TV viewers desperate to escape news of the presidential transition may yet find some residual hurt and mishandled poignancy in unlikely places these days — it’s hard to completely get away from it all. Shows that might have played one way if they had aired in October can take on a peculiar resonance when viewed through the post-election prism. Even Dolly Parton’s latest cutesy Christmas yarn isn’t shielded from this new light.
Neither is Syfy’s derivative yet intriguing thriller series “Incorporated,” which premieres Wednesday night. Created by brothers Alex and David Pastor and bearing executive-producer credits from the always globally consternated celebs Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, “Incorporated” is set in 2074, where all the predicted environmental horrors have come true: Climate change indeed brought flood and famine. With the world’s dwindling resources now controlled by corporations, the chasm between the haves and have-nots is vast. If you’re a corporate “suit,” you and your family live in luxury behind the illusory hologram walls of the green zone, where everything is futuristic and fine, but company disloyalty is punishable by torture and death.
Less fortunate are the millions who live in poverty in the red zone, forced to scrape by on their wits. From these miserable masses, a street-smart hacker, Aaron (Sean Teale), has infiltrated the green zone, where he has spent several years living as Ben Larson, a rising executive in the security division at Spiga, a Milwaukee-based conglomerate with a grip on the food supply. Ben’s wife, Laura (Allison Miller), is a cosmetic surgeon; his mother-in-law, Elizabeth (Julia Ormond), is Spiga’s frosty chief executive.
Slathered in details and plot points borrowed from such films as “Elysium” and “Gattaca” (along with the requisite portion of George Orwell), “Incorporated” more or less hews to a customary anti-corporate message. Disguised as a genetically palatable company man, Ben is working a long game, intent on finding his true love, Elena (Denyse Tontz), who sold herself into 20 years of labor as a high-dollar sex worker in the green zone to spare her father from a life in debtors’ prison.
It can be compelling to watch as Teale’s Ben narrowly dodges the watchful eyes of Big Brother, especially those of Sigma’s chief enforcer, Julian (Dennis Haysbert of “24”). Unfortunately, “Incorporated’s” stylish but depressing dystopia falls flat in the current moment. Ensconced in their bubble, the characters are indifferent to the news on their touch screens: a Category 5 hurricane hits Rhode Island; oil platforms are drilling on the site of the former Arctic ice cap. On Chinese TV, heartstring-pulling ads feature sad, blond orphan kids and the plea to donate just a few dollars a day to “feed America.”
Taken with a post-Nov. 8 tilt, “Incorporated” feels like a needless dig at the wrong target. When a boisterously aggressive fan of the president-elect insulted and berated a Delta Air Lines plane full of passengers last week, using foul language and epithets, the authority that stepped in and stood for common values and civility was the airline itself, which has said it has banned the passenger for life. Imagine a world where corporations are the ones who stand up to bullies and champion human rights. The sooner someone can come up with a futuristic TV show about that, the better.
Dolly Parton, meanwhile, issues her second invitation Wednesday night to join her on a sentimental journey back in time — to her 1950s girlhood in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, specifically. NBC’s “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love” is a two-hour movie sequel to last year’s “Coat of Many Colors,” which was warmly received, mainly because everything Parton puts her name on is usually 99 percent heartfelt.
Before and since Election Day, it’s been fashionable to lecture coastal elites about their aloof regard for the rest of the country. In normal times, I’d probably encourage liberal seekers to start off at Dollywood, where kindness and tolerance are as essential ingredients as sugar and shortnin’. (News about the wildfires currently raging near Dollywood is both worrisome and tragic; this review shouldn’t be read as diminished concern for those in harm’s way.)
Everything in “Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love” is laid on twice as thick as it was in the first movie, delivering a story that’s more obnoxious than engaging. The trademark Parton style, usually so welcoming, verges on smarm this time around; instead of cheering you up, it tests your patience.
Alyvia Alyn Lind reprises her role as 9-year-old Dolly, the most rambunctious of the poverty-stricken Parton clan, angling to get the starring role of Mary in the Christmas pageant at the church headed by her grandfather (Gerald McRaney). Crisis, mainly of a financial nature, once again visits the Partons, when Dolly’s proud father (Ricky Schroder) heads off to the coal mines because he can’t afford the kind of “store-bought” Christmas that Dolly and her siblings crave. The children, meanwhile, pitch in to raise money to help their father buy Mama (Jennifer Nettles) the wedding ring she never had.
That coal mine predictably collapses with Daddy in it, then a snowstorm durn near buries the Parton siblings and their mother alive. These numerous, disorganized plot points attempt to make up for the flimsy dialogue and hammy acting — flaws that weren’t nearly so evident in last year’s movie.
The weaknesses also draw attention to “Christmas of Many Color’s” lily-whiteness and heavy-handed preachiness. Worse, there’s an ill-considered ego trip for Parton herself, who makes a cameo appearance in the narrative as a Thunderbird-driving “Painted Lady” in high heels, who comes to town and has a fairy-godmother effect on her awe-struck younger self.
What we could use instead of all this magical thinking from Parton and company is a clearer and more authentic reassurance about shared values, no matter what part of the country you live in. And it does come in the parting moments, when Parton addresses the camera: “Please hold your families close [at Christmas],” she says. “Love and accept each other. And always be kind.”
Great words, unfortunately ringing hollow in this soured season.
Incorporated (one hour) premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on Syfy.
Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love (two hours) airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on NBC.