Comic TV With Dan Speed Round 2: Cruise Control

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This instalment: Got a few more quick entries to knock off here.

Short version: And now, five shows with nothing in common except “Based on the comic book.”

Let’s continue.

Legion

Image: FX

Why haven’t I written a full blog about Legion, you might ask? I mean… you haven’t. I know that. Nobody has asked that, I’m just saying you might. It’s an incredibly rich, thoroughly innovative show that isn’t just unlike other comic TV, it’s pushing the boundaries for television in general.

But therein lies the problem.

There is so much to this show. Nearly every episode of season two, and most of season one, has so much to unpack in terms of story, visuals, how Noah Hawley is challenging our every expectation, that I couldn’t possibly cover it in a single blog post. I can sum it up in a speed round or I can do a podcast where we drill deep into every episode. There’s an episode where after David, our central character, suffers a stunning and tragic loss, we break from the story as we knew it to see a half dozen other ways David’s life could have gone, only to realize that all of these alternate paths are David processing his grief. I could spend a whole post on that episode. So for now, here’s the highlights, and simply know that in not watching it you’re doing yourself a disservice.

What are the basics? In season one, at some impossible-to-name point in the 70s or 80s, mental patient David Haller finds love with a fellow patient, Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller), then finds out he’s not crazy, he’s an incredibly powerful mutant telepath/telekinetic (teleporter, question mark?). On the run from mutant-hunting government agents Division 3, David joins the Summerland group, a team of mutants led by Melanie Bird (Amy Smart), wife of another telepath Oliver Bird (a delightful Jemaine Clement), and learns that the reason he’s felt crazy all of his life is that since birth, the malevolent telepath Amahl Farouk, aka the Shadow King, has been living in the back of his mind.

And it all gets even stranger than it sounds.

Season two. After finding out he’s lost a year since we last saw him, David rejoins his mutant friends, who have now gone to work with their former enemies Division 3. The Shadow King, no longer in David’s mind, is out to find and reunite with his old body. Which it’s generally agreed would be bad. Thus, Division 3 and the Summerland mutants work together to hunt him down… but a version of Syd from the future wants David to help Farouk get to his body.

And it all gets even weirder. And makes us question how much of the premise and actions of season one we really understood or can trust.

What went right? Most things. The cast was all strong this year, although Amy Smart got a little sidelined, which is unfortunate. The art design, aesthetics, every frame has a style to it… a style often custom-engineered to make the viewer uneasy. The soundtrack was great, featuring several amazing cover songs.

There’s so much. There’s so much. Jon Hamm narrating lectures on delusion, madness, mental illness as plague, that all pay off… and then keep going a little? And then pay off again. Dan Stevens’ performance. Hamish Linklater’s continuing transformation from generic villain to tragic hero. David’s dance fight against the Shadow King’s posse. Navid Neghaban’s complex, layered performance as Farouk, done with hiding behind masks. Bill Irwin and Amber Midthunder as Cary and Kerry Loudermilk. So much. Nobody, nobody is testing the limits of what comic book TV can be like Legion.

That said.

What went wrong? I can’t explain without a certain amount of spoilers. So… read at your own risk.

Season two finale spoilers

Now… this isn’t ALL bad. Noah Hawley’s onto something with one of the issues his finale raises: did we just assume David is a hero because he was fighting a villain? Should we? But I have some issues here. Lots of shows do the bit where the villain turns the hero’s allies against them, and many do it the way Farouk does here. By revealing secrets the hero had kept, and twisting half-truths and some deceits buried inside them to turn allies into enemies. Agents of SHIELD, Arrow, Preacher, Luke Cage, Legends of Tomorrow… hell, Gotham does it multiple times a year. But the villain isn’t supposed to be RIGHT. There’s supposed to be a way to walk it back. It’s not supposed to take the one relationship that has been the show’s beating heart since the pilot and make us wonder if it was ever what we thought, or if it were something else, something horrifyingly different. Basically… you can twist a plot so hard that it moves past being a shock and becomes a betrayal. A betrayal of the audience, taking away the narrative conventions that let us keep a grip on all of this weirdness and leaving us adrift.

[collapse]

In short… the finale pulled a cliffhanger that was truly unsettling. And not “How many episodes of Jake Peralta in jail are they going to make me sit through” unsettling, but “Can I still trust this show, or could I ever trust this show?” unsettling.

Still… you can’t love a show for defying all conventions and then decry it for not caring about simple, black-and-white, good guy vs bad guy narratives. Just… they did some things I didn’t care for.

Also “designing an entire season to erode viewer comfort” might not be a strength of the show to everyone.

What should they have done? Well… I don’t want to say “Don’t have done that thing at the end” until I see how season three plays out.

Let’s move on to something simpler.

Supergirl

Image: CW

What are the basics? Our theme this year is “family.” Alex Danvers breaks up with the first great love of her life, Maggie Sawyer, over a disagreement about having kids down the road. Winn Schott confronts issues with his estranged parents, including one supervillain. J’onn J’onzz has an unexpected reunion with his father, only to face losing him a second time to… let’s just call it Martian Alzheimer’s. Lena Luthor and our central character, Kara Danvers, try to cling to the surrogate family of everyone I just mentioned, especially since Kara is still getting over losing her boyfriend, Mon-El. But before long things get shaken up. Turns out Mon-El went to the future, where he joined the 31st century’s greatest superteam, the Legion of Super-Heroes, and he’s come back to the past with two teammates: the hyper-intelligent Brainiac 5 and the telepath of Titan, Imra Ardeen, aka Saturn Girl… aka Mon-El’s wife.

More troubling… Samantha Arias, Lena’s second-in-command and latest member of the Danvers extended family (along with her teen daughter), is slowly transforming into Reign, a Kryptonian killing machine known as a Worldkiller. The name is not a hyperbole. Supergirl and the DEO, along with Lena Luthor, try to save Sam from fully becoming Reign, and in the process save the world.

What went right? The cast is still quite charming. Melissa Benoist is great, Jeremy Jordan is super charming, Chyler Leigh is funny and kickass and has ugly-crying-superpowers. Katie McGrath is still killing it as Lena, although I think she might have gotten worse at hiding her Irish accent. Which… that isn’t actually a negative for me, just saying.

I’m liking the new, matured, more confidently heroic Mon-El, and his Legion of Super-Heroes teammates were very well cast. Imra’s good and Brainy’s funny. [Sidebar: More Brainy next season? Yay! Wait… less Winn? Not yay.] Odette Annabelle, who I’ve liked since Cloverfield and even managed to enjoy in the final, half-assed season of House, does great work in the double role of Sam and Reign. Plus Adrian Pasdar dropped by for a few episodes as Lena’s rival, the corrupt media mogul Morgan Edge. Shame he had to drop off the radar halfway through, but it did free him up to go back to Agents of SHIELD.

The Reign arc has a lot of stages. It’s not oppressively static like, say, The Thinker over on The Flash.

