‘Altered Carbon’, the new Netflix series based on the book of the same name by Richard K. Morgan: If you can get past the terrible title, which sounds like a discontinued flavor of Mountain Dew, it’s pretty damn great.
My take is, in short, that it’s some truly kick-ass future noir and leaves you thinking. It features the rich plot development and bold twists that tend to only come from the backbone of a novel. It brings vast concepts into sharp focus. In the visual realm, it succeeds mightily. And it’s a vibrant, lively, interesting world. That may be enough for you right there.
That said, there’s a ton of nudity and some fairly extreme violence. Enough of both to either titillate or repel you, depending on your tastes.
I hadn’t read the books but the show grabbed me right away. Not because it opened great, but because it opened dense. It reminded me right away of the speech in ‘The American President’ where Andrew Shepherd says:
“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight.”
‘Altered Carbon’ feels like advanced television watching. It’s not the same vibe as popping into the Food network or HGTV.
‘Altered Carbon’ isn’t a casual show you can drop into and watch while making your Blue Apron dinner and drinking wine. I put this in bold because I can’t stress it enough. It’s thick. It demands that you pay attention right away, lest you miss some key moments right off the bat. Dustin watched the first four episodes while making dinner and by episode eight —while he wasn’t objectively lost — he was certainly operating at a working deficit. ‘Altered Carbon’ rewards you for your attention and punishes you for your distraction. It requires a commitment. I found it appealing that the showrunner, Laeta Kalogridis, didn’t choose to just arbitrarily dumb it down.
And it’s beautiful. Shot in Vancouver, which is one of the loveliest places on earth. It looks fantastic.
Yeah, that’s nice. There’s a lot more where that came from, too.
We begin with what appears to be a fairly routine event, but in every line there are clues and contrivances. I was paying attention from the get-go and I still had to go back before I wrote this to watch the pilot again to say “Ohhhhhhhhhh. Now I get that.”
The show employs both a first person narrator and scenes where the lead character talks to dead people from his past. Either can be red flags for writing crutches or shaky ways to deliver exposition, but the staff handles both with skill and restraint.
The information you need is there, right away, but let me give you the two dollar version to whet your appetite, because it’s cool.
MINOR SPOILERS BELOW. (You’ll learn them in the first five minutes of the show, but stop now if you don’t want a crib sheet.)
That’s the basic skeleton of existence in the world of Mountain Dew: Code Red.
But boy, do they have fun with it.
To begin, we see the resleeving of a terrorist and mass murderer, Takeshi Kovacs. That’s a cool name. He doesn’t know why he’s been taken ‘off ice’ but two hundred and fifty years have passed since he was last in a sleeve. He is an Envoy, which is basically a space ninja assassin warrior trained by the famous rebel Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry). The Envoys were the Rebellion to the Protectorate’s Empire and the Envoys lost. They were all wiped out, with the exception of Takeshi Kovacs, who was the lone Envoy survivor.
And now, a quarter century later, he’s been re-awakened.
Originally, he’s played by Byron Mann.
We meet him in that sleeve. Later on, he’s stuffed into a sleeve played by Joel Kinnaman.
This is the Takeshi we know for most of the show. I have a friend who spent an ungodly percentage of the show trying to figure out if he even liked Joel Kinnaman as an actor, only to finally decide yes. My advice: accept him right away and allow yourself to enjoy other things. Dustin categorized Kinnaman as “talented but not particularly engaging.” That’s probably fair. I like his detached, laconic affect, but some might not. It’s fine. That’s the main sleeve of the show. But it’s not the ‘real’ Tekeshi of the Envoy days.
That Takeshi is played by Will Yun Lee.
He pretty much kicks all the ass.
When he returns to the future, he’s met at the gate by Detective Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda)
Her interest in him is…complicated. She gives him his first ride in a flying car up to the cloud-world manor of a 350 year old Meth named Laurens Bancroft, a half charming, half nauseating character solidly in the wheelhouse of James Purefoy.
He doesn’t look three hundred and fifty, does he?
Neither does his radiant wife of the same age, Miriam. (Kristin Lehman)
She slow-grows her custom sleeves in a special facility where they’re bio-engineered to secrete a narcotic grade super-pheromone out of the tissue in her mouth and her sweat glands and…elsewhere when she’s aroused. In the playground of the bored uber-wealthy, even the very knit of your cellular superstructure becomes a toy.
