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Altered Carbon somehow nails the sci-fi book-to-TV landing on Netflix

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Fans of the dystopian-noir novel Altered Carbon surely had to wonder what form it would take when turned into a TV series. Or, to borrow the 2002 book's lingo, what "sleeve" the show would slip into.

The result, whose entire first TV season debuted last week on Netflix, is a pretty surprising one: it's totally solid. The results walk a tricky tightrope between book-allegiant and TV-appropriate, and as a result, neither end of the viewer spectrum will come away 100 percent satisfied. This is not necessarily must-see TV; not quite the sci-fi world's version of Breaking Bad or The Wire. You can nitpick it enough to classify the show as good, not great.

But if you take even one glance at the show and think, "yeah, I might like this," then you'll be just fine. Its grand scope, well-rounded cast, consistency, and ambitious pacing make it a high-water mark among Netflix-exclusive action series. So long as you're over 18, at any rate.

Gutsy? Or just guts?

  • Takeshi Kovacs, as played by Byron Mann.
  • Takeshi Kovacs, as played by… Joel Kinnaman. (At least one other actor portrays another Kovacs "sleeve" before season one runs out.)
  • Kinneman gets the most screen time as this season's Kovacs, a character who is originally of Germanic and Japanese descent. We wish the TV series talked a LITTLE more openly about this cultural weirdness, honestly (even if it's authentic to the book).
  • Either way, at least he sports this ridiculous backpack on occasion. (It's always full of guns and drugs.)
  • When Kovacs comes to after a prolonged suspension, he is as confused as all of us as to who he has become.
  • A demonstration of how "stacks" work in the world of Altered Carbon includes this hologram.
  • Go on, slap your stack into an upgraded sleeve. For a price (moral, monetary, you name it).
  • Two Kovacs…es.
  • The locals don't take too kindly to upgraded sleeves 'round these parts.

That age-gating is very unfortunate. In my dream world, Netflix would create an entirely new edit of Altered Carbon's first season that pulls a few of its needlessly violent and sexual punches—let alone the egregious moments that gratuitously combine those two extremes.

The compliment that I want to give this series is how awesome it could otherwise play for any sci-fi hungry teenagers in your life—for young adults coming to terms with identity, morality, and altruism. But in fulfilling a promise of book authenticity, Skydance Media's take on Altered Carbon turns words into blood and genitalia—and often with little character-development payoff. Bad guys don't look worse because more blood gushes, or because we see how horrifically prostitutes are beaten. Brutality and subtlety require different measurements in books and on screen, and this is possibly Altered Carbon's greatest failing.

Otherwise, this book's filmed series nails something really important in TV sci-fi: it raises obvious existential questions without talking down to viewers. Altered Carbon imagines a near-future world in which humanity has figured out how to cheat death: by slipping our personalities into discs in the back of the neck, known as "stacks," that can then bounce from body to body. Stackless bodies, as hinted to above, are known in this world as "sleeves," and these work as a point of controversy and contention among this future world's citizens (not to mention capital and bartering chips).

This ten-episode series follows Kovacs, a once-powerful and rebellious "envoy" who has been resurrected and slapped into a muscular, combat-ready sleeve. In his new life, Kovacs works as a bodyguard and detective for one of the world's richest men, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). If Kovacs can solve a tricky murder case for Bancroft, then he becomes a free man—but, as you might imagine, nothing about this murder investigation is easy.

  • If you own an HDR-compatible 4K TV, get thee to Altered Carbon, stat. It's easily Netflix's best showcase for the format since Planet Earth II.
  • A look out into the dystopian-future night sky.
  • If Blade Runner-esque cityscapes bore you, worry not. This series also has ridiculous cloud cities.
  • Kovacs, alongside his sometimes-partner-sometimes-rival Ortega (Martha Higareda), is taken aback by these cloud cities.

What unfolds can be described as two very good TV series battling each other for position and dominance. On one hand, we have a flashy, sexy, gorgeous-in-4K exploration of dystopian-future themes that are admittedly well-trodden territory. The world has changed thanks to so much body-swapping and other high-tech developments, and we see those concepts explored as a mix of broad, obvious strokes of plot development and thrilling action scenes. This series' producers waste no time visually proving their admiration for Blade Runner and The Matrix—and when this show's fisticuffs, gunplay, and sword fighting are at their best, such shameless homages are easily forgiven.