Of all the CW shows that don’t rhyme with “Smack Smightling,” Supergirl does the best at tackling political topics. Race relations, immigrant struggles, LGBTQ+ issues, and a much more successful take on gun problems than Arrow managed last year. Something about the exchange between Lena and James made it feel more like a debate and not simply hammering talking points. It might be Katie McGrath, she can sell a great deal.

Everyone staring as Kara, ready to leap into action, slowly unbuttons her shirt instead of dramatically ripping it open. “What?” she asks. “I like this shirt!”

What went wrong? It does feel like Morgan Edge was there to kill time until the Reign arc was ready for its second act. And once Reign had surfaced, he was sent off to prison. Wished off to the same cornfield as Maxwell Lord and Snapper Carr before him.

They are still working on how to use James Olsen. It’s getting better. James and Lena started hitting it off, causing problems for James when Lena and Supergirl had a falling out.

Sam became besties with Kara and Alex a little quick. Like, right away. I feel like she’d known the gang one episode before everyone was lining up to be surrogate aunts to Sam’s daughter Ruby (I’m also lukewarm on Ruby as a character, though I see her value as a plot point). It was like Danny McBride at the end of Pineapple Express*.

And if the DEO develops earplugs that neutralize someone’s scream power, have them remember to bring said earplugs when they’re likely to run into that person.

*Remember? They all go out for breakfast, and Seth Rogen and James Franco are best pals now, and then Danny McBride says “Can I be best friends with you guys too?” and they say sure, ’cause they’re all high, and suddenly we’re pretending he was an equal part of the movie and not, at best, the Leo Getz to their Riggs and Murtaugh**, and then he’s also on the posters, and maybe it’s just because Eastbound and Down had become a thing, but that’s how they thought they could do a follow-up with just McBride and Franco and it was Your Highness and it was awful and you know Natalie Portman at one point thought “I showed my ass in a thong for this?” I’m sure you all know exactly what I mean. Anyway Sam becoming instant co-best friends with Kara and Lena, while important for the story, felt a little like that.

**Oh, just Google it if you don’t know.

What should they have done? I guess if I were to dig into it, maybe a first act that paid off later in the season, rather than a bunch of Morgan Edge stuff that stops mattering halfway through the year. Oh, and no more villains with magic screaming powers. Especially no more villains with screaming powers that are somehow still a threat after the DEO develops a countermeasure.

Supergirl’s fun and charming and unabashedly liberal. Maybe there are a few more ways to nudge it from good to great, but they’re eluding me right now.

Riverdale

Image: CW

…What even is this show? Why is this show? And why can’t I stop watching it?

What are the basics? Riverdale, the town with pep… no, you know what, you can’t just tell people what happens on Riverdale. Any description of plot points ends up sounding like you’re making fun of the show. I’ll demonstrate. I’ll describe two plots, one of which is real, one of which is a parody, and you guess which is which.

Jughead, as gang leader of the Southside Serpents, challenges the leader of the rvial gang the Ghoulies to a drag race for gang supremacy in order to stem their sale of the party drug jungle-jangle, but Archie gets involved and things go both fast and furious.

In an attempt to win over Veronica’s stern father, Archie gives up football to go out for the wrestling team. When that doesn’t work, he tries joining the mafia and helping defend against Montreal drug lord Papa Poutine.

So… which one is real?

Trick question. They both are. Even… especially the parts about Papa Poutine and jingle-jangle. Jingle-jangle is discussed in serious tones all season and by god the cast commit to it. They take the existence of a drug called jingle-jangle that’s served in pixie sticks deadly seriously. And that, readers, is what ultimately works about this show.

They know exactly what show they’re making. They’re making a trashy soap filled with noir mysteries, gothic heroines, vigilante gangs, hooded would-be serial killers (for all of his menace the Black Hood’s success rate is so-so), and a crime lord trying to corrupt and conquer what we’re told used to be a quaint and innocent town, and for some reason they are doing it with Archie characters. I don’t know why the creative head of Archie Comics went to Greg Berlanti and said “I want to make a hybrid of Veronica Mars and Dark Shadows and I want to do it with Archie characters, want to help?” but I’m beginning to see why Berlanti said “Absolutely I do.”

This show is compulsively watchable. Maybe not always (often?) good, per se, but very watchable. It gets into your head, man. You just need to know where they’re going with this.

That said… Season one started with the murder of a teenager and descended into evil nunneries, Archie banging his sex predator music teacher, gang life, secret drug empires, and a little bit of incest. Keep all of that in mind and then hear me when I say that season two got dark.

I didn’t care for Archie’s slide into darkness. Archie’s unflinching goodness, albeit cut with a certain amount of standard teenage dickishness, was one of the strengths of season one, and now he’s forming posses and starting gang fights and joining the mob. Quite the turnaround.

I also don’t like that evil mostly wins here. Sure the Black Hood is caught, but Hiram Lodge’s Sinister Plan to Rule All Riverdale seems to be proceeding unopposed. Well, except for alienating his family, but that’s neither here nor there, and we’ll see if his wife Hermione stays against him for long. Hiram’s got total control now, and it’s not like Betty and Jughead can just call the FBI. If Arrow taught us anything it’s that the FBI won’t take down a criminal organization that has seized control of a city’s government and police unless they also get to arrest a vigilante who is trying his best.

Sorry to be back on that but goddamn Agent Watson, check your priorities.

Okay. Two more. Let’s put the “speed” back in “speed round” so we’re not doing three of these. Time for zombie murders!

iZombie

Image: CW

What are the basics? Zombies are not out in the open, since rogue elements of zombie military group Fillmore Graves created thousands of zombies in Seattle. The city is now walled off from the rest of the country, and human/zombie relations are not at an all-time high. In between solving murders with her partner Clive Babineaux, medical examiner Liv Moore finds a new cause: smuggling humans into Seattle so that zombieism can cure their fatal illnesses. Creating new zombies is an act which carries a death sentence, as thanks to certain parties skimming brains for the black market, Fillmore Graves is struggling to keep the zombie population fed as it is. Which creates opportunities for Seattle’s OG morally shady zombie entrepreneur, Blaine DeBeers, and his father Angus, who escapes captivity at the bottom of a well, turns out to have gone crazy in said well, and starts preaching to hungry zombies that humans are naught but food. So… that’s not helping keep the peace.

Geez. For a 13 episode season there was a lot going on this year.

