‘3 Body Problem’ Is Not Afraid to Be TV

‘3 Body Problem’ Is Not Afraid to Be TV

An unadaptable novel invites a perfect attempt at adaptation — if not a perfect TV show.
Photo: Netflix

It’s easy to forget that before the post-prestige limited series, the five-episode season, and the beat-for-beat book adaptation, part of TV’s great pleasure was its shagginess. The ’90s and 2000s heyday of long seasons, still the status quo for network shows, relied on enormous collaboration, with lots of directors and writers, many ideas, and a combination of performances, styles, and narrative arcs that did not always coalesce into a single, coherent whole. Guest stars might disappear abruptly, or a suddenly shifting character development might be swiftly discarded. The mids were mid and they made the highs feel even higher. Palpable swings in quality were part of the fun; they gave TV a sense of daring and individuality rather than seamlessly extruded sameness.

This is why Netflix’s 3 Body Problem, helmed by Game of Thrones team DB Weiss and David Benioff as well as Alexander Woo, is such a treat in spite of its notable imperfections. Although it’s built on a very 2024 model of streaming television — big-deal book adaptation, eight-episode season, pedigreed production team, short list of credited writers — it feels like traditional TV, in both the best and most annoying interpretations of that idea. It is crammed full with ideas, moving quickly between elements that don’t always work together, and willing to take risks in order to keep the plot wheel spinning. It is occasionally transcendent, especially in its willingness to play fast and loose with the original text, adapting highly conceptual science fiction into embodied character arcs. It is occasionally disastrous, particularly in a few stunningly flat performances more appropriate for still photography than moving pictures. It has a sense of spectacle. It has a fondness for cheese. It’s definitely whitewashed, in a way that’s so lacking in defensiveness or apology it’s almost funny. It’s American-made TV!

In The Three-Body Problem’s novel form, author Cixin Liu lingers over extensive establishing material before introducing the alien-invasion plot. Predominantly set in China, the story follows decades in the life of scientist Ye Wenjie, from her youth during the cultural revolution through her time living and working at a remote research facility. The book jumps back and forth between her story and the present-day journey of a nanotechnology professor investigating the deaths of several scientists while playing an advanced VR game with mysterious origins. Liu’s novel uses its characters as tools to talk about ideas; they are useful figures but ultimately exist in service to the story’s philosophical exploration of human behavior and the fascinating conceptual links between things that are infinitesimally small (a proton, one person’s life) and unimaginably large (a galaxy, an entire species’ existence).

The Netflix adaptation does not have time for most of that. Good TV trends toward snappiness, and 3 Body Problem understands this implicitly. Ye Wenjie is still there, played with effective steeliness by Rosalind Chao (and a capable Zine Tseng in adolescence). But much of the novel’s Chinese setting has been replaced with a vaguely globalist British one, an annoying loss even though the series retains several vital and beautifully produced scenes throughout Ye’s story, especially during the revolution. Da Shi, played by Benedict Wong, is another book character, a detective trying to sort out this whole mess while greeting every new astonishing event with a mix of reluctant curiosity and aggrieved skepticism.

To facilitate a TV-standard pacing full of eventfulness and interpersonal tension, the show inserts a number of characters who did not exist in the novel, personalities who discuss the moral suggestions a book’s third-person narrator can introduce readily but voice-over will always struggle to incorporate seamlessly. With the story now set in England, a small cohort of former Oxford classmates — Jovan Adepo as Saul, John Bradley as Jack, Jess Hong as Jin, Alex Sharp as Will, and Eiza González as Auggie — represent various ideas and themes from the novel and its sequels. Though some (Bradley, Hong) bring sufficient rigor to those roles, several fall short, the most tragic being González. It’s unfortunate, because Auggie’s role, adapted most directly from the nanotechnologist’s experience in the book, is both substantial and the weakest of the bunch; her inability to play nuance hinders many scenes.

Even this, however, has a backward charm. In every CW superhero series and many a network procedural, there’s at least one performance that rests on having a disturbingly symmetrical face. González’s presence, frustrating though it is, serves as a bracing reminder that, sometimes, this too is TV: A few wooden performances make the nimble, nuanced ones more noticeable. Auggie’s role fades a bit toward the end of the season, where she’s used as part of the ensemble; it’s even a little fitting, given the larger approach of the story. When the characters predominantly serve as expressions of particular belief systems and experiences, it makes sense for the textual level to overstep the physical.

Overall, the novel’s sense of frantic confusion and incipient doom remains, as well as its mind-expanding vision of the course of humanity on a vast scale. The big issues come fast and furious, and the series leans into the impact of visual representation rather than blunt description. In the novel, accounts of scientists’ deaths are narrated with a sense of distant curiosity, while the Netflix series foregrounds violent immediacy: An early scene depicts one who’s written a series of numbers on the wall in his own blood and then gouged out his eyes. Another walks into the massive interior chamber of a large electron collider and leaps to her death. When the series reaches a big, fantastically technical set piece adapted directly from the novel, the hair-raising sensation of seeing it actually happen (or rather, painstakingly illustrated with frankly impressive VFX) immediately catapults the series into “worth watching” territory.

But the pinnacle of 3 Body Problem’s visual success are the sections that take place inside the story’s remarkable virtual-reality game. They embody much of the unsettling uncanniness of the book’s concepts, like a human body that voluntarily dehydrates or the rapid onset of a cataclysmic natural disaster. They’re doubly effective thanks to the performance of Sea Shimooka as the imperturbable game narrator, who calmly introduces the game conditions while civilizations rise and crumble beside her. Inhumanity can be played with emptiness, but Shimooka instead provides distant, vaguely curious disdain.

Although the plot follows smoothly toward a coherent end, the performances, dialogue, and intensity of spectacle is a collection of elements that do not always come together neatly. The series aims at highbrow concepts about humanity, but its aesthetic and narrative approach is aimed squarely at comfortable approachability. This is the most TV thing about it: 3 Body Problem wants to be TV for everyone. But for every trap it steps in, the series manages to dodge three others. It is thankfully nothing like Game of Thrones, despite its creators’ backgrounds. It could’ve aimed for dire self-seriousness, and there’s certainly some of that, but there’s humor, too, and bits of lightness. (Thank god for Benedict Wong.) It could have strived to stay closer to the acclaimed novel, which would’ve been a total mess in TV form. It’s well paced, generally compelling, and completely committed to being the most TV version of itself it can possibly be. If only more Netflix dramas did the same.

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