitting in the back of eighth-grade study hall, filling my notebook with scrawled images from this show (that my parents don’t know I’ve seen, because if they did, my Netflix consumption would be seriously questioned), occasionally clicking over my four-color pen to red to write the word “rad” in all caps in the margins. Then I’d draw a dragon playing an electric guitar.

Does this mean that in some ways, the production design of Altered Carbon is stronger than the show itself? Kind of? Maybe? But for a series that makes a lot of basic storytelling stumbles and often seems to feature characters who can only speak in exposition, Altered Carbon’s first season is surprisingly gripping, especially in its superior back half. This is probably the best first season of a Netflix drama since The Crown’s first year dropped in late 2016 — not exactly the highest bar, but one the show clears nevertheless. (Its only real competitors are the equally “flawed but super interesting” 13 Reasons Why and Mindhunter.)

So here, then, are the five most RAD!!!! things about Altered Carbon season one.

1) The show’s hodgepodge of a premise steals from only the highest grade sci-fi sources

Altered Carbon
Joel Kinnaman plays a man in search of his identity.

Altered Carbon is based on a novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, a British sci-fi writer whose favorite theme is the idea that no matter the economic or political system you live under, there will always be those ruthless enough to accumulate as much power and wealth as possible. There’s little you can do to fight this. You can only be aware of it and chip away at the problem on its edges.

But for its TV adaptation, Altered Carbon pays homage to only the best possible sci-fi sources. Everything about its production design — endless rain, bright neon, dark and crowded city streets — screams Blade Runner, while its interest in questions of what happens when consciousness is disconnected from the body are straight out of the sci-fi movement known as cyberpunk. The cyberpunk work you’re likely most familiar with is the Matrix trilogy, where humans are trapped by machines in a simulation and hackers are our only hope, but the movement also contains a lot of great novels by writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.

The smartest thing Altered Carbon does is blend all of these sources into a stew that draws heavily from its individual inspirations but also has a flavor all its own. It’s a detective story, like Blade Runner, but it’s also set in a world where humanity has more or less conquered death, where your consciousness, stored on a chip, can be “resleeved” in a new human body, should you so desire.

Our hero is Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), an accused terrorist who’s been out of commission for more than 200 years and is revived in the body of a recently disgraced cop in order to find the murderer of a very, very rich man. (Said rich man still exists, but thanks to a quirk of timing, his memory of who killed him does not, having not been backed up to a central server in time.) Kovacs, having been out for so long, has to get used to what humanity has become in the intervening years, and not all of it is great.

I sometimes think the most powerful stories are ones that feel familiar enough to let us relax into their rhythms, while going in just enough unexpected directions to keep us on our toes. Altered Carbon doesn’t always get there (the early going is perhaps a bit too familiar), but when it does, it’s incredibly fun.

2) Finally, the future looks as diverse as it will be

One of the fascinating things about the world of Altered Carbon is that the tribal barriers humans have constructed — especially those of race and gender — are starting to break down, now that anyone can potentially be resleeved as some other identity entirely. A woman comes back in the sleeve of a man at one point, and Kovacs was of Asian descent (and is played in flashback by the terrific Will Yun Lee) in his original life.

I can feel you squinting at the division between the subhead and the text here, because I’m sure making it sound like this is a show about a wide variety of people being reborn as white men, and even if that might not be a big deal to them in the far future, it’s sure going to be a big deal to a bunch of viewers calling for better representation in 2018.

Yet Altered Carbon’s showrunner, Laeta Kalogridis, gets around this problem by creating a future world as diverse as it almost certainly will be. This is a show that solves the “default white guy protagonist from this thing we’re adapting” problem in a similar fashion to Syfy’s terrific The Magicians, surrounding the central character with others who represent many, many different strains of humanity.

So many movies set in the future create a predominantly white universe (notable exception: The Matrix) that it’s fascinating to see a world that tries, at every turn, not to do that. In particular, if you’re looking for women of color with compelling story arcs, Altered Carbon has many of them. (I was especially enthralled by the story of Kristin Ortega, a cop drawn into the larger conspiracy and played by Martha Higareda.)

Coming into the season’s last few episodes, I had that pleasant feeling of a story being told in a different way than I was used to, and that’s thanks to the way Kovacs’s story quickly becomes part of a much larger tapestry, filled with other characters who look nothing like your “typical sci-fi hero.”

3) Finally, the future looks as weird as it will be

Altered Carbon
“At last, a television show where a computer simulation of Edgar Allen Poe runs a hotel,” said everyone.

As I hinted above, Altered Carbon is, in some ways, a triumph of production design above all else, and even when the story itself isn’t gripping, the show is always offering something new to look at or think about.

