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Climate Change Drama Extrapolations Is Never as Gripping as Its Subject

Meryl Streep and Edward Norton lead an A-list cast through this bleak look at our future.
  • Meryl Streep in Extrapolations (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Meryl Streep in Extrapolations (Photo: Apple TV+)

    Climate change is real; the climate crisis isn't going away; and it is going to take a global act of will to turn things around. That is the urgent, angry message laid down at the outset of Extrapolations, the star-studded quasi-anthology series from Scott Z. Burns, who wrote the Steven Soderbergh film Contagion and was a producer on An Inconvenient Truth. The message is urgent because Burns knows the clock is ticking to reverse global warming before we reach a point of no return. The message is angry because Burns also knows that the human race has yet to exhibit the motivation to do anything about it.

    Extrapolations, which premieres on Apple TV+ on March 17 with its first 3 episodes, is reminiscent of two recent projects that took on the subjects of climate change and the crumbling world order. One is the HBO series Years and Years, which also checked in on an ever-worsening global situation at multiple points in its narrative timeline, helpless to the seemingly incontrovertible fact that things keep getting worse. The other is Don't Look Up, the Netflix-produced Best Picture nominee from two years ago that used the sci-fi premise of an impending comet strike as a metaphor for climate denialism. Both projects, in their own ways, got to the essential doom at the heart of our current situation.

    Extrapolations takes it as a given that global temperatures will soon rise to catastrophic levels. Across eight episodes featuring an all-star cast that is impressive even for the A-list-obsessed Apple, Burns explores the ways in which the effects of this environmental catastrophe will be absorbed by a planet dominated by business interests which seem determined to make change impossible.

    As a justifiably angry warning about everything waiting down the road, Extrapolations is honest and admirable. Burns doesn't fall into the trap of being glib or condescending about the mess we're in. He's also not afraid to be a big ol' bummer about where this is headed. The series falters, however, when it's called upon to be an actual TV show. As stories, the episodes are inconsistent, slow to find their footing, and largely frustrating. Burns presents the installments mostly as an anthology, with each episode jumping ahead by several years and focusing on a different aspect of the climate crisis.

    Animal extinctions are the subject of an episode starring Sienna Miller and Meryl Streep. Daveed Diggs plays a Miami rabbi in an episode dealing with rising sea levels. In the premiere episode, Kit Harington and Matthew Rhys play two of the many corporate billionaires lobbying hard to thwart any governmental efforts to cap carbon emissions, with Rhys' cap-toothed villain gloating that he and his ilk will be resting comfortably in "gold-plated coffins" by the time the world becomes ultimately uninhabitable. Moving from topic to topic isn’t a bad approach, though the show can start to feel formulaic.

    The most gripping episode is a political thriller starring Cherry Jones as the President of the United States and Edward Norton as a climate expert who uncovers an eco-terrorist plot that hits close to his home. But as tense, well-performed, and compelling as this story is, it makes it all the more frustrating when the show takes its footoff the gas in subsequent episodes. As the show gets farther and farther into the imagined future, it focuses on sci-fi concepts that recall particularly ponderous episodes of Black Mirror.

    The shagginess does allow Burns to explore some variety in tone and genre. The Diggs-centered episode is a quasi-comedy that even makes time to give its Tony-winning star a musical number. One of the later episodes is kind of a futuristic spin on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Marion Cotillard, Forest Whitaker, Tobey Maguire, and Eiza Gonzalez. Sometimes this is fun. Other times it feels like an unsuccessful attempt to gussy up a depressing topic.

    The urgency and importance of a show like Extrapolations makes it hard to write off entirely. It's doing good and important work, and there have certainly been other projects to take the same mission statement and produce something insufferably patronizing with it. But good intentions and occasional high points can’t overcome the overall disappointment of watching a series that’s never as gripping as its subject.

    Extrapolations premieres on March 17 with three episodes; new episodes premiere Fridays on Apple TV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Extrapolations, Apple TV+, Daveed Diggs, Diane Lane, Edward Norton, Eiza Gonzalez, Forest Whitaker, Gemma Chan, Keri Russell, Kit Harington, Marion Cotillard, Matthew Rhys, Meryl Streep, Sienna Miller, Tobey Maguire