Part of the thrill of “Altered Carbon,” the new sci-fi series from Netflix, is figuring out the rules of the strange future universe we’ve been dropped into. Passive viewing this is not. For the first few hours of the show, adapted from Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 cyberpunk novel, you will need to work to understand what’s what and who’s who — that last mystery being harder to resolve than you’d expect, what with all the body switching and such.
Let me explain. We quickly learn that, in “Altered Carbon,” whose 10-episode first season is available on Friday, death is no longer necessarily everlasting. Resurrection and even immortality are available for all, or at least for those with enough money to buy them. In this world, which bears some resemblance to the dirty, neon metropolis of “Blade Runner,” human consciousness (a “stack” implanted at the base of the skull) can be transferred into another body (a “sleeve”). And if your stack is given a new sleeve, that sleeve can be male, female, white, Asian, black, ugly, thin, or hunky like the show’s star, Joel Kinnaman, who appears to have doubled in muscle weight since his days on “The Killing.”
Those who are rich enough to re-sleeve can take up new residence in a sleeve cloned from their original body, or in a used sleeve that they’ve bought. Those who survive this way across centuries, like James Purefoy’s Laurens Bancroft, are known as Meths, after Methuselah, and they live in a cloud level paradise fit for kings and queens. In Bancroft’s case, he has lived on in bodies cloned from his original body, keeping him forever handsome in that British way, and his stack is backed up to a satellite every 48 hours.
I could go on with the explanation, but that would rob you of the pleasure of piecing the puzzle together on your own. These new rules of existence are fascinating, and so is the emotional fallout of the presence of eternal life. As with so many of the vampires we see in movies and on TV, not having an ax hanging over your head can lead to all kinds of cruelty, decadence, and dispassion. As our own life spans elongate here in the early 21st century, the show’s thought experiment about the end of death in the future is particularly intriguing.
What isn’t so thrilling about “Altered Carbon” is the complexity of the story lines set within the carefully imagined cosmos. The more we learn about Kinnaman’s Takeshi Kovacs, the more slippery the show becomes. Kovacs’s back story — and it’s a wayback story; he has been on ice for 250 years — is doled out to us in flashback slivers that never quite feel like they deliver enough information. We see the past-tense Kovacs in other bodies, which means he is played by different actors in different flashbacks, and his memories and virtual reality trips (they’re popular, especially for sexual gratification) at times blur together. Kovacs was a soldier in a revolution, but he has been brought back in Kinnaman’s body to Bay City, formerly San Francisco, to help Purefoy’s Bancroft solve a crime, a noirish murder investigation that has its own twists and turns. He is now a private eye, but haunted by his former activist life.
I’m not sure Kovacs’s world within the greater world of “Altered Carbon” needs to be presented in such a convoluted fashion. I get it, his mind is swirling with pieces of the past and the present, not to mention a 250-year gap in consciousness that has to be uneasy-making. Show creator Laeta Kalogridis may want the viewer to feel the same confusion and queasiness. But if that’s the case, she’s guilty of overkill (in a world where killing is still conclusive). Kinnaman is good enough to rise above the chaos; he gives us a man who says he doesn’t care about anything, but whose memories nonetheless affect him profoundly. He has a mysterious rapport with a cop, Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), that clearly means something to him — what, at first we’re not sure.
He and Purefoy are well cast, but, of course, if either decides to leave the series, no biggie at all. Hey, just re-sleeve those stacks and move on.
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Martha Higareda, Renee Elise Goldsberry, James Purefoy, Will Yun Lee, Dichen Lachman, Chris Conner, Ato Essandoh, Kristin Lehman
On: Netflix, season one available on FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.