Take, for instance, the seedy hotel where Kovacs holes up (a staple of noir stories like this). It’s run by an artificial intelligence and hasn’t been used in 50 years, because most people consider “AI hotels” their last resort, especially when there are massive, gleaming edifices stretching (or floating) high above the clouds. Yet this hotel is still technically operational, and Kovacs becomes best pals with its proprietor, an AI modeled on Edgar Allen Poe who wields a mean shotgun. (Yes, this is really a major plot point in this show.)

I won’t spoil some of the season’s other surprises, especially some of the darkest expressions of human cruelty nestled in the back half. Kalogridis and her fellow writers seem to have had a lot of fun riffing off Morgan’s world from the novel in building their own.

The world of Altered Carbon is so much fun to fall into — especially when it starts toying around with ideas of what makes a human being — that it carried me past some of the show’s weaker moments. It’s the kind of setting where you sense that Kalogridis doesn’t quite know what’s around every corner of every street, but she could probably come up with something on the spot.

Here come some spoilers, so look out.

4) The second half of the season is pretty terrific

As I’ve alluded to several times in this review, the first five episodes of Altered Carbon are a bit of a slog. The premiere kicks the story off reasonably well, but also drags its heels when it comes time to get Kovacs to agree to the murder investigation that will drive the rest of the season. The next four episodes have important setup for what’s to come and some solid moments scattered throughout, but also that problem endemic to streaming dramas where you are aware, at all turns, that all of this could have been condensed into two or three hours. The world is interesting enough that they’re not a chore to get through, but still.

Then the second half of the season hits, and things rev into high gear. Suddenly, Ortega and Kovacs are fighting for their lives against a killer who can erase himself from security footage on the fly, and Kovacs’s presumed dead sister, Rei (Dichen Lachman), is revealed to be not just alive but the season’s main villain.

In particular, the season’s seventh hour, which unfurls almost all of the show’s backstory (and especially Kovacs’s relationship with his long-dead lover Quell, played with an easy moral authority by Hamilton alum Renée Elise Goldsberry), is the kind of galloping, headlong hour that the show probably could have used in, say, episode four.

The final three episodes of the season are pitch-perfect noir/sci-fi, with Kovacs and his crew embarking on what amounts to a daring heist in hopes of bringing down a massive criminal empire, while Ortega faces down her literal demons. They’re full of dark twists and turns, and they make the series’ moral universe clear, by emphasizing how important death is to the human experience. I left the season wanting so much more.

In some ways, I’m sympathetic to what Kalogridis and her team were up against. Deploy all their secrets too early and they’d defeat the purpose of doing this story as a detective drama. But by holding back their cards until it was almost too late, I do think they risked having viewers tune out before they get to the more immediately compelling stuff.

5) The series really does have a lot on its mind beyond RADNESS

Altered Carbon
The gap between Takeshi’s past and present becomes incredibly important to the series.

One of the most interesting things about Altered Carbon, which is (Netflix is fond of reminding everybody) the most expensive show ever run solely by a woman, is how much female nudity is featured. And, indeed, there’s so much of it, in every episode, sometimes in what feels like every scene.

But the nudity isn’t there for cheap titillation, or to make the show scan as “adult” — it’s part and parcel of the series’ central ideas. This is a story about what happens when you make the human body a literal product, when you devalue it so much that it becomes simply an advertisement for itself, and when human beings are turned into the literal property of a handful of very, very rich people who live far above the clouds. (It’s a little reminiscent of the thematically similar Westworld, which is also co-run by a woman.)

It’s telling that the few times the series’ nudity is presented at all lovingly come when Kovacs is stripping down, because this new body is his, much as he might not have requested it. In a world where bodies are commodities, how do you find that sort of pure connection to the physical form?

This is just one of the numerous intriguing threads Altered Carbon invites viewers to tug on until they find their way to its center, which is, ultimately, a story about how technology will eventually allow the rich to become vampires, more or less, and turn the rest of us into their chattel. Some of us will have high enough status that we might be able to delude ourselves into thinking we’re not, but eventually, we’re all just grist for their mill.

The best thing about Altered Carbon is how it weds this to a propulsive narrative, a mystery that must be solved, and a final, desperate plan to save Kovacs and his friends. Altered Carbon takes science fiction’s ability to use coded language to talk about the world we live in right now and runs with it.

We are, perhaps, not the literal property of rich overlords — not yet, at least — but Altered Carbon makes its own argument for the idea that those deciding our fates from high up among the clouds might imagine themselves gods, but they’re made of flesh like any of us. And flesh bleeds, sometimes in great gouts. The world can be renewed, but it’s going to take a lot more than hoping it might get to a better point.

Altered Carbon is streaming on Netflix.

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