The Banal Politics of “Extrapolations”

The Banal Politics of “Extrapolations”

The Banal Politics of Extrapolations

The new Apple TV series knows the world is going to shit but is uninterested in the kind of change needed to prevent this from happening.


Extrapolations looks like a million bucks—a hundred million. Or, I should say, it looks like 600 metric tons of carbon dioxide. There are actors in it, people you will recognize. The technology is impressive and sleek. The futuristic fashions are tasteful and not overbearing. None of the furniture looks like I could afford it. When a helicopter flies over the blazing Adirondacks, it looks like Mordor.

If there is something to be said for Extrapolations, it’s that no fictional TV show in recent history has been as direct or explicit about the effects of climate change. The problem is that it becomes mired in the depiction of climate change but not the experience of it. The show revels in scientific platitudes and images of planetary degradation, but only within a glass dome of political, aesthetic, and imaginative conservatism. Its enclosure excludes critiques of systemic political complicity or of the growth logic driving the economy forward even as it is dooming us. Environment is the backdrop rather than the atmosphere, and its stories never become living, breathing things.

Created by Scott Z. Burns, Extrapolations is a sometimes-interconnected anthology series about the possible future effects of climate change. The show opens with news footage from 2037: Wildfires are raging around the planet. Storms are sweeping away homes. Glaciers are melting and falling away. Trend lines climb, dragging us toward a future that is closing in. The smog and smoke cast a pale haze over Tel Aviv; yellowed light streams in through the windows onto the show’s protagonists. Elsewhere in the city, protesters gather, chanting and furious at the latest ineffectual United Nations conference. The series gawks at all of this through a window.

Any show that wants to be direct about climate change must face the difficulties of perceiving subtle shifts in the ecological balance. Many of global warming’s causes are imperceptible to the human eye—carbon dioxide emissions are invisible and odorless; the sun’s ultraviolet radiation eludes the visible spectrum—and its effects occur at a temporal scale of multiple lifespans. But Extrapolations doesn’t find new images or new avenues for depicting climate change; it simply brings the scientific consensus to life and depicts the world once it has changed. It shows us cities shrouded in smog but turns away from the effects of toxic air for most who have to breathe it.

If each episode of Extrapolations is a snapshot of how the world might look in coming decades, then its characters are proxies for how these changes will affect certain kinds of people. There is Rebecca Shearer (Sienna Miller), the scientist who works for a company dedicated to saving the genetic material of nearly extinct species; Marshall Zucker (Daveed Diggs), the newly ordained rabbi who wants to stay in Tel Aviv, but whose parents draw him back to South Florida; Jonathan Chopin (Ed Norton), another scientist who has changed his mind about the prospects of geo-engineering our way out of the crisis, though Git Mishra (Indira Varma), his billionaire ex-wife, remains committed. And in the background of everything is Nicholas Bilton (Kit Herrington), the wealthiest man in the world and the CEO of Alpha, a company that combines the functions and aesthetics of real-life tech giants—think Apple, Amazon, Google, Meta, and Tesla all rolled into one.

Burns wrote the 2011 movie Contagion a decade before the Covid-19 pandemic and has been hailed for his predictive powers. Extrapolations wants you to notice how detailed and attuned it is to the adjustments required by a planet growing less hospitable to life. But even when the series takes a pause from exposition to attempt a proper story, it amounts to little more than Black Mirror with an A-list cast. In one episode, humans use technology to have conversations with whales, just in time for the last sperm whale to speak in Meryl Streep’s voice. In another, a gig worker takes jobs role-playing as his clients’ lost loved ones so he can pay for the cloud storage where he keeps all his memories. In a later decade, Forest Whitaker ruins a dinner party by announcing that he’s uploading his consciousness to something called LifePause. By that time, carbon cost is currency, the measure of everything.

Like the most obvious of parables, these cases flatten complexity for digestible lessons. Most of the show’s characters are wealthy, or what polite society calls “comfortable.” They live in sleek and well-furnished homes. They dress handsomely and handle technology with ease. Though meticulously produced, their future feels artificial. When a Miami Beach synagogue floods early in the third episode, the liquid is crystal clear and the stained-glass windows glow over the tan pews. When we later see the synagogue, now dry, there is no trace of damage. Despite the show’s considerable extrapolations, it hews to a tradition of science fiction that only imagines a world cleaner, smoother, more ergonomic and advanced than ours. It holds on to modern notions of progress, even as it claims to depict the cost of that progress. It can’t connect one thing to the other. It is a pristine gloss, rendered in that familiar Apple TV+ high definition, a safari through climate change offering only tame tragedies.

