Netflix’s 3 Body Problem is missing the one thing that made Game of Thrones great

Ye Wenjie sits in front of a radio dish controller in 3 Body Problem.
Netflix

Netflix’s 3 Body Problem isn’t just the streaming service’s long-awaited adaptation of the acclaimed Chinese science fiction novel of the same name by Liu Cixin. It’s also Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ follow-up to their HBO smash hit. In many ways, the Netflix series, which Benioff and Weiss co-created with Alexander Woo, is a worthy successor to a show like Thrones. Like that game-changing HBO drama, it’s an adaptation of the kind of famously complex source material that many understandably believed to be unadaptable.

To Benioff, Weiss, and Woo’s credit, they prove that’s not true across 3 Body Problem‘s debut eight-episode season. Together, the trio and their collaborators successfully streamline the science-driven narrative of Cixin’s original novel, turning it into an episodic story that is both easily digestible and propulsive. While 3 Body Problem gets a lot right, though, it’s missing the one thing that made Game of Thrones such a beloved show in the first place. To put it frankly, its characters just aren’t all that memorable.

A rich foundation

3 Body Problem | Official Trailer | Netflix

The story that 3 Body Problem tells spans roughly 60 years. It begins during China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and it follows a young Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng) as the traumatic losses she experiences throughout that period cause her to lose faith in humanity and make a decision that ultimately shapes the show’s present-day storyline. Outside of its 1960s flashbacks, the series largely focuses on the lives of several scientists as they’re forced to react to (minor spoiler alert) the news of a forthcoming alien invasion.

Like Game of Thrones, 3 Body Problem tells a story that is heavily influenced by the events of the past and relies upon the interconnected actions of a fairly large group of characters. Despite having far fewer subplots and human figures to focus on than they did in Thrones, though, Benioff and Weiss fail to introduce enough standout characters to make you emotionally invested in 3 Body Problem‘s story. Actors like Benedict Wong and John Bradley emerge as welcome, confident presences among the show’s cast, but they’re ultimately not given enough to elevate everything else around them.

The show doesn’t have breakout characters like Jon Snow or Arya Stark

Kit Harington as Jon Snow in his Night's Watch uniform beyond the wall.
HBO

Most of 3 Body Problem‘s characters, whether it be the countdown-plagued Auggie (Eiza González) or the stuck-in-arrested-development Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo), lack the kind of depth, inner turmoil, and identifiable personalities that would make you want to spend hours with them. That’s noteworthy, especially given the plethora of compelling characters featured throughout Game of Thrones. Thanks to A Song of Ice and Fire author George R. R. Martin, Benioff and Weiss had more striking characters than they knew what to do with on that HBO series.

Look at characters like Arya Stark, Jaime Lannister, Jon Snow, and Daenerys Targaryen, all of whom are now considered iconic figures in TV history. When they were introduced in Game of Thrones‘ first season, they were complex, and viewers could mostly identify with their plights. Even more importantly, they all immediately demonstrated the capacity for great change, and Game of Thrones mined nearly 10 years’ worth of engaging drama out of the transformative journeys that they and the rest of the show’s core characters all went on. Not even 3 Body Problem‘s best characters are as half as rich as those of Thrones, and that’s a problem that keeps viewers at a frustrating distance from the Netflix series’ already cerebral story.

Liam Cunningham sits behind Benedict Wong in 3 Body Problem.
Netflix

To be fair to Benioff, Weiss, and Woo, even the biggest fans of Liu Cixin’s original 3 Body Problem books are quick to note that their characters aren’t their strongest element. That may, in part, be by design. Cixin’s trilogy spans hundreds of years, which means that it features a revolving door of characters. Plot and science are what come first and foremost in the books, and Benioff, Weiss, and Woo’s Netflix series doesn’t diverge from that approach.

The sins of Game of Thrones’ past haunts 3 Body Problem

A man and two women stand in the sand and stare.
Ed Miller / Netflix

On TV, though, plot can only get you so far. At the end of the day, a show tends to live and die on the quality of its characters. While 3 Body Problem effectively communicates both the intricacy and danger of its central alien invasion, it doesn’t make a convincing enough case for the strength of its characters.

By falling short in that regard, the Netflix show inadvertently proves something that many Game of Thrones fans began to suspect near the end of that show’s run, which is that Benioff and Weiss are better at navigating complex plots than they are at exploring and developing equally complex characters. That seems to especially be the case when they don’t have a character-rich text to pull from like the one George R. R. Martin gave them at the start of Thrones.

Season 1 of 3 Body Problem is streaming now on Netflix.

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