Depending on who you ask, Altered Carbon is either Netflix's answer to Game of Thrones, or a Blade Runner knockoff. But the truth is, it's neither. It's an entertaining show that, unfortunately, never manages to break out and become that genre-spanning hit Netflix was surely hoping for. Cyberpunk fans will love it, book fans will accept it, and the world at large may end up forgetting it.
Based on the novel by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon is about an ex-Envoy soldier named Takeshi Kovacs who wakes up hundreds of years after his death to a world he fought to prevent. He's largely played this season by Joel Kinnaman (Suicide Squad, Robocop), because Altered Carbon takes place in a world where the human consciousness has become digitised and bodies (called "sleeves") are interchangeable. As a result, humanity has achieved immortality, leading some to become godlike figures called Meths. One such Meth is the effortlessly enigmatic Laurens Bancroft (Rome's James Purefoy), who hires Kovacs to solve the murder of one of his sleeves. Kovacs' investigation leads to a conspiracy that threatens to shatter the world Meths spent centuries creating, as well as destroy Kovacs himself.
Altered Carbon is cyberpunk noir in every sense of the word, and rests comfortably within its own genre. You can tell showrunner Laeta Kalogridis respects Morgan's vision, and she stays faithful to the world he created. There are some big changes, but none of them feel like they defy Morgan's work - indeed, lots of them feel necessary in hindsight. For example, Lizzie Elliott (Hayley Law) and her family are given a much-larger role here, with Lizzie serving as the main voice for the show's many, many, many victims. Be prepared for a lot of mutilated bodies, many of them young women.
The biggest change is with Kovacs' backstory, which is given its own episode in the middle of the season. For the show, the Envoys have been changed from a military unit designed for interstellar warfare into a rebellion fighting against the new age of digital immortality. The original Takeshi Kovacs joins the rebellion (played by Falling Water's Will Yun Lee in one of the show's best performances), accompanied by his sister, Reileen Kawahara (Dollhouse's Dichen Lachman). Book fans will recognise her name — and yes, it gets as complicated as you might think. Changing his backstory works really well, as it humanizes Kovacs in a way the original Altered Carbon never quite managed to, and gives him a more personal connection to the story. It also lets the audience see Takeshi Kovacs as an Asian man, his real self.
The book is about a biracial Japanese man trapped in a white person's body, which means, on screen, viewers are faced with a situation where a white actor would be playing an Asian character. This led to concerns about whitewashing, which I talked with Kalogridis about here. I feel like Altered Carbon handles it ok, though I wish the show had explored Takeshi's identity in Kinnaman's body, which I'd say was doubly needed given the new backstory. Kovacs valued his skin to the point he joined a movement fighting against sleeving, and even after he went on the lam, he still chose bodies he identified with. You'd think being forced into the body of a white man would be a problem for him, but it's barely mentioned, let alone addressed.
I'm curious how much of this is because of Kinnaman's limitations as an actor. Don't get me wrong, he turns in a fine performance — with emotions and humour I hadn't seen from him before — but it isn't very ranged. He doesn't feel like Takeshi Kovacs; it felt like I was watching Kinnaman play himself. On a show about minds moving between bodies, his shortcomings are obvious, reminding me of Eliza Dushku's own issues on the similar series Dollhouse. For instance, in a flashback, Kinnaman struggles to give the personality of his sleeve, Elias Ryker, anything new other than "slightly surprised eyes." That said, he's simply adorable in the first episode, carting a pink unicorn backpack while high out of his mind.
In the end, however, I just couldn't get over the fact that Lee turned in a better performance as Takeshi Kovacs, and the show never gave me a reason for having the character played by Kinnaman beyond it being from the book.
The other big weakness of Altered Carbon is the investigation itself... and pretty much everything that happens inside that damn police station. Martha Higareda is good as Detective Kristin Ortega, and I love the inclusion of her family to represent those who refuse to re-sleeve for religious reasons. But, for as much time as we spend with Ortega and Bay City's finest, nothing ever happens. Most of the information garnered from the police procedural drama either serves no purpose or gets separately figured out by Kovacs, and it bungles the main storyline to the point where I couldn't deduce what the hell was happening. The investigation fumbles over itself and doesn't make sense until the very end. I get that it's a noir thriller, and detective work is a big part of that genre, but it isn't very cohesive. (Speaking of noir drama, be prepared for some long expository confessions — they go on for about two episodes straight.)
It's too bad, because there are some fascinating elements that deserved more time. For instance, the rising divide between artificial intelligence and humanity. Early on in the season, we see digital members of the AI Hotel Management Union gather for a card game, including the delightful Edgar Allan Poe (Chris Conner). They shoot the shit about how, even though they all exist in service to humanity, they will ultimately outpace and outlive it. Meths may see themselves as gods to humanity, but AIs consider Meths to be just as disposable as everyone else. This is a promising storyline that isn't given the attention it deserves. Speaking of which, there's also a lot more that could've been explored with the Meths as religious icons. We spend a bit of time with a murderous zealot, and we see Laurens bestow gifts upon some quarantined victims, but we get no hint if those were unique examples or part of a larger cultural movement.
Altered Carbon comes out February 2, and people who watch it will likely leave satisfied - especially fans of Blade Runner. But if Netflix and Skydance were aiming to create a universally acclaimed scifi spectacle, they didn't make it, and it has a long way to go to break out of its own genre shell. Altered Carbon is good, but it's not great.
- There is a lot of violence, graphic sex, and full-frontal nudity in Altered Carbon, with women bearing the brunt of the exploitation and abuse. Given the story and its context, it didn't bother me, but it's something to keep in mind if you're typically uncomfortable with that sort of thing.
- If you were eager for another Westworld-style intro and theme song, you're in luck! It's so similar to HBO it almost hurts.
- Watch out for heavy, plodding exposition in the first episode, mainly from Ortega the Exposition Fairy, since there's a lot of information viewers have to absorb if they haven't read the book. At one point, it was so dense I almost stopped watching.
- Kristin Lehman was perfect as Miriam Bancroft, combining ageless wisdom with aggressive sexuality. Plus, every one of her outfits was incredible. She looked like a Roman god who was moments away from baring her teeth and swallowing you whole.
- The sets are beautiful and detailed, but by the end of the first season you've seen some of them so many times they end up feeling a little stale. This is especially true with the Bancroft Manor. Apparently, everyone loves hanging out in Laurens Bancroft's study, like, all the time.
- I want to give a shout-out to the actors who played Ava Elliott and Kristin Ortega's abuela. Both of them took sleeved personalities and embodied them mind and soul, showing more range and depth in their roles than, honestly, Kinnaman himself did. That said, I was a little bummed that Lachman, perhaps most famous for taking on several rotating personalities in Dollhouse, didn't get to show off her relevant skills here.
- Holy shit, Alice's snake.