TV Has a Cynical Message for Humanity

What happens when stories start to break down in the face of relentless human failure?

Illustration by Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic. Sources: Apple TV+; Prime Video.

Reality has no order—that’s why we’re always trying to impose our own framework on it, with the help of notions such as “karma” and “Mercury in retrograde.” The conventions of storytelling, conversely, are blessedly clean and concise; they allow us to at least pretend that a plot might cohere into some sort of plan. Lately, though, the rules have seemed trickier to follow. On television, the most ambitious parables about humanity are also the ones having the hardest time conceding to narrative, as though they can’t imagine anymore that a hero might be coming to save us. What happens when stories start to break down in the face of relentless human failure? Well, we get things like Apple TV+’s Extrapolations and Amazon’s The Power: sprawling, cynical, extraordinarily expensive exhalations. Characters are strangely passive; they react to circumstances rather than act on their desires; they shuffle through riots and Category 4 hurricanes and political turmoil without any point or purpose of their own.

In real life, this kind of static inertia is desperately plausible. On television, though, it’s deadening. Both shows left me feeling not so much numbed as etherized after I sat through eight or nine hours of erratic, unstructured angst. Extrapolations, Scott Z. Burns’s speculative anthology series about the potential future of Earth amid climate change, has one of the starriest lineups of any non-Marvel product this decade, yet every actor seems nothing short of exhausted. In one scene, a zoologist played by Sienna Miller apologizes to a communicative whale (voiced by Meryl Streep) about humans’ infinite capacity for lying; in another, a character played by Matthew Rhys (and clearly inspired by Donald Trump Jr.) is gored to death by an avenging walrus. Oddly, neither scene is played for comedy. I laughed, but I don’t think I was supposed to.

The Power, Amazon’s nine-part adaptation of the 2017 novel by Naomi Alderman, initially seemed more promising, even if it arrived with the kind of hot-pink branding and creative musical chairs that usually spells trouble. The book had extraordinary timing; it was released in the U.S. the same month that allegations against Harvey Weinstein ignited a mass movement against sexual abusers. Its timely premise was that teenage girls have developed the power to generate electricity—a power they can also awaken in older women. Vaguely described as akin to the abilities of electric eels, and seemingly related to the estrogen in girls’ bodies, this capacity turns them into live weapons, upending social and political hierarchies of power. Events in the years since—protests in Iran over women’s freedom of choice, a social-media-driven crisis of despair among teenagers, the overturning of Roe v. Wade—have only heightened the intrigue of Alderman’s alternate timeline. Who wouldn’t want to lightly zap a person or two, these days?

The show initially winks at this impulse. It opens with Margot Cleary-Lopez (played by Toni Collette), the mayor of Seattle, making a speech before being led away by two armed guards. “We never dared to imagine it,” she says. “A world that was built for us. Where we made the rules … Where we were the ones to be feared.” As she continues in voice-over, we see a montage of characters: a woman having her hand kissed by a soldier on his knees, a girl with a halo of light behind her dark curls, another girl walking confidently down a school hallway. Fingers start to crackle; quickly, we see cities—and people—burn. “Every revolution,” Margot says, “begins with a spark.”

Barely, though, is there a moment to enjoy the provocation of the premise. Like the novel, the show focuses on several female characters, each intended to illustrate different iterations of power and all the ways that power can and will be abused. Margot represents political drive. Roxy (Ria Zmitrowicz), the loudmouthed 17-year-old daughter of a London mobster, is a young woman trying to make it in a hypermasculine environment, and her new abilities and lack of scruples make her physically ferocious and emotionally volatile. Allie (Halle Bush), a foster child who goes on the run after killing her abuser, reinvents herself as a dubious spiritual leader after connecting with a powerful, maternal voice in her head. Margot’s daughter Jos (Auli’i Cravalho) reveals how teenage girls are drastically liberated—and enabled in not entirely positive ways—by a total lack of fear. Tatiana Moskalev (Zrinka Cvitešić), the wife of a gruesome autocrat in the fictional nation of Carpathia, seems destined to wrest some of her husband’s brutal authority for herself.

By Naomi Alderman

The show clearly wants to underscore that women, given too much power, would be as bad as men. But in focusing so dogmatically on its central argument, it forgets to inscribe any of its characters with a motivating force. Roxy bumbles around London, annoying people by shooting sparks at them. Allie bumbles around a convent populated by other lost girls, occasionally following the instructions of the voice in her head. Margot and her husband, Rob (John Leguizamo, desperately wasted), have the same quarrel over and over again about her lack of interest in anything other than her job—her suddenly extremely demanding job as mayor of a major American city where planes are falling out of the sky, girls are being zip-tied at school, and politicians are considering putting hormones in the water to try to defuse those with the power.

