Incorporated is a science fiction thriller that offers a chilling glimpse of a post-climate change dystopia. Created by David and Alex Pastor and produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Ted Humphrey and Jennifer Todd, the TV show (filmed in Toronto, Canada) opens in 82 °F Milwaukee in November 2074 after environmental degradation, water level rise, widespread famine and mismanagement have bankrupted governments. We learn later that Milwaukee Airport served as a FEMA climate relocation centre that resembles an impoverished shantytown. In the wake of the governments demise, a tide of multinational corporations has swept in to control 90% of the globe and ratified the 29th amendment, granting them total sovereignty.
Corporations fight a brutal covert war for market share and dwindling natural resources. Like turkey vultures circling overhead, they position themselves for what’s left after short-sighted government regulations, lack of corporate check and FEMA mismanagement have ‘had their way’ with the planet. The world is now a very different place. There is no Spain or France. Everything south of the Loire is toxic desert; New York City reduced to a punch line in a joke. Reykjavik and Anchorage are sandy beach destinations and Norway is the new France—at least where champagne vineyards are concerned. Asia and Canada are coveted for their less harsh climates.
Those who work for the corporations live in privilege behind the sentried walls of the Green Zones. The rest fend for themselves with scarcity in the contaminated slums of the Red Zones. The numbers aren’t provided in the show’s intro but we can guess that they are similar to Pedro Aguilera’s TV thriller 3% and Blomkamp’s motion picture Elysium—both about living with scarcity, where the few elite enjoy the many privileges—so long as they follow the elite rules.
“Kleptocracy reigns, paranoia rules, and the marketplace determines human worth,” writes Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly about Incorporated. “Only the most obedient, cunning, and technologically adept can flourish. Question authority? You’re fired! And maybe worse.”
The ‘Elysium’ of Incorporated is an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mixture of realizable technological advances, gadgetry and thrilling–if not chilling–consequence: like self-driving cars, intelligent wristbands, surrogate pregnancies and remote deliveries, genetic testing of ‘inferiors’, DNA theft and malware sabotage.
The first episode (Vertical Mobility) opens to a corporate ‘traitor’ being dragged into “the quiet room”, rumoured to be a torture chamber run by taciturn head of security Julian Morse (Dennis Haysbert). The scene shifts to the Green zone suburban house of corporate climber Ben Larson (Sean Teale). As he prepares to go to work, the news streams of hurricanes breaching levies; Canada building a wall to stem the tide of illegal American climate refugees–12 million already there; offshore oil rigs in the waters of the former Arctic ice cap; and finally to the “terrorist” bombing of the R&D lab of biochemical giant Spiga, where Ben works. Spiga, we later learn, plays the same games as Monsanto and Nestle to ensure profits at the expense of well-being.
“Over the past forty years,” says a giant image of CEO Elizabeth Krauss (Julia Ormond) to the suits passing security in the giant corporate lobby below, “Spiga Biotech has been at the forefront of the genetic engineering revolution. We design seeds capable of thriving in the increasing harsh environments of our planet. Our pest and drought resistant crops are now sold in over a hundred countries. And our advancements in in-vitro testing have transformed the synth food industry.” She ends with the mantra, “Spiga: committed to feeding our ever-growing world.”
Ben is, of course, not what he pretends he is. The upwardly mobile executive has wed Laura Larson (Allison Miller), a doctor with a courageous heart who also happens to be the daughter of the unscrupulous Kraus. Ben is really Aaron, a former Red Zone techno-hustler who covertly searches for his Red Zone sweetheart, now a sex slave to corporate executives at Arcadia, the ‘men’s club’ of Spiga. If he’s going to spring her, Ben will have to get promoted to the 40th floor.
“If our [current] political climate has you feeling apocalyptic, Incorporated may or may not be the show for you,” writes Jensen. “It’s a triggering dystopian thriller and wannabe allegory-for-now about… well, apocalyptic climate change.” This show, perhaps more than any other, stirs disquieting thoughts of now—and with it, guilt about what we’re doing or not doing. At the heart of Incorporated is climate change, which is also its main character.
“The most impressive performance and character in Incorporated is its deeply imagined world,” writes Jensen. “Throwaway ideas, like a grieving widow who hires Laura to remake a poor immigrant in the image of her dead husband, could seed whole episodes of Black Mirror. James Bond would kill for the arsenal of gadgets Aaron deploys in his soul-staining subversions.” Nuanced minutiae and brilliant minor characters weave a mad tapestry that enrich and intrigue. And like a Seurat painting, their subtle details change with perspective and build into a subliminal realism you can’t shake: from the food porn in the opening scene to eating rats in climate relocation camps or drinking dirty Red Zone water that costs $5. In Cost Containment we learn that Spiga competitor Izanagi is developing salt-tolerant crops that, like the mangroves, will thrive on irrigated seawater in the deserts left by an exploitive short-sighted America: Iowa, Missouri, Kansas—all the dust storm states. In a later episode, a murdered corporate executive is found by two dowsers on the dried lakebed of Missouri’s Lake Lotawana. We hear about the “oil wars” in Capetown.
