Critic's Notebook: Did Netflix Just Create the First Truly Global Hit in 'Altered Carbon'?

It's probably too early to tell (and will we even believe Netflix if it says this?), but the new sci-fi series could be an international TV blockbuster.
Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Netflix


After years of experimenting on creating a series that could be a global franchise, Netflix is busy looking at its algorithm right now to see if Altered Carbon is the border-crossing show of its dreams.

Netflix is a monolith that doesn't often flaunt that fact, but one of the areas where its pride is always evident is in its positioning — rightly — as an international player like no other. "Netflix is the world's leading Internet television network," the public relations team touts when talking about Netflix's reach, "with over 83 million members in over 190 countries enjoying more than 125 million hours of TV show and movies per day...."

That's a mouthful. And even if most Americans don't know that there's even 190 other countries out there, there's no denying the power of the sentences and the numbers above (especially while membership keeps growing). Netflix is global in a way that all other streamers and channels could only dream of.

It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that a key element of Netflix's strategy has always been to create series that might, no matter their genre or origin story, appeal to people across the world. American culture has been insanely exportable for decades and Netflix, given its unique position, wants its bench of original series to appeal to a wide market (just as, say, HBO knows that Westworld, despite being inseparably connected to an American-specific genre, is really a sci-fi series with ideas that translate across borders; it just doesn't have Netflix's reach yet).

But few streamers or channels take the next step that Netflix aspires to, which is to, when possible, cast globally. Or, more directly, create a global cast. The streamer — or "Internet television network" — has since its inception adopted a goal of shooting series in foreign countries not only to take advantage of the native talent in each region (and yes, it's also cheaper that way), but also to work in reverse to appeal back to Americans, which was at least partly the strategy with the hit Narcos, the miss Marco Polo, plus international series like Dark, 3%, Marseille, Suburra, etc., even going all the way back to Lilyhammer (and this isn't counting international series like Fauda that Netflix didn't help create).

The most overt example of this strategy, and arguably Netflix's biggest flop in this group, was Marco Polo, a sprawling 2014 period piece that reportedly cost $90 million for 10 very forgettable episodes (executive produced by Harvey Weinstein, by the way), complete with two joint directors, a cast from all over the map and shot in Italy, Kazakhstan and Malaysia.

It always seemed like a business decision even back then, because it was. Remember that 2014 for Netflix was still considered early days. The streamer was thinking differently. It didn't spend the money merely because it wanted to show HBO that it could; the idea at the time was to create a blockbuster that would play well in international markets. You could argue that the quality of Marco Polo didn't sink it (at the time, I thought that was certainly a leading reason, but Netflix has held on to plenty of badly written or acted series precisely because they do well enough across 190 countries, sayeth the Netflix algorithm, to keep funding them). But no, people in countless countries probably didn't watch Marco Polo, even if they had recognizable homegrown actors in the cast, because it was too boring for liftoff.

A better and more successful example of Netflix's international intentions could be found in Sense8, created right here in the U.S. of A, but with a multinational cast and a concept that would see the series shot on location in nine cities and eight countries (San Francisco, Chicago, Berlin, Seoul, London, Mumbai, Reykjavik, Mexico City, Nairobi) — an extremely ambitious series that only Netflix, literally, at the time could or would do. The series deftly used international actors, mostly from the countries covered. They were also extremely likable (the casting was tremendous and Sense8 has a fiercely passionate fan base fueled by the characters).

Everything was perfect except, perhaps, the confusing nature of the concept (the series was created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski), which might have limited its international appeal. The general feeling is that an ongoing international TV series has to thread a tiny needle of factors, but rigorous complexity doesn't help; it's also possible that Sense8's progressive take on sexuality and gender might have hurt it in some countries. Either way, you got the sense that Netflix realized that it was getting closer to grasping the elusive cocktail for a truly international hit.

Which brings us to Altered Carbon, which came out Feb. 2 and could very well end up being the perfectly distilled international hit that Netflix desires (which also hooks an American audience, of course). Built on the scaffolding of border-crossing science fiction, Altered Carbon doesn't quite have the ambitious note-perfect casting of Sense8, but even with a complicated sci-fi mythology, it's better explained, less risky and more traditionally "sci-fi" in its Blade Runner-esque features, which might allow it to travel better.

At the same time, its dystopian future has a decidedly multi-racial look that seems perfectly 25th century (the time period in which the series is set) while also not calling so much attention to that attribute as to be a distraction. The Altered Carbon casting might not have the same idealistic flair as that of Sense8, but could be more digestible across borders while also hitting its target. And that target for Netflix is pretty simple: a worldwide audience that first and foremost enjoys the entertainment value of Altered Carbon while simultaneously seeing a familiar reflection.

With its core concept — in the future a person's consciousness can be swapped in and out of "sleeves," which are basically other people's bodies — the series allows for both ethnic and gender fluidity for the cast (essentially allowing an anthology feel going forward, as any actor can be any character).

The issue of whitewashing was addressed early on by series creator Laeta Kalogridis (the book and the series feature the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, who is born Japanese-Slavic and played by Chinese-American actor Byron Mann and Korean-American actor Will Yun Lee before being "resleeved" or rebirthed into a white body, played by Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman); she expanded the role the original Takeshi plays in the book to create larger roles for Lee and Mann. Beyond that, the series features a number of leading roles for people of color from various ethnic backgrounds, including Martha Higareda (Mexico), Renee Elise Goldsberry and Ato Essandoh (African American); Hayley Law and Tamara Taylor (black actresses born in Canada); Dichen Lachman (born in Nepal to a Tibetan mother and Australian father); Hiro Kanagawa (Japan); Trieu Tran (Vietnam); Waleed Zuaiter (born in Sacramento, raised in Kuwait and playing a Muslim cop here), etc. While the casting serves the purpose of reflecting what the 25th century would look like, based on even the most recent history in Hollywood we shouldn't just assume that a series like this would actually be diverse. The track record on representation hasn't been there.

But with Altered Carbon, Netflix is going beyond doing the right thing with casting, all without cynically using that for its larger business goals. It's actually, and has been for some time, creating (or trying to create) the ultimate Netflix show, where the optics of the series are reflected back through the screens across the globe, hoping to connect internationally like nothing before it. If successful, look out.

So don't undervalue the importance to Netflix of a franchise that could be a truly global hit. While it has plenty of origin-specific series like Fauda or The Bridge, those are shows that won't necessarily play across the globe like a multinational sci-fi series would. After years of tinkering, it looks like Netflix may have got all the ingredients right.

 

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