ALTERED CARBON – A disappointing second season

March 28, 2020

Don’t get me wrong, the season was okay. But I expected better than okay. So maybe it’s a question of expectations here. It doesn’t help that I much preferred the previous actor Joel Kinnaman to Marvel’s Anthony Mackie. Mackie does an okay job, better, in fact, as the season unfolds, but still, his acting chops differ from Joel’s and are not as subtle. I suppose this cast change was forced with Joel taking the main role on Apple’s For All Mankind (which I quite enjoyed).

 

Now is the time to alert you this short review of Season 2 will contain spoilers. So, if you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend you stop reading now, go rewatch Season 1 (trust me, I think it will help), then continue with Season 2.

 

The amount of sarcasm the original actor brought to the role was one of my favorite things about the character, and I feel Season 2 lost most of that. That’s my first but not last gripe with this season.

 

 

The second gripe is the scope of the season. While the story gets better as it unfolds, it’s still small potatoes in terms of stakes until the very end where a mega weapon threatens more than just the main characters. But most of the series is focused on Kovacs trying to find Quellcrist Falconer. And while I don’t have a problem with storylines like that, I found this one to be hard to get into until nearly the end of the season.

 

What made it worse for me was—on top of not being as mindbogglingly grabbing and visually fantastic (don’t get me wrong, it still looks good, but just not as good in my humble opinion)—was that the season was also shorter; clocking in at a measly eight episodes. Somehow, since it took me a good five or six episodes to get into was almost a blessing in disguise. Except, by episode seven, I was looking forward to three or four additional episodes.

 

Then again, there is only so much you can do with such a character-centered plot, one that already feels stretched, which I suspect is why I didn’t engage with it as much as I did Season 1. Season 1 had way more subplots and, at least in most of it, better pacing. Mind you, there were a couple of episodes where the plot slowed to a crawl too, but I felt, back then, it was only two episodes, and what would you know, they were linked to Falconer as well.

 

 

Maybe I just don’t like that character enough, which would explain why I wasn’t enthralled when she took center stage in this season’s plot.

 

 

Let’s not even talk about the ending. But this is SciFi, so yeah, I believe Takeshi Kovacs is still alive. I haven’t read the books, but I’m pretty sure there is more story for this character.

 

Now, changing the main character is always a dangerous proposition. Even if there is no better show set up for that than Altered Carbon with its concept of consciousness stored digitally into stacks and able to backup, respawn, and change bodies (now called sleeves). This setting opens up nearly unlimited possibilities, but it also adds a level of complexity that brings dangers of confusing the viewer. Let me be clear, you can’t watch Altered Carbon Season 2 with anything but your full attention, and, in fact, I’d recommend rewatching Season 1 before getting into Season 2. Something not all of us have the time or inclination to do. But I regret not doing that myself. Maybe I’d have latched more into the second season if I did.

 

But I digress, so back to changing the main character. Few shows have managed to pull it off. The one in my opinion that did that masterfully, not only keeping the boat afloat but bringing the show to new heights, is Babylon 5. To this day, I remember when my friends Daniel and Cedric (RIP) put the VHS (yes, you read that right) into the player for Season 2 to see that Commander Jeffrey Sinclair was replaced by Bruce Boxleitner. At first, I was like, “No! This movie is shit!” but it took only a couple of episodes to not only get used to the change but embrace it fully. It may have helped that Tron had been a formative movie of my youth, but even without that tidbit, I think Bruce was just the right actor to take the mantle. And instead of changing the actor, they changed the role, and Jeffrey returned for an amazing two-part episode, and the conclusion sent shivers down my spine like very few TV shows ever did.

 

When Altered Carbon came to the Netflix screen, it took my breath away with its first season, but the second season came and went without any fanfare as far as I’m concerned. It’s no longer the most anticipated next season show on my watch list (it was until S2 came along for Ozark, if you must know).

 

This trend of explosive first seasons followed by subpar ones is nothing new. I’ll posit, it’s best to start with an okay season (look at all the Star Trek first seasons, usually quite weak, especially for DS9 and TNG and then turn into a seven-season masterpiece over time. Heck, even SG-1’s first season was shaky at best and had some truly horrendous episodes only to evolve into my second best series with Babylon 5). But does that remind you of another sensational Season 1 SciFi show that went down hard in quality and interest in the last few years? Yes, me too. And that show is Westworld. While the first two episodes show hope for the show … well, maybe, Westworld seems to have burned its entire narrative power in its first season. Season 2 is an unmitigated, painful-to-watch disaster.

 

Altered Carbon, fortunately, wasn’t as bad a continuation, but it was still a disappointment. Maybe one day I’ll take the time to rewatch S1 and S2 in one weeklong binge, and perhaps it will help me find a better appreciation for it. After all, there are these stories, be it TV or movies, that get better with time. One of my all-time favorite SciFi movies is one I wanted to puke after seeing it in the cinema. That movie is Wing Commander. Now, I just adore it, and I’ve watched it probably 20 times. Mind you, I played all the video games in my youth, which is maybe why watching it in cinema, in dubbed French (horrible mistake), didn’t help, and trying to compare it to the games was another mistake. Wing Commander III (Heart of the Tiger) was the first game that had Hollywood-cut scenes with none other than Mark Hamill as the main character Christopher Blair. While I liked Freddie Prinze, Jr. just fine, at first view, I couldn’t help but make the comparisons.

 

I’ll end by saying this second season had a lot of good moments, even if I had a hard time getting into it. I still think it’s good SciFi, it just didn’t strike the same chords with me as its first season.

 

Have you seen it? If so, what are your thoughts on Season 2?

 

Christian Kallias (Free ebooks at christiankallias.com)

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