“This “makes it hard to not think of the current political and cultural state of things across the globe,” writes Aaron Pruner of Screener TV. The fourth episode (Cost Containment) “opened with a familiar feeling infomercial. Yet, instead of Sally Struthers pleading with the common American to donate money to help feed a starving child in a third-world country, [a Chinese narrator presented] the United States as that third world.” Liz Shannon Miller of IndieWire writes: “Watching that cold open at this exact moment in our history is science fiction that might be a little too real. You can forget about The Walking Dead or The Exorcist: Incorporated may be the scariest show on television.” Says Pruner, “The thing that brought us here? Climate change.”
“It’s what gives us … the refugee camps and ration hacking, the high-class cut-throat world of corporations and the privileged, yet dangerous, culture that comes with it,” adds Pruner. The corporation’s tyrannical demand for allegiance through rumours of loss of privileges, “contract termination”—or worse—resonates through the ranks in what the hacker in the Red Zone (Human Resources) calls cattle prod.
“You poor suits, always trying to catch up,” says the techno-hacker to Roger Caplan (Douglas Nyback), ambitious executive looking to steal his way to the top. “A climber like you gets caught with something like this [a ‘keyhole’, which “allows you to snoop in any system without leaving any footprints”] he’s gonna get spanked. Or worse.” Word is out that Spiga security can be very inventive with cattle prod.
Spiga’s main competitor Izanagi (also the name of the male Japanese Shinto god responsible for creation) starts its propaganda machine on the very young to keep its corporate family in line. The third episode (Human Resources) opens with an Izanagi propaganda video for children. TV Fanatic calls it “both cute and chilling. Teaching your children to rat out Mom and Dad is pretty cold, but hey, this is the future, right?” But is it just the future? I’m confident that TV Fanatic wasn’t born yet when the Nazis formed the Hitlerjugend. But I would suggest they look up what Santayana said about history…
In one of the best played and most gratifying narrative threads of the show so far, a Red Zone techno-hacker (played by Canadian actress Sara Botsford) provides some twisted humour as she easefully negotiates the Spiga machine to put corporate brat Roger Caplan in his place, enlighten us on some history and entertain us all at the same time. After Caplan disdainfully throws money at her to create a skeleton key to bypass the self-destruct protocol of his stolen keyhole, the hacker ops for entertainment instead as payment: she takes him outside her secured warehouse enclave and points to a small rat feeding on the debris in the adjoining alley.
“You see her?” To Caplan’s quizzing look, she points. “Beady eyes, pair of whiskers, long tail…” He finally gets it; the rat. “I want you to catch it,” the hacker bates him. “All ya gotta do is catch a little animal with the brains the size of a peanut. How hard can that be?”
After Caplan’s first attempt, in which he cuts his head, she croons, “Now that’s entertainment!” And chortles like a witch; but we find ourselves cackling with her. After successfully humiliating Caplan, the hacker forces him to do more. She starts with her own history: “I got here with the first wave of climate refugees, chased up north by the sandstorms. Government rations were never enough. You were probably sucking on your gestator’s tit,” she scoffs at Caplan, “while my brother and I had to scramble for enough protein. Sometimes there was only one source of it. Although it was everywhere, really…” Her gaze drifts down to the dead rat on the floor that Caplan had brought in at great expense to his clothes and pride. She adds, “I’d tell you it tastes like chicken but I don’t really remember what chicken tastes like. Why don’t you tell me whether it tastes like chicken…”
What follows is some deep gratification in witnessing Caplan—self-centered and greedy corporate archetype—getting schooled by a “lowly” but sly plebe. A “little old lady” no less!
Pruner asks, “Could climate change push us into a collapsed society, informed consistently by the ongoing threat of class warfare? Will we eventually be separated by electric fences and really big walls? Are fear and greed going to be the currencies of our reality? These burning questions should sound far-fetched and silly, but as we watch Incorporated’s tale unfold, it’s hard not to wonder what our own future will bring.” Far-fetched and silly? Is it any more far-fetched and silly than voting in a president who claims that the Chinese invented climate change to make American manufacturing non-competitive?
The best entertainment doesn’t put you to sleep; it wakes you up. The best entertainment doesn’t just offer visceral escape; it engages you on many levels to connect, think and feel. And like all good things—friendship, love, family and home—its core value lies in its subtle yet deep truths. The best entertainment shows you a mirror of yourself. Incorporated is less thriller than satire. It is less science fiction than cautionary tale.
“You look to Incorporated for dystopian fiction that expresses our current anxieties,” says Jensen. “What you get is fitful resonance that makes you realize it might be too soon for any show to meet that challenge.”
Or is it more that we may be too late…
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.