Altered Carbon is an oddball of a show. It’s got a science fiction setting, but primarily draws on noir for a lot of its narrative structure. Beyond that, though, it draws on a whole host of other science fiction media for inspiration, to varying effect.
The show is science fiction noir in the stylings of Blade Runner. And it’s really, really heavily cribbing from the Blade Runner stylebook. You’ve got flying cars that don’t look a hair out of place flying around a dingy, multicultural metropolis that’s pretty often rain soaked. There’s also a pervasive existential theme, owing to Altered Carbon’s conceit that human consciousness is held in a chip and thus the relationship between body and identity is a lot more tenuous than normal. A lot of this can be chalked up to the noir genre, what with gumshoes hired to take on a case and all that. The atmosphere, for the most part, is appropriately heavy and somber for the most part. It’s a crappy future, the rich get away with all sorts of (futuristic!) crime and the police are powerless. Like I said, very noir. Altered Carbon, however, goes in some very different places over its ten episodes.
For all its noir trappings, Altered Carbon is really loathe to give up the gunfight. In lieu of tense shootouts that are the hallmark of noir films (and Blade Runner, which, this cannot be overstated, is a massive influence on Altered Carbon), we get a lotta gun play straight out of your big action movie of choice. Heck, there’s a sequence where two characters are surrounded by Yakuza and soldiers out to kill them and, what do they do? They go back-to-back to shoot the attackers in a sequence ripped straight out of the video game Army of Two. Now, I’m all for Big Action Scenes and I strongly support borrowing from video games for inspiration, but it all feels so incongruous set against what’s supposedly a very noir story. Altered Carbon tries to move around genres, but its noir trappings end up feeling like concrete shoes when it adds these odd things to the mix.
Genre bending is totally possible, and it can be done well. I’m not just talking about mashing two together, like Spider-Man: Homecoming taking a John Hughesian teen movie and smooshing it with a superhero story, but rather a story that jumps around its genres. Consider Community: ostensibly it’s a sitcom set in a community college about a ragtag group of friends. In actuality, it’s a show that contains within its six seasons pastiches of gangster films, Apollo 13, Die Hard, zombie movies, Law and Order, and a Ken Burns documentary — amongst much more. It works, in no small part because Community sets itself up as being perfectly aware of what genre it exists in and by playing every genre/narrative to the hilt. It bends its genres to tell the story it wants to tell; how better to explore a rift between best friends Troy and Abed than by a Civil War-style documentary? The show also sets itself up as a very silly world, so spending a half hour in a spy movie is hardly out of the ordinary — especially as it does it with aplomb.
Similarly, Cowboy Bebop (which I will not shut up about) refuses to be confined to any specific genre. Right off the bat, it sets itself firmly at the intersection of the western, gangster, and noir genres (in space!), leaning more into each of the three when necessary. Digging into Spike’s story lends itself well to taking on the hallmarks of a gangster movie, but following Jet means we’re in for a much more noir narrative. Throughout it all, though, Bebop keeps its other inspirations close at hand, it’s noir episodes have hints of Westerns sprinkled throughout. And, because Bebop positions itself at an intersection of genre, it’s perfectly in keeping with its stylings when it borrows from other genres, be they cyberpunk or horror. Bebop is a show so sure of itself that it can play around with its makeup and never lose its DNA. Conversely, Altered Carbon sets itself up so strongly in the noir genre that whenever it strays outside (ninjas! anti-establishment rebellion!) it feels like we’ve lost the plot. Genre bending is a lotta fun, but the trick is to do it within what you’ve set as the boundaries. The more flexible those boundaries, the more wild the story can go.