Issue 14

The Commons: A Dystopian Science Fiction Series that does not Feel Like One

Meera Anand
Meera Anand recommends a web series our COP-26 leaders could do well to watch. An eight-parter on the cusp of environmental degradation and what coming together can mean.

The Guardian called it, ‘eerily plausible and uncomfortably timely’, Australia gave its top sci-fi screenwriting award in 2020 to Shelley Birse, who wrote The Commons, an eight-part Australian TV series from 2019. Birse strongly felt the need to see“the climate opportunity rather than the climate emergency”, and make a show about “humanity’s chances of retaining our humanity in the face of those choices.” 

Set in an orange-skied, pollution-stricken, near-future Sydney, the story revolves around Eadie Boulay, played by Joanne Froggatt (also seen in the popular British series, Downton Abbey). A neuropsychologist in her mid-thirties, as determined to have a baby, as she is to help her patients and the refugees. The story feels personal, with climate change, ricocheting through it. 

Everyday life moves to the sudden rhythms of extreme weather events. The protagonist and her son are walking back from school and there is a quick spell of acid rain. Power outages are scheduled, because the city’s electric grid has been aligned to windstorms of a certain severity. When it crosses that danger mark, the system auto-shuts down and citizens are trained to seek shelter. A city’s government’s public address system alerts, in the face of an oncoming typhoon is so normalized. In different seasons throughout the series, nature’s particular fury has the most ordained responses, as if to show at once, how humans have adapted, can fall in line and remain somewhat maladjusted. And by seasons, I mean nature’s seasons because this is a one-season show in web series terms. Immigration features in the context of government capacity to take in refugees. With a headcount, so arbitrary that who you may know in the system, still counts. If you don’t, off you go, to the edge of town shelters, cramped, shared, but working. Yet in moments it can get so overwhelmed that all ID papers become iffy. The psychological astuteness of the creator of the series, is in the fact that she imagines the nervous tic such a life would have and then also offers it scope for humanity. To ask for help, to get help, to look out for someone you don’t know. Even as the richest one percent living in what is quite literally a bubble scamper to buy forest land in the Australian outdoors, far off from the city. In fact unlike the clichéd Hollywood trope of portraying an exciting future filled with state-of-the-art technology, transparent computer screens, and talking robot assistants, this show displays a future that seems a lot more plausible. Surreal and real.

What surprised me the most about this show though, was how unsurprised I was while watching horrifying outdoor events unfold in every episode. This near-future prediction does not look very different from our present, almost as if, with every subplot, the show highlights an effect of the climate crises we are already witnessing. As new diseases emerge because of increasing global temperatures, the scientists on screen work towards finding cures.

The climate track seems to walk in a lane parallel to the human one. Where Eadie’s own inner voice guides her actions, with a steel that acknowledges rust, but still walks stainlessly. Tough decisions, soft moments, ordinary kindness feature, intercut with each other, as normally as they do in life, but then nature weathers several characters and in a few they just get wrung out. The viewer might come away, feeling a little of what resilience can mean.Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Eadie’s desire to have a baby and her drive to be a responsible citizen for the commons can pull one in. The Commons, of course, is usually used as a shorthand reference, for the resources that belong to all and this series reminds you of the different ways people try and claim it.

Unlike our world leaders, writer Shelley Birse is not afraid to show things as they are, making this artfully directed drama series, a must-watch.

Meera Anand is a third year undergraduate student at Ashoka University, who is currently pursuing a major in Economics and a minor in Media Studies.

The featured image is from Best Movie Cast.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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