What went right?
-Liv’s boss/confidant Ravi’s attempted zombie vaccine from last season means he goes zombie for about five days out of every month, and his eating brains results in nudist Ravi, heroin addict Ravi, and Instagram diva Ravi, and Rahul Kohli was nailing it.
-What a thoroughly entertaining cast this show has.
-All the lampshade-hang meta-jokes from “Yippee Ki Brain, Motherscratcher!”
-Highest on the above list, instead of a cooking montage, Liv grabs the brain-of-the-week and takes a bite. “What?” she asks Ravi, seeing his stare. “I don’t feel like cooking.”
-This exchange, and Ravi’s desperate backpeddling:

What went wrong?
-I don’t remember Liv’s reactions to specific brains being quite this over-the-top. Like Legends of Tomorrow and levity, Happy Endings and rapid banter, or Legion and subversion of narrative expectations, it may be possible to have too much of a good thing.
-With this many plots, it’s not always easy to progress them all equally, or know which one is most important.
-The show seems to think that Liv the human smuggler vs. Fillmore Graves the oppressor was a clearcut good guy/bad guy scenario, but it was a little more complicated. The fact is that Chase Graves was trying to keep Seattle from being nuked into glass to wipe out the zombies, and every time Liv made a new zombie she made it harder to keep everyone fed, grew the unrest, and sent more hungry zombies to be radicalized by Angus’ Brother Love. So… Liv wasn’t entirely in the right here, and they never felt like acknowledging that.
-There was an inspector from Fillmore Graves named Enzo Lambert, who was some bizarre hybrid of Inspectors Clouseau and Javert. He wore a cape and had a ridiculous French accent and was not helpful in solving murders, and I couldn’t figure out why he existed. And then I saw “Daniel Bonjour” in the guest credits and I thought “Is he a comedian I don’t know doing a bit? Does he have a French character and he’s doing that on the show, like how Steve Smith would guest star on shows under the name Red Green?” But it turned out Daniel Bonjour doesn’t even play Enzo, he plays Liv’s new romantic interest Levon, and now I’m even more confused.
-Liv knew in episode one who was skimming brains, so why did it take until episode 12 to deal with him? Jesus.

What should they have done? As we head into the final season, a clear, central story might help. And maybe if Liv eats the brain of a LARPer, she doesn’t have to speak like King Arthur every goddamn sentence. None of the LARPers they met during the investigation did that.

How we doing? 3100 words. Damn. Maybe I shouldn’t have spent so much time on Pineapple Express.

But I’m not sorry.

Zombies naturally take us to…

The End of the F***ing World

Image: Channel 4

I’ve been reminded that this quirky little show, made in Britain but available on the Netsflix, is based on a comic. Probably much more accurately than your iZombies or Lucifers or definitely Riverdale. So it’s germane to the conversation.

What are the basics? Alyssa is a somewhat nihilistic teenage girl, looking to escape an unhappy home situation. She thinks she’s ready to have sex, and thinks that quiet, withdrawn James is a good place to start. James is pretty sure he’s a psychopath, as he hasn’t really felt anything since his mother died years ago. He thinks he’s ready to start murdering, and thinks that unsmiling abrasive Alyssa is a good place to start.

When Alyssa wants to escape her tuned-out mother and creepy, douchey, potentially or even probably abusive step-father, she and James hit the road together, and meet many terrible people while two female detectives, who are trying to adjust to their relationship recently becoming briefly sexual, chase after them. Things get bleak.

What worked? The two leads are quite good, and make interesting, relatable characters out of, on paper, hard to like teens. The detectives work as well. And the writing’s sharp. The eight episodes fly by. And there’s a good character twist for James, and he begins to figure out what his actual issues are.

What didn’t? Man it gets bleak towards the end.

What should they have done? …Well, unlike a lot of comic book shows lately, they were directly adapting a specific story, so I don’t know what choices they had.

Look, it’s eight episodes, it’s pretty compelling, probably worth checking out.

Okay. Think… think we’re good. Think I’ve covered everything. Nothing left but the rankings and the awards– oh dang. Luke Cage is still almost a week out.

[Checks watch]

Yeah, okay, I can wait. Come along, Luke, let’s see if you’ve got a more a more cohesive season this year.

Comic TV With Dan Speed Round!

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This instalment: Let’s catch up on a few longer-running shows that don’t warrant full entries. What did they do well? What could they have done better?

Short version: One show played like tomorrow wasn’t coming, while a few others got too confident about renewal.

Let’s begin.

Krypton

Image: SyFy

Not a returning show, per se, but after a decade of Smallville and four years of Gotham aren’t all of these prequel shows basically… no? Well, anyway.

What are the basics? In the city of Kandor on the planet of Krypton, a young man named Seg-El, years after his house was discredited leaving him simply known as “Seg,” is approached by a human from the future named Adam Strange claiming that Seg’s grandson is destined to be the galaxy’s greatest hero Superman, but one of his enemies has travelled back in time to ensure that doesn’t happen. Seg and Adam Strange find what allies they can in order to save Kandor from the approaching Brainiac, Collector of Worlds. At least they’re pretty sure that’s the plan…

What went wrong? Four episodes in I was really willing to give up on this show. It sold itself but claiming that there was much more to Krypton than how the planet died, and then opened by taking us to what must assuredly be the shittiest city in the worst part of Krypton. It is murder-cold outside the city’s dome all of the time, outside of the rich section at the top of the city it seems to always be night, and that’s just the aesthetics. Get past that, and Kandor is living under a theological dictatorship, where someone calling himself the Voice of Rao is enforcing an aggressively mean-spirited caste system. If you’re not in a Guild, you live down in the perpetual poverty and twilight with the Unguilded, fit only to be savagely oppressed by the city military the Sagitari, led by House Zod. It’s four episodes in a nightmare society that seem almost tailored to make us agree that the best thing that could happen to Krypton is dying on schedule. Oh, and they’re absolutely unprepared to handle Brainiac, because the Voice of Rao declared belief in aliens to be punishable by death for you and shame for your entire family, and Kandor’s ruling class said “Sure, that’s fine, be the Mayor, why not.”

Kandor is the city that the other Kryptonian cities would avoid eye-contact with at a party. The best of the Sagitari, Seg’s star-crossed lover Lyta-Zod, has to have a duel to the death with a fellow officer in order to change the official anti-terror policy to something other than “Kill all the poor people.” They created a world barely worth spending time in and then crafted a story about it that will apparently take multiple seasons to tell.

And no, it’s pretty definitively not connected to Man of Steel, Supergirl, or any other current property, because Warner Bros. seems determined to take Fox’s X-Men route as far away from “shared universe” as you can get.

What went right? Spoilers ahoy.

Halfway through the season, they pulled one hell of a plot twist, and it was enough to reinvest me in the whole enterprise. The terrorist leader who Seg had been grabbed by, played by British actor of note Colin Salmon, turned out to be Superman’s nemesis General Zod (Dru-Zod to his friends), son of Seg’s would-be girlfriend. Adam Strange was wrong, Brainiac hadn’t travelled in time at all. It was Zod who’d come to the past to stop Brainiac from stealing Kandor and setting the destruction of Krypton in motion.

“Wait, what was that last part?” asks Seg, before turning to glare at Adam. Turns out Adam had forgotten to mention a major part of Seg’s grandson’s destiny, the whole “last son of Krypton” thing, and Seg and friends were not exactly on board with his plan anymore.

