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TV Review: ‘Altered Carbon’ on Netflix

With:
Joel Kinnaman, Martha Higareda, Renee Elise Goldsberry, James Purefoy, Will Yun Lee, Dichen Lachman, Chris Conner, Ato Essandoh, Kristin Lehman, Tamara Taylor, Matt Frewer.

Altered Carbon” is packed with facsimiles: The main conceit of this slow-building but satisfying series is that people can download their consciousness into a series of bodies, or “sleeves,” indefinitely. These extensions are only possible for individuals with sufficient funds, of course: Living forever, which involves growing or acquiring an array of sleeves, is for the very rich.

The metaphor of many iterations — copies that evolve or degrade depending on the resources available — is an apt one for “Altered Carbon,” which mixes together a host of familiar sci-fi ideas and storytelling conventions. In the early going, this highly serialized tale, which is based on a novel by Richard Morgan, can come off as a bit too imitative of “Blade Runner”-esque projects and the film noir genre. Some of the cityscapes look like they came directly from the Ridley Scott classic, and on a narrative level, watching the first few installments of “Altered Carbon” feels like seeing several different scenarios from the Amazon anthology series “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” play out at once.

But as it progresses through its 10-episode season, “Altered Carbon” finds its own groove. Of its many delicious grace notes, my favorite may be Poe (Chris Conner), the tart yet enthusiastic artificial intelligence that runs a hotel named after Edgar Allan Poe. The black-clad hotelier is too caught up in the daring and even romantic quest of the story’s hero — and the hotel’s only guest — to be properly Goth and glum. Those moments of comic relief and laconic humor are most welcome, and may allow some viewers to forgive the drama’s overuse of certain sci-fi cliches. (Centuries from now, is it really always going to be raining?)

The gray weather often suits the mood of Takashi Kovacs, who has woken up from a 250-year sleep and been unwillingly stuck with the job of solving a rich man’s murder. For much of “Altered Carbon,” Kovacs, a former soldier with a murky past, is played by Joel Kinnaman, an actor capable of great subtlety and emotional transparency. For long stretches, however, “Altered Carbon” asks Kinnaman to stay in the slightly cynical, tough-guy mode recognizable from countless films about private detectives down on their luck. But when his Kovacs shows vulnerability or confused melancholy — and opportunities for that are too rare in the early going — the character and his plight become more engaging.

As the series heads into the second half of the season, Will Yun Lee, who’s also terrific, joins the fray as the Kovacs who lived 250 years ago, and his grudges and aspirations lend the series a jolt of energizing pathos. The seventh episode, in which the shards of Kovacs’ history are pieced together to form an involving mythology combining the personal and the technological, is one of the best of the season. It blends action, the excavation of several characters’ histories and world-building in a series of compelling set pieces, and in those kinds of moments, the series finds its own emotional momentum (and its homages to “The Matrix” feel earned).

The second half of the season also contains information that the drama likely should have conveyed earlier, and of the two main timelines, Kovacs’ past — in which he meets a mysterious guerrilla commander and becomes enmeshed in conflicting loyalties — generally feels more propulsive and elegiac. These later episodes also contain scenes of Renee Elise Goldsberry and Dichen Lachman kicking ass in several crackling action sequences, and it’s worth sticking out the slower sections of the season for those moments alone. When “Altered Carbon” is unafraid of embracing its the pulpiness at its core, it becomes both more enjoyable and more addictively textured. 

Altered Carbon

For all its genre bells and whistles — virtual realities, memory splices, jacked-up soldiers in black masks and fantastical castles in the clouds — much of “Altered Carbon” rests on that most basic TV building block: the cop show. When not monologuing in slightly pompous voiceovers, Kovacs frequently encounters a detective, Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), who’s also looking into the murder of long-lived titan Laurens Bancroft (a suave and skillfully menacing James Purefoy). Your investment in the police department storyline may depend on whether you can detect any chemistry between Kinnaman and Higareda. Generally speaking, that relationship is only intermittently interesting.

Like “Electric Dreams,” “Altered Carbon” is not perfect, but both are solid additions to the canon of science fiction on television. To see major TV platforms spending big money on TV series with shuttlecraft, flying police cruisers, multiple worlds and gorgeously inventive technology is heartening. Though “Altered Carbon” is dependent on a number of the genre’s oldest conventions, the casual inclusivity of its cast (many women of color have prominent roles), and its ability to shift between worlds and memories becomes impressive over time. Kovacs may be unable to outrun his past, but the most promising aspects of this ambitious series look like the future.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: 'Altered Carbon' on Netflix

Drama; 10 episodes (8 reviewed); Netflix, Fri. Feb. 2. 60 min.

Crew: Executive producers, Laeta Kalogridis, Steve Blackman, Russel Friend, Garrett Lerner, Nick Huran, Bradley J. Fischer, James Vanderbilt, Arnold W. Messer, James Middleton, Brian Nelson, Miguel Sapochnik, Mike Medavoy, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Marcy Ross.

Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Martha Higareda, Renee Elise Goldsberry, James Purefoy, Will Yun Lee, Dichen Lachman, Chris Conner, Ato Essandoh, Kristin Lehman, Tamara Taylor, Matt Frewer.

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