3 Body Problem is the kind of TV epic we need

When Game of Thrones ended in May 2019, the hunt was well underway for a series that could match its blockbuster scale. HBO was already talking spinoffs with George R.R. Martin, while Netflix’s The Witcher, Disney’s The Mandalorian, Apple’s Foundation, Paramount Plus’ Halo, and Amazon’s mega-budgeted gambit on a Lord of the Rings prequel bubbled at various stages of development and production. Five years later, all the shows exist — but there’s no clear champion. Even reactions to HBO’s prequel, House of the Dragon, were more golf-clap acclaim than calls of the second coming of a franchise.

What the wannabe successors proved (that everyone seemed to know at the time except IP-hungry executives?) is that Thrones’ secret wasn’t scale, but substantive drama. A great show needs characters with big questions and big goals, but down-to-earth emotions. The balance of a continent could hinge on valiant knights and ancient prophecy and dragon battles as long as when those involved got mad, it felt like actual people getting mad. For all the finale-related flack, Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were afforded the time and space to adapt the human side of Martin’s sprawling narrative as well as its set-pieces. So it’s no surprise that while the rest of Hollywood chased tentpoles, Benioff and Weiss set their boyhood dreams of making a Star Wars movie aside (phew, crisis averted) to cash their chips on a deal where they could demand time and space and quality work that didn’t involve swordplay.

And they actually did it: Teaming up with veteran TV writer Alexander Woo (The Terror season 2), their new Netflix series 3 Body Problem, like Thrones, feels epic in scale while probing the messiness of human instinct. Movies like Interstellar and Solaris ventured into deep space to confront our innate spirituality, but 3 Body Problem season 1 sticks close to home to the benefit of its characters, who juggle romantic relationships and work-life stress and impending doom. Still, there is something extraterrestrial out there in the universe, a cosmic unknown. Benioff, Weiss, and Woo treat that promise like a chemical pipetted into a petri dish. Just a few drops of knowledge cause an instant reaction with consequences that will only be felt hundreds of years in the future.

A bearded man wears a highly reflective futuristic VR device that reflects the image of the character Jin in 3 Body Problem Image: Netflix

The showrunner trio adapts Liu Cixin’s famed Remembrance of Earth’s Past science fiction trilogy with both reverence and an eye toward storytelling economics. The core drama of 3 Body Problem season 1, focused on a set of physicists out to understand what the hell is going on in the universe, weaves together people, places, and things from across all three books in order to be propulsively paced while easily digested. Die-hard readers may miss Liu’s dense “far out, man”-core style, but the pillar moments remain. Early episodes bounce from China’s Cultural Revolution to present-day London to virtual reality landscapes that hold the key to greater mysteries. The prickly politics of solving Earth’s perilous future simmer across timelines. Benioff, Weiss, and Woo don’t dumb any of it down as they tear through the plot, relying on genre conventions to keep it all watchable. (British mysteries like Broadchurch and Happy Valley feel as much part of the show’s DNA as any sci-fi series.)

Perhaps a 10- or 12-episode season would have made room for deeper character work, but the writers are pros at making every line of dialogue illustrative of their characters’ deeper motivations, and every silent gesture — staring at the stars, gasping at equations, even watching a kid play Mortal Kombat — speaks volumes. Unlike recent Netflix adaptations that have crammed long narratives into uncompromising run times by removing all downtime “filler,” 3 Body Problem is full of humanity’s quirks. The show has religious zealots, anxious nerds, quiet romantics, and Benedict Wong as a no-bullshit cop. There is a lot of mumbo-jumbo about quantum physics and gravitational interaction, but also one of the best on-screen meet-my-family awkward dinner dates in recent memory.

Doing the Lord’s work is actor Jess Hong, a relative newcomer and the nexus of all of 3 Body Problem’s narrative strands. In a cast full of Game of Thrones veterans and big-screen talent like Wong and Eiza González (Baby Driver, Godzilla vs. Kong), Hong takes on the burden of making all of the show’s otherworldly turns feel totally natural. Whether her character, Jin, is sipping a beer and making pub chat or navigating the immersive third level of the least fun virtual puzzle game ever invented, she reflects an authentic reality that’s increasingly tested by the show’s oddities. 3 Body Problem ultimately questions whether we deserve the planet we have so often fucked up. Hong’s Jin, in all her ups and downs, glimmers with the kind of humanity that we want to believe in.

Jess Hong as Jin wearing Victorian era clothing and holding up an apple in a throne room
Jess Hong as Jin
Photo: Ed Miller/Netflix

It really helps that Netflix didn’t skimp on 3 Body Problem, which, for all its character drama, goes big when it needs to go big. Benioff and Weiss’ clout has bought them the kind of top-tier production value that I thought only David Fincher commanded; flashbacks to the 1960s/’70s China feel rich in detail, while scenes set in the present-day drama have a refined look, rather than the cheap digital sheen that’s plagued so many post-Fincher Netflix projects. Anyone haunted by awful renderings of VR in movies and TV will be relieved by the show’s intentionally uncanny, often fantastical digital worlds that look like actual Unreal Engine survival-game backdrops. And when 3 Body Problem kicks into a high sci-fi gear, the show gets truly mind-bending — and often gnarly. The giddy provocateurs who orchestrated the Red Wedding are absolutely at the helm of this series.

I’m a little in awe of 3 Body Problem. Liu’s books are like a character study of humanity itself; there is inherently too much to chew on. But Benioff, Weiss, and Woo came ready to cook. Their adaptation is gripping from the start and already prioritizing the pieces needed for a coherent endgame. From the trilogy’s pages of information they’ve carved out a visual story, dazzling and frightening. There are nits to pick from episode to episode, leaps in logic that may not stand up to scrutiny, but it’s a show that, unlike the Game of Thrones imitators, swept me up. Most of those shows settled on escapism. 3 Body Problem feels like a true escape, an excuse to wonder about the vastness of the cosmos from the comfort of the couch and wonder, What if?

3 Body Problem premieres on Netflix on March 21.