“Incorporated” is an energetic and watchable science-fiction thriller that posits that a climate apocalypse will be followed by a swift division of survivors into haves and have-nots — all by the year 2074. Right now, that date feels like a somewhat optimistic estimate.
Science fiction has always reflected the insecurities and paranoias of a given era, and on TV at the moment, there’s an entire subgenre that explores what could be called the corporate-disaster scenario. “The Expanse,” “Continuum,” “Colony,” “Dark Matter,” and “Killjoys” are among the shows that predict a future in which the remnants of humanity will live under the merciless and well-manicured hand of a white-collar ruling class that is desperate to avoid winding up in the slums most people inhabit. Come to think of it, a lot of these Fortune 500 post-apocalyptic scenarios play out on NBCUniversal networks: Do execs there know something about the future they’re not sharing?
“Incorporated” is at its strongest when depicting the sly and secretive machinations that rising young corporate executives resort to when faced with the prospect of losing out on a promotion — or worse, in the wake of larger infractions, risk their families being dumped outside the company town’s security perimeter.
Executive producer and showrunner Ted Humphrey used to write for “The Good Wife,” and it shows: Life inside the headquarters of the gigantic Spiga Corp. is full of Machiavellian power struggles and quietly brutal brawls — all of them involving people wearing tasteful clothes and inhabiting sleek offices.
The two classes in “Incorporated” live apart: Outside the Green Zone, climate refugees face hunger and disease, but inside the well-maintained corporate villages and office parks owned by Spiga and its few worldwide competitors, there is no real physical want. The catch is that for employees and their families who want to remain in the Green Zone, the psychological pressure is intense, and there are few secrets that can be kept from corporate overlords working on technologies that can spy on dreams.
Nations still technically exist in this vision of the future, but Spiga and its ilk control everything, and, for those in the crumbling Red Zone outside the corporate perimeter, opportunities for betterment are few and far between. Without descending into nihilism — the lazy cop-out of a less thoughtful program — “Incorporated” depicts what it’s like when men and women on both sides of the wall have to make brutal moral choices in service of long-term goals they believe in.
Not all of the characters pop, but “Incorporated” keeps things moving at a smart pace. The show’s protagonist is Spiga executive Ben (Sean Teale), who appears to have it all. He’s is well-regarded at work, and it doesn’t hurt that his wife, Laura (Allison Miller), is the daughter of Spiga’s CEO. Laura and Ben’s bosses don’t know his true story, however: He basically hacked himself into the corporate elite, inventing a history for himself that would help him gain access to the company’s resources and databases. He tries to find someone from his past who got pulled into Spiga’s less savory endeavors even as he fends off executive-suite competitors and quietly keeps up with a few contacts from the Red Zone.
One of the show’s weaknesses is that Ben is fairly unremarkable, partly by design: He’s trying not to be noticed, except when he excels at an assigned task. Teale gives a competent performance, but there’s little sense of a conflicted interior life or the cost of having to maintain so many lies. Juliana Margulies of “The Good Wife” regularly wrought great drama from her character’s ambiguities and strategic silences, but Ben’s not in the same territory. That said, his compromises and goals are cleanly sketched out, and some of the twists of “Incorporated” push the show in intriguing directions. Its forays into subversive satire are low-key, but all the more effective for the perceptive fear that percolates through them.
Dennis Haysbert, who plays a Spiga security executive named Julian, supplies the kind of presence and gravitas the show needs, and Julian’s merciless agenda hints at the kinds of difficult scenarios the show is willing to explore. The cast’s other veteran actor, Julia Ormond, seems uncomfortable and stiff at first, but in the first four episodes, she relaxes somewhat into her role as Elizabeth, the canny and uncompromising Spiga CEO. It’s refreshing that Elizabeth isn’t necessarily depicted as a villain: It’s clear that without Spiga producing basic necessities and keeping some kind of order, the survivors of this future apocalypse would be in even worse shape.
As is so often the case on shows like this, a lot of the livelier moments come courtesy of supporting characters: The dependably excellent Damon Herriman (“Justified”) pops up as an old associate of Ben’s, and David Hewlett supplies enjoyable smarminess as a condescending Spiga exec. A storyline set in the Red Zone feels somewhat predictable, but Ian Tracey, who plays a shady fight promoter, brings an unpredictable and amusing edge to his scenes.
For all its shiny surfaces and sharp edges, the basic building blocks of “Incorporated” aren’t all that new (60 years from now, humans will still wear dark suits and be frustrated by computer buffering that takes too long). Even the show’s aesthetic feels pretty familiar: When it comes to decor, there’s a fine line between minimalist and bland, and visually speaking, the series wanders between the two, despite the crisp work of its directors.
All in all, the show melds the philosophical with the futuristic in promising ways. The thriller aspects of the drama are efficiently rendered, and the series explores important questions that have a great deal of relevance for the present. What do people owe the entities they work for, and when repugnant plans are on the table, what kinds of considerations should be given to humanity in general? Do oppressed individuals without recourse to money or power matter, and if so, how should they register dissent?
And what happens when a wall that is supposed to ensure safety winds up being the edge of a luxurious and claustrophobic prison?