An upcoming episode of Syfy’s future-set drama “Incorporated” begins with this: a carbon copy of the sort of starving children ads that Sally Struthers used to host in the 1990s. There’s a wistful little boy staring at the camera as he strokes his battered stuffed toy and a pleading, pitying narrator explaining how he and other children like him go days without food or clean water.
Here’s the twist: The little boy’s name is Johnny, and the narrator is speaking Chinese. For 100 yuan a day, generous Chinese souls can help the children of a broken America in the year 2073. Watching that cold open at this exact moment in our history is science fiction that might be a little too real. You can forget about “The Walking Dead” or “The Exorcist”: “Incorporated” may be the scariest show on television.
Created by David and Alex Pastor (the Spanish filmmakers behind “The Last Days” and “Self/less”) and executive produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, “Incorporated” is set nearly 60 years in the future, after climate change has ravaged American infrastructure. In the ensuing chaos, mega-corporations have gained previously unimaginable levels of power, and its employees live in the pristine and heavily guarded Green Zones.
Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy
It’s a stylized universe, the Green Zone, with sharp tailored suits, sleek surfaces and lots of fancy tech. Outside its heavily fortified walls, those not so fortunate live in the slums known as Red Zones, and Ben (Sean Teale) knows both sides of the fence well. A rising star within the Spiga corporation, Ben is hiding a Dick Whitman-esque secret past that, should it be revealed, would mean immediate termination from the company — and termination takes on a whole new meaning in this world.
Teale is the ostensible star of the show, and a more than capable lead, but the supporting cast regularly steals it from him; specifically, Julia Ormond as Elizabeth, a powerful Spiga executive who also happens to be Ben’s mother-in-law and Allison Miller as Laura, Ben’s devoted wife who has no idea that her husband is trying to track down a girl he loved and lost in a past life. Ormond and Miller, individually, prove captivating on screen (Ormond especially representing a perfect blend of ruthless yet measured strength) and their scenes together are dynamite.
It’s a small central cast — Dennis Haysbert also plays the terrifying head of Spiga security — but the world feels much bigger than that thanks to the show’s ability to loop in subplots and side characters that illuminate the nuances of this cruel future.
Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy
Where “Incorporated” really sings the loudest is the details. Beyond short vignettes and stand-alone moments peppered throughout the first five episodes (like the cold open described above), even production design and wardrobe do an admirable job of contributing to the feel of life in the Green and Red Zones. The corporate intrigue of “Incorporated” is theoretically what drives the show, but it’s the world itself which proves fascinating. And that’s where the real terror can be found.
It’s not the fact that the America depicted is particularly horrific, though its vision of lives ruled either by the most desperate poverty or the most brutal corporations doesn’t pull any punches. Instead, the real terror comes from a word we’ve been hearing a lot lately: normalization. Most of the men and women of “Incorporated” live their daily lives with only the most basic of goals: survival. And the ones who aspire to more aspire to more within the limitations set by an America in ruins.
Ben may be the one with the grandest quest, but even then he’s not looking to change the world — he’s just hoping to help one person. In this society, the fact that he’s trying to help someone who isn’t himself makes that struggle into a heroic act. And said “heroism,” along the way, ruins no shortage of lives. “Incorporated” makes sure the repercussions of his actions are not just seen, but felt.
For fans of speculative fiction, “Incorporated” will feel familiar. For those who read the news with an eye toward the worst, it might feel inevitable. But even when the central story fails to spark major interest, the world that’s been built is enough to keep us engaged. Even if we spend all too often worrying that this fiction could, in some way, eventually become fact.