There is nothing new about pop culture looking to science-fiction dystopian futures for entertainment. Still, the timing of the two newest television entrants in the genre—Syfy's Incorporated, which premiered Wednesday, and Netflix's 3%, which quietly debuted its entire first season last Friday—feels especially eerie.
This continued rise of dystopian narratives makes sense because they provide us with both simple amusement and cautionary tales. They are reminders that things could be worse—but, more important, they provide warnings about an uncertain future by providing parallels to our current reality, gently telling us what not to do or how to fight back if we fuck things up.
These are all key themes in both Incorporated and 3%, two dramas that, predictably, traffic in overwrought concerns about the devastating gap between the haves and the have-nots. The line is a thick, tangible one separated into locations: the Green Zone and the Red Zone; the Offshore and the Inland. The ultimate idea is to get from the Bad Place to the Good Place by any means necessary, meaning both series mine from feelings of desperation.
But they tell two different tales of dystopia, and with varying success. Incorporated takes place in 2074, after the world has been ravaged by climate change ("How can you be a nationalist when your nation is underwater?" "It's like calling yourself a New Yorker!" is one expository exchange), and everything is now under the control of powerful, multinational companies. These companies are in the Green Zone, where people are wealthy and privileged—they have their childbearing taken care of; they can sometimes splurge on $600-a-pound bacon—and afforded more privileges as they climb up the corporate ladder.
Outside is the Red Zone, the filthy, poor place where people live in slums and participate in brutal MMA-style fighting rings (Green Zone members sometimes go to the Red Zone's dive bars for thrills). It's a typical dystopian nightmare, complete with dark humor—Americans are now the subjects of the "feed the children" commercials and luxuries are so scarce that people watch literal "food porn"—and built around a conspiracy-filled mystery as well as a main character trying to infiltrate and fight the powers that be.
Ben Larson (Sean Teale) is purposely flavorless and blandly handsome with a forgettable name and a vague career at Spiga Biotech. He's already in the Green Zone and married to the daughter of a Spiga CEO, but he has other plans outside of living in complacency. Incorporated isn't keen on doling out details too quickly, but it does become clear that he wants to reunite with—and save—a childhood friend who sold herself into sex slavery to escape the Red Zone.
To do so, Ben has to quickly work his way up to the 40th floor to get additional privileges, which means lots of scheming, backstabbing, and all of the usual plot points attached to a good guy doing bad things in order to ultimately do a great thing. It's a paint-by-numbers dystopian story that still manages to be highly addictive—even when you're not sure what's going on or why you should care—but doesn't have much substance under its smooth surface.
But 3% fares much better. The drama is Netflix's first Brazilian production, based on a 2011 pilot (which you can watch on YouTube), and directed by City of God's brilliant cinematographer César Charlone. Again, this world is torn between the rich and the poor: The Inland is grimy and poverty-stricken, where everyone could use a good meal and a very long shower, while the Offshore is described as an affluent paradise, so rich and perfect that they don't even use money.
The only way to get to the Offshore is by passing the "Process," a grueling set of mental, emotional, and physical challenges that are meant to weed out those who don't belong. Naturally, the easiest comparison is to The Hunger Games trilogy—here, you can be a one-time candidate after you turn 20—complete with hormone-and-danger-fueled romance, gnarly violence, and some good ol' fashion dissension within the ranks.
The first season follows a CW-like ensemble cast of 20-somethings, who remain attractive even (and especially) when clad in torn clothes and dirt-streaked faces, as they compete to be part of the coveted 3%. The tests are designed to both bring them together and break them apart: Sometimes they have to work together in order to finish the best, and sometimes they have to fight to eliminate one of their own.
One episode dips into Stanford Prison Experiment territory by exploring the ways power can corrupt and spread onto others—with disturbing results. The majority of the season largely revolves around these specific challenges, often featuring flashback backstories to flesh out the characters; toward the end, it goes deeper into a larger world of privilege, revenge, and blind trust.
The reason why 3% works so well—especially in comparison to Incorporated—is that it feels more personal and emotionally driven, easing us into connecting with characters who eventually become far more than their pilot-episode characteristics. And while Incorporated's uneasiness mostly lays in its connection to climate change—it's very much an exaggerated cautionary story for those who don't believe—3% finds its own unease in depicting desperation and the destruction of hope.
What's most striking about 3% is that the candidates never see the Offshore throughout the Process, and they never know if any of the stories they hear about it are true. They've all heard rumors, and they have their own ideas but for the most part. They are clinging to something they know nothing about—all they know is that it is better than what they currently have, and that they're desperate to get out of their shitty situations and aim for somewhere better.
That's an underlying theme in both series (and in the majority of popular dystopian narratives): to get out and go somewhere better, to make somewhere better, and to keep going. The candidates in 3% leave family behind and sometimes screw over peers because they need to make it to the Offshore; women in Incorporated sell themselves into sex slavery in order to leave the Red Zone because they have no other options. But it doesn't stop there: Even within the Green Zone, you often want to keep moving up and up because, presumably, each corporate floor is better than the one below it—but when does it finally end?
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