Books, TV

It’s Like (but not love) with Syfy’s “The Expanse”

So I’ve now watched the pilot episode of Syfy’s The Expanse three times. Twice, I watched it by myself. The first time, I was distracted. The second time, I tried to take it all in — really give it a fair shot, without picking up my phone midway. The third time, I watched it in the background while my boyfriend viewed it for the first time.

After all that, I can tell you that as much as I really, really want to fall in love with this series… I just haven’t. At least not yet.

o.aolcdnIf you haven’t heard of it yet, The Expanse is a space opera TV series based on a series of novels by James S.A. Corey. About three years ago, I read the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, on a summer vacation. I enjoyed it so much I reviewed it here. The worldbuilding is especially memorable, all taking place in a future, dirty version of our solar system where people live on Earth, Mars, and in the asteroid belt and feel like they’re part of a class system. As adaptations go, the TV show does an excellent job of capturing the grime of this world.

The first scene in particular captures the suspense of the series, showing activist Julie Mao locked in a room on the Scopuli spacecraft while the rest of her crew is either missing or dead outside the door. I loved that scene in the books and was glad they opened with that in the TV series as well.

The show also pays a lot of attention to details, such as the Belter slang and hand gestures explained in the novel. And it does a great job of setting up the political climate early on. After that scene with Julie Mao, we hear a simple speech by a Belter citizen (also a scene from the book, if I remember correctly), in which he talks about Mars and Earth fighting over Ceres. He says that no matter who is in charge, the people who toil on Ceres to provide the water those planets need will always be like slaves to them.

But, as in every adaptation I’ve ever seen, not everything perfectly matches the books. The biggest hiccup for me was getting to know the crew of the ice trawler Canterbury. In the book, Jim Holden was captain, and he had the hots for a Nigerian crew member named Ade. But in the show, Holden is a reluctant XO sleeping with a Caucasian woman named Ade. It took me ages to place Ade in the show, because I was not expecting a character like her to be there at all.

Now, one of the interesting things about the show is that it captures the diversity of the people living across the solar system, but it’s not strict about each individual character’s ethnicity. Some characters who are Caucasian in the books are not in the show, and vice versa. That seems fair.

The problem I have with Ade in the Syfy show is that she is very bland. She has the cold, casual manner that feels stereotypical of the-woman-who-doesn’t-want-to-fall-in-love. In the books, Ade is depicted with a lot of flair, and I imagined Holden falling for her blend of warmth and toughness. Unfortunately, I don’t think Kristen Hager brings much to the role, which is sad because Ade made such a strong impression on me in the books.

But Ade isn’t a main character anyway — the protagonists are Jim Holden and Ceres detective Joe Miller.

Steven Strait as Jim Holden

In the show, Holden is much more irreverent than I pictured. The books depict him as the “good guy,” the one who prefers transparency and idealism to political scheming, even when it’s kind of stupid to be so blunt. He’s like a wide-eyed stargazer. But in the show, he doesn’t want to rock the boat, he doesn’t want to take on XO duties… It’s almost like they’re playing him as a bad boy type. I’m curious to see how his character develops, because maybe the show wants to make him more well-rounded than he was in the books.

Thomas Jane as Joe Miller

On the other hand, Thomas Jane as detective Joe Miller is fantastic at showing his character’s rough edges. His look might be a little too polished —  I’m sorry, but no matter how many jokes you make about his hat, did it have to look that silly? — but the acting shows Miller’s quiet tenacity. He seems a little weary from living in the Belt, going through a divorce, and putting up with a lot of shit in his job. I like that Jane underplays the role, seeming almost expressionless in some cases — it works for Miller.

The funny thing about the show is that its weakest points are also the weakest points in the book. The worldbuilding gets an A+, but the characterization doesn’t always come off perfectly, and some of the dialogue is very cheesy. The show captures all of that, for better or worse. I’m curious to find out how they adapt the storylines moving forward.

The thing is, the show has this darkness and an added political plotline that really bogs down the whole experience. It feels not just grimy, but grim. I’m not a fan of that. I want color and explosions and life in my action-packed space operas, and I believe Leviathan Wake could have had that. Instead, something about the TV show just feels cold to me. Jokes feel forced. Colors are muted. It feels like better background than something to binge-watch.

In short, I admire the show but am still waiting for it to hook me.


2 thoughts on “It’s Like (but not love) with Syfy’s “The Expanse””

  1. I’ve watched the first few episodes, but haven’t read the books. So, I don’t know how the show compares to those, other than from what I just read in your post. As a viewer only, I’d say that I agree with you. I’m interested enough to keep watching the show, but I’m not hooked whatsoever. While some shows can have an instant hook, others take a while to get to that point.

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