“Altered Carbon” is a lesson in the importance of context.
If it were on the Syfy channel, where it belongs, it would look above average. You’d think, yeah, not bad. On Netflix, where its 10 episodes will be available Friday, it still looks like an above-average Syfy series, which just makes you think, what the heck is this doing here?
To give Netflix the benefit of the doubt, it’s probably there for the cord cutters. If attracting them means recreating the entire ecosystem of television, then there’s room for a low-rent “Blade Runner” knockoff with basic-cable production values and premium-cable nudity . Not everything can or needs to be “Black Mirror.”
But if you’re concerned with maintaining your reputation as a leading purveyor of prestige TV, you might want to think harder about what you slap the “Netflix Original” label on.
Based on a cyberpunk novel by Richard K. Morgan and created by “Terminator Genisys” executive producer Laeta Kalogridis, “Altered Carbon” takes place in a future when technology has brought about a qualified form of immortality.
A person’s essence — personality, intelligence, memories — can be loaded onto a metal disc called a stack and, in the event of death or boredom, inserted into a new body. The rich, called Meths (for Methuselahs), can repeatedly clone themselves and live out an unchanging prime of life. The poor make do with any body they can get their hands on, whose age, race and even gender may be different from theirs.
This scenario is the backdrop for a mystery in which, given the new realities, the murder victim is still alive and curious about who killed him. Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), a powerful Meth, creates his own private eye by reviving the stack of a long dead Japanese-Slavic super-soldier, Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee), and putting it in the cybernetically enhanced, cryogenically preserved body of a recently dead Nordic policeman (Joel Kinnaman).
The show is yet another attempt to combine the beloved genres of noir and science fiction, and it demonstrates again — as “Blade Runner” did, even while inspiring a thousand imitators, including “Altered Carbon” — that they’re not really a natural fit, no matter how much their fan bases might overlap. The cynical romanticism of noir and the cosmic mind games of speculative sci-fi are a tricky and not always successful blend. (The current Starz series “Counterpart” succeeds, in part, by staying relatively close to real 21st-century life.)
“Altered Carbon” tries to meld a dystopian class-warfare story and a hard-boiled detective story by simply piling on both the pseudo-philosophical blather (much of it delivered in voice-over by Renée Elise Goldsberry as a rebel leader and Kovacs’ former lover) and the film-noir clichés. The entire twisted-rich-guy-with-beautiful-young-wife plot is a dangerously familiar setup, but the show is proud of its borrowings; when you have a noir rarity like “I Wake Up Screaming” playing in the background of a scene, you’re trying to make a point (while showing off).
Kinnaman wears a bad attitude as easily as most actors wear a shirt, but playing a reluctant Philip Marlowe-style gumshoe with the soul of a freedom fighter (the embodiment of the show’s dual nature) doesn’t suit him, and he lacks his usual spark. Dichen Lachman, as his sister and fellow rebel soldier, has a better feel for the material and shines in the frequent and graphically bloody action scenes.
The violence in “Altered Carbon” is only marginally greater than what you’d find on basic cable. But there’s one significant, in-your-face difference between it and the sci-fi shows it otherwise resembles: the copious nudity, mostly, though not exclusively, female.
“Altered Carbon” has some interesting ideas about the wages of immortality, such as the possibility of endless torture. But the resources and technology of the future it depicts appear to be devoted primarily to the pursuit of sexual gratification and exploitation, in milieus that recall 1970s Times Square and contemporary Las Vegas. As a narrative device, this provides a convenient rationale for routine (and numbing) nakedness, the way medieval fantasy provides the same cover for “Game of Thrones.”
And that, of course, may be another answer for what this show is doing on Netflix. With “Marco Polo” canceled, the gratuitous-nudity niche needed filling.
Streaming on Netflix
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