Bad things do happen in Extrapolations. Species are betrayed; parental relationships are compromised; a hurricane overwhelms homes; a plane is blown up. In one story line, Rebecca’s son Ezra is born with congenital heart problems caused by extreme heat, but it’s telling that the only ailing children we meet are ones with access to the best medical technology. The show’s protagonists are far from immune to the calamities of climate change, but their lives are cushioned such that their stories are tragic rather than the inevitable consignment of loss. Their struggles emphasize that no one is safe in a future that has been irretrievably compromised for profit and convenience, but what emerges as “tragic” is really the inability to contain the environmental costs to waters downstream, to other continents and lives left out of sight.

The respiratory crisis is one way to track the unequal distribution of precarity in a world of climate catastrophe. And in the face of planetary warming whose effects are often tangible only in eruption and spectacle, smog is a reliable referent. Smog is a material manifestation of capital’s necessary waste product, the cost of drawing more and more profit from the land. It is a cloud of emissions in the atmosphere, activated by sunlight, a visual screen laid over cities. As Jean-Thomas Tremblay explains, breathing does not equalize us, but it does make us porous—and vulnerable to toxins. The intake of breath, the deposit of particulate matter in the lungs, transgresses the distinction between individual and environment. The experience of smog is not only scene but sensing, one that “entails taking in—smelling, choking on, experiencing oxidation from—a visual screen that restricts visibility.” For most of Extrapolations, though, smog is a purely pictorial filter.

In the finale, smog makes its appearance in the establishing shots of New York and London—twin metropoles of the West covered in a hazy lint. Nick Bilton and his executive-with-a-conscience, Martha Russell (Diane Lane), stroll the grounds of his estate, breathing safely under a transparent dome that presumably keeps the toxins out, protecting his guests and the private herd of deer that roam his land. This manor house is an easy metaphor for the rest of Extrapolations. The show knows the world is going to shit; it can even offer glimpses of it. But it keeps its characters in the clean, cloistered air of a liberal environmentalism. Outside of a rare episode set on the roads of the Indian subcontinent, in which the characters depend on clouded oxygen masks and sun shields to stay a step ahead of their physical exposure, the series’ vision of the future follows the lucky few who can avoid the toxic atmosphere by remaining safely behind their windows.

Lack of imagination and provincialism plague Extrapolations. The show changes lives without challenging hierarchies, but perhaps more damning, it seems ignorant of the very hierarchies that cloud its perspective. For example, when the youthful rebellion of Rowan Chopin (Michael Gandolfini) manifests in a solar geo-engineering plot, the show depicts the course of ecological survival as a debate between powerful individuals and offers no alternative model. Extrapolations is so self-serious that it can’t gain the distance to criticize its own heroes with any precision. And this is where the show’s elisions become most glaring. Apart from a single episode, Extrapolations is completely unconcerned with the Global South and the people most affected by a warming planet. It offers a vision of Miami practically devoid of brown people, a Miami without Haitian Creole, Spanglish, or even accented English. A dinner scene focuses on petty couples eating foie gras and not the freelance maid hired for the event, who recently lost all her loved ones in the latest heat wave. In general, the show diligently avoids opportunities to explore how people without access to the luxuries of wealth might practice life and community.

In Extrapolations, there is a woman president but no politics. In an episode set in 2037, we meet a young woman activist who steps on a platform to appear before a crowd of protesters as a monumental hologram. UN representatives meet in a conference room beneath cool lights, weighing access to water against the goal to limit the global temperature rise. The camera, at one point, passes over chanting protesters waving signs. But there is no notion of organizing in Extrapolations, no sense of how common people might build political power, no actual political activity at the local level—because to show us this, the series would have to question all that it relegates to the unseen. Political action is only found in confined and charismatic spectacles, like a really good speech.

In one searing image, a protester in a dark suit wearing a Nick Bilton mask breaks through a police barricade, runs into the street, and sets himself on fire in front of the real Bilton’s motorcade. We never see the man’s face or learn anything else about him. We see the flames’ light licking the faces of Bilton and his assistant behind the windshield. It is only light, though; they do not feel any heat. The camera pulls upward into an aerial view. Martyrdom is shifted into the dispassionate view from which a satellite might pass over wildfire or a drifting glacier—no longer a man’s death, but another phenomenon whose causes pass into mystery and glamorous spectacle.

Extrapolations would collapse if it had to face the structural upheavals required to prevent the kind of dystopian future it imagines, and so it simplifies. Like most movies and television shows that deal with real-life or historical topics (or even ones that are scientifically likely to occur in the future), it combines figures, reduces timelines, and whittles down a social movement to a single mouthpiece. As with the familiar liberal approach to all of capitalism’s maladies, climate change is really just a matter of a few bad apples rather than a system of enabling, neglect, and adherence to profit to the point of self-destruction. Climate change is a devious scheme by some guy. Nick Bilton is a supervillain we spend an hour with, whereas the protesters aren’t people, just masses. It is easier to erect a scapegoat than confront the foundations upon which our society is built, and it is easier to gawk behind glass than to step, exposed, into the dangerous air.

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