With this, the show turned a major corner, and everything became more interesting. Brainiac took control of the Voice of Rao giving us a better villain and some spectacular CG shots of his ship; Seg’s nemesis, the obligatory scheming asshole Daron-Vex, became less essential; all the women in Seg’s life became even more interesting, as their loyalties and trustworthiness became… flexible; and we learned a few things about how Adam came to be here.

Seg’s one true love, Lyta-Zod, her stern mother Jayna, and Seg’s ordained spouse Nyssa-Vex make for decently fascinating characters, especially once their allegiances begin shifting in the back half. Adam Strange works as a character better than I expected, with my only issue being that he bears little resemblance to the Adam Strange of the comics, but so very much resemblance to Booster Gold. His role in the story is textbook Booster Gold, but for whatever damn fool reason the DC Entertainment bigwigs said “No, use Adam Strange.” Shenanigans.

What should they have done? Well, even though they won me over in the back half, I didn’t love them ending on a cliffhanger. Maybe because the first half was so grating that signing on for another ten episodes still feels like a chore. Now I’m forced to assume they have a multi-season arc planned. Which… ugh. So if they were going to set up this Zod-knows-how-long story, maybe they should have forgotten the rival house/rich vs poor malarky they wasted five episodes on, and gotten to the big question of “Is it worth sacrificing our entire planet?” a little sooner. Or at least showed us a Krypton worth saving. Oh… and bringing in Doomsday? Come on. You managed some excellent shots of Brainiac’s ship descending on Kandor but you do not have the budget for Zod vs Doomsday.

The Flash

Image: CW

What are the basics? Barry Allen’s friends and allies manage to spring him from the Speed Force prison he entered at the end of season three, but in the process unleash a wave of dark energy that creates 12 new metahumans, including Barry’s new partner-in-training Ralph Dibney: the Elongated Man. This was all orchestrated by a hyper-intelligent metahuman named Clifford DeVoe, nicknamed the Thinker, who intends to harvest the powers of the new metas to facilitate a larger plan called the Enlightening. It’s not a great plan. It’s an evil plan.

What went right? The comic relief bits of the season were often pretty funny. Ralph Dibney… shows promise, but I’ll come back to that. Tom Cavanaugh plays no fewer than six variations on Harrison Wells this year, and they’re pretty amusing. Primarily he’s back to the stern Harry Wells of Earth-2, who’s still my favourite of the Wellses (sorry and RIP to HR Wells from last year). Cisco and Caitlin have good arcs, and they finally found a way to make Iris an important part of the team/show.

Which the so-called “fans” on reddit found utterly unacceptable. I didn’t want to think that r/flashtv was as nakedly misogynist as other parts of the site, but give a woman a major role on their superhero show and they lose their goddamn minds. Ugh. I hate fandoms so much. They make liking things feel so dirty.

Also they realized that writing situations that required two speedsters was proving tricky, and promoted Kid Flash to Legends of Tomorrow(Update: and now he’s left. Welp.)

So good arcs, no marginalizing their female characters, and plenty of humour. The Flash must be as good as its heydey, right? Right?

Couple things.

What went wrong? Okay. Okay. Someone out there in the Flashiverse please hear this. After the dark and brooding Flashpoint/Savitar arc last year, you promised a return to the fun of season one. But what we got was the grimmest season arc yet, only with whoopie cushion jokes sprinkled in, and that is not the same thing. Yes, we had comic relief, yes, Tom Cavanaugh and Carlos Valdes (Cisco) were reliably funny, and so was Hartley Sawyer as Ralph when I wasn’t distracted by how he was written (see below). But all of that was background to an oppressively and punishingly dark A-plot, in which DeVoe cannot be stopped by anything for 22 out of 23 episodes. He kills who he wants to, he beats the Flash at nearly every turn, he successfully frames Barry for murder, it gets wearying.

This is becoming a systemic problem on The Flash. If Barry fights his season-nemesis 100 times, he’ll lose 99 of them, and that kind of perpetual loss is a bit much for a full 23-episode season. It was worse here, because at least Reverse-Flash, Zoom, and Savitar didn’t show up to screw with the team on a weekly basis.

So that’s the big problem. Other quibbles now.

Ralph’s arc from drunk PI to legit hero was 90% well done, but I do have one note on that character. This is the Elongated Man.

Image: DC Comics

He’s a skilled detective who has the ability to stretch his body, and roams the world solving mysteries with the love of his life, Sue. Elongated Man on The Flash is, at first, a sleazy PI and womanizer who has the ability to stretch and sculpt his body into different shapes, and sometimes lacks the stomach for heroism. That’s not Ralph Dibney. That’s Eel O’Brian. This guy.

Image: DC Comics

Otherwise known as Plastic Man. I know they’re similar, they have very similar power sets (stretching is less versatile), and both tend to crack wise most of the time. But like Krypton very clearly featured Booster Gold shoved into a crude approximation of Adam Strange, the Flash writers have very clearly written Plastic Man but called him Elongated Man. Yes, Ralph and Barry go way back in the comics so using Ralph makes more canonic sense, but come on. If you wanted to write Plastic Man, just do that. Here’s hoping future seasons sort this out, now that we’re through Ralph’s training season.

Quibble the second… starting with “Crisis on Earth-X,” Team Flash is repeatedly visited by an odd woman seemingly out to have meet-cutes with all of them individually, who writes in the bizarre language Barry was writing in when he emerged from the Speed Force, before his brain sorted itself out. Most notably, he wrote what they translate to “This house is bitchin'” in giant letters. And it’s a language Harry Wells starts writing in when his brain’s on the fritz. I was waiting all season for the payoff, to find out what house was bitchin’, to be told the obvious truth that this was Barry and Iris’ daughter from the future. They finally did all of this… in the closing minutes of the season finale.

Are you kidding me. You spent that much time, over the entire year, setting up a character for next season. I spent months waiting for Future Daughter to race to the rescue against the Thinker, and she just hangs out until the finale cliffhanger? This is what I meant by “too confident about renewal.” Stuff like this.

Also I do not know who told Katee Sackhoff that her British accent was working but hoo-di-lolly it was not.

What should they have done? No fewer than five times they implied that DeVoe, or the Thinker, might not be as unbeatable as he thought. Absorbing all the meta powers was throwing off his intellect, the smarter he got the less he could process or account for emotions, his wife and partner in crime was turning on him, two bus metas had abilities that seemed to be the keys to beating him. Almost none of that went anywhere. He made it all the way to episode 23 with his only losses being Barry eventually clearing his name after the murder-frame, and DeVoe’s wife running out on him.

Villains can be menacing and fallible. To recapture the fun of first season and their sister shows, they have to let Team Flash win a few rounds before the final showdown. Legends of Tomorrow knows this. Supergirl knows this. Black Lightning knows this. Even Arrow gets it from time to time. The Flash needs to figure it out as well, and… excuse the wording… fast.

