Altered Carbon, a new Netflix series, has a few key themes it keeps returning to. Humans are innately violent, we have a propensity for self-destruction, our senses constantly fail us, and there’s no long-term hope for the species to evolve into better versions of ourselves. These may all be philosophical truisms for a reason, but it’s still hard to keep them from sounding trite or prosaic whenever they’re said out loud in such plain language. Now imagine them being said slowly, in the most dramatic and portentous fashion possible, preferably while somebody karate kicks another person in slow motion. That’s roughly comparable to the experience of watching this show, albeit with a lot more kicking, and a decent degree of fun.
Altered Carbon is often ridiculous, but damned if it isn’t the best-looking series Netflix has yet produced. The world of the show is a fully realized technological marvel, a society hundreds of years in the future that also looks like it. CGI spectacle suffuses nearly every frame of the series, making it compelling eye candy even—or especially—when the dialogue sinks like an overwrought lead balloon. As the cameras swoop and survey the landscape (thanks to the florid visual style instigated by the pilot’s director, Miguel Sapochnik), even tossed-off background sets suggest a lived-in world of stories to tell. It looks expensive as hell, and it probably is; cyberpunk futures—at least ones this gorgeous—don’t come cheap.
All of this stellar design (the show should probably be paying Blade Runner some licensing fees for borrowing its visual flavor) is in service of a story so convoluted that even the Metal Gear Solid series would recoil in distaste. Taken directly from the novel of the same name by Richard Morgan (where it presumably flows a little better), the narrative follows Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman, among others—it’ll make more sense in a moment), a soldier turned guerrilla turned mercenary, who is sent to jail for his crimes and wakes up 250 years later, now the property of one of the galaxy’s wealthiest men, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), who assigns Takeshi a job: Find out who killed Bancroft.
Perhaps this is the place to mention the primary technological innovation of this universe: Humans have developed a small piece of tech called a “stack,” where their consciousness now resides. Bodies are “sleeves” that can be swapped out when the previous one ages and/or dies. Most people can’t afford high-end sleeves, so as always, it’s the wealthy who can essentially live forever, porting themselves into pricey clones that allow them not only immortality but also the same body and age in perpetuity, should they so choose. Takeshi was an elite fighter, trained to transfer his consciousness into a variety of bodies. So as he wanders the streets, newly freed and looking for a killer, the story continually introduces elements of this body-swapping and digital storage, from protestors clamoring for “real death” to religious questions about the nature of spirit and soul. So we see Takeshi in his old body (played by Byron Mann) and his new one, jumping around in time as Bancroft’s latest self pays him to figure out who popped the old one. (Complaints of whitewashing, à la Ghost In The Shell, would make more sense if the narrative didn’t intentionally reduce its identity politics to an incomprehensible hash.) It’s a fun trick, and the show gets a lot of mileage from slowly unpacking the implications of this technological evolution.
In the town of Bay City, searching for clues, Takeshi ends up in the sights of a bullheaded cop named Kristin (Martha Higareda), who knows his dangerous past and wants to see him put back on ice. While the first episode is nothing but table-setting, as Tak wonders whether to accept the case (spoiler alert: he doesn’t just decide to go back to jail-nothingness), subsequent episodes reveal that Kristin’s interest in him is more complex than mere suspicion. Their fractious relationship becomes one of the core elements of the series, and while Higareda is decent, Kinnaman is excellent, selling all this ponderous silliness with the same easy charisma that saw him walk away with most installments of The Killing. There’s a host of other characters, including a tortured ex-Marine (Ato Essandoh), a Machiavellian lawyer (Bones’ Tamara Taylor), and an AI hotelier obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe (an excellent Chris Connor, the closest thing the show gets to comic relief), but Takeshi is haunted most by two people from his past: the sister he lost (Dichen Lachman, no stranger to series about digital mind-swapping) and the rebel leader (Renée Elise Goldsberry) who trained him.
Perhaps influenced by the recent popularity of sexposition, Altered Carbon goes all-in on the nudity and fucking, with nearly episode featuring some form of explicit sexual activity. This hits its nadir early on, when an encounter between Takeshi and Bancroft’s wife (Kristen Lehman, doing her best femme fatale) goes from silly on every level—music, lighting, script—to almost pornographic. Those who admire Kinnaman’s physique will get to see a lot of it, but the constant nudity becomes downright distracting at times, and not in a good way. When there isn’t graphic sex, there’s a lot of characters pensively moping in the shower. Who knew people did so much brooding in between lathering and rinsing? Still, even this overused tactic pays dividends on occasion: A late fight scene in which an ongoing series of identical clones keep leaping from glass cocoons, naked as can be, to try and kill someone, is an admirably jarring and audacious sequence.
But strip away all the captivating CGI bells and whistles and sci-fi conceits, and what remains is a fairly standard-issue, even conservative, slice of old-school detective noir. This is most evident is Kinnaman’s character, who spouts tough-guy one-liners like a Dashiell Hammett gumshoe. (He also smokes, apparently still an affectation in the far-flung future—and not even an e-cig!) Take out the techno-babble wordplay, and the present-day elements of the script are almost a paradigmatic example of the genre. Sure, the story occasionally pivots into a grandiose hero’s journey, or a dystopian parable about the dangers of technology, but it continually returns to the basic framework of a classic murder mystery. There’s even a winking self-aware scene in which Takeshi gathers all the suspects, Agatha Christie-style, to go over his findings.
Altered Carbon is often quite a bit of fun, but its flaws are large and glaring. The dialogue is rarely better than hacky and ham-handed, clunky lines of wannabe hard-boiled detective-speak interlaced with ponderous and exposition-heavy interludes. Kinnaman fares the best, in part because his taciturn character gets to do more showing than telling. An early scene in which Takeshi visits a museum exhibit of his own past is a sly commentary on how history is written by the victors, but is soon turned from subtext into hoary text, with voice-over monologues from Kinnaman that quickly move from intriguing to unnecessary, and finally exhausting. A visit to an arms dealer features geek-speak that revels in fictional references more unwieldy than evocative. And a later episode, helmed by Andy Goddard, takes a sudden inexplicable turn into Michael Bay territory with its over-the-top gun battle.
But weirdest of all may be the story’s stubborn refusal to engage with its primary theme in a coherent way. If Altered Carbon has a key lesson, it’s that the rich will always be an existential threat to the rest of humanity. It’s clear that the enemy is capitalism, but the series frequently stops short of saying so—not only that, but instead redirects its ire on the technological development of the stacks. Characters deliver homilies on the evil wrought by the few having so much more than everyone else, then inexplicably pivot to explain why that means we have to get rid of the ability to take on new sleeves and continue living. Nobody’s asking the show to deliver a political manifesto; it’s just baffling that it adopts one, then contorts it into almost a non sequitur.
But despite its failings, Altered Carbon remains fleet and diverting entertainment, a textbook example of how the binge model helps to mask a show’s shortcomings during the viewing. It doesn’t hold up to close inspection, but all the flash makes for a fun and engaging spectacle, a TV show with blockbuster-level quality not unlike Game Of Thrones in its ability to create eye-popping excitement. Plus, the curlicues of plot complications and whiz-bang technology shoring each other up help ensure there’s almost always something fun happening onscreen. When it gets it right, the series is as absorbing as any other sci-fi thriller on TV. If it makes it to season two (the source novel is only book one of a trilogy), perhaps Altered Carbon’s narrative stack can be outfitted with a new sleeve—a form with slightly fewer notable flaws.