Incorporated comes on like the kind of TV show you think you have to pay close attention to. There's more consideration of climate change in the tense Syfy dystopian thriller than in all four-and-a-half hours of this fall's presidential debates. As the series opens, stern white titles on a black screen tell us that, in 2074, the temperatures have risen, famine has spread and governments have collapsed. Filling the vacuum, of course, are multinational corporations, who thrive by selling the wealthy the lives that their ancestors enjoyed — fresh water, grass lawns, armed security, plastic surgery, sex with cleaned-up less fortunates.
Moments into the premiere, Incorporated offers up in one striking shot a vision of an American future that seems the logical culmination of every trend of the American now. Our hero, a shark-lean business bro who favors shark-silver suits, is zipping from his locked-down suburb to his corporate office. The city looms like Emerald Oz in the distance, a straight shot down a pleasant highway, but as his self-driving smart car surges ahead the camera pans up and the trees that line the shoulders flicker away and vanish. They're projections. Our perspective drifts further up, and the world is laid bare: A militarized wasteland straddles the only road in or out of town, shanties and guard towers and what nativists might call “big, beautiful walls.” The image's perversity stings all the more for being familiar: Ever drive those patches of interstate near D.C. where you can see the capitol from one side of the car and the projects from the other?
Not that D.C. is standing in 2074. In Incorporated, created, written and co-directed by Alex and David Pastor, the glittering city is Milwaukee, one of America's grandest now that the coasts have gone all Atlantis. It and the plush 'burb our hero commutes from lie in what's called the Green Zone, which consists of resort-like precincts maintained and secured by the local multinational. The Red Zone roils on the other side of those walls, where most of humanity fights for the swells' scraps.
Nothing in this premise will be new to science-fiction fans, but it's rare that the particulars of a pop-apocalypse square so smartly with the American mood. Incorporated's future is, in the first five (of 13) episodes, more compelling than its man-undercover espionage drama. It's sleek in its look yet comfortably clunky in its storytelling, offering scenes you know from other shows. There are two dreary incidents of torture in the pilot, and every surreptitious file transfer takes the hero — promising middle manager Ben Larson (Sean Teale) — exactly as long as it needs to to be suspenseful. Turns out this series that at first rewards your attentiveness in actuality is the kind of thing you can grok while folding laundry.
Larson's mission, the series' spine, is disappointingly rote: He's another sci-fi hero out to save the princess, in this case his childhood love Elena (Denyse Tontz), who has been plucked from the Red Zone slum of their youth to service top executives in the company's Mar-a-Lago. The Pastors fill in Ben's backstory with with flashbacks that belabor what we quickly ascertain: Like Don Draper, he has killed the identity of his birth to win a shot at the good life. The precise details of how he achieved this fascinate much less than what's happening now, when he's striving to use the power he's seized to steal Elena back from the company. Scenes of Ben and Elena's Red Zone past — hopeful striving and inevitable disappointment — lack the suspense and satiric resonance of his Green Zone present.
Curiously, the first episodes follow the most commonplace of Incorporated's many threads: dudes competing for a key promotion; a rival finding evidence that Ben might not be who he says; a corporate investigator always this close to catching on to Ben's schemes. The threads that dangle are more promising. In rising to his position in Spiga, the company that bestrides Milwaukee, Ben has managed to marry the boss' daughter, Laura (Allison Miller), a bleeding-heart plastic surgeon who invites a pair of Red Zone broke-asses into town for some healthcare, her treat. She's troubled, gripped by memories of a violent attack, given to cutting herself in private and then treating the wounds with spray-can flesh-mender.
She breaks the news to Ben that Spiga has approved her request to become pregnant — the company will let her take her IUD out. But Ben's an imposter, only with her because he needs to rise high enough in Spiga to spirit Elena from the executive brothel. So he secretly resorts to taking male birth control. The betrayal should wound us more. Laura is, so far, the show's richest character, the one whose choices might truly surprise us. Too often, though, she's an obstacle for Ben rather than a person.
But then, once in a while, she and Incorporated will surprise you. Every time I felt certain I could pay less attention, check my email while letting an episode play out, I'd be struck by some new detail, pungent or wondrous. The first episode plunges us into a Red Zone nightclub, and it's at first a dud, all Blade Runner neon and the usual border-town vice. There are desperate mooks in a cage match, busting each other's heads MMA-style for the entertainment of slumming Green Zoners. Those tourists, all Spiga alphas wearing variations on Tom Cruise's ur-yuppie Rain Man suit, party with Green Zone drugs (“primo, triple-A, thank-God-it's-Friday blur!”) that makes the screen go wearily slo-mo.
But then Ben peels away to check in with an old friend who lives high up in a bombed-out apartment building. There's no electricity, and there's certainly no elevator, so Ben tips an entrepreneurial kid who keeps a motorcycle in the stairwell. Then they roar up and up, round and round. At its best, Incorporated turns from “syfy” to speculative, asking how would people live if things get as bad as we all fear they might.