AppleTV+’s climate change drama/warning series can’t separate the complex from the convoluted.
Much of the pre-release buzz about AppleTV+’s new original series Extrapolations was concerned with its potential to be preachy. In much the same way this writer doesn’t mind a bit of emotional manipulation in entertainment, I can be fine with preachiness. Some things are worth preaching about. Extrapolations’ flaw isn’t that it has a soapbox and is using it. It’s that it’s such a mess.
While loosely linked, Extrapolations is, essentially, an anthology series unfolding between 2037 and 2070. Generally, each episode is set in a different year (2037, 2046, 2047, 2066, 2068, and 2070), with one year, 2059, getting two. In this possible future, the world has largely continued to address global warming with anything but the bare minimum of actions. The “extrapolations” of the title are taking that premise, “what if we continued not to give a damn,” and imagined how the world would look beyond just “very badly.”
The immediate bad news/good news of the series is that it kicks off with what is easily its worst episode. Matthew Rhys and his comically oversized false teeth play a real estate developer so over-the-top cartoons think he’s overdoing it. His fate by episode’s end is a great joke, but it’s not entirely clear the show is in on the gag.
A later episode centered on rabbi Marshall Zucker (Daveed Diggs) proves more capable at landing a punchline. Set against the backdrop of a disappearing Miami, it ends up being a very dark extended joke about the things we cling to at the cost of everything more meaningful. Neska Rose as Alana, a teen synagogue member studying for her bat mitzvah, is a great supporting player. She asks serious questions of faith but mixes in just enough stone-faced teen demandingness to give them a comedic flair.
Other standout episodes include a heist and a dinner party gone horrifically awry. What the episodes and moments that work have in common are that they use the dystopian climate-ravaged world as a background while centering the people. The more the stories center technology or the specifics of the crisis, the worse it fares. It isn’t the aforementioned risk of preaching, it is how quickly it seems disconnected from our world.
At its best, Extrapolations functions as a portrait of humanity placed under nearly unbelievable, and at least partially avoidable, strain.
Seeing people struggle to throw a New Year’s Eve party or worry about their kids doing something regrettable in the context of this world is much more effective because it is relatable. The more it centers on the problem, the more it feels like full-out science fiction and becomes easy to dismiss. A mother worried that her lifestyle may have harmed her child is easy to get. On the other hand, a computer program that enables humans to converse with other mammalian animals feels like pure fiction. Sometimes not even the stacks of talent Extrapolations utilizes, including Tobey Maguire, Diane Lane, Marion Cotillard, Edward Norton, and Indira Varma, can make it feel human.
As a result, the anthology format is Extrapolations’ biggest strength and weakness. It allows the series to tell small human tales, but it also doesn’t stop it from going all out at others. It gives the whole experience a kind of careening energy that can be exhilarating but also often makes it hard to commit to the series’ viewpoint fully.
Another issue is Nick Bilton (Kit Harrington), a mysterious billionaire referenced often throughout the series. Harrington does well enough with the material, although he’s saddled with some pretty ridiculous “future” clothes late in the series. The bigger problem is Extrapolations ends up making him THE villain. Yes, there are some monstrous businessmen out there. Everyone reading this can rattle off a few without hesitation, almost certainly. But the key is “businessmen,” plural. Climate change is a problem caused by many people, not just one. To make Bilton this sort of master of the universe makes the problem of global warming seem like a thing that could be solved if we get that one guy.
It’s an admirable effort at arguing for action wrapped in a series of stories. At its best, Extrapolations functions as a portrait of humanity placed under nearly unbelievable, and at least partially avoidable, strain. But, too often, it stumbles over itself to scream at the viewers when simply talking will suffice. Yes, corporations will kill us all in their quest for profit. But one man doing it? That’s a stop too far. And it’s a mistake the show makes several times—a few times too many for it to recommend.
Extrapolations starts hazarding guesses about our futures March 16 on AppleTV+.