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In the opening minutes of Apple TV+’s Extrapolations, a young environmental activist (Yara Shahidi) prepares to make a speech about the need for action on climate change. As she waits for the cameras to go live, an associate casually asks if she needs anything. Her not-at-all casual response: “For people to listen.”
Thus the tone is set for the rest of the series: serious, heavy and mostly lacking in nuance. The urgency of its message is self-evidently important enough that no expense has been spared in delivering it. The cast is star-studded, and the production design lavish. But all this gravitas comes at the expense of the human characters who should be at the center of its stories, turning the series into a well-intentioned but mostly dry series of discussions.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Kit Harington, Daveed Diggs, Sienna Miller, Tahar Rahim, Edward Norton, Forest Whitaker, Marion Cotillard, Adarsh Gourav, Gaz Choudhry, Matthew Rhys, Gemma Chan
Creator: Scott Z. Burns
In fairness, if there’s any writer who’s earned the right to expect people to heed his predictions about the future, it might be creator Scott Z. Burns, whose script for Contagion turned out to an eerily prescient preview of the COVID-19 pandemic. Extrapolations pushes even further into the realm of theory, unfolding across eight loosely interconnected episodes spanning from the year 2037 to 2070. Each is preceded in the opening credits by a different harrowing (estimated) statistic: the number of species lost by 2046, for instance, or the number of deaths by extreme heat in 2059.
A handful of major characters recur throughout the plots, the most prominent of which is Nick Bilton (Kit Harington) — a trillionaire CEO who’s combined seemingly all of Big Tech, Big Pharma and Big Ag into a single omnipresent corporation called Alpha. Most, however, flit in and out for just an episode or two, usually in the guise of one instantly recognizable star or another: a dying grandmother played by Meryl Streep, a government official played by Edward Norton, a venal businessman played by Matthew Rhys. If the goal is to get people to pay attention, there are worse ways to do so than by trotting out high-wattage celebrities.
But Extrapolations’ awareness of its own import works against it more than for it, yielding characters who come across less like human beings than mouthpieces for political debates or mournful speeches. A storyline about Marshall, a rabbi (Daveed Diggs) trying to save his Miami temple from rising water levels, plays like an excuse for Marshall and an angry young congregant (Neska Rose) to engage in lengthy philosophical arguments about the sins of man. Another, about a scientist (Sienna Miller) attempting to save what might be the last humpback whale on Earth, threatens to buckle under the weight of its own metaphors — though that one does at least drop in the incredible detail that apparently, we’ll have the technology to casually chat with whales by the year 2046.
The series’ more successful episodes tend to be the ones that let climate change serve as the backdrop for more human-scale dramas. “2059 pt 2” centers on a pair of smugglers, Neel (Gaz Choudhry) and Gaurav (Adarsh Gourav), who barely seem in control of their own fates — let alone that of the global population — as they make their way across India’s drought-scorched landscape. But it’s precisely because they’re nobodies that they’re able to offer a ground-level perspective of the show’s not-so-implausible scenarios. Unlike the relatively privileged, sheltered characters who make up so many of the series’ other leads — like the government officials and billionaires debating geo-engineering from cushy air-conditioned offices in “2059 pt 1” — Neel and Gaurav have little choice but to face the elements head on.
The pair travel by night to avoid the dangerous daytime heat, zip themselves into special protective sleeping bags to rest and encounter kids daring each other to sneak out during daytime curfew. Along the way, they discuss the state of the planet but also bicker about women, fantasize about how to spend their pay and develop the sort of bond you only form after you’ve endured a desperate situation together. They act like people, in other words, and in doing so serve as a better reminder of what’s at stake than any barrage of statistics ever could.
I also quite enjoyed “2068,” a darkly funny chamber piece that goes off the rails when a man (Forest Whitaker) informs his wife (Marion Cotillard) and friends (Tobey Maguire and Eiza Gonzalez) that he’ll be leaving in the morning to digitize himself, so that his consciousness may be awakened in some better future. The picture this chapter paints is undeniably bleak — the air has become so polluted that San Franciscans don oxygen tanks to step outside, and most human food is some version of kelp. Yet there’s something relatable, even kind of comforting, about the husband’s declaration that he’s more optimistic about the Earth’s ability to heal than his marriage’s. Come what may, our species will find ways to torment each other via Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-esque dinner parties.
Both episodes benefit from a curiosity about human nature that goes beyond hand-wringing monologues about our capacity for greed or complacency, and an affection for people in all our absurd and messy glory. More often, though, Extrapolations seems to work backwards, starting with a development it wants to show us or a technology it wants to consider or conversation it wants to have, and slapping together thinly conceived characters to act them out. “The problem is us. Always has been,” a character muses in the finale. “We did this to the planet, to ourselves, to each other.” Extrapolations grasps perfectly well the mechanics of how a world falls into ruin. It has a harder time understanding the souls still stuck on it.
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