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Altered Carbon’s First Two Episodes are Lavish, Dense, and Emotionally Weightless

The rich creative tapestry of Altered Carbon‘s production design and narrative ambition give the show an intoxicating aura, not unlike that deployed by a major character’s nether regions in the show’s opening hours (I’m not kidding). Set against the visual cacophony of Bay City’s neon lights and shadowy interiors, Altered Carbon strives to tease the audience into its world; the only thing these two episodes have more of than nipple shots are plot twists, two things Altered Carbon‘s early episodes are hyper-addicted to. There are certainly whiffs of an electrifying neo-noir laid deep within the core of its introductory hours; however, the toxic underlying politics of its world combines with the poor character building for a roller coaster ride of intriguing and maddening science fiction television.

Set in a universe where human consciousness can be contained within a disc implanted in the spine (called “stacks”), Altered Carbon’s first episode is tasked with laying out an impossibly complex world. The galaxy, ruled by The Proctetorate, exists in the ultimate wet dream of capitalism; a world where human life itself is commodified, where the rich can live for hundreds of years using clone bodies (“sleeves”) whenever their real selves get killed or die of old age. Advances in unknown technology have even given some the ability to upload their consciousness straight to a server, allowing them to move between bodies even more freely than those stuck in common society, where religious sects preach about the sanctity of life broken by society’s elite, or as they call them in one of sci-fi’s more unfortunate bits of nomenclature, the “Meths” (short for Methuselah, of course).

One of these Meths, Laurens Bancroft (a surprisingly muted James Purefoy), is interested in a particularly delightful little mystery; specifically, who murdered him in his own home, whilst he was locked in a room with a gun specifically locked to his biometric whatevers. This guy – who is so fucking rich, he lives in the clouds above the dirty, one-life-living humanity below – is in fact, so fascinated with this little murder mystery, that he awakens the dead rebel Takeshi Kovacs, imprisoned for an eternity for so-called “treason” against the Protectorate (which he once worked for), and gives him an upgraded meat sleeve to assist him with this investigation.

On a purely narrative level, this development single-handedly undermines a lot of what Altered Carbon quietly reflects on in other scenes, observing a world built on the same futuristic post-capitalist caste system so many science fiction stories before it have fallen into. Kovacs, the show’s protagonist, is a man whose journey before his initial death (which was 250 years before the meat of the series takes place) is rife with political intrigue, a man who became a secretive, body-jumping mercenary after an unknown career working for the political galactic superpower. An Asian man who died in exile, resurrected in the body of a white man and given freedom in an unfamiliar world? The cultural intrigue unintentionally baked into the white-washing premise alone is interesting enough to build a socio-political science fiction story around, but this is not the story Altered Carbon is interested in.

The story they’re interested in, at least for the first two hours, is Kovacs’ resurrection as a device to serve the needs of Bancroft, a man who has lived three centuries and fathered 21 children with his wife – who, for being a woman over 200 years old, still maintains the sexual virility of a 40-something on The O.C. (part of this is due to her… altered genetics, but I’ll let you discover that particular gem of information yourself). As soon as the Meths are introduced, and Bancroft somehow convinces Kovacs to abandon his values and protect the status quo, Altered Carbon shifts into a weird pattern of trying to have their cake and eat it to. Bancroft and his type are viewed as gods by the commoners, and the police obey their every desire (more on that later); even though they’re described by others in the world as delusional, soulless entities, Laurens, and his ilk are admired, both by the show’s camera and its script. In an odd way, AC perfectly exhibits the behavior of its protagonist through the first hour: the allusion of revolution is nice, but peaceful reflection and admiration is a much easier emotion to process when the 1% are controlling (and suffocating) your very existence for you.

Slowly, Altered Carbon‘s early hours shift from being an intriguing sci-fi/noir premise (albeit one that feels like it carbon copies its aesthetic from Blade Runner and Dark Angel), into something a bit more sinister, and much less enjoyable. The female characters in the first two hours are laughably underwritten: Miriam Bancroft’s nipples are more prominent in the first two hours than her personality or motives (Kristin Lehman deserves better!), and the only other female character of note, the lieutenant who randomly becomes obsessed with Kovacs’ reintegration into society, is given even less room to define herself as a character.

