Apple TV+’s Speculative Climate Change Anthology Extrapolations Wastes Time and ResourcesPhoto Courtesy of Apple TV+ TV Reviews Extrapolations
Of all the new series polluting a crowded television landscape, the speculative climate change anthology Extrapolations should know that our time is precious, and shouldn’t be wasted. Scott Z. Burns, who previously asked a much more urgent and anxiety-inducing “what if?” with Contagion, leads Apple TV+’s eight-episode foray into the future of the 21st century, where new technology exploits and humankind’s worsening fears of the planet boiling. Sometimes, we see poignant reflections on people fighting isolation; often, we’re treated to diatribes about how everybody is on their phones these days.
The series’ writers have collected between them an enviable list of credits, not limited to The Handmaid’s Tale, Bly Manor, The Americans, and Little America. But an impressive combined portfolio doesn’t stop Extrapolations from feeling too similar to other predictive dystopia series, specifically the ones from Brit writers Charlie Brooker and Russell T. Davies. Extrapolations stands out by not featuring the twisted cruelty of Black Mirror or the warmth of Years and Years, but that doesn’t do it any favors—in trying to encapsulate the scope of humanity, the show too often feels devoid of its own identity. Its best episodes feel indebted to more talented storytellers, its worst ones feel created by a Chatbot.
Tracing our society’s battle against various life-threatening climate escalations from 2037 to 2070, the series has a loose structure: a lot of our characters are introduced in a multi-storyline premiere that marks an important climate conference in Tel Aviv; there’s a massive incident at the midpoint that ripples throughout the second half; we close with a confrontation that brings back familiar faces. These episodes are far and away the worst due to the inherent problems with making interpersonal drama out of planet-altering conflicts.
With every genius technician or mega-capitalist we meet, like the ones played by Edward Norton, Matthew Rhys, or Kit Harrington, we remember ourselves that individuals are not responsible for the world ending, rather systems are. The individual’s ability to worsen climate damage is only relevant because of the ways political systems condition individuals to behave, and how people’s perception of life and nature are malformed by the ways they are egregiously rewarded with power and capitalism.
It’s a naive writing perspective to think that not only can an industrial complex or political ideology be condensed into a few individuals, and naiver still to think these individuals could ever be accessed on an empathetic level like any other TV character can. Every time Extrapolations showcases humanity’s great selfishness with power-hungry, tech-obsessed titans, it just feels phony. If the problem with the planet’s inevitable heat-death were down to individuals, then justice should be achieved—an impossibility that Extrapolations still fantasizes about in its closing episode.
Amongst the powerless is where Extrapolations finds its most fruitful stories. The third episode explores the tests of faith put upon a Floridian rabbi (Daveed Diggs) as he struggles to express why his God would punish his flock. There’s a lot to love about “The Explosion,” the second half of a two parter that responds to the previous episode being set in the White House’s Oval Office by putting us in the streets of Mumbai. Here, a dejected civilian finds himself in the middle of—and to some extent, aiding—an eco-terrorist war he didn’t sign up for. And even though the petty bourgeoisie seen in the penultimate episode “The Going Away Party” are by no stretch powerless, revelations announced during their New Year’s Eve party make them temporarily unmoored as class dynamics and debilitating insecurities boil to the surface.
But the problem with peaks like these is that the further into an uninteresting series you go, the more context deadens your enjoyment of any quality television. “The Going Away Party,” even once you ignore its one-act play trappings, can’t be relished like earlier ones can because by this point, you’re over the show completely.
With an ensemble cast this stacked, you’d hope there would be a higher average quality of performance, but maybe it’s impossible to act that impressively with scripts so packed with clunky exposition. Of the narcissist geniuses, Edward Norton leaves unscathed, Kit Harrington does not. The best performances are found in the good episodes; Nicole Holofcener directs a strong quartet of Marion Cotillard, Tobey Maguire, Forest Whitaker, and Eiza Gonzalez, plus Daveed Diggs makes a lasting impression in his early appearances. But poor Tahar Rahim, a tremendous international actor, is left hung out to dry—although it doesn’t stop him taking a massive swing as a nostalgia escort (he gets paid to act like someone you’ve lost) in a world where memories are saved onto hard drives in “Lola.”
Together with the dull, discolored and unremarkable visual palette we’ve come to expect from speculative fiction that really wants to be taken seriously, Extrapolations often feels like it’s challenging you to stay focused on the screen. It’s noteworthy as a collective effort in arguing that hope will survive in humanity’s darkest days, but by playing straight some pretty silly material (Matthew Rhys gets gouged by a walrus! Meryl Streep voices a whale! Tahar Rahim has a comical fake beard!), we’re left with a show that seems engineered to make its audience go, “Hmm…” reflectively. Unlike climate change, we can probably ignore this one.
Extrapolations premieres Friday, March 17th on Apple TV+ with three episodes; subsequent episodes will be available weekly.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.
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