As timeliness goes, Syfy’s new series Incorporated, which debuts tonight, hits right as the post-election haze (whether it’s straight up depression, euphoria, or indifference, depending on your affiliation or state of mind) is beginning to fade.
The network’s futuristic dystopian thriller from executive producers (in name only) Ben Affleck and Matt Damon–it’s produced by their production company Pearl Street Films–could act as a form of escapism if not for numerous political overtones and themes. And by numerous I mean this show hits on literally everything within in the first three episodes I screened of the 10-episode first season.
Incorporated, at least early on, is working to sort out which statement it wants to make. The series begins in 2074, a dystopian future where government has failed to effectively govern, climate change has devastated countries due to costly natural (or man-made) disasters, and corporations have taken steps to control their territory with heavily-secured police-states known as “Green Zones.” Inside one of those Green Zones is Ben Larson (played by Sean Teale) a clean-cut, well-educated manager at the world’s largest corporation who ascends in the ranks of the company after he escaped what are essentially the slumps of the Red Zone. Ben’s goal is to use his position to rescue a childhood friend from being a sex slave for senior employees, but he’s met with opposition from the company’s paranoid and stringent head of security played by Dennis Haysbert (24, The Unit), and his powerful boss and mother-in-law played by Julia Ormond (Legends of the Fall).
In hitting on the reality of climate change, and portraying a future where surveillance, corporate autonomy, sex-trafficking, segregation, and disaster porn are rampant, Incorporated does at times feel like they’re giving a “newsworthy problems of 2016” update to a dystopian story we’ve seen so many times before. Despite that, the series packs enough intrigue in its first two hours, and leans on its worldbuilding, character drama, and familiar faces, to give Syfy the potential for a mainstream hit.
It’s another trend in the right direction for Syfy as niche hits like 12 Monkeys (time travel), The Expanse (space opera), and Z Nation (more goddamn zombies) have all brought positive attention to a network that is seeing a major creative overhaul come to fruition. Incorporated appeals to the network’s core audience and beyond, juxtaposing a sleek, self-driving car future with the third-world reality of the Red Zone. In doing so, they’ve set themselves up to give viewers a myriad of reasons to invest in the series.
From the top, showrunner Ted Humphrey comes from The Unit and most recently The Good Wife, where military and socio-political power struggles were the heartbeats to those series. Incorporated clicks when it’s able to borrow threads from those influences and create tension between Haysbert’s mysterious security director Julian and Teale’s Ben Larson. The show also sets up personal and professional conflict between Ben’s wife Laura (Allison Miller) and her mother and the head of Ben’s company, Ormond’s Elizabeth.
There are some distractions to a worthy set-up: A storyline in the Red Zone with a young man named Theo, the brother of the woman Ben is trying to find, recalls some of the hammy work Syfy wants to get away from. But for Incorporated to climb television’s ratings ladder it must do so on the shoulder of Teale (who I call Syfy’s Oscar Isaac) who needs prove that Ben’s journey is not just a personal one, but a take down of something bigger. I like his odds. The 24-year-old British actor is likely best known stateside for his role on Skins, but don’t let that fool you: He brings an impressive maturity to the role.
The creatives on the show made a serious effort to forecast what a worst-case scenario future would look like. They consulted from climate change experts from the United Nations and Syfy held a special event to screen the pilot episode at the UN, and afterwards hosted a panel discussion on the role of television as an agent of change. Among the key elements brought up, Humphrey spoke to the show’s “speculative fiction,” a warning of sorts that a future like the one in the show is possible if we don’t take the necessary steps to prevent it.
In a flashback in episode two, Ben’s father says: “You know what the saddest part is? You’ll never seen a world better than this one.” We may have seen far better dystopias from the likes of Terry Gilliam, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, and even a TV adaptation on its own network, but if it can find its footing, Incorporated has the potential tell a real story. Given the themes, it’s an important one.
And if it doesn’t work out? Ben’s father went on to say: “The system was rigged, though.”