There are only so many stories to be told, so perhaps the trick of Peak TV is to put an emphasis on telling those stories in a new way. Westworld‘s core tale of human versus android consciousness is not a new consideration in the sci-fi world, but it’s a series that goes to the past (with its Wild West park setting) in order to tell its futuristic story, and wraps all of it up in a cocoon of mysteries. A series like Syfy’s new dystopian drama Incorporated, though, tells a familiar story in a way we’ve seen many times before. It’s sleekly produced with a capable cast, but in most ways it’s a sci-fi Mad Lib.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a good show, though — in fact, it’s extremely easy viewing. But maybe that’s the problem. Incorporated doesn’t wake viewers up so much as confirm what we already know. And at a time where it feels, increasingly, like we’re on a brink of a dystopian future similar to the one portrayed here, we need more from it.
Incorporated, which comes from executive producers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and was created by Alex Pastor and David Pastor, takes place in 2074. You can start filling in the Mad Libs here: An event happened (climate change), which compromised the Earth (destroyed natural resources). Governments collapsed, and were replaced by a new dominant entity (multi-national corporations). People have been segregated into two groups — the wealthy (those who work in the corporation and who are protected in “green zones”), and the poor (who are sequestered into the slums of the “red zones”). Our hero Ben Larsen (Sean Teale, who looks distractingly at times like Oscar Isaac) came from the slums and worked his way up through the corporation for a “perfect” life, but a hint of his former love from the red zones still being alive sends him on a quest to save her — even though he should be focused on starting a family with his wife.
And so on and so forth. A faster way to describe it is that Wall Street won and they’re all living out their dreams while the rest of us eat rats and haven’t had access to clean water in decades. Now it doesn’t feel so sci-fi, does it?
Still, Incorporated plays with some neat futuristic gadgets, both relating to computer tech and biomedical advancements, and it slowly builds its familiar story of a police state where companies control procreation, children are indoctrinated with the idea that telling on anyone who speaks against the corporation is a good thing, and even school lessons are sponsored with advertisements. The series has a pretty solid structure when it comes to world-building, and it also boasts a great cast that includes Dennis Haysbert and Julia Ormond as menacing execs and Damon Herriman as Ben’s rags-to-riches mentor. But while Incorporated aims to create a personal story in the midst of this swirling sci-fi setting, it ultimately comes off as bland and boilerplate — though its greatest trick is that it remains eminently watchable.
It’s also a show that, once it starts to hit the conclusion of some of its first story arcs, could morph into a more complicated series that deals with its central premise with a little more depth. But for sci-fi fans, it’s an easy to digest and gorgeously rendered series that clearly has high ambitions, as it explores not only the smothering corporate corruption (and the heroes fighting against it from the inside), but also the desperation and layers of life in the red zone. Ben’s story is a balance between the seduction of wealth (from an evil source) and a desire to stay on-mission, tearing down the organization from the inside. That’s compelling in theory, but its execution is not unique enough for the show to feel essential.
In the end, Incorporated shows us a world where humans have made a mess on a global scale and are paying a dear price for it. One wonders if this needed to be set in the future at all.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Incorporated premieres Wednesday, November 30th on Syfy.