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‘Snowpiercer,’ ‘The Expanse,’ and More—6 Dystopian Drama Series To Watch Now

Snowpiercer, the Bong Joon-ho film, is now a limited series; and it joins the best of dystopian dramas we can enjoy on the streaming services

With the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic still hanging over our horizon, it’s not unusual to find the popularity of dystopian drama series at an all-time high. It may have begun with such limited series as The Handmaid’s Tale—but the magic created when you blend speculative fiction with high drama and human interaction is very potent stuff. Here’s a rundown of the best series that explore this particular genre; using anything futuristic or sci-fi as a premise to delve into the social fabric.

Snowpiercer (Netflix)

A remake of the futuristic Bong Joon-ho film about class oppression, this 10-episode series drops on May 25 here in the Philippines, and I had the opportunity to preview the show. For those who enjoyed the film, know right now that this departs enough from the film so it’s still enjoyable. The premise of a new Ice Age and the end of all species of life, thanks to a botched attempt to stop global warming; and the concept of an ark train, now a 1,001 cars long, powered by an Eternal Engine—have both survived the adaptation. And on the train Snowpiercer; there’s the Tail, where stowaways are relegated to, cars classified as Third which house the people who serve those in the Second and First cars. And it’s still the brainchild of the mysterious, unseen visionary, Mr. Wilford.

From the film, who are gone are ‘tailie’ Curtis (Chris Evans), and the wonderfully over the top Head of Hospitality, Mason (Tilda Swinton). Instead, we get Layton (Daveed Diggs), and the prim and proper Melanie (Jennifer Connelly). It’s inexplicable murders in the Third carriages that compel the powers-that-be to bring Layton forward; as before the Freeze, he was working as a homicide detective. So on top of the built-in class conflict that’s found on the train, we have this police procedural, an investigation of serial murders. The stretching to a series may mean the impact and near-lunacy of the film has to be stretched; but in fairness, a good enough job is done here. Especially for those who never watched the film, this should be a compelling, grimly entertaining series. It starts slow; but builds up its own steam.

Dark (Netflix)

Coming from Germany, this series plays on the cases of missing children in 2019 in the town of Winden, and turns into a mesmerizing tale of time relativity, where the Past, Present, & Future interconnect in strange and malevolent ways. The first season plays out like a more serious Stranger Things, but with older teens and their parents as the main characters. So it’s not just some dystopian future covered, but random flashbacks to the 1980s and even the 1950s.

Unfortunately, it’s dubbed rather poorly, so if you don’t mind the subtitles, I’d suggest watching this in its original German. It’s suitably twisted, filled with supernatural elements while harking on the existential implications of wormholes in time. And essentially, it’s about the human element—how relationships are forged, stretched, and expunged in the course of stressful and conflicted times. A third season for this first German series, commissioned by Netflix, is on its way.

The Expanse (Amazon Prime)

Based on the novels of James SA Corey, this drama/adventure series is set in a futuristic outer space. The series conjures up a new world order where the United Nations of Earth, a Congressional Republic on Mars, and the Belt (a loose confederation of Jupiter, Saturn and an asteroid belt), are all at odds with each other. It’s reminiscent of the Cold War situation of the 1950s, where tensions are at a high, and the smallest of incidents can trigger a war between worlds, with humanity hanging in the balance.

There are strands of narrative that have to do with the class balance in all these worlds and on the vessels of interplanetary travel. Our main characters are a member of the United Nations Security Council, a police detective, and a ship’s captain and his crew. Through them, we discover the insidious conspiracy that’s afoot. It’s earned a Hugo Award and three Saturn Award nominations. It’s been renewed by Amazon for a fifth season.

Black Mirror (Netflix)

A critically acclaimed British dystopian sci-fi anthology series created by Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, Black Mirror now consists of five seasons. By the admission of its own creators, the anthology series is inspired by The Twilight Zone, with all episodes existing as standalone stories. They describe the series as being more about technology, and how it’s about ‘the way we live now, and the way we may be living in ten minutes time, if we’re clumsy.’ So it’s an alternate present, how we’re captive to technology, or today’s version of alienation and/or anomie.

Much admired were the episodes “USS Callister,” about a nerd programmer and how he reinvents his persona within a gaming construct, and “San Junipero”—LGBTQ themes overlaid with aging and cutting-edge technology. Andrew Scott as a ride share driver in the episode “Smithereen” is a wonderful example of how the series also challenges the guest actors to show their range. There are some ‘misses,’ but a good number of these episodes really shine and live up to the Twilight Zone comparison.

Altered Carbon (Netflix)

A cyberpunk web series based on the novel of Richard K. Morgan, the overriding premise here is that human consciousness can be transferred and travel across bodies or ‘hosts.’ The series takes place over 360 years in the future; so you can imagine the amount of world-building that had to go into this series. There’s a Blade Runner approach to the storyline and look, with the central character being one Takeshi Kovacs, a former soldier turned investigator, who tasked to solve a murder. Joel Kinnaman plays the host body of Tak in the first season, while Anthony Mackie dons that role in the second season.

An Emmy for special visual effects was picked up in 2018, and if there’s a mixed reaction to the series, it had come from quarters complaining that the murder mystery story takes a back seat to the incredible special effects. Chalk that up to the fact that this is reportedly the most expensive series that Netflix has produced. Other critics have also expressed concern about how the dystopian premise is used an excuse to display sexualized violence. The fight scenes are impressively choreographed, and the Kovacs back story is always interesting.

The Rain (Netflix)

Denmark can claim credit for this environmentally-themed, post-pandemic survival web series that’s uncanny in forecasting what’s happening all over the world today, coronavirus-wise. In The Rain, a deadly virus is carried by regular rainfall, and wipes out most of the population of Scandinavia. Danish siblings Simone and Rasmus take shelter in a bunker, emerging six years later, when they join other young survivors, and search for a safe haven. There’s also the quest for their father, a scientist who placed them in the bunker, and hopefully, has survived and developed a cure for the virus.

The first season’s tension built up with how people were reacting to the fatal virus’ spread, the way people would treat the infected, and how desperate they were in looking for a cure. As the story developed the fact that Rasmus had been injected with the virus and survived became a central strand of one narrative. A third and final season was approved and should drop this year. Who could have foreseen, as the series began, just how prophetic the concept would turn out to be.

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Lead photos from IMdB