All of the key elements of solid noir are there. The cynicism. The detached anti-hero. The quest for meaning in a meaningless world. The darkness. And in the fashion of great noir, there’s substantially more clarity in the shadows than in the soaring, illuminated palaces of men.
The story begins small, and before you know it, around the seventh episode, it has managed to pirouette into a sprawling, multi-century tale that holds the fate of humanity in its hands. The pivot to a larger story is handled with grace, and is helped by excellent writing and across-the-board solid acting.
For me, a couple of people stole the show: most notably Chris Conner’s Poe, an A.I. hotel that had the initial vibe of a Paul S. Tompkins clone but then found his own winning voice…
…And Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman) as Takeshi’s long-suffering sister. Lachman is one of those actors with such a memorable appearance that it can be distracting. But she was intense in this role. There are a couple of her scenes where I was just kind of watching with my jaw hanging open. I’m kind of crazy about Rei.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Mr. Leung (Trieu Tran), who was such a creepy badass I can barely look at him.
What if we said no? pic.twitter.com/JrReHKjenq— Altered Carbon (@AltCarb) February 19, 2018
The cast is rounded out with a number of solid actors giving solid performances. But the worldbuilding in ‘Altered Carbon’ is where it really shines. The class struggle. Virtual interrogation policies. Artificially Intelligent entities that play cards together. Kovacs whispering to an imagined Angelica Schuyler that lives in his mind. Double sleeving. Precognition. A missing sex worker. Needlecasting. A framed cop. Surreptitious injections. Unlikely rescues. Electrified exoskeletons. Organized crime. A human consciousness locked into a virtual loop of psychotrauma. A missing brother. Killer viruses. Anything-goes whorehouses in the sky. Bribed officials. Failed revolutions. Religious faith in the face of immortality. Last hurrah stack backups. International assassins. Swordplay. Real death. The subplots seem to just be a scattershot of random stories before the show folds them into a neat package where every loose thread is wrapped up. It should scratch every cyberpunk itch you have and leave you wanting much, much more.
The reviews have been generally good. Here on the Pajiba staff, some of us love it and the rest seem to like it. That’s the bar. I was on the phone talking about the show the other night with Dan Hamamura for like a solid hour. He had finished the series and generally enjoyed it, but once we started peeling the onion a little, he admitted that my enthusiasm was getting him more fired up about it. Or he was just trying to get me off the phone. Either is possible.
I’ll add that Emily Chambers just weighed in on the “really liked it” team, and if that isn’t enough to immediately get you to watch, get a load of this quote from the maester of the sixteenth dimension, Steven Lloyd Wilson:
“I adored Altered Carbon from start to finish. Absolutely adored it. It’s on the short list of violations to my tombstone: better than the book.”
Better. Than. The. Book!
In a television universe where SO MUCH content regresses to the mean, where you look at many of the most popular shows and it feels like a wasteland of tired premises and regurgitated procedurals and writing 1.0, the way ‘Altered Carbon’ pushes the envelope is notable. Yes, it says, our viewers are capable of tracking different consciousnesses through any number of bodies without dropping the chain. (Actor Matt Beidel surfs through three characters and three accents in the same body and we completely get it.) The trust ‘Altered Carbon’ shows for the tenacity and intelligence of its audience is flattering. Because we can do this. We can track concepts like that. We can follow it, and in the bright light of that understanding, a show can thrive.
According to Nielsen ratings, which are pretty rare for Netflix properties, the initial audience for ‘Altered Carbon’ was only around 2.5 million over the first seven days. That’s not great when you consider Netflix’s Will Smith-led sci-fi vehicle ‘Bright’ drew a reported eleven million in its opening weekend. More worrisome is that ‘Altered Carbon’s audience reportedly shrunk from the premiere to the finale, starting off with a seven-day average of 5.9 million viewers. By the tenth episode, that sunk to the neighborhood of about a million.
That seems to be a first round audience coming for de rigueur programming and not being able or wanting the responsibility of keeping up. But word of mouth has been strong, and if a more complex storyline is something you gravitate to, chances are that you’ll be in the next cohort of viewers who watch all the way through.
So go watch it, friends! Keep ambitious shows like this alive!
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