Review | ‘3 Body Problem’ is a great drama (and decent sci-fi)

Peppery comparisons to “Game of Thrones” were inevitable. Once news broke that David Benioff and D.G. Weiss, the duo responsible for the HBO juggernaut’s failures as well as its successes, were joining Alexander Woo (of “The Terror: Infamy”) to adapt Liu Cixin’s best-selling novel “The Three-Body Problem,” reactions online ranged from excitement to dread. I stood with the pessimists. Like most TV critics, I’ve had to write an enormous amount about “Game of Thrones.” My view (summarized) is that the show’s last half pivoted away from the rich dialogue, juicy political intrigue and careful character work that made the series great to favor shocking but underdeveloped twists, baffling character arcs and a whole lot of spectacle for spectacle’s sake.

More pertinently, given the prospect of committing to a new multiyear Benioff and Weiss project, was how brutally the series ended up punishing fans who took its ideas (and lore) seriously. The payoff to storylines whose importance the show had repeatedly asserted — Bran’s long journey to become the Three-Eyed Raven (which cost many characters their lives), the Night King and his growing armies, the coming of winter — was slim to nonexistent. By the end, the show’s technically brilliant set pieces and terrific scores only emphasized how philosophically barren the story had become.

I can report with pleasure and surprise that “3 Body Problem,” which drops Thursday, has almost precisely the opposite problem. What the show lacks in style it more than makes up for with exquisite character work that complements its deeper philosophical questions. Evincing no interest at all in “world-building” as we traditionally understand it, the series sketches out the emotional landscapes its characters occupy with astonishing speed and depth. The networks of relationships are almost instantaneously legible. Rendered with remarkable, lived-in specificity, the intimacy feels real. So does the despair.

Put differently: This is better drama than science fiction. The Netflix adaptation of a brilliant novel so conceptually complicated that it has long been called unfilmable is perfectly decent (albeit simplified) sci-fi. Sure, it’s a puzzle box. “Science is broken,” someone says as Clarence (Benedict Wong), a schlubby, no-nonsense operative for a shadowy government agency investigates a rash of suicides among the world’s most gifted researchers. That formulation captures just how hard this show works to make the science bits go down easy. This “spoonful of sugar” approach extends to one of the show’s central mysteries — an Oculus-type helmet that mysteriously appears in people’s homes — and provides a handy excuse for long and sometimes tedious video game sequences explaining various theories of how a hypothetical world might work.

The series (unlike the book) is set mostly in the United Kingdom instead of China. That’s probably a concession to Anglophone audiences, but it also reinforces the way the show’s present-day timeline performs an almost principled indifference to place. Cultural specificity is diluted. The younger set of protagonists, a group of trained scientists called the “Oxford Five” who studied with Vera Ye (Vedette Lim), a physicist who dies in the pilot, are from all over the world. Their attachments are to one another, not to any particular culture or country or place. As in the video game, which starts characters off in a kind of blasted heath, the surroundings are visually competent but forgettable. “You’re beautiful. In a boring way,” one character tells another, ventriloquizing the show’s serviceable aesthetic, which manages to make even Oxford — where much of the action happens — seem generic. “You’re like a movie star, but in really bad movies.”

Tempering the featurelessness of the present-day timeline, where the five friends gather to grieve and mourn and plan, is a storyline so precisely and historically rooted that it manages to osmotically anchor the rootless present. The show begins in 1966, with a young astrophysicist named Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng) watching in despair as her father — also a physicist — is beaten to death by Red Guards during the Chinese Communist Revolution. His crime was teaching the big-bang theory, which “leaves space for God.” Easily the show’s most compelling character (Tseng is a revelation), Ye Wenjie haunts the series. Her subsequent experiences, first as a prisoner and then as a scientist forced to work on a secret government project, are historically contingent and massively, even universally, consequential.

Ye Wenjie’s storyline also permits “3 Body Problem” to grapple with a specific sense of place — that is to say, with Earth, and nature — in precisely the terms the contemporary timeline’s glossy and anonymous urban geography rejects. Horrified by the cataclysmic deforestation she’s unwillingly abetting, Ye Wenjie bonds with an American environmentalist (and future oil magnate) named Mike Evans (Ben Schnetzer). Radicalized by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and a shared conviction that humanity cannot save itself, the pair (played in the present by Rosalind Chao and Jonathan Pryce) seek solutions elsewhere.

Rarely does a show with multiple protagonists — and timelines — handle the challenge well. “3 Body Problem” manages it with apparent (and deceptive) ease. The series juggles the perspectives and quandaries of its flawed and confused scientists with sympathy and nuance. The dialogue is intelligent, witty and believable. So are the friends’ disagreements over how to address the looming crisis. There’s Jin (Jess Hong), a brilliant working physicist who watched her parents be swept out to sea as a child and was subsequently raised in New Zealand. Her friend and admirer Will Downing (Alex Sharp, in a devastating performance), convinced of his inadequacy as a researcher, settles for teaching high school. Jack Rooney (John Bradley), an amiable bon vivant, left the sciences to build a snack food empire. Saul (Jovan Adepo), brilliant but lazy, prefers being a research assistant and getting high to running his own lab. And Auggie, (Eiza González) left to work in the applied sciences — specifically, to develop a new nanofiber technology. All five are recruited to figure out how to handle a peculiar emergency with a twist: the disaster is four hundred years in the future.

One of the show’s underlying themes — in an obvious nod to climate change — concerns how, and at what level of intensity (or violence), the event in question should be understood as a present-day crisis. And how a civilization calibrated to focus on the near-term could possibly be motivated to address a challenge on that time scale. Or sacrifice for a future they’ll never live to see. That the first season productively pairs those theoretical questions with the sometimes soapy melodrama of five 20-somethings — and the despair of an old woman who survived a revolution and lost hope before finding it again — is pretty extraordinary. The pacing is great. The story is good. Here’s hoping the show can sustain that balance, and that future seasons will deliver on its considerable present-day potential.

3 Body Problem, episodes 1-8, will be available for streaming March 21 on Netflix.

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