Altered Carbon is a show that is obsessed with nipples. There are nipples, and butts, and general displays of nudity, absolutely everywhere, from the pilot on. According to showrunner, writer, and executive producer Laeta Kalogridis, that’s done for intentional effect.
Talking to Gamespot a couple days ago, she said, “Our worst instincts as human beings have to do with our carelessness with natural resources, and when the body itself becomes just one more of those resources, how will we treat it? Will we treat it with such indifference and with such depersonalization that it becomes more like a very fancy car than a repository of the self?”
This, she explained, is the reason for the show’s nudity: it illustrates the frivolousness of the future’s bodies. “And that, I think, is one reason that the nudity itself is not gratuitous; it’s meant to reinforce to you, as a viewer, that the advent of this technology fundamentally and substantially changes people’s relationships with their idea of their own body,” Kalogridis said.”
This is an interesting answer, and I’ve been mulling it over for a while. Because, as many viewers have pointed out, the nudity in Altered Carbon can be distracting. The show is, at times, conspicuously sexual, so much so that it feels like the show’s interest in sexuality actually pulls away from the plot and mood. Moreover, the sexuality tends to be concentrated in specific areas. Not everyone is oversexed. Just prostitutes, and the rich.
So I’m wondering: does the sexuality in Altered Carbon have the effect Kalogridis wants it to? I’m not sure. The problem is that two value systems need to be dealt with here: the value system of the people in the world of Altered Carbon, and the values of the viewers looking in on it. In Altered Carbon that sexuality points toward the instrumentalization of the human body – sexuality as pure salesmanship, pure pleasure, purely meaningless. But for us? Well, it can signal something different, especially in visual media, where sexual depictions are more charged than they are in written fiction. Gratuitous nudity can signal base titillation, sexism, and even more insidious forms of dehumanization.
Of course, the show seems to know this, too. If you’ve watched the whole series, you know its ideas about sexuality get muddier as it goes on. But I’m not convinced it really pulls off that balancing act, especially in the early episodes. The pilot is… well, it’s a lot.