Climate change is the defining problem of our time, not merely for the threat it poses to the stability of our civilization but for how sticky and hard to pin down it is, in conversation or in art. By definition, it’s all around us — the climate is what we’re soaking in, no matter where we are. Its pervasiveness makes it somewhat unimaginable: What would it be like for everything to change? The mind reels; the problem gets put away.
This is one of the challenges facing “Extrapolations,” a new quasi-anthology series that skips forward in time to tell the story of how we might continue to live on a warming Earth. Very few of the series’ characters appear in more than one episode, and very few have more than a flat and easily described motivation — the show works a bit like a breezy and brisk collection of linked short stories, constantly moving forward, continually showing new consequences of our own inaction. Keeping the characters flat and underserved, though, makes the lavishly depicted world they inhabit feel less like a matter of concern. What does it matter if we’re all going to die, if “we” aren’t first recognizable as rounded, full people?
At times, the show leans into the unknowability and the insignificance of its characters: The first installment includes a wry little vignette about a monstrous hotelier (Matthew Rhys) who is simply begging for a comeuppance at the hands of cruel and uncaring Mother Nature. And one of the stronger installments features the exceptional actor Tahar Rahim as a man who has no self at all: Made ill by heat exposure over the course of his life, he’s forced to earn money to support himself as a sort of gig-economy emotional surrogate, playing roles in clients’ lives for a few hours at a time.
Here, the show verges close to “Black Mirror” territory — the idea that people might make money by transforming themselves into the object of strangers’ fantasies has more to do with our generally increasing isolation than with the heating world. (At various points in Rahim’s episode, characters pause literally to explain what is happening: Crypto mining has radically increased carbon output, higher temperatures are killing and disabling people en masse, and the weight of water in the higher oceans has altered the tectonic plates. Phew — that’s a lot of exposition!) Clumsy in its delivery of information, “Extrapolations” is also maudlin where “Black Mirror” is icy. Rahim’s character is one of the show’s few who has featured in multiple episodes — we’ve met his mother, played by Sienna Miller, and his grandmother, played by Meryl Streep. (A note to Streep fans: Though first-billed, she delivers what I’d describe as a slightly extended cameo.) And here, as elsewhere, the show hasn’t rounded him out enough to make his struggle sad for reasons beyond any person’s suffering being sad.
This is much of what we’re left with over the course of eight episodes of “Extrapolations” — the show ranges all over the globe and travels as far into the future as 2070 to come to the conclusion, over and over, that it’s a bummer when bad things happen. Fair enough — climate change is kind of the ultimate bummer! But writer Scott Z. Burns has been sharper before: In his screenplay for the Steven Soderbergh-directed film “Contagion,” characters are drawn so sharply and elegantly that we feel global cataclysm as something that’s really happening to them. There are strong performances studding “Extrapolations”: I appreciated what Kit Harington was going for as a tech genius (one who oddly shares a name with the real-life tech journalist Nick Bilton), as smooth and assured as his increasingly shellacked face as the years pass. And Marion Cotillard is satisfyingly odd as the hostess of a dinner party at what feels like the end of the world. But too many of the performers enlisted to fulfill Burns’ vision find themselves stuck with the reality that there isn’t room for their particularities within it.
What would a really great work of art about climate change look like? While the film is profoundly flawed, I found the central metaphor in 2021’s “Don’t Look Up” to be more effective, certainly, than the “Extrapolations” approach. Transforming the threat into something physical and tangible had a clarifying effect. It placed the characters on a clock, during which time they had to decide how to respond. “Extrapolations,” treating climate change absolutely literally, paradoxically struggles to make us care. The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for, as the saying goes; this series, to its detriment, only cares about the second half of that sentence.
“Extrapolations” premieres its first three episodes on Friday, March 17 on Apple TV+, with new episodes to follow weekly.