“Second Chances”, Continuum’s season two premiere—which originally aired in Canada on April 21 before making its way stateside for tonight’s Syfy broadcast—is not the show at its best; indeed, it’s by a fairly wide margin the worst episode the show has aired to date. That’s troubling, particularly after a moderately underwhelming first season finale, but most of the problems with this episode don’t necessarily indicate a problem with the second season as a whole. Instead, the issues with “Second Chances” are unique to that of a season premiere. As I discussed in my “Endtimes” review, Continuum’s heady time travel concepts and its exploration of the world of 2077 are only feasible because the bulk of the show is a standard police procedural; the more familiar elements essentially subsidize the more outlandish material, both in narrative and most likely budgetary terms.
What that means, in practice, is that the season finale of a high-concept procedural is the time to explore the overarching narrative, mythology elements, and game-changing twists, and then the next season’s premiere is all about slowly returning to some mildly modified version of the original formula so that the show can get back to business as usual. None of that is necessarily intended as a criticism, because it’s certainly possible to make great television this way; the original Life On Mars, for instance, stuck very rigidly to its procedural structure, with only its series finale really delving into the show’s mythology at a level beyond cryptic hints and clues. But when shows go down this path, there’s an expectation that although the dramatically outsized events of the season finale are going to be pushed to one side so that the procedural elements can return, those events will still be acknowledged and dealt with, even if the aftermath is contained to the next season premiere. With “Second Chances,” Continuum breaks that promise, and it nearly wrecks the entire episode.
At the end of last season, Edouard Kagame detonated a bomb that leveled one of the towers in Vancouver’s City Plaza, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. And now, ten minutes into the second season premiere, the mayor of Vancouver is assassinated in broad daylight in full view of dozens of reporters and photographers. This should go without saying, but those are both monumentally huge deals. The City Plaza death toll means that, in the show’s universe, it’s automatically one of the worst terrorist attacks in the history of North America, somewhere between the Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 attacks. The assassination of the mayor is nearly as unprecedented—my quick research suggests only about four politicians have been assassinated in all of Canada’s history, and even looking south to the United States, there are just three mayors of major cities (Carter Harrison, Sr. and Anton Cermak in Chicago, George Moscone in San Francisco) who were assassinated, and only Moscone was killed in the last half-century. Just one of these unimaginable events would be tragedy enough to leave serious psychological scars on an entire city’s populace, let alone two.
The Vancouver of Continuum has endured both of those cataclysmic, world-shattering events in the space of a single week, and yet you’d never know it from watching the vast majority of “Second Chances.” Carlos, Inspector Dillon, and the rest of the Vancouver Police Department never seem much more than mildly concerned that the mayor was killed less than a week after countless civilians died in a suicide bombing—a bombing, it’s worth mentioning, that both Carlos and Dillon were there in person to witness, which surely should confer some manner of psychological trauma. Even if we grant that these are meant to be highly trained professionals, there should at least be some sense of strain, of extra tension, of vague, creeping dread that the entire world is going to shit before their very eyes. Instead, the episode just treats the direct aftermath of what would probably be the worst tragedy in Canadian history like it’s just any other Tuesday. That goes double for the episode’s handful of civilian characters—including Alec’s new roommates and his computer store boss—who show zero indication that hundreds or thousands of their fellow citizens were slaughtered a week before.
The real problem here is that it feels like cheating to not even pay lip service to the obvious narrative implications of the show’s own supposedly game-changing twists; even a detail as minor as a makeshift memorial to the dead in the background of the police station or a bunch of characters wearing wristbands or pins commemorating the fallen would offer some tangible indication that these events actually mean something to the characters who supposedly live through them. The show rushes back to normal far too quickly, and it reduces the show’s characters to little more than pieces on a chessboard, and rather dull ones at that. It lends the entire episode a lifeless, weightless feel that does the actors no favors; Rachel Nichols and Victor Webster can do good work as Kiera and Carlos, but neither has the natural magnetism to convey internal turmoil or complex, conflicting emotions when the script gives them so little to work with.
The miscalculation in the overarching narrative also makes the central plot—in which Liber8 frames a gang for the mayor’s murder to help position their handpicked own local politician as the new mayor—more tedious than it needs to be. That story is already a touch more convoluted than it really should be, and it becomes even more difficult to sustain interest when Continuum appears to be studiously ignoring the more compelling story it created back in “Endtime.” To be clear, this episode didn’t need to be an hourlong meditation on how police officers process grief in the wake of incomprehensible tragedy (although, yeah, I would have been intrigued to see that hypothetical episode). It could have effectively told the same exact story it does tonight and still addressed the aftermath of Kagame’s attack on the margins. But the absence of those margins suggests a void at the episode’s center.
The good news is that these really are problems specific to the season premiere, and next week’s “Split Second” is a marked improvement, a return to Continuum’s usual level of quality. The bigger ongoing concern is just how coyly the show unveils its larger narrative, as Kiera and Alec studiously talk around the contents of the message from future Alec. It’s eventually revealed that the Sadler of the 2070s intends for the younger Alec to change the future, and that his grand plan apparently involves quite literally messing with Kiera’s head. The problem isn’t even so much that it’s taken eleven episodes to confirm something that was implied way back in the series premiere; it’s that the show holds back on the revelation even after the characters know the truth, which forces the characters to unnaturally avoid specific discussion of the big revelation. It’s another example of Continuum prioritizing its grand, overarching mystery ahead of character integrity or narrative logic. The show can certainly recover from the mistakes of “Second Chances” in the short term, but that sort of decision represents a worrisome long-term problem—especially when it’s still impossible to tell whether the big reveal is actually worth sticking around for.
- I’m more down on this episode than I expected to be. Despite it all, I’m still cautiously optimistic that Continuum can figure itself out, and the harshness of the grade is on some level a reflection of my continued belief in the show’s potential.
- The one character who is somewhat well-served in this episode is Alec, as he disengages from Kiera and abruptly abandons his past life. Alec gets the clearest emotional arc in the episode, and it helps that Erik Knudsen probably has the most intense acting style of the main cast, which allows him to sell the fact Alec is barely holding things together after receiving the message from his future self.
- Battlestar Galactica and Dollhouse alum Tahmoh Penikett returns as the crooked union leader who is poised to become Liber8’s puppet mayor. I like Penikett as an actor and am curious to see what he can bring to the show, especially since most of his strengths seem to lie more in the realm of the decent, hardworking hero type.
- Sonya Valentine’s failed execution of Travis is a rare instance where the show actually manages to pull off what initially seems like another narrative copout. When Sonya pulled the gun back in “Endtimes,” Travis’ death seemed like the sort of strong storytelling choice the show needed to make, but there’s a ton of potential in a war between rival Liber8 factions. It also gives Lexa Doig and Roger Cross more to do, which probably isn’t a bad thing.
- I’ll freely admit that I’m not an expert on Vancouver gangs, but was that gang even vaguely believable to anyone?