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Netflix's 'Altered Carbon' is a smart prestige drama that's too violent for its own good

Netflix has a new branding strategy for its pricey, high-profile dramas. And it's not for the faint of heart.

by Ani Bundel /
Image: Altered Carbon on Netflix.
Netflix's "Altered Carbon" arrives on February 2, 2018. Katie Yu / Netflix
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This past fall, Netflix announced an ambitious multi-year plan that will eventually result in 50 percent original content, moving away from its rental roots. Starting this year, the streaming site will sink something like $8 billion in order to help make that happen. The leading edge of this wave of high-priced series, Altered Carbon, arrives on Feb. 2, 2018. With a huge marketing push by the streaming service, the drama giving us a look at the sort of “original programming” Netflix is banking on, and it is some of the most shockingly violent content we’ve seen this decade.

It seems that Netflix has a new branding strategy for its pricey, highly publicized prestige dramas — and it’s no longer the waxen poshness of "The Crown." It's blood-soaked savagery.

"Altered Carbon," based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan, centers around the question of what happens when we reach levels of technology that can grant immortality. To wit: It is 500 years in the future. Every human has a chip embedded at the base of their skull, referred to as their “stack,” which records their experiences over the course of a life. When a body dies, this slack can be “re-sleeved” into a new one. If one has the funds to re-sleeve endlessly, they live forever. “Real Death” occurs only if the stack is corrupted or smashed.

The questions raised by this advancement are profound. What makes a life? Can the soul be downloaded? Just because we can live forever in some form, does it mean we should?

Because this is a dystopian future, it assumes the worst. So instead of creating something beautiful, humans use this technology to be thoughtless, selfish and violently cruel. The super-rich stash vaults full of cloned sleeves and frantically backup their stack data every 48 hours, ensuring that Real Death will, at worst, rob them of two days. Meanwhile, their fortunes continue amassing; it is a chilling vision of an unchanging 1 percent. For those who can’t afford re-sleeving, stacks are worn as necklaces or kept in boxes by the loving relations left behind. If they’re lucky, their families will rent sleeves to "spin them up" for the holidays — that is, if their religious beliefs say it’s OK.

Instead of jail time, convicts’ stacks are put “on ice,” only to have the government thoughtlessly stash them into “first available” sleeves when their sentences are up. Even the positive-seeming aspects of the technology often turn out badly; If the parents of a 7-year-old murder victim who was issued a “free sleeve” get their daughter back in the body of a 55-year-old man, too bad.

The real savagery comes to the forefront when the show explores how the newly expendable nature of bodies allows for brutality without consequences. Married couples fight to the death in hopes of earning the winner a sleeve upgrade, and enough winnings to feed their families. (Don’t worry, the loser gets a new sleeve too, just not upgraded one.) Prostitutes are frequently murdered for the fun of it (they’ll just be re-sleeved in the morning); suspects can be virtually tortured to death over and over again until they break or go mad, with no proof it ever happened.

The sheer amount of blood and gore depicted is overwhelming. Episodes that would otherwise be riveting meditations on the purpose of death are marred by scenes that feel like endless nesting dolls of pain and suffering. This is not a show for the faint of heart, or the weak of stomach.

The real savagery comes to the forefront when the show explores how the newly expendable nature of bodies allows for brutality without consequences.

Our entry into the world comes via Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee), a soldier turned freedom fighter turned mercenary, whose stack has been on ice for 250 years. He has been re-sleeved into the body of a crooked cop, Elias Ryker (Joel Kinnaman), his life bought by trillionaire Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). Bancroft was murdered just before his stack data uploaded, so he doesn't remember who did it, or the events just prior. Kovacs’ mission is to find out what happened to Bancrofts during those erased two days.

As we follow Kovacs, we observe how the world has been crippled by a hierarchy permanently stuck in a technological gilded age. But by focusing on the cruelty the very rich can inflict onto everyone else, Netflix takes what should be a brilliant show and overshoots. Not only makes is it incredibly hard to watch, it also contributes to the increasing gore and nihilism that’s become a hallmark of so-called “prestige TV” since "The Sopranos."

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Netflix take this tack. Last November, after a month long delay, Netflix finally released "The Punisher," the sixth series in their Marvel small screen franchise. Unlike the first five series in the ongoing and interconnected saga, "The Punisher" was not a candy-colored paean to the superhero-noir of New York City, but a bloodbath horror series. The show desperately wanted to tackle serious topics like the military industrial complex, the Second Amendment and PTSD, but plot lines were often sidelined but unrelenting brutality.

Image: Altered Carbon on Netflix.
Altered Carbon on Netflix.Netlix

In the show’s better moments, "The Punisher" managed to make some interesting points. But getting to the good stuff meant enduring one atrocious bloodbath after another. Like "Altered Carbon," the show seemed to revel in its quest to be more appalling than anyone else. Taken together, these two shows suggest that Netflix’s new calling card in the prestige TV game is a willingness to be grisly, the same way that HBO signals its prestige shows by making sure to include plenty of sexposition (with a healthy dose of violence as well), and AMC aims for the gritty angst of the white man’s burden to be a success in society.

If Netflix continues to balance its nightmarish gore with thought-provoking stories, this strategy may well work. (Not to mention the balancing effects of popular original comedies like “Grace and Frankie” or “Master of None.”) With a full-court marketing press leading up to the show’s release, it remains to be seen if "Altered Carbon" can be the smash hit the site hoping for. But if it is, we should prepare for a bloodbath in entertainment to follow. That doesn't mean you have to skip shows like "Altered Carbon," but you may not stick around for a second season.

Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.

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