Arrow

Image: CW

What are the basics? Oliver Queen finds himself under assault as both mayor of Star City and as the Green Arrow when cyber-anarchist Cayden James (the superb Michael Emerson) forms a cabal of high profile criminals in an attempt to bring down the city and its protector. But it turns out one of Cayden’s team, Ricardo Diaz (Kirk Acevedo), has his own plans. Plans to strip everything away from the Green Arrow and turn Star City into a criminal hub under his own control. Oliver must find a way to win back his team and some sort of law enforcement support if he’s going to have any chance of taking back his city.

What went right? Michael Emerson was predictably great as Cayden James, and the swap from James to Diaz kept the season from getting mired down in one repetitive plot the way certain others I just mentioned did. Say what you will about Felicity Smoak hijacking Barry and Iris’ quickie, slapdash, “someone just let us say ‘I do’ already” do-over wedding ceremony and turning it into a double wedding, but getting Oliver and Felicity low-key married ended the “Olicity” drama that soured season four and scraped the annoying off of Felicity’s character. Not that the anti-Felicity crowd will be happy, but nothing but the death or irrelevance of all dem dere wimmin folks on their super-hero shows will do that, so screw ’em all. And Cayden’s cabal was a strong gathering of Arrow persons of interest: Laurel “Black Canary” Lance’s evil Earth-2 doppelganger, Black Siren; Oliver’s former pal from the Bratva, Anatoly; Vigilante, given more to do this season than “distract us from figuring out who Prometheus is.” And, of course, Ricardo Diaz.

What went wrong? …There’s a reason everybody else (except the grossly incompetent) only does “Are they a hero without their powers” for one or two episodes, not half a season. In specific, two things…

The second act, where Oliver’s allies and support systems leave him piece by piece, stretched on too long. There were two, possibly three episodes where Original Team Arrow, as they were called, and the new allies from last season who’d split off reluctantly worked together, only to end the episode still at odds with each other, with Wild Dog saying “This doesn’t change anything, Hoss.” He said that a lot. Definitely too much. By the time they well and truly turned on each other, I was just ready for something to change, Hoss.

Second… after Prometheus, and with the Thinker over on Flash, I wish they hadn’t gone back to the All-Knowing Mastermind. From episode one, Ricardo Diaz knew all of Oliver’s secrets and how to dismantle him as mayor and hero. We just did that last year.

Other issues… the finale cliffhanger was a choice that I always respond to with “Ugh, how long are they going to stretch this nonsense out.”

And Diaz gets away? Sure he loses, Team Arrow reclaims Star City, if not the office of the mayor, but he’s still out there. I mean… it’s not a terrible choice? Kirk Acevedo is good at this role, so I don’t hate the idea of him still plaguing the city a little, but given that four out of five previous Big Bads at least seemed to die in the end (one was faking, one got resurrected in one of the season’s better musical numbers), it was an unexpected choice. Made the season finale feel more like a fall finale. It doesn’t seem like the story actually ended, save for Oliver seeing the problems with his crusade and taking a kind of extreme path to correcting them.

An FBI agent more concerned with bringing in the Green Arrow than stopping a criminal enterprise from taking over an entire police force and city council does not seem like an FBI agent good at her job.

And I’m not convinced bringing in Oliver’s son William, who is either a little autistic or just woodenly acted, was a big value add. Although I guess getting Oliver and Felicity married avoided any “how do I be a superhero and a good single father” nonsense.

What should they have done? Instead of being the secret mastermind pulling Cayden James’ strings and scheming against Oliver for the first half, they could have had Diaz just be an opportunistic gangster who sees an opportunity. His line upon killing James and taking over was perfect: “Why destroy a city when you can own it?” That was good. Might have also helped to move his backstory episode up a little, give us a view of who Diaz was earlier.

Also at least two fewer “This doesn’t change anything Hosses.”

Agents of SHIELD

Image: ABC/Marvel

And then there was the one who left nothing on the field.

What are the basics?
“We’re in space,” Coulson told Mack.

“Makes sense,” Mack replied. “Only thing we haven’t done.”

Agents of SHIELD returned to the mini-arc structure that worked so well for them last season, albiet with larger arcs. For the first almost-half of the season, the agents of what was SHIELD find themselves a) in space, and b) a little under a century in the future… a time when Earth has been little more than a debris field for generations, and what’s left of humanity lives on an old SHIELD facility under the harsh rule of the Kree… primarily Kasius and his mostly silent henchwoman Sinara. Coulson and his team must bring down Kasius and find a way back to the past, where they struggle to prevent Earth’s grim fate… except they appear to be in a time loop. As another sci-fi show put it, all of this has happened before and will happen again.

While they’re in the future, a lot of dangling threads get put on hold… Coulson’s deal with the Ghost Rider, the fact that a day or two ago everyone was in a computer simulated world called the Framework where a couple of them were the bad guys, that sort of thing. Once they’re back in the present, however? Every dangling thread gets tied in a neat little bow.

Seriously, everything.

The writers knew that only a mandate from Disney spared them from cancellation last season, and now that they’ve crossed that syndication-happy 100 episode mark, that might not come again. And also their season started later than it ever had, as ABC experimented with The Inhumans. To all of our chagrin. Daisy Johnson, Earth’s most infamous Inhuman as far as Agents is concerned, might never meet the Inhuman royal family that moved to Hawaii while she was in the future, and that’s just fine. Eventually we’ll all forget that Inhumans happened.

But not forgive.

Back to Agents… dangling threads from season one are back, such as the sinister substance gravitonium, which plays a huge role. The Absorbing Man’s back, Hydra still exists, the Centipede program that kinda-sorta filled the episodes before Winter Soldier plays a key role, there is a small parade of past recurring characters… except Ward. Kinda odd that Grant Ward, the only main cast member from season one not still on the show, didn’t even get a guest appearance in episode 100. He can’t have been too busy, he made time for the season premiere of Elementary.

He was the most recognizable guest star, of course he was the killer.

It made for a thrilling back half, especially as they cycled through main villains as everyone jockeyed for position in a fight to control or save what was, for the moment, a still-intact Earth.

Deke, an ally (of sorts) they make in the future who unexpectadly follows them to the past, was a fun addition. Does Deke still exist? Did changing the future erase him from existence? They never really said. He just wandered off and waited to never have existed.

What went wrong? Two things.

First, while back half villains like General Hale and her Hydra assassin daughter (played by Dove Cameron, who the internet feels is notable, but I’d never heard of) lasted just long enough to be interesting then pass the baton, Kasius and Sinara overstayed their welcome. By the end, I was actually shouting “Somebody kill her” at the screen whenever Sinara resumed stalking Daisy. I mean seriously, she was not presenting them with other options.

