Now streaming–Is a lesser second season of Netflix’s Altered Carbon still better than the rest of your sci-fi TV options?


Review by C.J. Bunce

The first season of Netflix’s Altered Carbon was a fantastic sci-fi series with a stellar cast and a story and production values that rivaled the original Blade Runner and its 2017 sequel.  Based on Richard K. Morgan’s novels, the series is centered around Takeshi Kovacs, a future soldier in a world where science has developed a hard drive called a “stack” that is implanted in humans’ necks, allowing our memories to be uploaded to storage and replanted over and over so they seemingly can live forever, even in new bodies.  That conceit allows Kovacs and other characters to be played by any number of actors, which, as demonstrated in Season 2, can allow the series to continue indefinitely much as Doctor Who’s regeneration mechanism allows replacement Doctors.  So how does a series fair when it replaces the lead after the first season?  Can it keep up the intrigue and interest for viewers?

The first season asked: What does it mean to be human, and how much can you shed away and replace with technology and still retain the “self”?  Unfortunately, the second season falls a bit short.  Although it wisely was paired down from ten to eight episodes for its second season (season one couldn’t keep up the action and would have benefited from some good editing), the series just doesn’t capture the same magic.  Anthony Mackie′s assumption of the role of Kovacs in the year 2385, years after the events of the first season, is more of a re-hash of what we saw Joel Kinnaman do with the character last season.  Mackie is usually one of the best parts of any project he tackles (The Adjustment Bureau, Captain America: Winter Soldier), but the story and dialogue here are not as sophisticated as in the inaugural effort, and Mackie is always intense, his acting dialed up to eleven, much different than his character in the first season.  Simone Missick, who we loved in Marvel’s Luke Cage, provides an interesting new cyborg character for the Altered Carbon universe as Trepp, but it didn’t quite catch up to the passion of Martha Higareda’s driven cop Kristin Ortega last season.  But where the series shines is in its supporting cast of characters, many returning from last season.  The result is like comparing the first season of the Battlestar Galactica reboot with the last–good television–even if it’s not as gritty and exciting as the first season, it still may be the best sci-fi series on television this year.

Poe Dig 301

Foremost is Chris Conner back as the artificial intelligence who has taken inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe, a bodyguard of sorts looking out for Kovacs (Mackie) in his new body (called a sleeve).  Conner brings to the series the same kind of compelling look at the trouble of incorporating humanity into robots or cyber-creations, the same type of battle of sentience in the non-living as conveyed by Robert Picardo as the emergency medical hologram in Star Trek Voyager.  In this season Poe is in trouble–his matrix is broken and he needs to reboot, which he does not want to do because that would mean he would forget Lizzie (Hayley Law), a key character of last season, and a memory stored in his digital mind.  Not rebooting means he makes mistakes that could hinder Kovacs’s ability to stay hidden from his pursuers.  But there is hope for Poe, and that comes in the form of another creation, another artificial intelligence, an ancient storage “archaeologue” unit called Dig 301, played by Dina Shihabi, who nicely substitutes as a futuristic love interest for Poe.

Altered Carbon 2 pic

We only saw glimpses last season of Renee Goldsberry′s Quellcrist Falconer, the character who now may or may not really be the long lost love and military leader of Kovacs, also the creator of the stacks and sleeve technology hundreds of years ago.  This year she fully steps into the heroine role, a kickass leader, incredibly gifted in her ability to clear a room of opponents with her body as a weapon.  As we hoped for last season, in addition to Mackie we get to see the original sleeve of Kovacs, played by Will Yun Lee (Hawaii Five-O, Bionic Woman, Witchblade), a true reward to viewers because of the nature of his return this season.  Other returning characters include Ato Essandoh′s Vernon Eliot and Dichen Lachman′s Reileen.

missick ac

The villainy comes from two actors new to the series, Lela Loren′s loathsome governor Danica Harlan and a military attaché, Colonel Carrera, played by Torben Liebrecht.  Harlan’s actions provide some spectacular moments, like spiriting away prisoners holding a secret by launching them over a crowd tied to giant fireworks.  The series is at its best with its surprises, including swapped sleeves, and characters who aren’t what they seem.  We also meet an interesting new force of military robots.  As with season one, the story turns on righting wrongs and a quest for vengeance, and in that regard the series is satisfying, if predictable.  Familiar character actor James Saito (Hawaii Five-O, M*A*S*H, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) makes for a good addition to the storyline, as does David Cubitt (Medium, Van Helsing, Bates Motel), who has a brief role, but is sadly underutilized.

Ultimately the story in season two is a bit less dark, less hard R-rated, and focuses on more of a space adventure than investigating deep themes.  The series continues to exhibit the best props, sci-fi costumes, and cool sets and visual effects, and it’s a fun ride.  It’s a must for any fan of cyberpunk, tech noir, future military, and dystopian mysteries.  The eight episodes of season two–and the first season–of Altered Carbon are now streaming on Netflix.

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