Kristin Ortega’s character is easily Altered Carbon‘s biggest missed opportunity in these opening hours, a woman whose character is nothing more than a checklist of Latina tropes, paraded out in excruciatingly slow fashion. She’s a woman with a job, which means she obviously has no love life, no personal life, and nothing outside of her job that gives her any satisfaction in the world (men, primarily her policy partner, point this out to her on a regular basis). She’s a Latina, which means she has an overbearing mother who is only in scenes involving food, religion – or again, trying to figure out why her beautiful daughter doesn’t have a husband at home filling her with children, instead of a career that fills her with satisfaction. It’s a shame, because Martha Higareda’s talents are clearly wasted in these opening hours, as she goes through the motions of a character tortured by everyone else’s influences on her life, unable to grasp who she really is as a person buried underneath the plot she’s tied up in (and the tropes she’s immediately attached to, of course).

(I didn’t even mention that she’s apparently a crooked cop, on the take for Bancroft after he targeted her for messing up the initial investigation into his murder. Another reason to cheer for Laurens’ murder to get solved, right?)

Still, there are enough intriguing elements to Altered Carbon‘s premise that could drive this show into a much more interesting direction. Being the show’s two opening hours, the reverence for Bancroft and the Meths could wane quickly, as the obfuscated plot at the center of the show’s freshman season slowly comes to light. There’s obviously plenty of room for Kristin and Takeshi’s characters to grow (until they inevitably fuck each other, of course), and there’s literally 300 years of history to dig into, explaining whatever an Envoy is, and uncovering just how a failed rebellion 250 years ago, killed society’s attempts at being outspoken against their fiduciary gods, their voices crushed against the seemingly intergalactic conspiracy waged against the commoners of the world.

To get there, however, Altered Carbon needs to double down on the character development, and find avenues other than death and sex to give definition to what appears to be a fairly diverse set of characters; the more it digs into the past of its main characters, the more of a foundation the story in the present has to stand on (plus – why the snake infinity symbol tattoos? Such a random touch). With any luck, this will help it shed some of the fetishization of capitalistic values apparent in its opening hours, a tone that most assuredly won’t rest well with audiences in 2018.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • welcome to coverage of Altered Carbon‘s first season! I’ll be covering two episodes of the series at a time here at Goomba Stomp, with reviews scheduled to publish every other day (including weekends, because this body sleeve can’t be stopped!)
  • the production design, while lavish and intricately designed, is almost too reliant on its influences to be engaging and unique.
  • The second hour mostly focuses on Kristin’s obsession with Takeshi (yawn) and Takeshi’s attempts to find out a prostitute’s connection with the rich guy (pretty boilerplate noir stuff here).
  • The main police station of the series is set inside of a cathedral, a nod to The Shield that brings a smile to my face.
  • Perhaps the most disturbing note of the futuristic Bay City; when a rich dude kills his hooker, he can just pay for her to be resleeved in an upgraded model. Because, you know, female body autonomy will never truly exist, even in death!
  • Kovacs enters a virtual sex club at one point called Jack It Off, so you understand how subtle this show can be about its themes and ideas.
  • I really hope this show develops the “AI Poker Hang Out” a bit more, because Poe is arguably the most interesting character of them all, and I’m just interested in hearing different AI’s talk shit about humanity… though of course, one of the AI’s talks giddily about sexual assault, so that excitement comes with a grain of salt.
  • Netflix: why do you spend lots of money on fancy opening credits, only to ditch them in the second episode? (and that skip button – ugh that fucking skip button!)
  • When did Joel Kinnaman get so big? He hulks across the frame now, which is not what it was like watching him back in The Killing days. Gives him a totally different screen presence, but one that fits naturally into the Altered Carbon aesthetic.
Written By

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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