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Apple TV’s ‘Extrapolations’ and why it’s so hard to make shows about climate change

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In the second episode of Apple TV’s new climate drama “Extrapolations,” a scientist sits in an underwater base, communicating with a humpback whale. The year is 2046 — all of the “Extrapolations” episodes are named after a year in a future, brutally warmed climate — and the whale appears to be the last of her kind alive on the Earth. Humans have, conveniently, learned to translate whale songs, and the humpback speaks e.e. cummings-esque phrases in the voice of Meryl Streep. “Have you caused some of us to fall?” she clicks and whistles.

“No,” the scientist, Rebecca Shearer (played valiantly by Sienna Miller), responds quickly. “No, I would never hurt you.”

Implicit, of course, is that while Rebecca herself may not have hurt the humpback whale, humanity as a whole — with its fossil fuel-burning, ecosystem-destroying ways — did. It’s one of many lines in “Extrapolations,” the limited-run series from showrunner Scott Z. Burns, that feels almost painfully on-the-nose. Earlier in the same episode, Rebecca, comforting her young son (Joaopaulo Malheiro), who is suffering from a warming-induced medical condition known as “summer heart,” says: “The world made you sick. Because we made the world sick.”

While many Hollywood actors and actresses — Leonardo di Caprio, Jane Fonda — participate in climate activism of various kinds, the subject has rarely been made into a hit film or TV. The genre is dominated by apocalypse narratives — from “The Day After Tomorrow” to the more recent meteorite satire/allegory “Don’t Look Up” from director Adam McKay. Climate change has historically seemed too diffuse, too scientific and too political to translate into a successful feature film or TV series.

So “Extrapolations,” as a star-studded drama series focused entirely on the issue, paves new ground. Burns, who is best-known as the writer of the scarily prescient pandemic film “Contagion,” has a long history of interest in the environment and climate change. He once worked for two advocacy groups, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and helped produce Al Gore’s PowerPoint lecture-turned-documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

But even as the show makes history, its moral framework feels a bit too familiar. The good people are deeply wholesome, the villains clearly villainous. There is a teenage activist who exhorts politicians at the 46th U.N. climate conference to finally take action; insufferable, whiny billionaires who see the world — and even the rapidly melting Arctic — as possibilities only for development.

Kit Harington of “Game of Thrones” fame plays the obviously-evil Nicholas Bilton, CEO of a Google-esque company that owns everything from an AI search engine to cheap desalination technology. Edward Norton, on the other hand, is slightly more nuanced as a well-meaning climate scientist hoping to save the world from solar geoengineering.

Burns envisioned the series as a climate-change version of “Dekalog,” the 10-part miniseries from Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, in which each episode covers one of the Ten Commandments. The climate version of this moral code seems similarly stark, although perhaps not deeply morally illuminating: Thou shalt not drive species to extinction. Thou shalt not inject aerosols into the air to cool the planet.

In “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable,” one of Burns’s inspirations for the series, the Indian writer and scholar Amitav Ghosh argued that Western fiction’s focus on the individual has held literature back from exploring the profound and unequal impacts of climate change. Burns and his co-showrunner, Dorothy Fortenberry, argue that film and TV have their own version of the same problem: Climate apocalypses create immediate drama and character-level tension. The messy middle ground — the not-quite apocalypse, the slow burn, if you will — is harder to turn into marketable entertainment.

In “Extrapolations,” that messy middle ground sometimes feels too educational. Climate content in any form can feel a bit like eating your vegetables, and the series does not escape that trap. The first episode alternates between images of raging wildfires and debates at the U.N. climate conference — as journalists who have covered such meetings know, they are hardly a place of great television dramas. In one scene, a rich corporate executive puts on a VR headset and is confronted by visions of the fires. He takes it off in annoyance. The question is whether viewers will do the same.

The most effective moments in the series show people experiencing planetary warming as routine, making drastic adjustments feel like a matter of course. A group of people rides on a boat through the melted Arctic, wearing nothing but thin windbreakers. A boy learns that the weather forecast is “an orange day” thanks to endless wildfires and heat. Congregants sit in the pews of a Miami synagogue, their feet clad in heavy rain boots and resting in several inches of water.

Later episodes, which explore vexing debates about the ethics of technology and science, are stronger. And as the show progresses into the future, its science fiction elements begin to carry the plot. But there is still a simplicity to Extrapolations’ story arc: comeuppance for the right characters, victory for others. Climate change, with its collective and yet uneven responsibilities and its manifest unfairness, is more complicated than that. If only it were that simple.

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