It’s not easy to make a compelling drama about technology (just ask Michael Mann). However, we have recently seen a ton of great stories about technology hit the TV screens, be it brilliantly executed hacking shows, big-budget sci-fi or tech-powered dystopian nightmares (yes Black Mirror, we’re looking at you).
Here are some of the best TV shows about technology on streaming services right now.
Editor’s Note: The unrelenting dirge of utter banality and tired stereotype mulch that is the Big Bang Theory did, alas, not make the cut.
The plot of Alex Garland’s TV debut Devs hinges on computer engineer Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno from Ex Machina and Maniac) investigating a secretive moonshot division at the Silicon Valley company where she works, called Amaya, after the disappearance of her boyfriend.
Early reviews are broadly positive for the mini-series and it’s clear that the show won’t be too much of a departure from the British-born auteur director’s previous works like Ex Machina or Annihilation, which skew dark and intellectual.
The shadowy Silicon Valley company at the heart of Devs is working on quantum computing – a technology that we won’t try to explain here but which promises computer power exponentially more powerful than even today’s – paired with the concept of determinism vs free will, so it’s not light stuff.
Devs began airing in the US on the streaming service Hulu (not available in the UK) from 5 March as part of its new FX partnership, though the BBC will air the show later this year in the UK, as part of an ongoing deal with US broadcaster FX.
The BBC hasn’t set a UK air date for Devs but has said we can expect it to arrive in ‘mid-April’ – though if you can’t wait, our pals at TechAdvisor have a guide to watching it from the UK right now.
Altered Carbon is an ambitious sci-fi series set around 350 years in the future, in a world where humans are able to upload and download digital versions of themselves onto ‘stacks’ (hardware stored in the base of the neck). This means humans can switch and upgrade bodies (dubbed ‘sleeves’) at will, making death a thing of the past for most.
It’s an intriguing technological concept – the ability to replicate, upload and download our digital selves – that has been a constant theme in science fiction and a very real goal for a growing number of tech entrepreneurs.
The opening episode of Altered Carbon sees trained killer Takeshi Kovacs, played by Joel Kinnaman of House of Cards and The Killing, wake up in prison to find himself in a new body. He’s given the choice to either stay there or accept a job solving the murder of one of the world’s wealthiest men, Laurens Bancroft.
Apart from the concepts of ‘stacks’, the series features other nods to futuristic tech, such as a hotel that is solely run by an AI mainframe, manifested in the form of a jovial, human-appearing manager.
The series, which is based on Richard Morgan’s 2002 cyberpunk novel of the same name, was released on Netflix in February 2018.
The cinematography unmistakably echoes Blade Runner, with a perennial dark and damp feel pervading rundown alleys and garish neon signs offering points of sickly illumination.
Watch it on Netflix
Despite the dampening of critical adoration during its more experimental second season, Mr Robot achieves what few have been able to do: make a truly compelling show about what one guy can do from his keyboard.
Mr Robot is about Elliot Alderson, a cybersecurity engineer by day and a white-hat hacker by night who is drafted into a conspiracy to hack the biggest corporation in America and eliminate debt. The show touches on lots of interesting implications of technology, not just the ethics and minutiae of hacking but also the potential impact of cryptocurrencies on world economies and the insidious presence of a technologically-powered monopoly, named E Corp, short for Evil Corp, in the show.
The show runner Sam Esmail has hired an army of real life hackers to assist in the writing process to keep it as true to life as possible, a practice which led The Verge to assess the realism of the hacks throughout the show with a weekly Hack Report. Techworld spoke with the show’s infosec expert, who warned that dystopian science fiction could have real-world consequences.
Mr Robot finished its run in 2019 with the fourth season, which was a return to form for a show that has never been afraid of taking stylistic or narrative risks.
Watch it on Amazon Instant Video
Halt and Catch Fire
The best show about technology on TV is also probably the least watched. The AMC show created by Chris Rogers and Chris Cantwell charts the history of the personal computer, starting with a fictionalised account of how Compaq copied IBM in the 1980s during its first season before levelling up dramatically over its next two seasons to chart the birth of the modern internet.
The show may be about technology but its appeal is in its characters, beautifully written and brilliantly acted by Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNair and Kerry Bishe. They are joined by some of the best secondary characters on TV today, particularly the pathos-laden John Bosworth, played by Toby Huss. There are moments in Halt that will take your breath away, but they are hard earned as the show slow burns its way through the 80s and 90s.
Unfortunately all good things must come to an end and the fourth season of Halt was its last, but we are lucky we even got that considering how truly low the ratings are. Watch this show.
Watch it on Amazon Instant Video
The big budget HBO remake of 70s cult movie Westworld is set in a world where the wealthiest can act out their darkest desires (mainly killing and having sex with androids) in a meticulously constructed version of the American Wild West.
Even though it is set in a world where artificial intelligence and robotics are advanced enough to comfortably pass the Turing test, Westworld isn’t particularly interested in the technology aspects of the show, often glossing over how the androids are created and how the world got to this point overall.
Created by Jonathan Nolan (Chris Nolan’s brother) and his wife Lisa Joy, the show stars big hitters like Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores, Ed Harris as the Man in Black, an incredible Jeffrey Wright performance and of course Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Now in its third season, Westworld boasts an all star cast and the sort of visual effects you would expect from a blockbuster movie, as well as also some of the less-appealing existential philosophising and puzzle-box TV which marked some of the more maddening aspects of shows like Lost and True Detective, leading to a somewhat mixed critical reception.
