It’s 2046, and marine biologist Rebecca Shearer (Sienna Miller) has to explain to her 10-year-old son Ezra (Joaopaulo Malheiro) why he has “summer heart,” a congenital condition found in the children of women who were pregnant during exceptionally smoky wildfire seasons.
Ezra has had a bad day at school; after getting teased by some older boys, he got upset, overworked his heart, and ended up bedridden in the nurse’s office. At home, he reports, “There’s a girl at school who said people with summer heart only live to be 30.” Rebecca looks up with stifled horror and grief — not because the planet is dying, but because her son is.
This is a singularly potent moment from Extrapolations, a new series about climate change, whose first three episodes premiere on Apple TV+ today. Directed by Scott Z. Burns, who produced the 2006 global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth and wrote the 2011 pandemic movie Contagion, the series positions itself as a sober, expansive examination of pressing environmental issues. Over the course of eight episodes set between 2037 and 2070, the show focuses on the mundane resilience of people tasked with both personal and professional demands against a backdrop of fires, flooding, and other human-driven disasters. In each episode, there is a famous face or several: Miller, Meryl Streep, Daveed Diggs, David Schwimmer, Edward Norton, Kit Harington… The list goes on.
The pantheon of celebrities — as well as the environmental themes — calls to mind Adam McKay’s bleak 2021 comedy Don’t Look Up, another star-studded vehicle featuring Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio as two scientists fighting to warn the world about a comet destined to hit Earth — an allegory for climate change. But Extrapolations is a very different piece of art: literal rather than satirical, dramatic rather than comedic. Where Don’t Look Up tries to rally its audience to take the issue seriously, Extrapolations seems more ambivalent.
As Burns told the New York Times, “I don’t believe I’m going to move people or change their attitude about anything unless first I entertain them.” After working on An Inconvenient Truth, which he originally believed would “solve the problem,” he’s become skeptical of Hollywood’s role in addressing climate change. “The problem is so large and so systemic,” he told the Atlantic. “Obviously a documentary wasn’t going to change the way people saw life on Earth or their own behavior.”
So Burns seems to have sharpened his focus on individuals’ behavior. Extrapolations depicts people grappling with climate change indirectly; first and foremost, they are just trying to make it through their daily lives. Sometimes characters ruminate on the abstract concept of climate change — in the third episode, bat mitzvah candidate Alana Goldblatt (Neska Rose) begs her rabbi, Marshall Zucker (Diggs), to help her understand why God would send such catastrophic floods to her hometown of Miami. But the most poignant moments of Extrapolations come from watching the characters make the best out of their worsening world. Rebecca tells her son, “I bet by the time you’re 30, someone will have invented an entirely new heart just for you.” After Marshall delivers his sermon at a Passover service, the camera cuts to the congregation rising from their pews; all of them are wearing rain boots, standing in water 2 inches deep.
As we pass the three-year anniversary of “COVID’s day of reckoning in the US,” these moments are especially haunting. During the earlier stages of the pandemic, parents across the globe had to figure out how to explain the chaos of the world to their young children, and those children had to confront mortality for perhaps the first time in their lives. Religious communities had to find new ways to gather and worship; they had to figure out how to celebrate in the face of fear.
But these moments, arresting as they are, pass quickly in the tumult of the show’s first three episodes, which are often more awkward than entertaining. One of the emotional setups of the second episode stumbles over its own complexity: When Rebecca communicates with the last humpback whale on Earth, the whale speaks in Meryl Streep’s voice. This feels ludicrous rather than majestic. By the time the episode explains that Rebecca is using an advanced translation technology that can toggle through voices like a GPS and she’s chosen to use the voice of her late mother, all gravitas has been lost.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the show’s attempts to be funny can seem so contrived as to be cringe-inducing. As Marshall worries about how his temple will survive the coming floods, the show cuts to a scene where he and Alana splash through the building in glittery blue costumes, performing “Singing in the Rain.” The two-minute sequence turns out to be a dream, but its abrupt insertion into the story and unsettling cheer make it feel like an ad for Diggs’s and Rose’s musical careers, or like a deleted scene from Glee.
Burns is looking for hope amid crisis, which is an admirable goal. It might also be the best thing a Hollywood depiction of climate change can offer: Finding humanity in the individuals caught up in systemic problems is one of the great possibilities of storytelling.
But there’s also a substantial pessimism running underneath these early episodes of Extrapolations. Politicians renegotiate, then erode, the Paris Agreement’s imperative to limit global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. Greedy businesspeople undermine communities to save themselves at every turn. Harington plays tech CEO Nick Bilton, who withholds his water desalinization patents from countries whose citizens are dying from a lack of drinkable water. While debating whether to sell his technology at a lower price, he meditates in his personal swimming pool. Schwimmer plays Harris Goldblatt, Alana’s father and a real estate mogul; he bribes Miami leaders to save his temple from rising sea levels, sacrificing a local homeless shelter to the floods instead.
They are realistic depictions of individuals, even if they are less sympathetic. The powerful people of Extrapolations have the same motives and make the same mistakes as the underdogs. They want to protect their families from harm, and they’re too busy doing that to care about climate change conceptually. The show clearly wants audiences to see that the selfish wealthy characters are unethical for hoarding resources at the expense of other people, and it’s unafraid to distribute consequences unevenly. It doesn’t just punish its antagonists to achieve a reductive narrative justice; it also shows how their power causes harm. Harris gets arrested for bribery, but Marshall and Alana still end up unhoused after a massive flood.
Detangling the threads of these early episodes, it’s easy to wish these characters simply had less going on in their lives.
Burns’ contradictory instincts can be refreshing. In Extrapolations, he strives to weigh hope against hopelessness, individual choices against deadly catastrophes, impartial empathy against the ethical conviction that people in power should act to protect the whole planet, not just themselves. These conflicting forces can make for more honest, less dogmatic storytelling. But they can also weigh down the series’ sheer power to entertain.
Detangling the threads of these early episodes, it’s easy to wish these characters simply had less going on in their lives. Marshall doesn’t need to find a love interest; Alana’s grandfather doesn’t need to die. The story’s stakes make more sense without these fraying subplots. The systemic issues that drive the climate crisis are dense and complicated. To extract a coherent narrative from this chaos, a little simplification is still necessary. ●