The Critics Must Be Crazy: 'Altered Carbon' Is A Terrific New Netflix Original (2023)

Ortega (Martha Higareda) and Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) in Bay City.

Credit: Netflix

Altered Carbonlands on Netflix today. The new science-fiction cyberpunk drama stars Joel Kinnaman and James Purefoy and is set in a distant future where death is a thing of the past. It's a grittydystopian science-fiction show that evokesBlade Runneror, perhaps more accurately,Neuromancer.

The reviews are in and I can only assume that a sizable chunk of the TV critics out there have lost their minds.Altered Carbonis currently rocking a barely fresh 61% on Rotten Tomatoes.That's 8 points lower than Season 8 ofThe Walking Dead,which ranks among the worst television I've ever seen.(Edit: The score has moved up to 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, gaining four points as I penned this article. It's still far too low.)

I'm truly baffled. I've yet to pen my full review of the season, but I can say without hesitation that it's a terrific show. Everything from the gorgeous production values to the excellent cast to the mystery-filled story and action-packed ultra-violence is amazing. Altered Carbon'scyberpunk world is very reminiscent ofBlade Runnerin all its neon urban glory. And that's fitting because, likeBlade Runner,thisisfilm noir.

Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee) in a past timeline.

Credit: Netflix

A Brief Summary (only broadstrokes plot stuff, minor spoilers.)

The story, which is based on the book by Richard K. Morgan, follows protagonist Takeshi Kovacsacross several different timelines. In the current storyline Kovacs is played by Joel Kinnaman. He's been brought back to life and "re-sleeved" into a new body. Originally, Kovacs was half Japanese and half Eastern European. In past timelines we see Kovacs in two other bodies, his original played byWill Yun Lee and another Asian sleeve played by Byron Mann. But in the fiction, humanity has discovered an alien technology that allows them to store their consciousness in little discs, or stacks, that are inserted in the neck. If you die, so long as your stack remains intact, you can simply be placed in a new body.

The very rich and powerful, who live above the teaming masses in mansions built in the sky, live for hundreds of years this way, simply re-sleeving themselves in their own cloned bodies over and over again. These people are called "Meths" named after the biblical figureMethuselah who is said to have lived 969 years. These sky castles are vaguely reminiscent of the Tessier-Ashpool family's residence,Villa Straylight, fromNeuromancer.

It turns out that Kovacs has been brought back by one of these Meths, the insanely wealthy and powerfulLaurens Bancroft (James Purefoy.) Brought back to life hundreds of years after he was 'killed' in an earlier timeline, Kovacs finds himself at the center of a murder mystery, a deadly conspiracy and lots and lots of violence, including a terrifying VR torture chamber. He meets Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) a police detective who takes a particular interest in him, one that seems both hostile and like maybe she has a crush on him all at the same time.

Poe (Chris Conner) is an AI hotel.

Credit: Netflix

The world is dripping with detail. Kovacs stays at an AI hotel called The Raven. Its AI host is named Poe (Chris Conner.) We learn that nobody stays at AI hotels anymore because the artificial intelligences could become overly possessive of their guests. But the Raven is a really neat hotel and Poe is a wonderful character. Meanwhile, 'neo-Catholics' oppose eternal life and refuse to be re-sleeved. Hanging over everything is the all-powerful Protectorate, the guardians of this dark galaxy.

Its details like this that makeAltered Carbonsuch a fascinating show with such a rich, complex world. Shifting timelines, uncertain identity, and an enigmatic plot keepus intrigued. But it's the cast of relatable and interesting characters that makes us care about what happens.However grim this world may be, however complicated its cast of tycoons and misfits are, it's these people that invest us in the story.

Ortega is a tough cop with some real anger issues whose complicated relationship with her mother, her mother's faith and the stack technology all make her one of the most sympathetic figures inAltered Carbon.Kovacs, despite his icy exterior and apparent apathy, actually has a fascinating past and real emotional depth. You see this more and more as you learn about his past with the rebel Envoy leader Quell Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry.)

