Syfy's newest series Incorporated – or How to Succeed in Business Without Dying – comes with a Hollywood pedigree that works like pre-installed marketing software. The series is executive produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, two regular dudes who've done pretty well for themselves in the movie biz, and as such will likely garner more pre- and post-premiere attention than your average Syfy show whose most recognizable cast members are Julia Ormond and Dennis Haysbert.
Like much of science fiction, Incorporated aims to hold a mirror (maybe even a Black Mirror) up to the reality of our world and to reflect back some larger truth. Whereas Charlie Brooker's anthology series takes a pointed look at humankind's relationship with technology and by magnifying the negative effects it almost always presages some sort of nightmarish, one-and-done finger-wagging scenario, Incorporated invites the audience to hang out in the nightmare for an extended period of time. There are advantages to this sort of large-scale, ongoing technophobic scenario, such as the opportunity do to some imaginative world-building, but when the series becomes entirely too caught up in the minute details of the world being built, you want to tell a series like Incorporated to take a long hard look in the mirror.
Set in a dystopian future where governments have fallen and given rise to mega-corporations that run the world and attempt to mine what little natural resources are left, the series leaves the vast majority of its social commentary on the surface. Within minutes it's made clear that both of the U.S.'s coasts are underwater, and the majority of commerce has moved to the Midwest – which explains why Spiga, the corporation headed up by Ormond has turned Milwaukee into the new New York. There are also a few cheeky lines about American's illegally crossing over to Canada – despite a wall being built – demonstrating the show has a dry sense of humor. But such fleeting attempts at Verhoeven-esque satire and cynicism don't necessarily match the rest of the series' tone or its drawn-out plot.
Despite all that it has going on, and all the toys it has at its disposal, Incorporated seems most eager to be a story about power and class – a struggle between the haves and the have nots – with its central character a former have not hiding in plain sight. The haves live in well-appointed neighborhoods in what's known as Green Zones, whereas everyone else is cast off in the Red Zones – districts where life is considerably harder and cheaper. Ben Larson (Sean Teale) is a rising star at Spiga, and the boss's son-in-law. He's also better known as Aaron, a Red Zone dweller who somehow managed to hijack a new identity so that he could begin climbing the corporate ladder and enjoy the finer things in life. But instead of focusing on the far more interesting aspects of an extreme delineation between classes and the dangers of unchecked corporate power and influence, Incorporated sees its focus narrowed to Ben's one-man mission to be reunited with his former lover Elena (Denyse Tontz), who has been farmed out to an executive club where women are presumably treated like cattle for the wealthy.
Ben's mission and efforts to retain his secret amidst the high security at Spiga and competition for upper-management positions amongst his co-workers give the plot its thrust, but also paints the series as a lesser version of stories that unfold in similar dystopian settings; namely, Gattaca, Brazil, and Elysium. As such, Incorporated is tasked with finding some way to differentiate itself – a task that proves difficult as, in the first hour, the series offers little to demonstrate it is anything but a shadow of what's come before.
As a way to combat not having anything new to offer or to say, Incorporated finds itself actively engaged in distracting the audience with all the stuff that fills a world on the brink of collapse. The pilot offers wall-to-wall toys; things Ben can use in his quest for the top rung of the corporate ladder, or will be used against him. Even then everything is reduced to an obstacle or a solution to an obstacle most audiences have seen before. Ben uses a sonic device meant to disrupt protests and riots so he can steal corporate files. Not only is it a pale imitation of a similar sort of tech used by Jeff Bridges in the first Iron Man film, as a plot device it does little more than introduce a tedious, tension-free sequence in which the audience has to watch files being copied from a computer to a portable hard drive – something Iron Man also failed to make interesting. There is no amount of holographic computer displays or vomit-inducing sound guns available that could make a covert file transfer the sort of pulse-pounding scenario the show thinks it is, let alone a worthwhile addition to a television pilot in 2016.
For the most part, the show leaves you wishing it would think differently, not only about how it implements future technology within the confines of the story, but how it tells the story in the first place. Buried beneath the search for a missing girlfriend and a would-be brother-in-law being sucked into the ultra-boring world of illegal (or probably not illegal in the Red Zone) cage fights, is a story about identity and ambition in the face of discrimination and the lengths to which some will go for a piece of what's been unjustly denied them. Right now, Incorporated seems far more interested in setting up surface-level intrigue to push a familiar plot along. Hopefully it will attempt to dig much deeper as the season moves ahead.
Incorporated continues next Wednesday with 'Downsizing' @10pm on Syfy.
Photos: Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy