Apple TV’s “Extrapolations” and why it’s so hard to make shows about climate change


In the second episode of Apple TV’s new climate drama “Extrapolations,” a scientist sits in an underwater base and communicates with a humpback whale. The year is 2046 — all “Extrapolations” episodes are named after the year in the coming, brutally warming climate — and a whale appears to be the last of its kind alive on Earth. People have conveniently learned to translate whale songs, and the humpback speaks eeee messed up sentences in Meryl Streep’s voice. “Have you caused some of us to fall?” he clicks and whistles.

“No,” replies scientist Rebecca Shearer (played bravely by Sienna Miller). quickly. “No, I would never hurt you.”

The implication, of course, is that while Rebecca herself may not have hurt the humpback whale, all of humanity—with its fossil fuel-burning, ecosystem-destroying ways—did. It’s one of the many lines in “Extrapolations,” showrunner Scott Z. Burns’ limited series, that almost feels like a pain in the nose. Earlier in the same episode, Rebecca comforts her young son (Joaopaulo Malheiro), who is suffering from a warming-related illness known as “summer heart,” saying, “The world made you sick. Because we made the world sick.”

Although many Hollywood actors—Leonardo di Caprio, Jane Fonda—participate in various climate activism, the topic has rarely been made into a hit movie or television. The genre is dominated by apocalyptic stories – “The Day After Tomorrow” to director Adam McKay’s more recent meteorite satire/allegory “Don’t Look Up.” Climate change has historically seemed too fragmented, too scientific and too political to reverse. into a successful film or TV series.

So “Extrapolations” is a star-studded drama series that focuses entirely on this issue, breaking new ground. Burns, best known as the author of the frighteningly prescient pandemic film “Contagion,” has a long history of interest in the environment and climate change. He once worked for two advocacy groups, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, and helped produce Al Gore’s PowerPoint lecture documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

But while the show is making history, its moral framework feels all too familiar. The good guys are profoundly wholesome, the villains distinctly evil. There’s a teenage activist calling on politicians at the 46th UN Climate Conference to finally take action; insufferable whiny billionaires who to see the world – and even the rapidly melting Arctic – only as opportunities for development.

Kit Harington of Game of Thrones fame plays the obviously evil Nicholas Bilton, the CEO of a Google-like company that owns everything from an artificial intelligence search engine to cheap desalination technology. Edward Norton, on the other hand, is a bit nuanced as a well-intentioned climate scientist who hopes to save the world from solar geoengineering.

Burns envisioned the series as a climate change version of The Dekalog, Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 10-part miniseries, where each episode covers one of the Ten Commandments. Climate version of this moral code show similarly stark, though perhaps not deeply morally enlightening: You must not drive species to extinction. Don’t spray aerosols into the air to cool the planet.

Indian author and scholar Amitav Ghosh argued in his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, one of the inspirations for the Burns series, that Western fiction’s focus on the individual has prevented literature from exploring the profound and unequal effects of climate change. . Burns and his co-showrunner Dorothy Fortenberry argue that film and television have their own version of the same problem: Climate apocalypses create immediate drama and character-level tension. The messy middle ground—not quite an apocalypse, a slow burn, if you will—is harder to turn into commercial entertainment.

In “Extrapolations”, that messy middle ground sometimes feels too instructive. Climactic content in any form can feel a bit like eating vegetables, and the series doesn’t avoid this trap. The first episode alternates between images of raging forest fires and discussions at the UN climate conference – as journalists who have covered such meetings y’know, they’re hardly the place for big TV dramas. In one scene, a rich business executive puts on a VR headset and is faced with visions of fires. He takes it away in annoyance. Question is whether viewers do the same.

In the most powerful moments of the series, people experience the warming of the planet as a routine, which makes drastic the adjustment feels self-evident. A group of people are driving a boat through the thawed Arctic wearing only thin windbreakers. The boy learns that the weather forecast is an “orange day” due to the endless forest fires and heat. The parishioners sit in the pews of the Miami synagogue, their feet dressed in heavy boots and rests in a few centimeters of water.

Later episodes, that explore awkward debates about the ethics of technology and science are stronger. And as the show moves into the future, its science fiction elements begin to carry the plot. But there’s still a simplicity to Extrapolations’ story arc: coming up with the right characters, winning over others. Climate change, with its collective, yet uneven responsibilities and obvious injustices, is more complex than that. If only it were that simple.

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