The main issue is that they spent a lot of time arguing whether their future can still be changed, or since the only way they made it back to the past is that their future selves did all the legwork, the future is fixed, time is a flat circle and nothing they do to save Earth is going to work. What they didn’t do was give any reason why this particular time through the loop is special. Like Flash and Elongated Man finally beating the Thinker, there was no reason why this time it worked when it never had before.

What should they have done? Taken a page from a particularly good Doctor Who episode. Two weeks before the finale, blow up the Earth. In the stinger, cut to Future Simmons recording one extra detail in the plans she and Fitz leave for their past selves. Next week, show us the final days of Fitz and Simmons… but Simmons adds one more detail. Then run the loop faster and faster, the world always exploding, but each time they figure out just a little more of how to stop it. Then in the finale, they’ve finally run the loop enough times that they save the Earth.

Maybe you would have had room for all of that if you’d wrapped Kasius and Sinara a little faster. Just saying.

It would have been just a slightly more satisfying end.

Also… I get why you felt you had to reference Infinity War. I get it. I do. Y’all are thirsty to be part of the MCU even though the film branch will never love you back. But name dropping Thanos twice and referring to “all the craziness in New York,” and only New York, just kinda proved that nobody in your writers’ room saw the Infinity War script. Because only two of Thanos’ minions went to New York, they were there for maybe seven minutes, and they didn’t cause that much havoc. The film spent as much time in Scotland as New York.

Anyway, season six has been delayed so long that all the Infinity War fallout will have been cleaned up in Avengers: In It to Win It by the time we see this bunch again.

Probably shouldn’t have called this a speed round if I was going to talk for 3800 words.

Well… bye.

Requiem for a Devil: Comic TV With Dan

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This instalment: I come not to praise Lucifer, but to bury it.

Short version: Now that the show has ended its third, and as of this writing, final season (fingers crossed for the #SaveLucifer movement), let’s talk about how it took a silly premise (the Devil helps the LAPD solve murders) and made it into the best procedural on TV.

I lied about not praising it. Deep down I think you knew that.

(Also, they renewed Lethal Weapon without Riggs instead of renewing Lucifer? I know the actor was impossible to work with but Riggs is the Lethal Weapon, that’s why it’s called that. Don’t introduce a new guy, just recast, Murtaugh and some guy is not Lethal Weapon, it’s a garbage show for a garbage network. Whichever Fox exec made that call, know that I hate you and whoever hired you.)

Book One: Genesis

Things were– that “book one” thing was a mistake, I’m not going to be able to keep that going, why do I post these live

In the Beginning

Saved it. Go me.

They started simple, using only slight pieces from the Sandman-spinoff comic that inspired the show. Mostly the idea of Lucifer Morningstar abandoning Hell to live in Los Angeles and run a nightclub called Lux with help from his ally/sometimes lover, the demon Mazikeen (Maze to her friends). But to sell a show to a major broadcast network, it helps to have a safe, familiar hook. Say… solving murders. So that’s what they went with.

Lucifer Morningstar (Tom Ellis), fallen angel, king of Hell, and poster child for daddy issues and rebellion has abandoned his post to live and have fun among the humans instead of punishing them with eternal damnations and tortures. The one thing about his old life, or at least his former reputation, that he’s hung onto is making deals: he helps out the glamorous citizens of LA in exchange for favours down the line. No interest in souls, just favours.

His brother, the angel Amenadiel (DB Woodside), wants him back in Hell, where their father placed him. Maze, who I mentioned above (Lesley-Ann Brandt), has her own questions about why they’re hanging around LA instead of going home. But when a singer Lucifer had done a favour for is killed outside of his club, he’s outraged that the persons responsible might not be punished. Lucifer joins LAPD detective and former actress Chloe Decker (Lauren German) in hunting down the killer, and finds he has a taste for punishing murderers. And for Detective Decker. Much to the chagrin of Chloe and her estranged husband Detective Dan Espinosa (Kevin Alejandro). Helping out with their investigations is a little trick of Lucifer’s: he can look into anyone’s eyes and compel them to reveal their greatest desire.

“That’s it?” I said. watching the trailer for the pilot. “That’s their hook? The Devil is solving murders and his big advantage is he can make people say what they want? This is a terrible idea. There is no way I’m watching this show.”

Anyway I started watching the show.

And within half a dozen episodes it was clear that I wasn’t going to be stopping any time soon.

First of all, Tom Ellis crushes it as Lucifer. Long-time readers may recall I’ve mentioned this a couple of times. His Lucifer Morningstar has charm and menace, he can make you laugh and cry in equal measure, to quote Community I can see why women find Tom Ellis attractive to the point where I might just as well be attracted to him myself, he is riveting. And so many of his relationships proved reliably fun. His sibling rivalry with Amenadiel, his more traditional rivalry with Dan (or as Lucifer knows him, Detective Douche), the constant sniping with Maze, his newly-found therapist Dr. Linda Martin (Rachael Harris) and her frequently futile attempts to advise Lucifer on dealing with human emotions and relationships, and as mismatched duos of straight-laced cops and unusual consultants go, Lucifer and Chloe were one of the better pairs. Lucifer even makes a fun pairing with Chloe and Dan’s daughter Trixie. And as for my doubts about Lucifer’s desire-powers, his ability to draw out a suspect’s motive for killing (or more often than not, their lack of motive) works just as well, if not better, than consultants aiding the police through OCDhypnotism, math, or being an agoraphobic who’s good at chess. The show was so much fun to watch it didn’t really matter that it started out as, essentially, Castle but with the King of Hell in place of a mystery novelist.

The main plot for season one was pretty simple. Lucifer and Chloe solve crimes, while Amenadiel’s attempts to return Lucifer to Hell collide with Chloe’s recent past: a shootout at a place called the Palmetto that left a cop Chloe insists was dirty in a coma, alienating her from the rest of her precinct. The cop (Kevin Rankin) makes a miraculous recovery, not unrelated to Lucifer’s presence in Chloe’s life, and turns out to have been an even worse cop than Chloe thought, and he’s about to make life difficult for Chloe and Lucifer…

But that’s not what made Lucifer such an addiction. Season two would bring the show to new heights, thanks to one cast addition that changed everything, and one that merely brightened the room.

Behind the Procedures

“Someone escaped from Hell,” Lucifer tells his brother in the closing moments of season one.

“Who escaped?” asked Amenadiel.

“…Mum.”

It is a daring move for a show this rooted in Judeo-Christian icons to abandon the concept of monotheism, but Lucifer went for it in a big way. In Lucifer’s origin of the universe, the “Big Bang” takes on a whole new meaning, as Heaven and the universe were created by two beings, not just one. But God’s wife… Goddess, I suppose… grew annoyed with his fixation on Earth, and plotted against it so much that Her Husband had Amenadiel lock her away in Hell, where she didn’t exactly enjoy quality time with her son Lucifer. I’m pretty sure they blame all of the Old Testament wrath stuff, floods and plagues and whatnot, on Mrs. God acting out. It was an unexpected take, to be sure, and one that worked much better than Supernaturals choice to give God a sister… mostly because Supernatural never quite got around to coming up with a better name than “The Darkness.” Honestly. I know you were bound to run low on ideas in season 11, but damn, dudes. Sorry, where was I, right, Lucifer. Having escaped from Hell, she comes to Earth, taking over the body of the recently murdered high-powered defense attorney Charlotte Richards.

