TV Show ReviewsJosh Reviews 3 Body Problem Season One!

Josh Reviews 3 Body Problem Season One!

In China in the 1960’s, young Ye Wenjie watches as her scientist father is murdered by a mob during a public “struggle session” during the Cultural Revolution.  Decades later, during the present day, Ye Wenjie’s daughter, the physicist Vera Ye, commits suicide, part of a wave of unexplained deaths of scientists worldwide.  A group of Vera Ye’s former students — Jack Rooney (who made it rich developing a line of snack food), Auggie Salazar (who is leading a project to develop a revolutionary nano-fiber), Jin Cheung (a particle physics genius), Saul Durand (who possesses a brilliant mind but has a tendency to squander his potential, favoring drugs and one-night-stands over serious work), and Will Downing (a high school science teacher facing a life-threatening illness) — find themselves drawn together to investigate the mystery of what is happening to scientists across the globe, as well as the secrets of a strange new virtual reality game: 3 Body Problem.

This eight-episode Netflix TV show is based on the novel by Liu Cixin.  I read and loved the novel and was very excited by a TV series adaptation.  I was even more intrigued because this show is the first project overseen by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss after Game of Thrones.  (Mr. Benioff and Mr. Weiss created and produced this show, along with Alexander Woo.)

I loved this season, and I hope the show is allowed to continue to complete this story by adapting Liu Cixin’s two follow-up novels.

Liu Cixin’s novel is terrific; filled with cool ideas and grounded in (what feels to a layman like me as) very realistic science.  I loved it and highly recommend it.  I can see why this would be an exciting story to adapt — it contains some big ideas and some very cool sequences.  I can also see the challenge, as this is a plot-heavy story filled with complicated science and many of the characters are not all that developed.  It also doesn’t come to much of a satisfying ending — the first novel feels like a lot of set-up for what is to come in books two and three.  (I have not yet read those follow-up novels; I hope to soon!)

Overall, I thought Mr. Benioff, Mr. Weiss, and Mr. Woo did a terrific job in shaping this adaptation.  They struck a tough-to-find balance between being, on the one, hand, very faithful to the novel.  The series follows the novel’s plot quite faithfully, which I was happy to see.  In particular, they do a great job depicting all of the novel’s most memorable sequences (that opening with Ye Wenjie during the Cultural Revolution; her arrival at the Red Coast project with its giant satellite dish; the various levels of the 3 Body Problem game; the delivery of the “You are bugs” message; the assault on Mark Evans’ ship; and more).  They also make a lot of changes from the novel, to expand and flesh out the story and characters.

They made the bold, and very cool choice, to take the novel’s central protagonist, Wang Miao, and divide him into the five original characters I listed in my first paragraph, above.  On the one hand, that’s a huge departure from the novel; on the other hand, I love the choice, as it grounds the show in characters with interesting back-stories and different perspectives.  It helps with some of the scientific exposition, as the characters can talk to one another about what’s happening and what they make of it all.  More importantly, I think the show’s writers did a great job at developing each of these five characters into complicated, interesting people who I enjoyed following through this adventure.  Each could have been the lead of the series!  (The show treats each of them as they are, which is a good approach.  I wasn’t bored by any of their individual storylines; I never got impatient to return to someone else’s story.)

Jack Rooney is played by John Bradley, who was so memorable as good-hearted Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones.  It’s fun to see Mr. Bradley play a very different type of character here; and yet, Jack has Samwell’s good heart, which shines through the performance.  Mr. Bradley brings a sense of levity and good-humor which really helps all of his scenes sing (and is very important in this show, which can tend towards the dour).  Auggie is played by Eiza González, who I first became aware of in Baby Driver; she also was terrific in this year’s Guy Ritchie film The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.  I like that the show doesn’t lean too heavily on Ms. González’s beauty; they focus instead on Auggie’s brilliant scientific mind and don’t find excuses to put her in skimpy clothing.  Ms. González is great, bringing an emotional honesty to the huge moral dilemmas with which Auggie has to wrestle over the course of the season.  “Emotional honesty” is also a great way to describe Jess Hong’s work as Jin Cheung.  I’ve never seen Ms. Hong’s work before, but she’s wonderful here.  She shows us Jin’s brilliance but keeps the character very grounded, and she digs deep into the emotional effects of the tough issues Jin is forced to face.  I invested most heavily in Jin’s story of all these characters.  Jovan Adepo (Fences, Jack Ryan, Watchmen, Babylon) is terrific as Saul.  Saul makes some poor decisions and has a habit of running away from his responsibility, but Mr. Adepo plays Saul with such open-hearted goodness that I immediately loved Saul despite all that.  Finally there’s Alex Sharp (The Trial of the Chicago 7), who plays Will Downing.  Mr. Sharp has to play some of the film’s toughest emotional scenes.  These could have been eye-rolling, but Mr. Sharp plays everything with such down-to-earth honesty and openness, he’s wonderful to watch, and I was rooting heavily for his character.

