Netflix’s 3 Body Problem made me feel incredibly stupid – what a relief

Sorry, what?: ‘Game of Thrones’ star John Bradley in the puzzling ‘3 Body Problem’ (Netflix)
Sorry, what?: ‘Game of Thrones’ star John Bradley in the puzzling ‘3 Body Problem’ (Netflix)

Last year, the actor Justine Bateman exposed what is reportedly an open secret among writers in the US television industry: streaming services want “visual Muzak” from their series, meaning the TV equivalent of the indistinct jingles that play while you’re waiting on a customer service hotline.

“This isn’t second-screen enough,” is the note showrunners have been given, Bateman claimed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “The viewer’s primary screen is their phone and the laptop – they don’t want anything on your [TV] show to distract them from their primary screen, because if they get distracted, they might look up, be confused, and go turn it off.”

Essentially, the idea is that streaming services are making us more vapid and less thoughtful – that in an attention economy with so many different outlets competing to entertain us, many of these content providers have settled on delivering us white noise full of vaguely recognisable actors and plot tropes, rather than work of pristine quality. This may go some way to explaining the recent Lindsay Lohan Netflix romcom Irish Wish, but I digress.

I thought about these claims while watching 3 Body Problem, Netflix’s new cosmic epic from Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and DB Weiss, and adapted from a blockbuster 2008 novel by Chinese author Liu Cixin. Set across different timelines and universes, and led by a cast of young boffins who use terms like “dipole magnets, muon chambers and calorimeters” while down the pub, the show has arrived this week riding a wave of buzz. I found it almost completely impenetrable. I tried my best, too. Had the subtitles on and everything. Cursor primed over the “rewind 10 seconds” button at all times. But nope. Absolutely, head-bangingly impenetrable to a degree that at one point I began to wonder if I had the mental fortitude of a small baby. All of that said, I think I might have loved it.

First, though, let’s try to explain this thing. It begins in Beijing in 1966, the scene of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. A young astrophysicist played by Zine Tseng, who authored a paper titled “The Possible Existence of Phase Boundaries Within the Solar Radiation Zone and Their Reflective Characteristics”, is jailed after being found with a copy of Rachel Carson’s seminal environmental treatise Second Spring. She is then taken to a mysterious government building, where she is asked to help the scientists there in their quest to communicate with other universes.

Decades later, an Oxford University professor dies by suicide, becoming the latest in a string of mysterious deaths connected to experimental science. The dead woman had in her possession a mysterious headset that connects users to a vast video game in which they must determine whether various other-worlds are “stable or chaotic”. These worlds change depending on the player – John Bradley’s sweary snack-food magnate, for instance, is guided through a virtual-reality ye olde England by Thomas More. Are you still with me?

The dead woman’s scientist friends, meanwhile, include Auggie (Eiza González), a nanofibre inventor who has begun seeing a glowing countdown clock everywhere she looks. The series of deaths is being investigated by a perpetually confused detective (Benedict Wong), a character I clung to like a childhood security blanket. Jonathan Pryce portrays a shady oil tycoon. Alex Sharp pops up to explain the multiverse and then gets diagnosed with a terminal illness. There is also a mysterious woman who can’t be picked up by CCTV, who gives Auggie a decoder ring from a cereal box and guides her to witness stars in the night sky “blinking” on and off. Many, many characters deliver presentations on quantum mechanics and the solar system via chalkboards. Oh, and the “three-body problem” of the show’s title is a famed astrophysical conundrum that debates how and why the moon, the Earth and the sun orbit one another. Arggghh.

Baffling boffins: Eiza González, Jess Hong, Saamer Usmani, Jovan Adepo and Alex Sharp in ‘3 Body Problem’ (Netflix/Ed Miller)
Baffling boffins: Eiza González, Jess Hong, Saamer Usmani, Jovan Adepo and Alex Sharp in ‘3 Body Problem’ (Netflix/Ed Miller)

Embarrassingly, this Netflix adaptation of Cixin’s novel is a simplified one. The source material is reportedly even heavier on scientific theory, and largely devoid of character. Benioff and Weiss, along with their new collaborator Alexander Woo, have taken the book’s present-day hero – a nanoscientist named Wang Miao – and split him into an English-speaking ensemble with a handful of individual, soap opera-ish personal issues. This, presumably, is for the benefit of dolts such as myself. I apologise on behalf of my fellow dolts that these specific characters are quite so boring.

It will be an issue for many viewers that 3 Body Problem is as dense as it is. Reviews have been mixed, with The Independent drubbing it for its “imprecise sense of place”, “unconvincing line readings” and overcomplicated plot. And I’m still unsure if it’s actually any good, or whether I’ve just been seduced by the sheer dazzle of its visuals – this is a modern streaming show that, somewhat unusually, really does look as expensive as its reported $125m (£99m) budget.

But there’s something satisfying about it existing at all. Streaming platforms tend to be creative wastelands of late, with a handful of well-made programmes propping up an infrastructure built on garbage. There are too many approximations of past hits, too many eight-episode serials that should really have been two-hour movies, from Apple TV+’s Constellation to Netflix’s Inventing Anna. Straight-to-streaming films never manage to overcome the written-by-ChatGPT allegations. I watched Irish Wish while messaging a friend about how bad it was. Later, with Justine Bateman’s “second-screen” claim ringing in my ears, I wondered if Irish Wish was almost meant to be watched like this – designed to keep you with one eye on the TV, and another eye on the app you’re using to make fun of it all.

So how did 3 Body Problem slip through the cracks? It’s probably down to Benioff and Weiss, now a big-enough pair of names that they likely wielded full creative control of the show, “visual Muzak” demands be damned. In the long term, it would be wonderful if lesser-known showrunners could be afforded similar respect. But while television veers closer to becoming a space for pleasant, nothingy “content” produced at the mercy of shareholders and business executives, a show like 3 Body Problem should probably be appreciated for what it is. This is a programme that commands an audience’s attention, recognises that its ideas are messy and complex, but also isn’t too eager to dilute them until they’re far more palatable. I felt challenged. Stimulated, even. I think we need more of it.

‘3 Body Problem’ is streaming on Netflix