Tricia Helfer joined the cast as Mrs. God, known as “Mum/Mom” to her sons, “Charlotte” to the humans, and various unkind terms by Maze. Also joining the cast was Aimee Garcia as the precinct’s new CSI, Ella Lopez, a devout Christian (but the nice “God loves you and so do I” kind, not the “God loves me specifically so I’m-a judge the crap out of you” kind) with a mild history of car theft.

I mostly want to talk about Charlotte and what she did for the show here but attention must be paid to what a delightful addition Ella was. A constant beam of sunshine and support, a source of humour (not that the show lacked those), a giver of hugs… there isn’t a bad scene with Ella in it, and Aimee Garcia made her absolutely adorable. She might not have been the thematic game-changer that Charlotte was, but damn was I glad to have her around.

Anyway, Charlotte.

They pulled a trick on Lucifer that I’ve seen once before, on the last show I watched to evolve from casual viewing to something I would clear my schedule to watch live: Person of Interest.   With Person of Interest, a post-Dark Knight, pre-Westworld Jonathan Nolan pulled a con on CBS. He pitched a simple crime-of-the-week show, in which a reclusive billionaire calling himself Harold Finch recruits a lethal ex-soldier calling himself John Reese to help him prevent violent crimes, with the help of a computer Finch built that can predict crimes and feed him the identity of either the victim or perpetrator.

Simple, CBS-friendly procedural stuff. And then once the show was established, Nolan started writing the real show, and subtly grew it into an amazingly compelling paranoid techno-thriller about emergent AI, privacy in the digital age, government overreach, and what the wrong people might do with total access to our digital footprint. (I’ve spoken to co-star Amy Acker, who’s delightful, and she basically confirmed that’s exactly what Nolan did.)

So, too, did Lucifer use the format of a crime-of-the-week cop & wacky consultant show to lure in viewers before turning into a look at the complex relationships of divine beings, the residual anger Lucifer Morningstar feels for his father, and this new idea of God’s angry ex-wife trying to find a way back into Heaven… and what that might mean for her ex. And everything else.

And it worked like gangbusters. The Goddess Charlotte was fascinating: loving to her sons, indifferent to humanity, scheming with and against anyone in her orbit, and played to perfection by Tricia Helfer, who nailed Charlotte’s scathing indictments of humanity such as “All they do is eat! And later the food comes back changed, and not for the better.” And the show hit new heights when Lucifer and Amenadiel’s little brother Uriel came to town, and the stakes of their mother’s plans became clear. It put Lucifer in impossible positions, gave Tom Ellis incredible material to work through, and along the way gave every single cast member better material as well.

And yes, the weekly murder cases also continued, even if they were overshadowed by the divine melodrama. They are, however, less vulnerable to the trope that affects a lot of procedurals, in which the most recognizable guest star is always, always the killer (looking at you, Elementary). But for the most part, the cases-of-the-week exist to act as a reflection of whatever emotional journey Lucifer is on that week. Often because Lucifer forces them to act as a reflection of his emotional journey, because he can be extremely self-centred and finding a murderer is often just a means to working out whatever’s annoying him that week.

Look, Dr. Linda tries her best, but Lucifer is not great at processing emotions or managing human behaviour.

And, well, if I had one note for the show, it’s that Chloe is relegated to the murder-of-the-week plot, because while she does have a role to play in the celestial melodrama… season one reveals that Lucifer loses his invulnerability when Chloe is around, which proves tricky for him, and season two begins to hint why… since she doesn’t believe Lucifer is who he says he is, she is always at arms’ length from the non-Palmetto central plotlines. Which… isn’t great, as I explained… in…

I haven’t written up Doctor Who series seven yet. Dang. I would have such a good explanation to link to if I had. Well, short version, when a character is not allowed to engage with a storyline, even when it’s about them, it’s not ideal.

But this doesn’t mean Lauren German doesn’t make a meal out of the material she’s given. She absolutely does.

Cain Leaves a Mark

The Goddess Charlotte arc was, simply put, exceptional. Amenadiel questioned his faith in his father, Dan turned to improv to process his feelings over his ending marriage (and ended up sleeping with a literal goddess without knowing it), Linda was first to learn that Lucifer isn’t speaking in metaphors and that her new best pal Maze is a literal demon, Maze found a purpose outside of Lucifer, Aimee Garcia was adorable, and Tricia Helfer owned every scene she was in, it was great. So how would season three follow it? They found a new biblical figure to hang a season on.

Lucifer, having had a couple of key parts of his identity messed with, found himself at odds with a mysterious gangster calling himself “the Sinnerman,” who had taken over Lucifer’s habit of granting favours, only with more murders on the side. In the quest to find the Sinnerman and find out if he’s behind Lucifer’s recent changes, Lucifer stumbles across another person of interest: Cain, the first murderer, doomed to wander the Earth forever, who has been studying Lucifer and his associates and thinks Chloe might be his key to finally dying.

If I had one additional note for season three. After the Cain revelation, the show forgets that there ever was a killer gang lord called the Sinnerman until the last few episodes. Although it’s hard to blame them, even the characters know that “the Sinnerman” is kind of a dumb name, and everyone’s reactions to Lucifer casually mentioning that he ID’d the Sinnerman months ago and forgot to mention it was kind of priceless.

Plus Tricia Helfer was still around, as Charlotte Richards returned to her no longer dead body after spending a year in Hell, and found herself searching for redemption out of fear of going back. Helfer made Charlotte just as fun as Lucifer’s mother in her own way.

Much like his mother, Lucifer‘s relationship with Cain went from frosty to friendly to adversarial, they were allies and enemies and rivals. And along the way, there was a great flashback episode in which Linda’s ex-husband spent years trying to figure out how to bring Lucifer down (“Off the Record,” a season highlight*), Lucifer and Ella went on a road trip to Vegas (“Vegas With Some Radish”), Lucifer and Cain pretend to be married suburbanites (“Til Death Do Us Part”), and everyone was just so much fun… then the last two episodes cut our hearts out right in front of us.

And in the last moments of the season finale, they opened the door to a whole new Lucifer, and it kills me that we might not get it.

*One of the better moments in “Off the Record?” Lucifer reveals the chilling secret of Hell… “You humans… You send yourselves, driven down by your own guilt. Forcing yourselves to relive your sins over and over. And the best part: The doors aren’t locked. You can leave any time.” The damned imprison themselves.

