As is tradition, I’ll be starting this review by immediately answering two important questions: Is the show good and should you watch it? Let me answer that first one last. Yes, you should watch it, if for no other reason than the fact that Altered Carbon is one of the few sci-fi shows currently running that’s as smart, well-acted, and well-produced as other dramas (Hello, The Expanse, please join our club. Not so fast, Another Life). But is it good? Yeah … yes. It is. No, really. Yes. I think. It definitely isn’t bad, it’s just, as the title of this post might suggest, not the same show as season one. This does not make the show good or bad. Rather the differences between the two seasons open a world of possibilities for the show to explore but mostly don’t. If I were giving out awards for TV seasons, Altered Carbon season two would get the Most Squandered Potential aka the Junior Year Of High School Me award. But that’s not what we’re here to discuss.
What we’re here to discuss is why season two of Altered Carbon isn’t as good as the much-beloved season one. This again isn’t to say season two is bad, it’s just a mostly different show. Starting with the fact that Takeshi Kovacs in present form is now being played by Anthony Mackie instead of Joel Kinnaman. In something that shouldn’t come as a surprise to most people, having a different actor take over the role previously played by another actor changes that character. I won’t get into any specific spoilers, but the advantage of having both Kinnaman and Mackie play the same character is that you get to explore ideas concerning how intertwined our personalities and bodies are. The premise of Altered Carbon is that our minds are so completely separate from our bodies that we can, with some serious technological breakthroughs, transfer our memories and personalities (our “selves”) into any body, organic or synthetic, and be the same person. Is there any reason to think that’s true? Our “selves” are based on a combination of our genetic materials and life experiences. Life experiences would vary greatly if you experience them as a tall, Scandinavian white man than if you did so as a petite, Asian woman. Or as an average-size Black man. The show starts to touch on the fact that each time a consciousness is resleeved it changes, but they never bother to really dig into that idea. This is a problem because Mackie’s Kovacs is significantly different from Kinnaman’s. Wildly so. Like changes-the-very-DNA-of-the-show-different. Mackie’s Kovacs isn’t tortured in the way that Kinnaman’s is, which I say as a compliment because it means I’m not actively concerned for Mackie’s mental health (Poor Man’s Eric Northman, you doing OK?). Mackie’s Kovacs isn’t disillusioned by the system around him, he just wants to complete the mission and go home.
Those changes make the show a different series. But instead of focusing on the deeper philosophical issues inherent in having a singular consciousness experience life through a series of different realities and the implications of those issues, the show mostly reverts to another instance of the problem being an overly entitled ruling class that operates as mostly above the law. And again, having huge wealth and power disparities between classes isn’t futuristic dystopian sci-fi. It’s mostly just “the news.” Instead of using the real-world changes to the show to demonstrate how seemingly superficial changes to an identity can create massive differences, the show vaguely nods at it and continues on its way. It’s not bad, just a huge missed opportunity.
But again, that doesn’t mean the show is bad or not worth watching, just that it wasn’t all I was hoping it would be. In fact, the cast itself should be enough of a reason to watch the series. You know how many white men they have as lead roles? NONE. NONE! You know how many of the three main roles are played by women of color? TWO. The series has envisioned a world where not only are people of color present, powerful, and advancing the plot of the show, but the white dudes are relegated to the roles to which people of color were previously relegated: The villain and the sidekick (which is not to talk shit about Poe in any way, shape, or form. I love you, Poe). Altered Carbon misses the mark in a couple of ways that makes it not overwhelmingly awesome. Unfortunately, it’ll have to learn to settle for just being “better than ninety-nine percent of shows.”