His name is Frank Martin and he drives an Audi, but his world looks very different.
TNT’s srylish and stunning Transporter: The Series got a massive reboot between its first and second seasons, which has prompted a half season of surprise and uncertainty from the action show’s fans. With the airing of Saturday night’s episode, “T2,” it definitively became clear that this is no longer the Transporter audiences met in October.
But what those same viewers might not know is how difficult it is to revamp an existing television series. There’s a lot more that factors into the mix besides just a desire to shake everything up.
Any consternation is certainly valid: Frank (the still vastly underrated Chris Vance) has mostly swapped his trademark suits for a dressed-down, less clean-cut look. He once operated on a condition of anonymity; now clients and villains alike know his name, and are apparently able to dig into his past.
Nearly everyone around him has been replaced; the only supporting character to make it to season two is Inspector Marcel Tarconi (Francoise Berleand), while Caterina “Cat” Boldieu (Violante Placido) is both the new assistant and possible love interest, and “T2” introduced mechanic Jules Faroux (Mark Rendall).
Under the new stewardship of award-winning producer Frank Spotnitz (Strike Back, The X-Files), Transporter has taken on a more serious tone and is unafraid to get down and dirty. Frank’s assignments have increasingly had a sense of purpose, rather than being the hour-long escapes that most of season one was known for.
This is most definitely not the same program that we raved about in October. But once you think about why it has changed, the differences begin to make more sense.
Transporter underwent likely one of the most extensive overhauls in television history. Not only did Atlantique Productions bring in Spotnitz to serve as the showrunner, but season two has an entirely new roster of both writers and directors. There are different names behind the camera too, including in the casting and wardrobe departments. It’s easier to ask who’s still with the show than to run down the long list of people who aren’t.
To a viewer, this would seem to be insane. Why part ways with almost the entire creative team that turned out such a successful first season? The initial twelve episodes of the show were some of the best action television that we’d seen in years, from the acting to the well-balanced scripts, sharp direction and beautiful cinematography. If you’re willing to jettison that, you don’t do it without a very good reason.
Atlantique has been on record as saying that they were happy with season one, but wanted season two to go further. The only action series superior to Transporter is Cinemax’s Strike Back, so they went out and hired Spotnitz, who wrote the first four episodes of Strike Back.
Spotnitz is brilliant at meshing high action with deep character development, which is what Transporter aspires to. He’s the man with the credentials for the job. But knowing his background, it’s not a real surprise that Transporter season two is now more serious and more gritty, not unlike Strike Back.
And he has done what he was hired to do: further open up Frank Martin’s world. Season two has taken us to new locations, brought in new allies, and “T2” created both a recurring nemesis for Frank to oppose and gave him a tragic romance in his past that served both as a key piece of backstory as well as a possible ongoing mystery. He has unquestionably broadened the canvas, and no one can say that he hasn’t tried to push the show to continued success.
Most of the writing staff comes from Spotnitz’s previous series Hunted, but when you’re charged with the major task of revamping a successful television series, wouldn’t you want writers around you that you know can turn out a script to your standards? The writers of season two certainly have a lot to grasp about writing for Frank Martin as opposed to Sam Hunter, but they’re writing while trying to learn an entirely new show.
If there’s one issue with the writing, it’s that the scripts have apparently abandoned the basic elements that made Frank Martin distinctive. His three rules routinely got broken in season one, but they were important to him; “T2” acknowledged that at least rule number two – no names – no longer exists.
Likewise, his suits only seem to come out for client meetings; season two has seen Frank mostly dressed down, which wouldn’t be a problem if his style wasn’t something else that audiences have come to associate with the character. Especially as Transporter is trying to stay true to a pre-existing brand, it’s surprising that the season has mixed things up so much, but oddly that’s not the biggest surprise.
That brings us to the cast changes, and the place where we’ll have to agree to disagree with the producers. We still think there was plenty of life in Carla (Andrea Osvart) and her sisterly relationship with Frank, and if they were looking for a female character to actively participate in his assignments, ex-CIA agent Carla could have done that. It wouldn’t have been a huge leap, as the season one finale “Cherchez La Femme” had her dragged into the line of fire.
Frank’s girlfriend Juliette (Delphine Chaneac) had arguably run her course; her arc played out by the end of season one, and Chaneac didn’t have the same chemistry with Vance that Osvart did. But Caterina hasn’t been an improvement over either woman; while there’s nothing wrong with Placido as an actress, the character has made some terrible decisions, and the implications of a future flirtation between Cat and Frank already feel forced, because the chemistry isn’t there, either.
Then there was the decision to kill off Frank’s best friend and loyal mechanic Dieter (Charly Hubner). At first glance, this appears to be the worst choice in the entire season. But according to Spotnitz, it was unavoidable: the decision to pursue a second season took so long that Hubner was no longer available to return as a regular.
The new showrunner thus can’t really be blamed for getting rid of Dieter. What does fall on his shoulders is how: killing off the character really served no purpose other than angering many of the fans. But Carla had already left of her own accord; having two characters exit the same way would just have come off as lazy, particularly since Dieter had already shown in season one that he didn’t really want to leave Frank. Having him die, then, is more palatable than having him do something far out of character.
Likewise, not having Carla in attendance at Dieter’s funeral seems ridiculous, but look at it from a production standpoint: after letting her go, you’re probably not going to ask Osvart to return for a non-speaking cameo in one scene.
In a perfect world, Transporter would have gotten its green light early enough to hold on to Hubner in the first place, and it would have kept Osvart, too. But while we don’t agree with those decisions, one has to concede how other elements factor into creative choices.
And that’s the real lesson here. Fans don’t have to be onboard when a series completely overhauls itself; it’d be strange if they weren’t somehow bothered, since something they’ve invested in is suddenly changing. But we also have to recognize that there are often reasons why things have to change, many of which involve considerations outside of just what’s good for the audience.
Transporter still ranks as one of our favorite shows on television. That’s because it has the core of what made it our favorite new show this year: Chris Vance, who’s giving the performance of his life in the role of Frank Martin. No matter what else is going on, audiences can still count on Vance to deliver outstanding work, whether it’s serving as the show’s sole remaining comic relief or digging into Frank’s complicated past.
He’s the heart and soul of the program, and as long as he’s present, there will always be something worth watching. One plus of season two’s more dramatic scripts is that Vance has gotten additional opportunities to show the performing talent that earned him the role of Frank in the first place. When you have a truly great actor leading your show, you want him to be allowed to really act.
The fight coordination and car stunts on the series continue to be some of the best on television, too; last week’s “Diva” featured a sparring match backstage at a concert venue that had us in disbelief. It’s clear that the crew members who are responsible for putting these together still love what they do, and half the fun of watching the show is seeing what they’re going to come up with next.
And we’re still passionate about Transporter season two, just for slightly different reasons than we championed season one. We miss Hubner and Osvart, the humor and chemistry that they brought, and how we had unbelievable fun every Saturday night. Now we’re enjoying probing deeper into the character of Frank, taking in scripts that make us have to think about something, and seeing more than the same three locations. Where season one was our escape, season two is something we can sink our teeth into.
There’s no doubt that Transporter followed up its phenomenal first season by taking the most major of risks, and any time you take a risk, there’s both something to lose and something to gain. What’s important now is that Transporter avoids the fate that’s befallen many shows that take the gamble of a reboot and drives its way to a third season.
Transporter: The Series airs Saturdays at 10 PM ET/PT on TNT. Both seasons of the series are currently available on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.