Boasting a hefty budget for visual effects and production design, the first season of Netflix's cyberpunk sci-fi thriller Altered Carbon sported dazzling eye candy visuals and some exciting action set-pieces, but it never quite managed to distance itself from obvious influences, including Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell and, oddly, the film noir classic The Big Sleep. Perhaps more problematic, the show hit right at the peak of the Hollywood whitewashing controversy, and its plot — featuring an Asian hero played by just about the whitest actor available (Swedish-born Joel Kinnaman) — made it an easy target for critics.
To be fair, the narrative provided a conceit for that casting choice, and the show otherwise had a reasonably diverse supporting cast. Nevertheless, the optics of its racial politics remained a little dicey. Two years later, the series returns with a second season and some significant retooling, not the least of which is recasting the lead. Protagonist Takeshi Kovacs is now played by Anthony Mackie, who still isn't the least bit Asian but feels like some sort of progress for diversity anyway.
Themes of personal identity are central to Altered Carbon, which takes place in a distant future where human memories and personality are digitally stored in computer "stacks" implanted into the base of everyone's skull, effectively rendering the concept of death obsolete. Organic bodies (or "sleeves") are merely vessels that ferry a person's consciousness around and can be exchanged with ease. Body swapping from sleeve to sleeve was a major plot device in the show's first season and continues to be here.
The series is loosely based on a book trilogy by author Richard K. Morgan — this season even more loosely than the first. The show appears to have mostly skipped over the second novel and selectively mined portions of the third for a significantly rewritten story.
About thirty years have passed since the events of Season 1. Kovacs once again finds himself in a brand-new, tactical-ready, and impressively jacked sleeve (Mackie) when another obscenely wealthy "Meth" requires his services. What initially seems to be a retread of the first season thankfully shifts gears to send Kovacs on a mission back to his original home on Harlan's World, an important mining colony beset by war between an anti-immortality rebel faction and ruthless governor Danica Harlan (Lela Loren).
Other major players in this conflict are an elite military squad whose commander (Torben Liebrecht) knows Takeshi well, yakuza gangsters, a resourceful bounty hunter named Trepp (Simone Missick), and Takeshi's long lost love Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry). Returning from Season 1 is the hotel proprietor, an A.I. hologram fashioned after Edgar Allan Poe (Chris Conner), whose presence on another planet amounts to the show's writers needing an excuse to keep a popular character around. He even gets a hologram love interest (Dina Shihabi) to help justify additional screen time.
Despite moving to an alien planet, the scale of the season feels noticeably smaller compared to the first. The episode count has been reduced from ten to eight, which may be for the best since the first season petered out a bit at the end. However, the first of those episodes is rather dull and confusing. Though the show picks up afterwards and has some interesting twists in the back half, the storyline this time around is less exciting in general. While action scenes and VFX showcases are still plentiful, they also seem less inventive. Even Anthony Mackie, who's proven himself a fine actor in other projects, feels strangely flat and devoid of personality here. That may be due in part to his trying to mimic another actor's performance for continuity's sake, but Kinnaman felt more invested in the role.
None of this is to say that the second season of Altered Carbon is a major letdown or a waste of time. Fans should still find enough to enjoy. I just can't shake the feeling that the show is already treading water when it should be expanding its scope. With luck, that will happen in the third season, should it get renewed again.
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Josh Zyber has written about TV, movies, and home theater for the past two decades. Most recently, he spent more than nine years managing a daily blog at High-Def Digest.