Join or Sign In

Sign in to customize your TV listings

Continue with Facebook Continue with email

By joining TV Guide, you agree to our Terms of Use and acknowledge the data practices in our Privacy Policy.

3 Body Problem Review: This Ambitious Sci-Fi Drama Doesn't Always Make Sense — But It's Undeniably Good TV

The creators of Game of Thrones and The Terror: Infamy adapt the complex novel into an entertaining Netflix series

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw
Jess Hong, 3 Body Problem

Jess Hong, 3 Body Problem

Ed Miller/Netflix

Named after a physics puzzle, Liu Cixin's novel The Three-Body Problem has a rather intellectual reputation. It might once have been considered unadaptable, but thankfully we're now in a booming era for bold sci-fi TV. Built around thought experiments involving nanotechnology, orbital mechanics, and the distant future of humankind, Netflix's 3 Body Problem is positively overflowing with big ideas — some of which are easier to swallow than others. 

Spring Guide 2024

Click the image for our guide to spring TV

Created by Alexander Woo (The Terror: Infamy) and Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, 3 Body Problem transposes much of the novel's action from China to the U.K., starring an international cast led by Benedict Wong, Rosalind Chao, and relative newcomer Jess Hong, a New Zealand actress with a warm and energetic screen presence. Their three characters provide a solid foundation for the show's wackier themes, launching into Episode 1 with an accessible blend of murder mystery and science fiction.

Across the world, particle accelerators are suddenly showing impossible results. "Science is broken," explains one character, helpfully simplifying the situation for any viewers who lack a physics degree.

This worrying phenomena arrives alongside a slew of inexplicable deaths among scientific researchers. Gruff detective Da Shi (Benedict Wong) is on the case, chainsmoking and pinning photos to a big wall of clues. A likable take on a familiar archetype, he's an exasperated pragmatist surrounded by genius academics and deadly conspiracies. 

Elsewhere in the U.K., these scientific mishaps touch the lives of a group of old college pals including private-sector nanotech inventor Auggie Salazar (Eiza González), jovial entrepreneur Jack Rooney (John Bradley), and astrophysicist Jin Cheng (Jess Hong). Their friendship forms the heart of the show, including will-they/won't-they romances and the relatable banter of a close-knit squad with years of shared history. They don't know it yet, but they'll soon be swept up in a sprawling mission to save human civilization.


3 Body Problem


  • Likable characters tie together the convoluted world-building
  • Breakout star Jess Hong
  • It's an entertaining and well-paced episodic serial


  • Some of the scientific conceits don't really make sense
  • The eight-episode timeline feels a little rushed

We start small, with events just weird enough to disrupt a rational scientist's grip on reality. As her academic friends struggle to explain their malfunctioning equipment, Auggie faces a more urgent problem. She begins to hallucinate an ominous countdown; a fiery line of numbers invading her field of vision. It's clearly some kind of threat. But what? And how? Meanwhile, Jin becomes obsessed with an impossibly sophisticated virtual reality game, displaying technology far beyond anything on the market.

3 Body Problem's third co-protagonist is a little harder to explain thanks to Netflix's overzealous spoiler guidelines, which prevent me from elaborating on the show's premise. Suffice it to say that 3 Body Problem offers an ambitious twist on apocalyptic sci-fi, based around the tempting fantasy that humankind's best and brightest will join forces to prevent impending doom. (In real life, we know the best and brightest will more likely be ignored by the public and sabotaged by wealthy idiots.)

During the show's opening scenes, we meet young astrophysicist Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng) during China's Cultural Revolution. Consigned to a labor camp due to her father's seditious views, her only route to freedom is collaborating with the government that ruined her life.

This formative experience hardens her view of humanity, setting the scene for a decision that will shape the planet's future for centuries to come. A pivotal figure in the show's present-day storyline, the older Ye Wenjie is played with steely wit by Rosalind Chao, an underrated character actress whom sci-fi fans may remember as Star Trek's Keiko O'Brien.

As someone who hasn't read the book, I can't speak to 3 Body Problem's authenticity as an adaptation. However, I can admit to some initial skepticism about the Game of Thrones guys co-producing this particular project, which shifts a Chinese story to a Western setting and introduces a bunch of brand new characters.

Collaborating with playwright-turned-TV writer Alexander Woo, Benioff and Weiss seem keen to escape the shadow of Game of Thrones. To my mind, they've succeeded while quietly doubling down on their existing skillset. Although we tend to remember Game of Thrones for its sex, violence, and big-budget effects, much of the show revolved around dialogue. 3 Body Problem involves a similar quantity of glorified business meetings, seeded into a similarly wide array of overlapping subplots.

Even during Jin's intriguing forays into virtual reality, this is a talky kind of drama. There's only one (memorably cool!) major action setpiece, and the central conflict is roughly akin to a pair of psychics playing 3D chess. 

Liam Cunningham and Benedict Wong, 3 Body Problem

Liam Cunningham and Benedict Wong, 3 Body Problem

Ed Miller, Netflix

Jin's fierce determination and Da Shi's dark humor are a grounding presence as the series embarks upon an increasingly wild sequence of sci-fi conceits. Like many examples of "hard" science fiction, the alleged hardness is more of a vibe than a rigorous foundation in logic or realism. Plenty of stuff in 3 Body Problem veers toward the tone of high-stakes Doctor Who, and the antagonists' abilities seem to wax and wane depending on their current convenience to the plot. 

Later episodes introduce thornier philosophical questions that I can't discuss without spoilers, but the basic issue here is suspension of disbelief.

The "fi" part of sci-fi storytelling requires us to accept certain departures from reality, whether it's lofty explanations for faster-than-light travel or something openly fantastical like lightsabers. Suspension of disbelief is part and parcel of the genre. But when a show like 3 Body Problem dedicates this much attention to logic puzzles and thought experiments, it tacitly encourages the audience to search for inconsistencies. And oh boy, will you find them.

Fortunately, 3 Body Problem functions perfectly well on a character level, so if you're happy to accept a healthy dose of scientific malarkey, then you're golden. If you have a lower malarkey tolerance, well — you'll probably find some like-minded individuals to help critique that stuff on Reddit. 

Structuring its elaborate world-building around an accessible brand of episodic drama, 3 Body Problem packs a lot of material into eight episodes. By the final act, they're clearly rushing to set up Season 2. Liu Cixin's novel is the first of a trilogy, and the next book presents an even bigger adaptational challenge. But that's a problem for the show's creators. The only thing we need to care about is 3 Body Problem's entertainment value, which is readily apparent from the first few scenes. Logistical qualms aside, every episode leaves us with a compelling reason to watch the next — which is more than I can say for the lazily paced majority of Netflix originals.

Premieres: Thursday, March 21 on Netflix
Who's in it: Jess Hong, Benedict Wong, Rosalind Chao, Liam Cunningham, Jovan Adepo, Eiza González, Alex Sharp
Who's behind it: Alexander Woo, David Benioff, and D.B. Weiss (writers/showrunners), Derek Tsang, Minkie Spiro (directors)
For fans of: Foundation, Westworld, Ender's Game
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8