‘3 Body Problem’ Episode 1 Recap: The Final Countdown

The blinking lights in the sky make the episode, and not just because they’re the cliffhanger leading you to the next. While the characters seem prepared to take this event in stride, I sure wouldn’t! For something so contradictory of every scientific principle we have to take place, at that large a scale … it virtually demands the existence of a force beyond human comprehension, and thus beyond humanity’s power to defend itself. It’s like God flicking the switch for the basement lights, telling you it’s time to stop playing Xbox and go to bed, on a global scale.

Plus, if you’re the type of person who’s ever looked up at the clouds or the stars and suffered the irrational fear that you might somehow defy gravity and fall up, the image is a vertiginous nightmare. Speaking as a sufferer of this particular fear myself, this is the second time a show this year has forced me to endure it, after Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie’s wondrously excruciating “The Curse.” I humbly request that future showrunners refrain from exploiting my specific phobias from this point forward.

We’re in the early going yet, but it would be a tough sell to say the plot and the characters are strong suits of “3 Body Problem.” The actors are entertaining, but so far they’re playing not much more than broad personality types engaged in a mildly interesting sci-fi mystery. Chao has the more dramatic backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, depicted here as a full-on “1984” meets “The Crucible” dystopian nightmare, to play against — not to mention the more dramatic setting of that satellite installation. But it’s a low bar to clear.

No, it’s the imagery that lingers more than anything else. The colossal transmitter, roosting at the cliff’s edge like an enormous bird of prey. The gradual way the countdown clock emerges into Auggie’s consciousness, from a blur on a karaoke video to a full-on superimposition over the face of anyone she tries to talk to. The uncanny sight of the stars flickering as one. Can the story and the characters rise to that level?

I’m a great admirer of the final season of “Game of Thrones,” in which the characters’ and audience’s long-held hope for heroic violence was revealed as disastrous folly. So I’m excited to see what the co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have in store for this latest venture. (Their former “Thrones” collaborator, the novelist George R.R. Martin, is a vocal admirer of the Liu books that inspired “3 Body Problem.”) Their co-creator and co-writer Alexander Woo’s tenure on the second season of the anthology series “The Terror,” meanwhile, left me cold.

But it pays to go into new shows with an open mind if getting maximum enjoyment out of the work is your ultimate goal. So I’m inclined to give “3 Body Problem” time to develop into something more than a few interesting images with just enough story to connect them.

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