The timing of Incorporated, SyFy’s chilly new show about a dystopian future ravaged by climate change and corporate power, is certainly interesting. On the one hand, its repeated nods to current events—a wall constructed by Canada to keep out American refugees, self-driving cars, Miami falling into the ocean—land with sometimes unnerving emphasis. On the other, the series is the exact opposite of the escapist fodder many TV viewers might be craving. But the seven-part show, debuting Wednesday night and executive produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, is surprisingly compelling, even if its premise and motifs are nothing new. And the performers, including Julia Ormond as a ruthless CEO and Dennis Haysbert as her head of security, add nuance to a plot that isn’t as transparent as it initially seems.
The conceit for Incorporated, rolled out perfunctorily via a few opening title cards, is that the year is 2074, and climate change has ravaged the planet, toppling governments and devastating once-powerful nations. Corporations, stepping in to fill the power void, now control 90 percent of the world. In Milwaukee, where the drama is set, their senior employees and executives live in sterile, neatly manicured Green Zones; everyone else lives in Red Zones, which are grimy and sordid approximations of an internet black market come to life, teeming with drug dealers, sex workers, orphan children, and techno.
Ben Larson (Sean Teale) is an executive at Spiga, a multinational biotech company run by his mother-in-law, Elizabeth (Ormond). His wife, Laura (Allison Miller) is a plastic surgeon suffering from PTSD after she was kidnapped in the Red Zone years ago. But Ben is also a sleeper agent infiltrating Spiga for reasons that aren’t entirely clear in the first few episodes. His main goal seems to be to find Elena (Denyse Tontz), a childhood friend of his from the FEMA camp they were both housed in as children, but given the extent of his subterfuge (marriage, potentially children, working a bazillion hours a day for a company that regularly tortures its own employees at the slightest hint of malfeasance), it’s likely there are other factors at play.
If Incorporated shares a sense of cynicism and misanthropy with another speculative sci-fi show, Black Mirror, it has none of that series’ bleak humor or psychological horror. Instead, it feels more inspired by USA’s Mr. Robot, with Peale’s dark-eyed allure and his character’s shaky motivations dominating much of the action. It also shares that show’s sterile treatment of corporate stooges, contrasting the trappings of wealth and power (clean, sanitized design; $600 cuts of meat) with the ugliness of life on the other side. But Incorporated seems intent on emphasizing that no one in the Green Zone is free—their lives come courtesy of the companies they work for. Even the most personal decisions (whether or not to procreate) are subject to approval, and even minor transgressions at work are potential grounds for catastrophic punishment.
Although the primary plot of Ben’s mission to find Elena isn’t particularly absorbing, the subplots and extras are mostly intriguing. In one episode, a woman for a rival firm informs Elizabeth that, having seen how her own firm indoctrinates the children of its workers, she wants to defect to Spiga. The operation to help her abscond is a thrilling one that further blurs lines between heroes and villains. The opening sequence of the fourth episode is narrated entirely in Japanese, filmed as a pastiche of a fundraising appeal to help starving children like “Johnny” in America, now one of the world’s poverty-stricken nations. And the show’s continual references to the effects of global warming (the best champagne is now Norwegian, Anchorage is a balmy coastal paradise, Ivy League schools have moved west) are as anxiety-inducing as they’re imaginative.
Incorporated is created by the Spanish screenwriting brothers Alex and David Pastor, who tackled similar themes of economic disparity and futuristic nightmares in the flat 2015 movie Self/Less, starring Ryan Reynolds. While their new show offers a vision of the future that isn’t particularly original, its plot is energetic, and its visuals are sleek and appealingly stylized. Depending on how its nightmarish scenarios play out, it has the potential to be a bracing drama set in a world only a few degrees removed from this one.