Benedict Wong (The Martian, and of course he’s Wong in the MCU!) plays the grizzled police investigator “Da” Shi, and he is marvelous in the role!  He’s perfectly cast, taking my favorite character from the book and fleshing him out beautifully.  I was thrilled to see Rosalind Chao (who played Keiko O’Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) given such a delightfully juicy role as that of the older version of Ye Wenjie.  Ms. Chao is terrific, perfectly playing the various aspects of this character.  Zine Tseng, meanwhile, is fiercely compelling as the young Ye Wenjie in all the flashback scenes.  I loved that Liam Cunningham (who was so compelling as Davos Seaworth on Game of Thrones) was given such a central role here as Thomas Wade, the no-bullshit man tasked with heading up the world’s response to the events that go down as the story unfolds.  Mr. Cunningham absolutely commands the screen whenever he appears.  I’ve always enjoyed Jonathan Pryce (in films such as Glengarry Glenn Ross and Pirates of the Caribbean; he made a great Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies, and of course he’s another alum from Game of Thrones, where he played the High Sparrow), and he’s a great choice to play the enigmatic villain Mike Evans.  Saamer Usmani does strong work as Jin’s military boyfriend Raj Varm.  Marlo Kelly is appropriately creepy as Tatiana, a true believer who serves as the violent arm of a mysterious group.

I was surprised that they fit most of the first novel into this season’s first five episodes; episodes 6-8 go beyond that first book.  (I presume they borrow events from book two.  I’ve also read that at least one major storyline was actually taken from book three.)  Overall, I felt those choices work.  The season flows smoothly.  Events unfold rapidly enough that we feel the building suspense as we the audience, along with the characters on the show, discover the truth of what’s actually going on.  (I like that the show doesn’t allow us to ever get too far ahead of the characters; that can be frustrating on shows where that happens.)  At the same time, I didn’t feel things were too rushed or condensed (a common pitfall when adapting complicated stories).  The pacing worked, and the season ended on a note that on the one hand gave a solid resolution to the events of the season, while also providing a terrific tease for what’s to come.  I want to see a second season!!

The only thing that really surprised me about the structure of this season is that they pretty much finished with most of the video game stuff by the end of episode three.  I’d expected that aspect of the story to run throughout this first season!  I wouldn’t have minded had they given this a little more time and space.  On the other hand, I applaud the show-runners for answering most of the questions raised by the video game so quickly.  This show thankfully doesn’t fall into the “mystery box” trap of too many modern shows, in which the audience is kept in the dark for far too long about what the heck is going on.

This is a very talky show, as the book is.  There’s not a lot of action.  The season’s big show-stopping visual effects set-piece happens in episode five, well before the season finale.  If the show has a weakness, it might be that.  But I didn’t mind it; I was engaged by the sci-fi plot and the character stories that were unfolding in tandem.  For the most part, the show does a good job of explaining the complicated science, without getting too bogged down in lengthy and boring exposition.  (My only question is whether general audiences understand the concept of the “sophons” — proton-sized super-computers — without having read the book.  They blew by that explanation pretty fast, in my opinion; that might have warranted a little more time to explain fully, as it’s so important to the events of this season.)

One of the many terrific aspects of the original novel is how centrally Chinese the story is.  I was pleased that this adaptation maintained much of that (despite the criticism the show has reportedly received from some Chinese audiences) (though some argue the media’s reporting of this criticism is overblown).  At the same time, the showrunners made the understandable decision to change some of the characters to make the cast more global.  The show’s five friends are now all based in the UK (at least when the season begins).  This works for me.  The show’s cast is still admirably diverse, which is lovely to see.

This show looks great.  It’s not as obviously visual impressive as something like Game of Thrones.  Much of the story takes place in rooms in the modern-day UK.  At the same time, I can see the care (and money) spent on creating the look of the show.  All of the flashbacks to the Chinese Cultural Revolution look beautiful and impressively epic.  I loved the look of the 3 Body Problem players’ helmets.  (Based on the behind-the-scenes material, much time and effort was spent on visual effects to make sure those super-reflective helmets looked right and didn’t display any hint of the camera or crew filming them.)  That show-stopping attack on the “Judgment Day” ship in episode five was spectacular.  Overall, I loved the look of the different worlds within the 3 Body Problem game itself.  The costumes seen within the game were terrific, and the sets were fun and nicely stylized, looking realistic but also unmistakably like the fake creations that might be found within a video game, albeit a super-sophisticated one.  (My one complaint was the human computer sequence, which was such a cool and memorable concept in the novel.  The masses of CGI people looked faker than I’d have hoped, as realized on the show.)

There’s a lot more I could write about — this season is dense with story!  But I’ll conclude by reiterating that I really dug this season.  I am hooked into this story and this world, and I want to see where things go from here.  I hope Netflix green-lights a second and third season soon!!

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