Blake Crouch’s 2016 SF thriller, Dark Matter, is one in a long line of speculative tales based on the concept of the parallel universe—a universe that coexists and shares many similarities with our own but has significant differences. The classic 1960s Star Trek TV series, for instance, featured the Mirror Universe, in which the normally benevolent Federation was an authoritarian empire with evil versions of Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise crew. Many SF authors have explored similar ideas, such as Keith Laumer in Worlds of the Imperium (1961), in which an American diplomat is abducted by operatives from an alternate universe—one in which the Revolutionary War never happened. In more recent years, the concept has become a key element of Marvel superhero productions, such as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) and Disney+’s Loki (2021-2023), as well as such adventurous TV series as Fox’s Sliders (1995-2000) and Fringe (2008-2013) and Starz’s Counterpart (2017-2019). Now, Dark Matter has become an Apple TV+ series, created and co-written by Crouch and starring Joel Edgerton and Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly. Unfortunately, it’s one of the least inspired tales of the bunch.

In the novel, Jason Dessen is a physics professor in Chicago who lives a happy life with his wife, Daniela, and their teenage son, Charlie. One night, a masked man abducts him at gunpoint and forces him to drive to an old power plant; there, the stranger makes Jason change clothes while asking him odd questions (“How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason?”). The kidnapper then drugs his captive into unconsciousness; when Jason wakes, he finds that he’s in a very different version of Chicago—one where he’s not married to Daniela, where Charlie doesn’t exist, and where a group of scientists insist that he invented a cubelike machine that allows people to travel between parallel universes. (The way it works draws lightly on actual quantum theory.) Jason soon realizes that his kidnapper was a parallel version of himself (“Jason2”) who built “the box” and used it to switch lives with him. Before long, Jason hatches a plan with psychiatrist Amanda Lucas to travel back to his home and confront Jason2, which proves to be easier said than done: As it turns out, there are an infinite number of universes, and travel between them is far more complicated than expected.

The show is largely faithful to the original text, but it does improve on it in some ways.

First of all, viewers are spared Crouch’s distracting habit of using single-line paragraphs.

And sentence fragments.

For emphasis.

Here’s one example among many: “I turn the deadbolt. / The door swings inward. / Something is wrong. / Very, very wrong.” Here’s another: “Hardness returns. / He says with zero warmth in his voice, ‘Good night, Daniela.’ / Then turns. / Goes. / Slams the door behind him.” This kind of thing wears thin very quickly, as do Jason’s melodramatic pronouncements upon hearing new information: “That levels me.” “This rocks me so deeply I can barely draw breath.” It’s very clear that the characters feel things deeply. Strongly. And with great intensity.

One of the things that Jason feels is sexual jealousy: “When was the last time they fucked?” he thinks at one point about his wife and his double. Later, he even petulantly asks his wife if the sex was better with Jason2. It’s not a good look for a hero. Mercifully, this stuff isn’t in the show, either.

That’s not to say that the series is without its problems, which also come from the source material. Aside from a late, lively twist, both versions do very little with the infinite nature of the concept; the universes are all versions of Chicago, for one thing. The cities may be dealing with natural or manmade disasters, in some cases—ice storms, epidemics, and so on—but most of the Chicagos are pretty much like ours, with different restaurants, say, or different types of candy. At one point, Jason posits the theory that all other universes they can visit are merely “adjacent” to ours, and thus largely the same. It feels deeply unimaginative at best, and rather boring at worst.

Edgerton is generally a fine actor, but his best work always has a tone of menace about it, as with his villainous turn in the excellent Prime Video miniseries The Underground Railroad. As a hero, however, he’s much less convincing; he has a squirrely aspect to his acting style that makes him seem untrustworthy. He also isn’t very skilled at playing different versions of the same character, as each Jason is bland in the same way. Connelly is far more impressive in this regard; viewers encounter a few different Danielas, and each is a distinct character. They carry themselves differently and express themselves in subtly different ways. Interested viewers should check out Counterpart, in which Academy Award winner J.K Simmons offers a master class in playing different iterations of the same person. Indeed, viewers would do well to watch that show—or Fringe, or Loki—instead of Dark Matter, as they all approach the idea of parallel universes with a sense of wonder that this story sorely lacks.

David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.