The Best Dystopian TV to Use as Escapism
Every person born in the ever-changing category of ‘gen Z’ to ‘millennials’ has seen, remembers, or often become part of world-altering historical events. Even those who were barely forming memories by the turn of the millennium have their own version of the “before times”: before Harambe died, before Donald Trump was elected, before the mass spread of COVID-19, etc. In times of peril like these, I often like to kick back with a show to keep my brain going in a not-so existential direction, but find myself peeking into a world that seems to be…much worse. Are the standards so hard to set we all say ‘hey, at least we’re not like those guys’? — maybe. Here are a few of the best dystopian media pieces to make you think thank goodness that’s not me.
** this article will contain references to certain content that may be discomforting to some. trigger warnings will be provided by piece. **
Amazon Prime Video
If money was no object, how much would you pay to see the loved ones who’ve passed as if they never truly left? While we can dream, the reality in Upload is much more harrowing — more in the line of those you knew being side characters in a game you could watch from the outside. To date, the two seasons follow everyday hero Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) following a seemingly accidental premature death when he finds he’s been “uploaded” to Lakeview, a manmade heaven for those who can afford it, by his still living girlfriend Ingrid Kannerman (Allegra Edwards). Believing his death was not as accidental as they claim Nathan begins to sleuth for clues…but how do you find evidence against the living when you are already dead? If you thought the angels would save you, you’d actually be right: Nathan’s Lakeview assigned “angel” Nora (Andy Allo) steps outside her work persona as her interest in Nathan’s case is piqued and those still living realize there may be much more life post-departure than we realize.
Upload is a very concise statement on the gross capitalization of the United States: only those who can afford the price tag get to have an afterlife, with no guarantee it will even be a worthwhile existence. Morality is also challenged on multiple levels: is it ethically sound to upload someone you love when they have no way to consent to being stuck in “heaven” for eternity? What were to happen in a mass internet outage? Should something like upload be considered part of life insurance in the case of the show? Check yourself in at Lakeview, and see why death might just become the newest fad.
Altered Carbon (2018)
** trigger warnings: sexual trauma, domestic trauma
For many, thanatophobia (the fear of death) is common. The uncertainty of everything we often take for granted is put on a grand display — there’s countless things watching Altered Carbon made me very grateful for, like waking up in the same skin every day.
Based on the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, death in Altered Carbon is meaningless. Human consciousness is programmed into a chip when you are born, turning the body from a temple of the consciousness into a ‘sleeve’ —as easily interchangeable as outfits for those who can afford it. All damage done to the body, even death, mean nothing as long as the chip in the back of your neck doesn’t sustain too much trauma. Takeshi Kovacs (played by both Byron Mann & Joel Kinnaman) was a key component to the anti-sleeve movement “the Envoys” before the flame of resistance was wiped out completely, only to reawaken centuries later under the contract of Laurens Bancroft. As all things involving rich guys who can clone themselves, Kovacs is presented an ultimatum: solve the murder of Bancroft’s last sleeve for a chance to rewrite his life, or go back on ice permanently. Finding assistance in good-guy cop Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) and an unusual AI (Chris Conner), Takeshi sets out to find out just how deeply morals have been abolished and I can confidently say this show does not miss the mark.
*Mentioned above is a trigger warning for this show for the topics sexual and domestic trauma. Altered Carbon was definitely the hardest-hitting show for me it its directness showing these topics, so if portrayal of these topics make you uncomfortable please keep this in mind while watching.
Archive 81 (2022)
As my boyfriend and I muddled over the perfect list for this article, it was imperative I include Archive 81 — but getting technical, this show isn’t dystopian in the traditional sense. The ‘dystopia’ comes in the literal definition of the word:
Dystopia: an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives. (Source: Webster Meriam Dictionary)
In this podcast turned supernatural thriller, conservator Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) takes up an odd job restoring VHS tapes found in the aftermath of an apartment building fire from 1994. Testing the boundaries of weird jobs, Dan agrees to be holed up in a home on the hills to dissect these videos’ content in solidarity as he begins to realize there may be more than sheer circumstance at work. Here we’re met with Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi), the creator of the tapes who spent the previous few months leading up to the apartment’s fire living there for a school report. As Dan and Melody’s stories begin to intertwine, the weird world of the Visser apartments is sure to leave you wondering why Netflix chose to not renew the show for a second season, and better yet ask yourself: how far would you go to know what your neighbors are up to?
Wonder Egg Priority (2021)
** trigger warnings: sexual trauma, suicide, self harm
In the itch for anime that strayed from the slice of life/fun adventure norm a friend recommended Wonder Egg Priority. This show quickly become an anime favorite of mine, but it is by no means for the faint of heart. Following Ai Ohto (Kanata Aikawa) and her trio of friends, they all share a common goal: crack a Wonder Egg and save the soul of the person inside in the hopes of bringing back someone who has passed away. If none of that made sense, let me break it down more directly:
The wonder eggs often present themselves to teen girls who have lost someone to suicide, usually a friend or loved one. They’re promised the choice to return one person from death if they can successfully save the souls of others who has passed, which are stored inside a wonder egg until someone comes to save them. Ai begins a hard road through the world of the wonder eggs to bring back her close friend Koito, and in her struggle this anime takes it upon itself to handle very hard topics surrounding why the youth suicide rate today is so high, and the things we as a generation can do to prevent them. The series-end twists had me begging for more, so if you’re looking for a darker, gripping anime this is the one for you.
Ranking this list has proven to be extremely difficult, but if there had to be a number one spot Severance would take the cake. Adam Scott, who we knew and loved as Ben Wyatt in the sitcom Parks & Recreation transforms into Mark, an office worker for the company Lumon Industries in all their…questionable teachings. Among these practices is an up-and-coming medical procedure known as severance, where employees consensually have their memories physically altered to plant a divide between their work and home lives. While blinking through a work day sounds fantastic, it begs the question: is your severed self an alternate you, with their own thoughts, feelings, and memories? Is a permanent, unending life inside one office morally ethical at the expense of hurting only yourself when you aren’t even aware what you do? A mystery begins to rear its head when a colleague reappears outside of work, and our cast of “average Joes’” begin to realize they don’t know anything about the job they’re actually doing — or themselves.
With nine episodes for the first season and hopefully more to come, Severance kept me on the edge of my seat at every turn. The art direction and seamless transitions leave you wondering exactly who knows what goes on under the noses of the severed floor, makes you question dissonance between the work self and home self, and flawless white walls leave you depraved for stimuli just as badly as the characters. The only sense of normalcy comes in the dry humor: the interactions between the workers of Lumon feel jagged yet genuine, like coworkers meeting for the first time even when they’ve known each other for years. However, if none of that was enticing enough for you, you occasionally get a five-minute dance experience! How cool is that!
Weird wacky worlds hide all around us, often only a click away from the next seat-plastered, edge-gripping show to really open up your brain. Living in the modern-day dystopia of Earth 2022 gives us all a chance to sit back and take solace in the bare fact that the absolute worst isn’t happening to us, which is something right? Artistic media gives us all the chance to sit back, immerse ourselves in a world all new, and occasionally throw on our tinfoil hats to help us unravel the complex dimensions of these liminal spaces. At the end of the day, these shows make me think thank goodness that’s not me, though sometimes an instant clock-in to clock-out like Lumon Industries doesn’t sound so bad.