New future-set TV thriller that looks at life when the big corporations have taken over.
Bleak futures are a science fiction staple. Zombie apocalypses, viral outbreaks and global disasters frequently serve as backdrops to put mankind under the microscope. Syfy’s
Incorporated, from executive producers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, taps into that dystopian vein. The 13-episode series brings the intrigue of big business to what showrunner Ted Humphrey calls “a very grounded future”. “I use that term carefully,” Humphrey tells
SFX. “We joke that it means no laser beams or flying cars. All the technology in the show is believably the next generation of things that either exist today or are on the drawing board. The idea of the show is that climate change has wreaked havoc on the environment. Governments have bankrupted themselves to a certain extent, while fighting the effects of that. In their stead, corporations have become the de facto power in the world. Big corporations have sovereign powers. They have their own military apparatus and their own territory. When you work for a big corporation, you are subject to their laws and subject to being tortured and even put to death for breaking those laws.
“By the same token, you are protected,” Humphrey continues. “We wanted to posit, ‘What does the future look like when cities in the United States begin to resemble what we already see in cities in other parts of the world?’ That means well-to-do people, people who work for big companies and have money, live in beautiful communities and nice homes. Those communities are gated and literally patrolled by armed guards. They drive on protected highways to beautiful skyscrapers and everybody else lives in random towns.”
Incorporated follows Ben Larson (Sean Teale), a smart, charismatic up-and-comer at the Spiga Corporation, an Agri-Tech giant. He’s married to Laura (Allison Miller), the daughter of powerful corporate executive Elizabeth (Julia Ormond). In the beginning, Ben appears to be on top of the world – an illusion destined to come crashing down. Mr Wonderful, it turns out, isn’t all he’s cracked up to be.
“Ben is somebody who used his technological skills to create an identity for himself, which has enabled him to infiltrate the world of the corporations in order to find the woman he loves,” Humphrey explains. “She’s been forced to sell herself into servitude to the corporation. That’s the mission he’s on, but the interesting thing we love is that his deception is so complete. He’s been at it for several years now. He’s grown quite comfortable in his life
and probably began to think he might never find this person. The major incident in the pilot is he thinks that he’s found her and that throws a monkey wrench into his life.”
Ben strategises and manipulates to find his missing love. In the pilot, he frames co-worker Chad (David Hewlett) for stealing company intel. As a result, Ben is promoted and assumes Chad’s position where classified information is more accessible. The move could also lead to an interrogation or even Chad’s demise.
“He does some fairly ruthless things and continues to do so,” Humphrey confirms. “Does that make Ben a classic antihero? I suppose it does. The question of the show is very much, ‘How far is too far in pursuit of a good and noble goal?’ So, how far will he go? And not only what damage will he inflict on others, but what damage will he do to himself? Everything he does takes a toll on him.”
It’s a breezy September morning when SFX visits the Incorporated set in Toronto. A tour of Cinespace Studios quickly reveals the inequality of this world. The corporatecontrolled areas, where the rich thrive, are referred to as Green Zones. One soundstage representing that lifestyle features Ben’s sleek home, while Spiga’s modern offices take over another. A lone chair sits in the middle of the company’s forbidding Quiet Room, where Julian (Dennis Haysbert) relies on torturous techniques to interrogate his guests.
Across the road, production has transformed an outside lot into the Red Zone. The people who are forced to fend for themselves reside in these slums. Rundown stores line the street and a mounted sign advertises “Double Whammy Burger – Now with 10% real beef”. A bar hides a fighting cage for candidates who want to duke it out in the ring for cash. It all feels very gritty and authentic.
“We were obviously influenced by a lot of fiction throughout the years, everything from 1984 to things like Children Of Men and Gattaca,” Humphrey tells SFX. “I like to think we’ve come up with a unique look of our own, though. We’re also influenced by an enormous amount of non-fiction research that we’ve done. [Creator] Alex Pastor has read everything there is on what direction the world is heading. We’re working with some research experts from a variety of places including the UN. Obviously, it’s a fictional world, and it’s a speculative world. We wanted it to feel as real as possible, like this is hopefully not the future we’re headed for, but an extremely possible one.”
At the moment, all the action is taking place in Spiga’s White Room. Forensic techs – equipped with hand-held, iPhone-sized scanners – descend on a stripped-out car to retrieve fingerprints or DNA from the bloody interior. Julian, Spiga’s head of security for the US branch, surveys the proceedings as a gurney
It takes place in a future universe, but it’s about the world we live in
carrying a covered corpse gets wheeled in. Someone has been murdered – and Julian clearly isn’t too happy about it.
“During the series, Julian is suspicious of Ben – there’s more going on here than meets the eye,” says Humphrey. “What we’ll see as time goes on is he has an interesting and close dynamic with Elizabeth. He’s very loyal to her and that relationship goes back many years. As he works with Ben, their relationship develops, but he continues to be suspicious of him.”
Compelling plot and characters aside, a huge draw with these types of projects lies in the futuristic tech. Viewers traditionally eat up the cutting-edge gadgets and gizmos in SF, after all. Humphrey notes that although that element seeps into almost every scene, it happens very organically.
“In the pilot, you see little computer screens that pop up everywhere. Ben comes down the stairs and there’s a big, floating screen in the living room. There’s a difference in the way people dress. We have future self-driving cars in mass use. I don’t think that’s a big leap. It’s interesting that even when we were doing a test screening for the show how much people responded to that stuff. They love the technology and were willing to overlook – almost to a disturbing extent – the dystopian effects.” As for the impressive pedigree behind
Incorporated, it’s not often Affleck and Damon champion TV material. The creative power couple is, however, nowhere to be seen today.
“They’ve been as involved as superstars in this day and age can be,” Humphrey offers. “They originally found the project. I came on board with them already involved. They’ve weighed in in ways big and small – from giving notes on the script when it was just a spec script – to giving us notes in the cut of the pilot before we delivered it. At the same time, of course they aren’t in the writers’ room or on the set every day. A couple of producers, who work for their company, are much more involved on a day-to-day basis and communicate their company’s thoughts that way.”
Humphrey feels they have something special on their hands in Incorporated.
“It’s a show in the best tradition of science fiction,” he concludes. “It takes place in a future universe, but really it’s about the world we live in today. At the same time, it can be enjoyed as a story that exists on its own merits. We ask some provocative questions, but our goal is to also tell a fun and exciting story.”
Incorporated is on Syfy in the US from 30 November. UK broadcast TBC.
Ben (Sean Teale) is something of an antihero. With a very smart office.
Elizabeth (Julia Ormond), a corporate executive you don’t want to mess with. Maybe the show will inspire you to buy a new suit. Julian (Dennis Haysbert) is head of security with a mean line in interrogation.