Netflix’s newest drama, released yesterday, is ALTERED CARBON. Set centuries in the future, it is part science fiction adventure, part murder mystery. In the ten-episode first season, Takeshi Kovacs, a violent mercenary, is woken from a 250-year slumber at Alcatraz. He is told he can either go back to prison forever, his sentence, or solve the murder of an extremely wealthy man, Laurens Bancroft. Obviously, Takeshi chooses the former, and he sets off into the world he knows little about to investigate a crime of which he knows even less.
Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, House of Cards) stars as Takeshi, which ties into a few important things. One, part of the premise is that the essence of people have been boiled down into “stacks,” basically big computer chips that can be inserted into any body, deemed “sleeves.” While Takeshi is Japanese and Eastern European, played by Will Yun Lee (Falling Water, True Blood) in flashback, he now inhabits a different ethnicity form. There is certainly an argument to be made that the series whitewashes its lead, but the cast is pretty diverse, and from a story perspective, the swap makes sense. So ALTERED CARBON tries to make up for that in other ways. (Whether it does or not, I leave for someone more qualified to decide.)
Bancroft is also a white man, played by James Purefoy (The Following, Hap and Leonard), as is the AI construct Poe (Chris Conner, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story). But others are not. The love of Takeshi’s life is Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry, The Good Wife, original cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton). Takeshia’s sister, Reileen, is played by Dichen Lachman (Dollhouse, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). The primary cop who is interested in Takeshi is Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda, Royal Pains). ALTERED CARBON also stars Ato Essandoh (Copper), Kristin Lehman (Motive), and Trieu Tran (The Newsroom).
The series itself is getting mixed reviews, and that’s fair. There’s certainly a large amount of exploitation of women in the dark corner of the world Takeshi is dropped into, prostitution, physically real or not, abundant, and drugs rampant. Little about the underworld isn’t a trope, and the main plot seems to be a basic murder mystery, albeit the intended victim isn’t really dead because his stack was backed up by a very expensive satellite, so all he lost as nearly two days of memories.
However, I found it an exciting romp with a complex, if a little two-dimensional, world. The visual effects are absolutely stunning, the futuristic city, including buildings that extend above the clouds, seeming very real. The rules of the world seem to be incredibly well thought-out and stuck to, though not overly explained, and there’s quite a bit of mystery surrounding Takeshi’s circumstances. Certainly this is more than just an episode of CSI stretched out. The acting is also pretty solid across the board, though I don’t yet see many similarities in personality between Lee and Kinnaman’s portrayals, so I’d like, over time, for the show to establish a more solid link.
There is also a trippy aspect to the production because Takeshi, as part of the side effects from being asleep so long, hallucinates people that aren’t there. This potentially calls into question the reality of what we’re seeing in every scene, even when he’s sober, and will have viewers looking for clues that things might not be real. That is an exciting element to toss in, especially when it’s so well integrated to the story.
Having only seen one episode so far, I can’t contradict entirely the uneasiness of other reviewers. What I can say is that as soon as I turn this in, I’m jumping right into episode two because I was left very much wanting to see more.
ALTERED CARBON season one is available now, streaming on Netflix.