Globally, things are less repetitive. The travels of Tunde (Toheeb Jimoh), a journalist and a wannabe male ally, let the show explore how this new power—explosive outburst disorder, or EOD—is triggering revolutions around the world. In Saudi Arabia, after a woman is beaten for setting off sparks in the street, women riot, charging on armed guards and electrocuting soldiers inside tanks. In Nigeria, women meet secretly (and joyfully) to dance, smoke, and send out sparks. In Carpathia, Tunde documents women kept in sexual slavery who turned on their captors, and refugee camps populated by men who have fled packs of avenging women. “It is awe-inspiring to see,” Tunde observes. “This power, this new freedom, being passed from one hand to the next.” He is hopelessly naive, the show wants you to think. (And hopelessly one-dimensional, I’d add.) But these scenes, for me, were the highlight of The Power—rare glimpses of catharsis, drama, and action.

These are necessary elements in any kind of narrative, even one underpinned with such a dark thesis. But the fact that the show’s nine episodes barely tackle half of Alderman’s novel abruptly cuts off its dramatic arc. (Presumably, the good stuff is being saved for a potential second season.) The Power is also so committed to emulating the structure and themes of the book that it largely ignores everything that’s changed since it was published. This is a world without TikTok—you can’t tell me enterprising teenagers wouldn’t have posted effervescent EOD tutorials within minutes of their first spark—without discussions of reproductive freedom, and with only minimal acknowledgment of trans people, whose existence complicates the novel’s rigid gender binary in ways the show doesn’t really explore.

Relating the show to the world we live in now would have been an opportunity to make it more urgent. I had infinite questions: Would men, faced with women who now physically threaten them, just arm themselves with more guns? How would trans men, who, according to the logic of the book, might develop the power, feel about it? How would parents manage sibling disputes where one child can seriously hurt another? (For all of Margot’s “sparklefingers” bonding sessions with Jos, she has not a single conversation with her teenage son, who’s left to lose himself down a men’s-rights rabbit hole.) The idea of teenage girls evolving out of necessity to protect themselves—and then burning things down—is such a vivid allegory that the way the show squanders it feels like malpractice.

We need these kinds of stories. But they need to immerse us in well-structured action in which credible characters still have the capacity to want something, and to irrevocably complicate their lives to seek it out. Extrapolations, like The Power, seems more concerned with its fatalistic, unimaginative take on human nature than with animating itself dramatically. The show begins with the assumption that nothing will be done to stop the world getting ever hotter. (Fossil fuels, as Aaron Bady pointed out in the Los Angeles Review of Books, are somehow never mentioned.) When characters aren’t laboring through expository dialogue about how the bees are almost all gone and why a Miami synagogue is falling into the ocean, they’re asserting again and again that humans are too flawed not to fail at saving the planet, and themselves. This conclusion isn’t necessarily wrong, but it neutralizes any momentum the show might have had. Extrapolations is television’s first major dramatic exploration of the climate crisis, yet it’s bizarrely inert, defanged by its own starting point. If there’s nothing to be done, you might wonder, why should we keep watching?

Initially set in 2037, and jumping forward through time to examine a world doomed by wildfires, mass animal extinctions, heat so extreme it kills humans in minutes, and the inevitable ascension of a megacorporation that patents everything it can put its logo on, Extrapolations occasionally plays like a gloomier Black Mirror, without the twisted, self-aware humor. The first episode introduces a handful of the characters who recur over the course of the show: Nick Bilton (played by Kit Harington), the sinister founder of Alpha, the aforementioned megacorporation; Marshall Zucker (Daveed Diggs), a rabbi trying to reconcile his faith with his dystopian 21st-century reality; and Rebecca Shearer (Sienna Miller), an animal researcher watching species after species go extinct. Rather than think creatively about the practical consequences of climate change, Extrapolations goes theoretical, with self-indulgent, hour-long theses about the meaning of religion at the end of the world, the defensibility of living on a doomed planet, and the disturbing ways corporations could monetize an epidemic of human loss.

The show also centers its curiosity on wealthy Americans and Europeans who are at least somewhat insulated from the worst consequences of their lifestyle choices. This strange failing is underlined by the show’s one digression, an episode by the playwright Rajiv Joseph about a driver in India hired to transport mysterious cargo to an unknown woman. The episode is charged by all of the most crucial ingredients in storytelling: action, intrigue, riveting characters, an all-consuming imperative, a world that shows you elements of its grim reality rather than haranguing you from a safe remove about how grim it all is. The episode is so propulsive and well crafted that it makes the philosophical waffling of the other installments feel even more congealed. “Are we bad people?” Rebecca asks at one point, after making a choice that prioritizes her family over the future of the planet. Extrapolations clearly knows what it thinks. It just doesn’t know how to make you care about the answer.

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