I didn’t know anything about Altered Carbon going in, nothing about the characters, the story or the setting, nothing beyond what was being shown in the very expensive looking trailers – i.e. mostly that it looked expensive and a bit like Bladerunner. After watching all ten episodes in just a few days, I’m not sure about the characters or the story, the setting was fascinating and it definitely looked like Bladerunner.
The universe of the story is a tremendously rich one, and the series introduces the audience to it very elegantly. The exposition is relatively limited and there were times I was on the very edge of not knowing what was going on; but either through incredible design, or lucky accident I always stayed just the right side of lost. The central character is in the odd situation of knowing all the foundations of the society, but being a couple of hundred years out of date, so there’s a good excuse for some exposition, while still plenty left to the audience to work out. I’m often frustrated by this kind of thing, so I’m very happy to award praise when it’s done this well.
The story and characters I’m not so sure about. I was engrossed in it as it went ,following the twists and turns, but as threads start resolving and mysteries are explained, I didn’t quite feel settled. Even as episodes were still playing, I had more questions than were being answered about whether motivations were really solid, characters would really act that way, and emotional responses were really appropriate. I wasn’t screaming at the TV in frustration or anything, it was 80% good enough, but the 20% niggled.
The characters are also a bit spotty. There are a lot of good characters, and some borderline exceptional character moments. Detective Ortega is beautifully developed and rounded character. She manages to both be a character where her gender and race are irrelevant, but are also completely ingrained in her character. It’s a wonderfully diverse cast and the response to characters in the show is inclusive but not blind in a very aware way. At one point a woman’s mind is placed in a man’s body; and while everyone is briefly discombobulated by that, it is quickly adapted to and subtle changes of costume, makeup and body language gradually build. I was really impressed by that kind of attention. It was therefore a shame that there was some quite needless nudity in places. Some of it was reasonable for the plot (and reasonably gender balanced) but there was slightly too much leering at women in showers.
I’m not sure their decisions and attitudes of the characters were always consistent and logical. Some of that is about the context they live in and the range of social strata. With the technology available to the wealthiest of characters they seem closer to gods than humans (and see how that worked out for the Greek/Roman gods). For everyone else though the changes from our own lives aren’t so epic, yet they are more than aware of the ‘gods’ living just out of reach. So there’s a huge range of personal contexts to keep track of. I’m almost tempted to watch the series again, because it’s possible that the things that I thought of as inconsistent may actually be a more rich response to the varied contexts. However I’m more inclined to believe that certain jumps and stretches were made to make the story fit regardless of what characters would reasonably do.
I often divide series between those that are good and those that are enjoyable, it’s rare to get something that excels in both areas and I think Altered Carbon would probably get an A- for enjoyability and a B for goodness. Both still pretty good grades, but I think it’s more successful if you approach it as a show to look at the pretty design work and enjoy the detective story. That means that you’ll then be pleasantly surprised at just how good it is as well.