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Apple TV+’s Foundation Returns with Bloated War of the Worlds

“Foundation,” AKA “Game of Thrones” in British space, exhibits both the pros and cons of making a series about an entire civilization, filling its humanity one demure conversation at a time. As its first-season adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s books proved, this intimate focus on the stakes of all mankind can be deeply engaging. With its eye on hope, the series from creators David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman and an army of Emmy-nominated special effects wizards conjured a space civilization torn apart by a human god’s predictions for the future, and a clone dictator’s tyranny. 

Such a flame of excitement flickers in and out with this second season, which focuses on broader themes—the power of faith and the disarming vulnerability of love—but also can be too dense with its mind games. As “Foundation” indulges more in its world-building, different game boards are stapled together, many new pieces are brought in, and rules are changed. The series has even more twisty allegiances this time around but is presented in a fashion that’s often too dense and dormant. 

This second season concerns, even more, the fate of Foundation—a society founded by fearless mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) before his death—and all that of humanity. A war is impending between the regal forces on the planet Trantor (including three differently aged clones of the same king, known as Cleons) against the people on the outer fringe planets of the Empire. Thanks to the showmanship and dedication of clerics played with wit and color by Kulvinder Ghir and Isabella Laughland, the Church of Seldon is becoming more and more revolutionary. This massive conflict clouds the already fraught existence of everyone in this show, but the stakes aren’t as prominent as they could be. 

Instead, "Foundation" invests more in toying with the science of its indulgent world-building, which includes the ability for physical manifestations of someone’s consciousness and a very important tchotchke that has people saying “quantum” casually. The visual effects remain superior, letting the viewer behold sights like an intricately designed spaceship or a mega-canvas of moving colorful sand. It's warming alone that this dialogue-driven show gets such care for its production design across the board. 

Much of the show's world-building involves Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) and her daughter Salvor (though Salvor is older than her—it’s a “Foundation” thing) and a non-human version of Seldon who helps them escape a type of exile. Gaal and Salvor (Leah Harvey) are privy to an ominous premonition about a god of war known as The Mule, including the destruction they bring. And yet fearing The Mule, or what terror they symbolize, becomes one of many promises from "Foundation" that become devalued with the story’s stubborn lack of momentum. When they later meet a cult-like group of mind-readers (led by an incredible Rachel House), it can almost be too on the nose for the show's themes of everyone playing mind games. 

Lee Pace remains a fascinating focus for the series as Brother Day, illustrating the sheer ego that could run such a defective kingdom. His jawline, posture, and baritone voice were made for such a tyrant. This season has him trying to change a legacy, ushering in a new hierarchy for the empire he reigns over with his fellow clones of different ages, Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton) and Brother Dusk (Terence Mann). He's also considering marriage to Ella-Rae Smith's steely Queen Sareth of Cloud Dominion, who is investigating who murdered her royal family members. 

There really isn't a lacking performance in this series; it's more about the character volume. Pace’s work flags in this version, mostly because he’s part of many facets that don’t gather enough dramatic momentum. The first episode of Season Two (directed by Alex Graves) has him naked, interrupted mid-coitus, fighting for his life against “blind angels” (basically space ninjas). It’s a pivotal moment that makes him consider his power even more, along with his emotional closeness to his robot servant Demerzel (Laura Birn) who saves the Day. And he's haunted by uncertainty about who ordered the hit.

This season of “Foundation” treats love as a motif between its characters, and some of its best drama flourishes with the vulnerability that comes with letting someone into your closest circle, to be disarmed. What space do feelings have in a gravely unbalanced world in which everyone’s primary focus is dedicated to salvation or destruction? Those notes accompany a mid-season backstory involving Seldon's rising mathematical genius and how his quantum device was created with his brilliant wife, Yanna (Nimrat Kaur). Love finds its deepest placement with the story of General Bel Roise (Ben Daniels), who is brought out of slavery to help Empire, and is reunited with the husband he thought had been executed six years prior. While they end up working for the enemy of Foundation, the two have a compelling relationship, made possible by their tender on-screen chemistry. 

All of this serious business gets some lightness from an arc about a scruffy-lookin’ nerf herder, Hober Mallow (Dimitri Leonidas). He’s a sneaky type, with a snazzy and funny introduction outsmarting a lesser space king. In an exciting moment in episode four, he's enlisted (along with Ghir and Laughland's characters) for an intriguing but underwhelming mission: to stop the war from happening, not help win it. At the very least, he becomes a bastion for the series’ range of dialogue—sometimes "Foundation" can be suffocating with regal speak, and other times it lets a character tear down its sanctimoniousness like when Mallow says, “All you need to do is help us kick Empire in the nuts.” 

It’s all a bit much to properly invest in. The math and science that cleverly helped create the world of "Foundation" now feels like it didn't before—it's homework. It’s amazing such a detailed epic like “Foundation” exists. But by becoming far wider, it risks stretching its power and sense of danger too thin. 

Eight episodes were screened for review. The first episode of Season Two of "Foundation" is now playing on Apple TV+, with a new episode premiering each week. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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