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⚙️🙂 Netflix AI Cast Toggles

Irtefa and I text each other nearly every day. Mostly memes we saw on the Internet. I have no idea how we have time for this either. We are both dads to small children. He runs a successful start up. I am responsible for making sure this goes well. Yet we giggle.

One of our most common exchanges consists of Irtefa wading through content and sending me his favorite TikTok videos. I do not have TikTok but several times a week my own TikTok Curation Subscription (Irtefa) sends over something great. Yesterday morning I woke up and opened a link to a video of two dudes talking about two shows that Irtefa and I are watching: Shogun and 3 Body Problem1.

Both shows adapt popular books which depict a foreign culture in intricate detail. The Shogun television series sticks closely to the source material and probably focuses even more on the Japanese elements of the story than the book. 3 Body Problem retains the original prompt (the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a Chinese military base initiating the signal), but swaps out a mostly Chinese cast of characters with one that represents a broad range of ethnicities.

To be clear, I am not sure how you could possibly recast ‘Shogun’ unless you were going to do something that was just thematically similar (white guy lost in X culture). The entire premise is a very specific time and place and person in Japan - as well as an Englishman’s observation of that context. The premise of ‘3 Body Problem’ is an alien invasion and the global response.

The casting swap in 3 Body Problem is diverse enough that it could pass for a college brochure, which is still a better outcome than an all-white recast - which the TikTok clip notes. The choice makes the main cast poster look thoughtful and modern. They just stopped short of making that meaningful.

The show runners claim that the decision gives the story more depth because of the characters’ countries of origin. Maybe they planned that but then forgot. You catch a mention of the background of characters in introductions but then those details never matter again. Other than being told “welcome home” when he returns to the United States, Dr. Durand’s plot line does not deviate from that of Luo Ji based on any biographical detail.

I do not have an opinion on whether or not this is the right call. These are dangerous hot take waters - especially for someone who looks like me. They replaced an Asian cast in an Asian story with one that is multiracial in multicultural London. The choice could be podcast fuel for the alt-right (this is wokism run amok to meet DEI targets) or progressive liberals (this robs an underrepresented community of their opportunity on the screen in the name of manufactured diversity). The debate is interesting but not the point of this post.

What I do want to say, though, is that the decision to do absolutely nothing of substance with the recasting creates a window for something much weirder and definitely inevitable: AI character dubbing. Again, the “new” back stories of these characters have absolutely no bearing on the plot in 3 Body Problem. You could keep all of the dialog and nearly all of the sets and swap out the characters with people of any race and it would still make sense. So, which streamer is going to let you do that first so they can preemptively avoid criticism?

The rest of the Internet is already doing it. A tweet I saw this morning featured a video of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker character replacing Lil Yachty at a concert. Seamlessly. Frame for frame. Other services can take a video of me speaking English and replace it with European Portuguese that matches my voice and tone. The technology will continue to improve to cover longer content. Streaming services wary of casting backlash might instead just prompt you to pick your preferred ethnic makeup after you log in. Easier than backpedaling.

Want authenticity to the source material? Toggle the Source setting to On in Netflix and 3 Body Problem features a Chinese cast. Do you prefer to see a cast that represents diversity? Leave the show to default in this case. Interested in creating a version that you could license to cable channels in Latin America? Set the configuration to Latinx and language to Spanish and you now have the year’s biggest SciFi hit ready for a new audience. I just want to know what they’ll call the toggle in the settings panel.

If you want to indulge an insane conspiracy theory, was this deliberate? Did Netflix release a big budget show that intentionally made the character back stories so bland they could use AI to recast the series without much work in the future? If not this series, I bet some streaming service is taking that into account when they begin work for their next blockbuster.

The rise of that kind of capability could elevate stories that focus on a specific culture or group. That’s the optimistic way to look at this. Shows like Atlanta, Primo, or Shogun would never make sense if you changed the make up of their casts. You’d have to redo the whole thing. Those wonderful stories exist because of the characters’ or associated actors’ origins. SciFi and Fantasy genre shows, though? In most cases, the plot would move right along. Even the most culturally distinct SciFi series adapted this year, 3 Body Problem, got away with mostly removing that aspect of itself. And these are the properties that are the most expensive to produce.

All I do know is that this is going to get weird. If you ever show up to watch a movie at someone’s house and they toggle All White and hit play, you can probably see yourself out.

  1. The Netflix adaptation modified the title; the most common English-language publication of the book is The Three-Body Problem while Netflix adapted it to just 3 Body Problem.

Published Apr 10, 2024

Austinite in Lisbon. VP of Product at Cloudflare.