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Netflix’s 3 Body Problem ratings show we still live in a chaotic streaming era

In its first four days, some 81.7 million hours of this big-budget science fiction series were consumed by subscribers – but that might not be enough to secure renewal

One of the most curious things about Netflix’s 3 Body Problem is that it is set in a fantasy world in which virtual reality (VR) headsets actually work. In something of an indictment of the progress made by the real-world VR industry, the sleek headsets in this eight-part epic are so good at propelling their wearers – a close-knit group of beautiful scientists – into Smell-O-Vision video game versions of ancient China, Tudor England and 13th century Xanadu, they immediately trigger suspicion.

“We don’t have this technology. Where did this come from?” wonders nano-tech start-up founder Auggie Salazar (Eiza González).

Aliens, Auggie. Definitely aliens.

We live in a world where packaging manufacturers are happy to place QR codes right beside barcodes with no care to the till chaos this causes. No way is our civilisation advanced enough to create VR sand realistic enough to get under our fingernails.

“This interface, there’s nothing like it anywhere. This isn’t next gen, this is five nexts down the line,” says multimillionaire snack empire founder Jack Rooney (John Bradley), sounding a bit like a tech guru stalking his stage as he confronts the aliens’ smug cult follower Tatiana (Marlo Kelly).

“So, who are you really?”

Again, Jack, they’re aliens. Aliens with better VR than Mark Zuckerberg. That sword lady who shows up in the game? Just the pious AI representation of an alien species with the power to create virtual realities indistinguishable from actual reality and also generally mess with your head while harvesting your biometric data. Standard behaviour.

“Jesus, f***,” exclaims chief spook Thomas Wade (Liam Cunningham) when he finally gives the headset a go, shortly before the Dubliner – the cheery leader of an international conglomerate of intelligence and military types – sets about launching a human brain into space.

An alien invasion has been pencilled in for 400 years in the future, which the fictional version of Rishi Sunak seems understandably relaxed about, but Wade, prowling around an English country manor with the impatience of Captain Kirk, is determined to foil it, adopting a zero-tolerance policy towards the aliens’ starry-eyed human henchmen and henchwomen.

How will all this resolve itself? Readers of the books on which 3 Body Problem is based – the “unfilmable” Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Chinese author Liu Cixin – will have a fair idea. Netflix viewers, however, may yet be left in suspense.

Like a VR start-up exhausting its venture capital finance on prototypes that don’t 100 per cent work, Netflix has gone big on 3 Body Problem, which has cost a reported $20 million (€18.5 million) an episode to make.

It comes with big names attached behind the screen, having the distinction of being the first series to hail from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss since the muddled final episode of the Westeros saga aired in the now distant seeming 2019.

Nothing is ever perfect, of course, but Benioff, Weiss and co-creator Alexander Woo have created an intriguing diversion of a series with 3 Body Problem. I enjoyed the regular suggestion that sometimes the sensible thing to do is to immediately shut down all work and head to the coast. It was a comfort, too, to see the increasing stupidity and befuddlement of humans explained as an intergalactic plot to slow down our advancement. At any moment in time, we get the science fiction we need.

The problem with 3 Body Problem is that its price tag means it must clear a high ratings bar in order for Netflix to renew the show and it is not obvious that it has done so.

In its first four days on the platform, some 81.7 million hours of 3 Body Problem were consumed, according to Netflix itself. Based on a series runtime of seven hours and 24 minutes, this results in a viewership of 11 million.

A new set of official internal charts providing updated figures for the show’s first full week is due to be published today, but the consensus based on its debut is that renewal is, like the future of Earth, in jeopardy.

Conspicuously, 3 Body Problem failed to usurp The Gentlemen – a show that would have been much cheaper to make – from the top of its global series charts for the week March 18th to March 24th, despite the fact that Guy Ritchie’s spin-off series was in its third week of release.

Even with just four days of availability within this chart period, 3 Body Problem still made the Netflix top 10 in 93 countries and reached number one in 15 of those. It was third in the Irish series charts behind The Gentlemen and Homicide: New York.

But Netflix hasn’t emerged intact from the first phase of the streaming wars by being soft. No names are too big to fail here. Preparations may have already begun for a second season, but this means little in the post-peak TV landscape of last-minute cancellations. The Benioff-Weiss-Woo extravaganza pulled in fewer viewers on its launch than other recent big-budget Netflix outlays and that looks deeply ominous.

Like Ye Wenjie (Rosalind Chao), the physicist turned alien communicator in 3 Body Problem, I can’t help feeling that my fellow humans have let me down. Selfishly, I’d prefer it if the shows that cater to my tastes became ratings phenomena, not relegated to the status of content pebbles, now you see them, now you don’t.

But this is the depressing reality of today’s volatile streaming market. Shows that fail to make an almost immediate splash find themselves on the at-risk list, regardless of pedigree. In the language of 3 Body Problem, this is a chaotic era for the global entertainment business – we might be waiting a while for a stable one to arrive.

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