I won't go any further into the story in this post. My review will get into the later episodes and the various twists and turns the show takes, but I don't want to spoil any of that here. Suffice to say,Altered Carbonis a great new Netflix Original. Fans of science-fiction and cyberpunk, or even just fans of buddy cop shows and mysteries, will find lots to love.

The Critics Must Be Crazy

Quell Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry) kicking butt.

Credit: Netflix

I'm not sure why the critical reception has been so tepid. Some describe it as too slow, though I find that a little hard to believe. It has its slow moments, but these are almost always contrastedby big action scenes. Others complain that it's not new or bold enough, but I think this misses the point fairly widely. However much it may remind us ofBlade Runner,this is also a story of revolution and war spanning hundreds of years. Of course, a reviewer who didn't stick around for the whole season might not realize that.

Time's Eliana Dockterman has one of the most puzzling reviews of the show, writing that "Despite its futuristic setting, the show's treatment of race, gender and class feels downright retrograde...this is a Bond-like pastiche that delivers the sex and violence of 007 without any of the style or substance."

But this is preposterous.Altered Carbonhas an insanely diverse cast. It features several incredibly strong women who are Asian, black and Hispanic. It has a Muslim character in a romantic relationship with a Hispanic woman and in one scene they speak back and forth in Spanish and Arabic.

I must admit, reading Dockterman's review I can only assume shestopped watching the showafter an episode or two and made up her mind about the rest, filling in whatever blanks she liked with whatever assumptions she was running with. Given that she praisesStar Trek Discoveryfor its diverse casting and then fails to notice thatAltered Carbonis at least as diverse, if not more so, I don't think I'm wrong. She also complains that the show fails to examine the ethics of never-ending life,when in reality this is the entire point of the show.

How does a critic miss such a vital narrative detail? Truly puzzling.

Gallery: Altered Carbon

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Indeed, Dockterman seems more interested in the "problematic" issue of "white-washing" than she does in giving the show a fair shake. Even though the show is based on a book about an Asian man sleeved in a white man's body, and even though the show spends a great deal of time with the Asian version of Kovacs, we are led to believe that it is somehow racist and "problematic." She even dismisses the show's powerful female characters as being thinly developed and generic, apparently not having watched enough of the season to see how theirstories play out.

Other reviewers admit outright to bailing on the show,which feels like a dereliction of duty as far as I'm concerned. By all means, give up on a show you dislike, but is watching ten episodes reallythatdifficult a task for a professional critic? After all, your negative review will find its way to Rotten Tomatoes where it will help decide the fate of the show for everyone else, fans and detractors alike.

Whatever the case---laziness, misdirected political agendas, or impatience with a show that doesn't feel the need to rush---it appears thatAltered Carbonhas gotten a bad and wholly unfair rap from critics. While shows likeThe Good Placenab 100% fresh scores and atrocities likeThe Walking Dead'slatest seasonrank higher with reviewers, an excellent, though-provoking new show likeAltered Carbonfinds itself snubbed. I say hogwash. Go watch and decide for yourself.

Kovacs and Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy.)

Credit: Netflix

Finally, before I'm accused of not letting other people have their own opinions, that's not what I'm trying to do here. Reviews are subjective. Each critic has his or her own take and that's perfectly fine. But when it appears some critics have come at the show with a clear political agenda and then not given it a fair shake because of preconceived notions and personal biases, that rubs me the wrong way. By all means, dislike the show for its over-the-top violence and nudity. Dislike it because you don't enjoy this kind of science fiction. But when reviewers don'teven put in the time and effort to simply watch the entire season or complain about it being "too slow" (a ghastly critique) I find it hard to take their reviews very seriously.

In fact, this reminds me a great deal of the critical reaction to Seth MacFarlane's sci-fiThe Orville,which was the last time I wrote a "Critics Must Be Crazy" column. You can read that one here.Read my interview with MacFarlane here.

Further Reading:

  • See everything coming to Netflix in February here.
  • I loved this awesome futuristic gun in Altered Carbon enough to write a post about it.
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