“You lived too long,” Takeshi Kovacs tells a rival in Altered Carbon, the new Netflix sci-fi drama debuting Friday. Kovacs isn’t speaking figuratively: the series is set hundreds of years in the future, when technology allows human consciousness to be digitized and placed on discs (called “stacks”) that can be transferred from one body (now called “sleeves”) to another, rendering those with the right amount of cash effectively immortal. Get shot, get sick, or just get bored with your face — or skin color, or gender — and you can be resleeved as many times as you like. The super-rich become known as “Meths,” for Methusaleh, since they can live for centuries, either in clones of their original bodies, sleeves purchased from others, or even specially-grown synthetic bodies that can transform into whatever the wearer desires. With “true death” no longer an equalizer for humanity, the Meths have grown increasingly decadent, cruel, and oblivious to their own failings.
The concept, and the plot of this first season, come from the cyberpunk novel by Richard K. Morgan, the first of several stories featuring Kovacs and all the talk of stacks and sleeves. The TV show (I’ve seen all 10 episodes of the first season), adapted by Laeta Kalogridis (Terminator: Genisys), feels a lot like one of the Meths: audacious and ever-changing — at various points, it’s a hard-boiled detective story, a dystopian sci-fi epic that spans galaxies, a wire-fu action saga, and a drama about the emotional cost of being able to jump from body to body as the decades pass — but also sticking around well past a point that’s probably healthy for anyone.
Kovacs is the last survivor of a group of elite soldiers who tried to wage a revolution against the stack technology which, as Kovacs’ mentor and lover Quell Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry) puts it, “Eternal life for those who can afford it means eternal control over those who can’t.” Half-Japanese, half-Slavic at birth, he’s been resleeved often enough that he’s played at different points in the series by Will Yun Lee, Byron Mann, and Morgan Gao. Pulled out of cold storage into a new body played by Joel Kinnaman from The Killing and Suicide Squad, Kovacs is hired by the most powerful Meth of all, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), to solve a very important murder: Laurens’ own. (In this world, the Meths are always backed up in the cloud, so even murder is usually temporary.) While struggling to play gumshoe, he makes enemies and/or allies of cop Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), Bancroft’s femme fatale wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman), grief-stricken ex-soldier Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh), and an artificially intelligent hotel (Chris Conner) that likes to present itself as the 24th century resurrection of Edgar Allen Poe.
Like any wannabe noir, the plot’s much too complicated for its own good, and the story pauses frequently to revisit Kovacs’ revolutionary days with Falconer and his sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman, who gets much more to do than Hamilton alum Goldsberry).
Lachman’s one of two alums of Joss Whedon’s short-lived Fox drama Dollhouse to appear here. That was another series about consciousnesses moving from body to body, but it could only occasionally explore the full implications of the idea because Fox execs just wanted a procedural with a sci-fi twist. Easily the strongest part of Altered Carbon is the construction and depiction of the world itself, so quickly conveying the nature and societal implications of stacks and sleeves that it’s able to make the miraculous feel like a simple fact of life, like an amusing subplot in one episode where Ortega resleeves her dead grandmother into the body of a tatted and pierced male criminal for the Day of the Dead; the grandmother seems less excited about being alive again than about the chance to pee standing up. While occasionally the show looks very flat and Canadian (production was based in Surrey, British Columbia), as much money seems to have been poured into the world-building (the Bancroft family’s home in the clouds looks as spectacular as necessary to get across the idea of what the One Percent look like in the future) as into the big action set pieces, like Kovacs engaged in zero-gravity combat, or Kovacs and Ortega hurled into a gladiatorial arena(*) where their opponents are men mutated to look like monsters.
(*) The man in charge of said arena is played by Matt Frewer, who starred in one of TV’s earliest cyberpunk series, the misunderstood (because its title character was better known as a cola pitchman) Max Headroom.
The dialogue is incredibly cheesy, and the porny-ness of it all so high, even Cinemax might roll eyes at some of it, particularly a fight scene where naked clones of one female character keep smashing through windows to fight one of the good guys. What’s meant to titillate instead becomes cringe-inducing as the clones run, jump, and even full body slide across a floor covered in shards of broken glass, never once troubled by it. And, like nearly every Netflix drama, it’s got more episodic sleeve than narrative stack: half the reason the story feels so exhaustingly convoluted is because Kalogridis and the other writers have more time to fill than the mystery can sustain, even as their curiosity about the world around the case ebbs and flows. (Other than one reference by an old friend to Kovacs looking too gaijin in his new body, there’s no real time spent on how our hero feels about the cross-ethnic transformation. Nor, for that matter, does Kovacs seem particularly thrown by, or even aware of, any changes to society in the 250 years he’s been on ice before this story begins.) It’s also not shy about leaning into its influences: it’s a wonder Rick Deckard from Blade Runner doesn’t wander past on a parallel investigation, and there’s an important scene of a vulnerable character being threatened on the edge of a catwalk above the clouds that’s only lacking the line, “I am your father.” (Which, for a body-swapping show, could have many different meanings.)
Yet despite the leaden pacing and smugness of the whole thing, I could never get myself to quit Altered Carbon. I kept resolving to stop after the second episode, the fourth, etc., and there would always be some kind of carrot on a stick — a remarkable action sequence, an unexpected burst of humor from what’s largely a grimdark show, an intriguing new application of the body swapping concept, the leading man reminding me of why I began to think of The Killing as a Joel Kinnaman delivery system — that kept me going. That’s the sort of patience Netflix tends to bank on, which is why they let most of their dramas run so fatty, and while the season never rises to the quality level that, say, Sense8 did for those willing to tough out the early growing pains, it winds up being more satisfying than not, and the convoluted plot ties together much more effectively than it has any business doing.
The season just, like the Meth that Kovacs scolds, lives too long. The concept and the existence of sequel books mean there could be many more stories to come, featuring lots of actors (the premise makes cast changes a snap, along with recruiting actors who otherwise might not want to be tied down to a series for years, without costing you any particular character) and even shifts in genre. With so much time, so many resources, and so much creative potential, Altered Carbon could become almost anything. But as with most Netflix series — as well as with most Meths — that limitless potential can too often lead to sedentary self-indulgence.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.