Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
It’s somewhere around the explanation of Incorporated‘s bifurcated future world, wherein unemployed urchins rule the slums and sleek worker bees look down their noses from glossy high-rises, that Syfy’s new show peaks creatively. The vision echoes the futures of plenty of other sci-fi works (weirdly, I was reminded of the Ethan Hawke, us-vs-them vampire flick Daybreakers), but it has undeniably interesting ideas of its own.
Unfortunately, that exact moment where the show peaks creatively is in an opening credits scroll; the subsequent story navigating us through Incorporated‘s potentially bountiful near-future is sluggish and, as far as duplicitous business thrillers go, inert. Incorporated falls further along the high-quality end of the Syfy spectrum than, say, Aftermath or Hunters, but it’s far short of the network’s current best: The Expanse and The Magicians. An interesting world worth getting lost in is no easy feat to create, and the setup could potentially result in Incorporated‘s ultimate success down the line, but the barrier for entry into that world is a hum-drum corporate espionage plot with little of the mettle or thrills that could carry the show into its own bright future.
Opening in 2074, the show explains point-blank that climate change is actually real (who knew?) and has ravaged the planet, bankrupting unprepared governments and their leaders and resulting in the rise of giant, multinational corporations who battle for control over the remaining pieces of the planet. As far as lecture-like text screens go, Incorporated‘s opening minutes do a good job in balancing both telling and showing viewers how the world works, although the cog-like, back-room functions of how exactly a CEO and its company governs and politics is left in the wishy-washy section of the world-building, while the self-driving cars and palm-based video screens are flaunted as a distraction.
And, admittedly, it works for a while. Incorporated‘s most winning oh-wow ideas are best left to discover on your own, but the show has figured out ways to showcase believable future tech that punctuates its more demanding themes. The way that the affluent elite of the “Green Zone” brush the lowly “Red Zone” under the rug is cold and disturbing – just what this antiseptic world would approve of – and even some of the more throwaway trials of the future, like the lack of real food not made from a petri dish, help the world feel realistic.
But then the plot kicks in. Incorporated‘s back-stabbing, corporate climbing arc is functional, and yet it’s cliché-ridden, largely mundane, and even too cautious in its attempts at premium cable-like salaciousness. The center of its turmoil is Ben (Sean Teale, a dead-ringer for a slightly younger Oscar Isaac), who we meet as a happy working man with a doting wife, Laura (Allison Miller), and a tough-as-nails mother-in-law, Elizabeth (Julia Ormond), who also happens to be the CEO of Spiga, one of the largest corporations – and consequently largest powers – in the world.
The twist is that Ben is actually Aaron, a sleeper agent who’s been infiltrating Spiga for six years in attempts to find the sister of one of his contacts in the Red Zone, Theo (Eddie Ramos). The major thrust of Incorporated kicks off when Ben gets nearer to reaching his goal than he has in half a decade but winds up stonewalled by corporate mandates and security clearances. The rest of the season has a clear goal (one of Incorporated‘s only hooks, besides its world): Ben has to work overtime to get promoted to at least the 40th floor, where he will gain the required clearances to hunt down Theo’s sister for good.
The problem? Spiga is increasingly paranoid that a spy is in its midst, and Elizabeth’s closeness to Ben threatens to bring his cover crashing down into “The Quiet Room,” where corporate thug Julian (Dennis Haysbert, who’s hard to fear now as the Allstate guy) rips the secrets out of Spiga’s enemies, along with threatening to do the same to various appendages.
Its broad ideas sound riveting, and in glimpses and in moments Incorporated is nifty and fluid enough to elicit a bit of hair-raising fun (a little gun called the “whistler” anchors the pilot’s most intense set-piece subterfuge), but the minute-to-minute dialogue and characters don’t justify or satisfy the show’s broader scope.
Ben is a bit of an empty canvas at the start, but Teale can do enough with stern expressions and darts of the eye to fuel his character’s duality of being brave while also being a jittery mess in the thick of his most dangerous missions. Subsequent episodes fill in his younger years, but nothing from his plucky pre-teen survival skills to his falling under the tutelage of rebel leader Hendrick (Damon Herriman) is all that surprising.
Laura has a few interesting scenes of her own, where she faces moral dilemmas in her job as a doctor of the future where cans of spray perform miracles in seconds, and subsequently the most pressing matters concern whether or not she can do a face/off on the boy toy of a wealthy widower so he looks more like her dead husband. Laura herself is saddled with a weird, out-of-nowhere past trauma that leads to self-harm as an outlet, but it only muddles the waters of her character without providing any real interesting hook as to what’s going on with her (which is hinted at, with appreciable brevity, early on).
Miller and Teale have chemistry enough, but it’s never clear whether he has fallen for her during his long-con, or whether he’d be willing to give her up on a dime – a puzzle piece that would far better serve as an edge rather than the filled-out-last middle section. Despite solid performances, they’re both a bit bland and, unfortunately, the most interesting characters on the show.
Things get worse in a grating subplot wherein Theo comes toe-to-toe with Red Zone gangster boss Terrence (Ian Tracey), who quickly discovers Theo knows his way around a fist fight and places him in a string of high-risk, high-reward cage matches to prove his worth. The neon-tinted griminess of the Red Zone, full of skyscraper-tall stripper holograms placed on squalid, dilapidated hovels, is another rich expansion of Incorporated‘s world, and another underwhelming example of showrunners David and Alex Pastor not doing all that much interesting within it.
Those looking deeper will discover momentary thrills and fleeting allegories relevant enough for our times – although some lack subtlety, like the Canadian PM who wants to build a high security fence because of record-high illegal immigration – but Incorporated‘s by-the-books corporate espionage plot feels like a constant handicap on its more high-reaching notions. Maybe the show’s most refreshing idea, if looked at in the scope of more recent dystopian fiction, is that it’s not about bringing upon the downfall of Big Brother (for now, anyway), but merely about getting by. Ben isn’t a chosen one, or a savior; he’s an office drone who’s most pressing goal is to retire. If Incorporated can craft a more engaging story around his ascension up the corporate ladder, one worthy of the show’s well-built world, then there could be reason enough to submit your own application to Spiga.
Its world is surprisingly sprawling and well-realized, but Incorporated loses rank as it gets lost in the weeds of a cliché espionage plot that lacks any engaging characters or intriguing twists that could have saved it from an early retirement.