Altered Carbon – Season 1


Well, that was bleak.

Main Cast: Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy

Created By: Laeta Kalogridis

Not all dystopian futures are created equal. Some have small bits of joy; some even have medium sized bits of joy, or at least some happiness somewhere. Not Altered Carbon – this is a bleak-ass dystopian misery fest filled with despair and garbage. The only thing even remotely resembling joy is sex. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you should probably be aware going in that there are no butterflies and rainbows to be found here.

Anyway, Altered Carbon takes place hundreds of years in the future, at a time when humans have colonized other planets and created a way to live forever. That sounds great! But it isn’t. Because people are awful, even when utopia is possible it doesn’t happen. What happens is that greedy rich people keep all the immortality for themselves in buildings that tower above the clouds while the rest of humanity struggles on the ground to survive – and maybe afford a little health care (but not really, that’s for rich people too, even though they can just buy a new body).

So into this gloomy picture comes Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman from The Killing). Kovacs has been “dead” for 250 year, his cortical stack (the thing that makes immortality possible) having been sentenced to eternity without a body, just floating in some sort of…unbeing. But Kovacs has skills. A lot of them. And one of the rich guys (James Purefoy – you’ll recognize him as Joe Carroll from The Following and be freaked out) wants those skills. Specifically, he wants Kovacs to use them to solve a crime – his own murder. So he pulls our hero up into the body of a disgraced cop and offers him a deal – solve the murder, earn your freedom. Fail or refuse and go back to stack prison. It wouldn’t be a very long show if he didn’t accept.

The series follows the investigation, and digs deep into the personality and past of Mr. Takeshi Kovacs. We see him as he was in his original body (that of actor Will Yun Lee) in flashbacks that tell his story. We see him in his new body (Kinnaman’s) using all the skills he acquired in his previous life to navigate this odious job and ugly place. His backstory is excellent, with great performances from Yun Lee, Dichen Lachman as Kovacs’ sister, and Renee Elis Goldsberry as his muse. The back and forth from past to present is handled without a hitch.

The uglier story, that of Kinnaman’s Kovacs, is also really quite good. It gets a little carried away with itself in terms of world building, but better more than less when it comes to a potentially ongoing series. Martha Higareda as a police officer with a special interest in Kovacs provides some grounding and helps the audience see how regular people live in this very irregular world. Kinnaman is fantastic, of course. He’s got a tough job – making his character a good match with the backstory character of Yun Lee — and he does very well. He kicks some ass, takes some names, and stands up to Purefoy’s uber-jerk rich guy.

Props go to Purefoy, once again embodying pure evil (and doing it well enough that if I saw him on the street at this point I might run screaming) and Chris Connor, who plays Kovacs’ Artificial Intelligence hotelier Poe, who gets over-attached to his guests. There are other peripheral characters and all do a solid job.

The visuals are both great and awful. The backstory world is lovely and brutal. The main story world is ugly and brutal with a side of violent and disgusting. But you definitely feel like you’re in the future, and get to see flying cars and martial arts.

Altered Carbon has two big weaknesses. The first is the aforementioned bleakness. Break your binge watching of this series up with an episode of The Great British Baking Show or Schitt’s Creek or anything at all, really, to alleviate the suffering and doom and violence in every episode. The only minor comic relief is Poe, and you will need more. The second is that for the first few episodes you’re likely to be completely lost. Just go with it – you’ll catch on as the series progresses. It’s actually pretty fun when they reveal the little secrets of the world they’ve built.

Overall, I liked Altered Carbon, as much as you can like something this grim. The storylines are consistently intriguing and there are enough twists and turns to keep it all interesting. Kinnaman is terrific, and the rest of the cast ably supports that performance. If you dig dystopia, give it a watch.

The series is streaming on Netflix.

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