Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Review [TV]: Constellation

How do you keep living when you no longer recognize the world?

It was inevitable that the coronavirus quarantine would leave its mark on the Zeitgeist. After the first year of enforced isolation, none of us felt we were the same people anymore. We've had to learn to live with a peculiar form of always-on anxiety for which the earlier generation couldn't possibly have prepared us. One way to describe what this cultural shift feels like would be to say that, when we finally walked out of our houses and back into the world, the world looked new again, but not particularly inviting. Look in every continent, and things are going seriously wrong. The planet is cooking us alive, the drums of war are in deafening crescendo, and the economy seems obsessed with eliminating human workers altogether. This is not the world we signed up for. We'd like to file a complaint with management. Where's the exit button?

That's the kind of anxiety portrayed in the show Constellation.

Continuing the impressive trend in Apple TV+ for high-concept science fiction with deep questions and great quality of production, Constellation presents us with Jo Ericsson, a member of a research team at the International Space Station who survives a catastrophic collision with orbital debris but manages to make it to Earth in one piece, only to discover that the life she'd been hoping to return to isn't quite the way she remembers it. Her husband's personality feels off, her boss alludes to conversations she's sure she never had, her house has other furniture, one of her friends claims to have a different name, her car is the wrong color... something clearly isn't right. Spending a year in space can't have messed with her memories, can it? And her acquaintances likewise remark that she's not entirely the Jo they knew. From their perspective, it is they who live in the real world and Jo the one who's become unrecognizable.

The trope of the astronaut who returns to Earth as a changed person isn't new, of course, but the unique spin Constellation gives it is to bring us into that scenario through the astronaut's perspective. In this type of plot, usually told in the style of a conspiracy thriller, we're accustomed to following, for example, the astronaut's spouse during the process of first suspecting and then confirming that the person who came back to their home isn't the same person who left. In Constellation, it is Jo we're invited to empathize with as she struggles to decipher why what she thinks she knows about her daily life doesn't match the reality in front of her eyes.

This premise draws from two contemporary fads popular in online culture: the "Mandela effect," where very confused people, instead of admitting that their recollection of some simple historical fact was mistaken, prefer to convince themselves that they've somehow accidentally jumped into a minimally different universe; and "reality shifting," where people who are even more confused convince themselves that through vigorous meditation they can emigrate to a better universe where, for example, they can date Draco Malfoy (seriously). But it's hard to blame them. If you just look out the window, such desperate yearning to leave this universe is understandable, and has in fact been studied for a while. In ye olden times, when the first Avatar movie was released, numerous media outlets reported that viewers were suffering depression and even suicidal thoughts when they reflected upon the hard fact that this old, boring world could never live up to the impossibly beautiful forests of Pandora. This "Avatar syndrome" resurfaced recently with the release of the second Avatar movie. The common thread in these extreme (even pathological) forms of escapism is the socially accepted assessment that the real world is just... wrong.

Though unstated, this shared understanding lies at the foundation of the sense of unease and estrangement that pervades throughout the eight episodes of Constellation. Jo's nagging certainty that after a year in space she has landed in the wrong Earth leads to escalating confrontations with her family, her boss, her therapist, all the way up to government institutions. And here the plot begins to more closely resemble our post-quarantine malaise: Jo has difficulty reconnecting with her social circle, she doesn't know whether she can trust the medical advice she's hearing, communication with her daughter essentially has to restart from square one, and government authorities seem at a loss as to what to make of her situation. Every support system that should be there for her is incapable of helping. The void beyond our atmosphere can be a lonely place, but trying to have an ordinary life in a world that was fundamentally changed when you weren't looking is no less alienating.

One way Constellation expresses the growing instability in Jo's inner state is to place characters next to their reflection in mirrors, or their own shadows, or empty space. Some shots are arranged in such a way that an object in the set divides the frame exactly in half. Characters are frequently confronted with their alternate selves, with the road not taken, with the many ways the grass could be greener.

The plot spends just the right amount of runtime in exploring the technobabble behind the jumps between universes, but the point of the story isn't the quantum wavefunctions. As a story produced in the post-quarantine era, Constellation understands the one-of-a-kind worldwide trauma that has made us feel irreparably lost in our own homes. It's about the difficulty of resuming something that can resemble normality after an extended disconnect from each other. It's about the self-doubt that can sneak up on you when you're surrounded by radical disagreements about reality. And ultimately, it's about the possibility that opens when you're willing to maintain your bond with the people who matter to you even if they suddenly feel like strangers.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.