Watch it on HBO Go and Sky Go
Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is the pitch-black satire consisting of a long-running anthology series of self-contained short films, each dealing with the dark side of technology and its effect on society. It is different in format, tone and in its unique Britishness (until Netflix picked it up for its third season and pumped up the budget) to anything else on TV.
Brooker’s great talent is his ability to take the kernel of an idea – say virtual reality gaming or social media likes – and stretch it to its darkest possible conclusion. Brooker’s comic talents mean that there are moments of levity in Black Mirror, but the black comedy only softens the trip down the rabbit hole.
Now in its fifth season (excluding Christmas specials and the interractive experiment that was Bandersnatch) Black Mirror continues to be a pop cultural phenomenon at its new home on the streaming service, even if some of its edgier ideas have been smoothed away.
Watch it on Netflix
HBO’s Silicon Valley plumbs all of the comedy it can from a deep well: the small, affluent, self-important bubble of Silicon Valley. Mike Judge, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky bring the sort of observational and visual gag humour that can be found in Judge’s cult classic Office Space to the weird world of the valley.
The show starts out by charting the typically rapid rise of the small startup Pied Piper, led by the brilliant T. J. Miller as Erlich Bachman.
The comedy is found in all corners of Silicon Valley life, from the ridiculous amounts of money and status being lavished upon small teams of tech nerds, to the socially inept money men and tech founders found at the top of the corporate ladder (namely the late Christopher Evan Welch as Peter Gregory and Matt Ross as Gavin Belson, rough caricatures of Google’s Larry Page and venture capitalist Peter Thiel.)
Silicon Valley completed its run in 2019 with its sixth and final season.
Watch it on HBO Go and Sky Go
The IT Crowd
A golden oldie (finishing in 2013), IT Crowd isn’t a showcase of futuristic tech, but a look at the schenanigans of the mismatched rabble of the IT department in the fictional Denholm Industries.
Consigned to the claustrophobic basement of a towering skyscraper office block, the expertly crafted characters’ riff off each other delightfully. There’s the lovable Moss (Richard Ayoade), known for his startling non sequiturs, Roy (Chris O’Dowd) the scathignly sarcastic Irishman, and Jen, the self-proclaimed voice of reason and acceptable face of the IT department, who often falls prey to the same raucous social faux pas as her compatriots.
It’s a British comedy classic, taking its place alongside the likes of Peep Show and The Office. You are guaranteed to laugh out loud, sometimes uncontrollably.
The show is massively quotable, at times surreal and takes what could have been a simple sitcom about an office IT department and raises it to cult classic status thanks to Linehan’s writing and the quality of the lead performances.
Watch it on All4
Humans is a Channel 4 series that first launched in 2015. Set in an alternate present day, where virtual assistants (à la Alexa) have transformed into fully fledged humanoids (dubbed ‘synths’) which live within the family home as helpful nanny-housekeeper hybrids.
The show expertly blurs the ethical line between humans and synths, and poses profound questions along the way. For example, (spoilers) when the wife of a family discovers her husband has slept with their resident synth, it forces audiences to ask whether this is ‘cheating’ or something else given the synth is simply a machine despite occupying an au pair role within the family.
The socioeconomic impact of the new breed of synths is also hinted at, most memorably by a homeless man holding up a sign reading ‘synth took job’. While the main element of the show pivots on the rebellion of some rogue synths and the humans’ attempts to control them.
At its launch, the show became Channel 4’s most successful original drama in 20 years. Although the term ‘original’ here is a little stretched given the show is actually adapted from a Swedish series called Real Humans (which some say is more accomplished show so may also be worth checking out).
Under the direction of Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective, Beasts Of No Nation), this Netflix original cultivates an immediately distinctive retro-futuristic aesthetic.
Portions of the story are told from the perspective of Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), who suffers from mental health issues. This drags a strong current of dreamy surrealism through the plot, sometimes veering into the outright hallucinatory. Continuing the blend of fact and fiction, bizarre elements are peppered throughout: a dog poo scooping bot, a robotic, chess-playing Koala in Central Park.
There’s no doubt it’s a great looking show. The sterilised feel, the bright white palette and the HAL-like supercomputer are all reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the frenetic plot throws in a dash of the zaniness of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
Like Black Mirror, it picks up some dystopian themes and squeezes them for surreal value – notably the ‘ad buddies’ where individuals pay off their debts by viewing ads, and ‘friend proxies’, a hint at the rent-a-friend industry quietly bubbling away in Japan.
A star performance from Emma Stone lifts the schizophrenic narrative, but the show can feel a little lopsided and shallow, despite being a hell of a ride.
Side note: this series is based on a Norwegian original, showing again that Scandinavian TV continues to wield plenty of influence.
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams
Debuting on Amazon Prime last year, this follows the anthology model of offering ten standalone episodes. Each are based upon short stories from sci-fi master Philip K Dick, whose Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? loosely inspired Blade Runner.
Typically for Dick some of the prevailing themes centre around technology and its potential impacts and threats, and ask big philisophical questions about what it means to be human.
The series has received mixed reviews, with some episodes hailed as better than others. However, its stylishly crafted cinematography and thought provoking ideas make it worth a try.