Biohackers adheres firmly to its competing genres of sci-fi thriller and young-adult drama, but its gene-splicing plot is just about worth a binge.
This review of Biohackers Season 1 is spoiler-free.
The latest entry in Netflix’s ever-expanding library of shows in which good-looking young Europeans get themselves embroiled in mysteries, Biohackers attempts to distinguish itself by having its good-looking youngsters be German and its mystery rooted in the human genome. Yet for all its scientific meddling, this very binge-able but thoroughly ridiculous mish-mash of sci-fi thriller and young-adult drama feels like a slave to both genres, unable to really subvert either in the way its meddlesome villain seeks to upend the limitations of genetics.
The premise finds Mia, a pretty orphaned medical student whose parents died in a mysterious car crash, ingratiating herself with renowned geneticist Dr. Tanja Lorenz, for purposes that it’d constitute a major spoiler to reveal. Needless to say, her low-key mission to get privileged access to Lorenz’s ethically fluid experimentation makes for an engaging mystery that has to share space with a significantly less engaging relationship drama, especially once Mia gets cozy with Lorenz’s handsome lab assistant Jasper and his equally handsome best friend Niklas.
Thanks to an effective cold open to the first episode, Biohackers makes no secret of the fact that there is some viral calamity in Mia’s future, and the show spends the rest of its pacey six episodes catching up to that moment. But it takes a while to get there, and the journey takes a winding path through a deeply dorky subculture of trendy genetic meddling best embodied by Mia’s eccentric housemates: Lotta, gorgeous and intelligent and not about to let you forget either; Chen-Lu, who speaks on fast-forward and can play her genetically-modified plants like a piano; and Ole, a body hacker who is obsessed with a more popular rival who calls himself Double Felix. A lot of this stuff helps to liven up familiar beats — the obligatory party scene features eyedrops that let the user see in the dark; a flirty dip in the lake is made more interesting by pills that let you hold your breath indefinitely. The ease with which these students can whip up some gene-rewriting narcotics is more than a little ridiculous, but it makes for a fun, fittingly science-y vibe. I just wish these things factored into the plot a little more, since they’re mostly used to express character quirks or as gags; those night-vision eyedrops, for instance, only really exist for the sake of a hangover joke the next morning. It’s a funny joke, granted, but it’s forgotten about just as quickly as it was brought up.
That plot is smart enough with its reveals to remain engaging all the way through, even if its villain is undermined by a kind of cartoonish evilness and poorly fleshed-out motivations, especially in the back half when some particularly callous decisions are made and the consequences of them are felt more strongly. Mia, though, makes for a plucky lead, and Biohackers has a couple of decent moments of suspense, mostly involving her trying to accomplish something sneaky without getting caught. Now that I think about it, almost all of the show’s suspenseful moments take this form, and until you get sick of certain characters only ever walking at a moderate pace even when urgency is clearly needed, they tend to work quite well.
That walking thing is one of a few minor niggles — others include important evidence being left lying around for people to find, and the same cliffhanger ending being wheeled out two episodes after it was used the first time. These little contrivances ensure that Biohackers never quite manages to find a consistent rhythm; there’s always something that has you scratching or shaking your head when you should be buying into the drama.
There’s enough drama, I think, for a cautious recommendation, and the ease with which you can chew through the show means you haven’t lost much if you stick it out and end up disappointed by the standard Netflix Original non-ending. Its character work leaves a lot to be desired, and its plot turns require a suspension of disbelief that some viewers simply won’t possess, but the good bits are just as good as they need to be, and the underlying ethical questions are fun to ponder, even if they’re only given a surface-level examination. Biohackers won’t rewrite your genetic code, but it will tickle those bits of your brain that are looking for a decent genre show to binge.