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TV shows change titles all the time, and there’s no reason necessarily to think of it as anything other than the fruit of test marketing or copyright wrangling. But sometimes titles are windows into how shows see themselves and how they want viewers to see them, and a muddle in titling can translate into a muddle in creative execution.
Take Fox’s new drama Second Chance. Or, rather, feel free not to take it until you’ve had assurances that the show is enough of a success that it will have the opportunity to settle into itself in terms of theme, tone and structure — because through four episodes, there no indication of cohesion. Despite early titles suggesting connections to Mary Shelley (Frankenstein and then The Frankenstein Code) or Lewis Carroll (Lookinglass) and a final title that sounds more like a geriatric dating reality show, Second Chance finds resonance in none of those things.
Air date: Jan 13, 2016
Created by the very talented but reliably title-changed Rand Ravich (Crisis, Life), Second Chance is actually the story of an arbitrarily selected glorified organ donor who fights crime when he isn’t donating precious bodily fluids to an ailing billionaire in a co-dependent relationship with her socially awkward twin. That’s a better sell than what Fox is currently doing, right?
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Put more clearly, Jimmy Pritchard (Philip Baker Hall) is a 75-year-old sheriff whose career ended in disgrace, estranging him from his FBI agent son (Tim DeKay). Jimmy is killed as part of a crime linking father and son, but then he’s resurrected through a series of groundbreaking medical procedures by brilliant tech gurus Mary (Dilshad Vadsaria) and Otto (Adhir Kalyan). Through methodology that’s over-explained, but under-justified, Jimmy either ages backwards or is retro-fitted into the body of an impossibly strong 35-year-old (Robert Kazinsky). The only reason Jimmy is chosen for new life is because of a rare DNA marker and the only purpose of the experiment is that for some reason Mary and Otto think Jimmy’s blood will cure cancer. Why they think this is irrelevant. Why their experiment required their subject having any sentience at all is irrelevant. Why or how they ended up with a dogged crime fighter as their subject is presented as luck through four episodes (but probably eventually won’t be). Why they allow him to take breaks from his duties as disease-curing petri dish to solve mysteries and bond with his now-contemporary son is one of entirely too many plot contrivances.
It happens that the worldviews of Shelley and Carroll are absurdly incompatible as they’re being utilized here. Shelley’s story is about man and science overreaching and stealing life-creating powers from God, but Carroll’s work is about finding an alternate world through unexplainable journeys through a rabbit hole or a looking glass. Oh and the title Second Chance implies, well, chance or luck. And Ravich and the writers spend way too much time over-justifying a medical procedure that’s far closer to magic, and the story badly wants to ignore all of the irksome aspects of the plot that are all-too-convenient luck. Because this is network TV, the engine of the show has to be larger-than-life weekly procedural investigations that make a mess of what the main character can do, why the main character can do it and why his masters are allowing this lab animal out into the wild. There is no part of Second Chance that benefits from pulling at any of the myriad loose strings, but the writers are compelled the leave those strings dangling. It’s sillier the more you think about it, but not action-packed to convince you not to think.
The pity is that there are aspects of Second Chance that work amidst the nonsense, but the show possesses no greater awareness of those aspects over the four episodes I’ve seen.
Anchored by reliable character actor DeKay, Agent Duval Pritchard responds in interestingly conflicted ways to the arrival of a character who reminds him unsettlingly of his father. What should be an interesting relationship between Duval and his dad is undermined by the decision to describe Old Jimmy as corrupt and amoral, but not to commit to those attributes in any way. Hall never plays Jimmy as worse than crotchety, and Kazinsky never makes him darker than a corner-cutting rogue, so the entire notion of a “second chance” is wasted, since the show is terrified that if Jimmy really needed a second chance, he’d be a cable hero and not a likable network hero. In fact, the softening of Jimmy’s edges harm Duval, because he’s got daddy issues stemming from a father who comes across as pretty caring and whose career-defining scandal will inevitably be proven to be a set-up. Were the characters well enough defined, it would be fun to watch DeKay and Kazinsky bicker, even if Kazinsky’s American accent dwindles gradually and has nearly vanished without comment by the fourth episode. Relations with other members of the Pritchard family are harder to warm up to because the series has no clear sense of how old or perceptive granddaughter Gracie (Ciara Bravo) is and Jimmy’s other daughter Helen (Amanda Detmer) keeps obsessing ickily about the man we know to be her father.
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Second Chance isn’t the sort of vehicle that can embrace the twistedness of a daughter’s lust for her resurrected father, nor is it dark enough to make sense of what ought to be an unnerving bond between Otto and Mary. Kalyan has actually embraced Otto’s social anxiety and his twitchy anxiousness at witnessing Mary flirt with the muscular blob he grew in a jar. Once again, the show can’t give any rational reason why this creature they made has to be mobile, sentient or anything other than a series of tubes stuck to a body hovering in formaldehyde, much less why it would develop super-strength, chiseled abs and a cocky smile. But as with Jimmy and Duval, only half of the dynamic works, since Mary has been written as a woman who has learned to present herself as the unreadable public face of their company and Vadsaria has decided that means she has to be plastic and inscrutable even in private, even when facing her own mortality. Mary has also been costumed in outfits that are designed only for flirting and not for public corporate events or physically demanding medical treatments, responding to a network note that may or may not have been “More belly-button from our sexy CEO.”
DeKay and Kalyan are giving grounded performances out of a better cable show. That show could also include Arthur (voice of Scott Menville), Otto’s animated virtual valet, who would be the breakout character if Second Chance were to become successful. Kazinsky and Vadsaria are the pretty faces of a network show in the midst of an identity crisis that should have been hammered out in the development process.
This is a problem that Fox has had repeatedly this season, perhaps speaking to the executive transition that was occurring as many of these shows were gestating. Second Chance, like the departed Minority Report and the yet-to-premiere Lucifer, seems to have been greenlighted on a sexy title or a flashy lead character with minimal consideration for the possible series to come, forcing some solid writers to flounder on the fly and viewers to deal with the bake-on-the-fly results.
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