On the other hand, Altered Carbon is simultaneously a noir crime show that relies on sometimes-strong, sometimes-cheesy character development. Many of the show's sequences feel like a squishing together of Veronica Mars with Star Trek: The Next Generation (and I say this as a fan of both), as Kovacs and his eventual partner/rival Ortega (Martha Higareda) cross paths while solving their own respective mysteries. This material sometimes shines with a bright sheen. These two lead actors are given a lot of room in the script to carve out their identity, their moral shades of gray, and ultimately, their likability even when they're at their most selfish and foolish.

One major problem is that Kovacs exists as a major player in both extremes… as two different people. We see actors Byron Mann and Will Yun Lee portray Kovacs' older existence as a murderous, taking-down-the-system envoy, but he takes much longer to open up as anything other than a stone-faced, cold-blooded murderer. (Most of his character's opportunities to express emotions are drowned out by his timeline's sci-fi war content, though these sequences still prove quite arresting—particularly thanks to the killer chops of actor Renée Elise Goldsberry, who nails that timeline's character Quellcrist Falconer.)

Kovacs' rebirth in the skin of actor Joel Kinnaman is a far more compelling one in terms of the script and character-development opportunities he gets. This is probably the most glaring way that the book shines brighter than the TV show: in allowing Kovacs to feel consistent, as a man who's grown and changed over centuries but is unified by major principles. Having each TV actor handle such different parts of his life, and having those scenes framed in such different ways, creates a schism in his character development and in the show's pacing.

(If you're looking for top-notch timeline-hopping sci-fi on Netflix, you may very well be happier watching Travelers. Or Hulu's Future Man, even.)

Being Takeshi Kovacs

But the series is still pretty nimble at finding opportunities to expand book moments, or build upon them, in ways that make sense without remaining entirely tied to the book. My favorite not-a-spoiler example is when an entire "B plot" of an episode revolves around Ortega's family. They're celebrating Día De Los Muertos while arguing about the spiritual and religious beliefs that all these stack- and skin-swaps conjure up—and one family member forces the conversation into an uncomfortable zone by pulling a surprise, last-minute switcheroo using stacks. Multiple generations of a family look at each other in entirely new ways as a result, and every actor involved gets to dance around the scene with performances full of life and energy.

This is what damned good sci-fi accomplishes better than any genre: it lets characters become equal parts other-worldly and familiar. It finds a way to laugh and revel while tackling serious life subjects.

  • Ortega and Kovacs get ready to team up in a strange arena.
  • A holographic AI butler named Poe (Chris Conner) gets the comic-relief stuff right without being obnoxious about it. Very good turn, honestly.
  • Vernon (Ato Essandoh) pleads for his daughter's survival in a simulation.
  • Miriam Bancroft (Kristin Lehman) makes moves.
  • Vernon, Kovacs, and Ortega exchange weaponry.
  • One of the most brutal scenes in the series features a shape-shifting VR torturer.
  • Two bystanders face off in a zero-G fight. The winner gets an upgraded sleeve.

As the plot unfolds, every character enjoys a mix of these high-mark moments of self-discovery and tedious, should've-been-trimmed moments. Supporting characters like a holographic AI butler (Chris Conner), a shape-shifting upper-class wife (Kristin Lehman), and a grieving marine (Ato Essandoh) all enjoy brief opportunities to steal scenes and round out the other main characters in revealing their eccentricities and shades of gray. But some of their episodes' B plots do as much to dull the momentum.

That kind of criticism about plots with tertiary characters, honestly, is par for the sci-fi TV course—and we've certainly seen more obnoxious padding in longer-running series (lookin' right at you, newer Battlestar Galactica). Altered Carbon really does a good job keeping its casting in a "quite good" range from bottom to top, and every major character mostly nails a mix of intensity, believability, and humanity in a show all about people magically swapping bodies and flying around cloud cities. (It's also fun to see a few actors pull double duty as multiple personalities in the same "sleeve." The results aren't as charming as on Orphan Black, but they come close.)

I could level a few criticisms about the show's later-season surprises, along with some irrational turns in how characters get along. But beyond their spoilery nature, they're also just not the kinds of bummers that will tank the full season's impact, should you get through all ten hour-long episodes. Netflix and Skydance Media clearly invested in making a TV show worthy of the Altered Carbon namesake—which was never about blowing away sci-fi conventions. That book series was just as shameless about its forebears, but its compelling twists and badass core characters kept you flipping its pages. Netflix's version does just enough to deliver the same thing for your "play next episode" button.

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