Left Unfinished

While every season arc ended satisfactorily, from the Palmetto to Mother to Cain, there was so much more for them to do. I wanted to see Ella learn that one of her new besties was, in fact, the very Devil she was raised to fear. How would that affect her faith, already challenged by the end of season three? I wanted to see more of Lucifer’s siblings, especially his sister Azrael, the angel of death, who must have had some thoughts about what her brothers did with her flaming sword.

Neil Gaiman, listed as the creator, because he wrote the Sandman story in which Lucifer quit Hell, inspiring his spinoff comic, was apparently set to play the voice of God. Which might not have been quite as fun as Psych’s Timothy Omundon’s take on someone who seemed to be God in season two’s “God Johnson,” but damn I wanted to see that.

But more than that I just wanted more time with these people. With snarky, clueless-about-humanity Lucifer Morningstar, so perfectly played by Tom Ellis. With no-nonsense Chloe Decker, who never got to learn the secret about her own past. With stern Amenadiel, who showed that even angels can have doubts about their Heavenly Father. With Dr. Linda and Maze and Charlotte and “Detective Douche” and perfect, adorable Ella and even little Trixie.

Even with a few unanswered questions, I have to recommend this show. It was a great ride, and I don’t regret a second of it.

…Right, just a bit of housekeeping for the rankings…

Overall Grade: A-

That Lucifer forgot all about the whole Sinnerman thing for like 11 episodes kinda bugged me, and it wasn’t hard to spot the five episodes that were meant to be part of season two, but this was a damn good season of television, and the finale might be one of their best episodes.

I miss this show already. Someone bring it back to me.

#SaveLucifer

Images: Fox

Lightning and Thunder: Comic TV With Dan

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

Last instalment: C-list X-Men characters gathered for a tale of family, bigotry, and what it might be like if America’s law enforcement agencies were openly and dangerously racist.

This instalment: DC characters gather for all of that exact same stuff only it’s actually good this time.

Short version: With Black Lightning, the Greg Berlanti Mask-Based Action Fun Factory tries something different, and boy howdy it works out.

Premise

As a teen, Jefferson Pierce developed lightning-based powers, which he would learn to use to protect his home of Freeland from local gang the 100. Nine years ago, Black Lightning and the 100’s leader, the super-strong albino and City Councillor-turned-criminal Tobias Whale had a vicious supposedly-final battle which both men limped away from thinking the other was dead. Badly wounded, Jefferson put Black Lightning away for the sake of his young daughters and in hopes of repairing his relationship with his soon-to-be-ex-wife Lynn… against the advice of his mentor and surrogate father figure, tailor/hacker/designer of superhero costumes/possessor of some suspicious skill sets Peter Gambi.

Today, Jefferson serves Freeland by shaping the minds of the black community’s youth as principal of Garfield High School, believing he can do more good steering kids away from gang life. His daughters are flourishing (Anissa is pre-med, Jennifer is still in high school and the more rebellious one), he’s inching towards reconciliation with Lynn, he hopes… but the 100 is stronger than ever, with such control over Freeland the good people of the city are forced into protest marches against the local crime lords. Which is risky business. I mean, think about how the cops respond to protest marches… Anyway, Gambi pleads with Jefferson that the city needs Black Lightning, but Lynn has him refusing to return to action… until the 100 come for his daughters. Jefferson comes out of retirement to save Jennifer and Anissa, but when he’s asked (and rightly so) why only his children were saved, Jefferson makes a choice…

“It is time that people know that Black Lightning is back.”

From there, he’s taking on the 100, their chief pimp/dealer Lala, a still-vicious Tobias Whale, and the sinister cabal that they’ve been reporting to… a cabal with which Gambi has an uncomfortable familiarity.

Also… habitual protester Anissa is developing powers of her own, and has some thoughts about how to use them.

And they’d better get their heroic ducks in a row, because there’s a new drug circulating called Green Light that’s highly addictive, and is giving people powers. Powers mixed with PCP-like rageouts.

Sidebar: Is it part of the Arrowverse or not? Who knows at this point. Black Lightning is its own thing for the first season, but I feel that they’ve left the door open for crossovers with the Flash, Green Arrow, and company should the desire strike them later. They establish that other superheroes exist in other cities, but don’t mention Central or Star City in particular. They name drop Vixen, who exists on Earth-1 with everyone else, but also Supergirl, who merely visits Earth-1 on special occasions.

And those name drops aren’t definitive, since they also established that superhero comics exist in this world, in an amusing Easter egg where Anissa and love interest Grace discuss comic characters the Outsiders, the superteam where their comic incarnations met. So is Vixen a legit hero, or a comic book character? Do the people of Earth-1 know Supergirl from the 2016 alien invasion and the 2017 alt-Earth-Nazi invasion, or are we somewhere else, somewhere with a Supergirl and a Vixen? It’s unclear, and will remain unclear until someone in the Berlanti group says “Screw it, put Black Lightning in the crossover this year,” or Team Flash makes it clear that Black Lightning is on Earth-47 or whatever. Until then, Black Lightning stands alone, but luckily, it’s more than capable of doing so.

Strengths

What we have here is the bulk of Luke Cage’s debut season polished up and done better.

Cast: There are some strong performers in this cast, most notably Cress Williams as Jefferson and Nafessa Williams as Anissa. China Anne McClain does well as the younger, brattier sister, though I do not comprehend why she’s second-billed instead of Nafessa Williams. Better agent? Anyway, by and large, the Pierce family kills it on a weekly basis, as does Damon Gumpton as the closest thing Black Lightning has to a friend on the police force. He’s neither racist nor on the take, so that’s a big advantage over most of the cops we meet in early episodes.

The 100: How fortunate for the series that Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III exists. Black albino actors who look capable of hoisting a grown man in the air and killing him with one hand cannot be that easy to come by, but Krondon is basically perfect for this role. Tobias Whale is a destructive force, a black man who hates other black men… well not exactly. As he explains to a henchman that’s been screwing things up, “No, I love black people. I hate incompetent, thick-lipped, scratch-where-it-don’t-itch Negroes like you.” If not on network television he might have used a different word than “Negroes.” He’s got a lethal assistant calling herself Syonide (who’s kind of fun to watch in a fight, if I’m being honest); gets his hooks into Jennifer’s boyfriend, a track star named Khalil; and later on has links to a difficult-to-kill gangster he calls the Tattooed Man, who has himself an interesting arc. Tobias Whale builds himself a small legion of super-goons, and they’re all pretty great, save for Khalil, who for the most part is just… eh.

Tobias is also well-developed beyond “evil drug dealer.” His childhood begins to explain how he came to be how he is, and he does have some moral lines. In one memorable scene, he executes a henchman for overstepping. “You killed someone’s mama?” he asks. “Any man that’d do that has no morals, no principles to live by, which means there’s nothing you’re not capable of, including becoming a rat.” And now he’s growing tired of being treated like a henchman by cabal leader/creepy mortician Lady Eve, and has thoughts about climbing the ladder.

Rise of Thunder: Before she even knows her father’s secret, Anissa sets out to become Freeland’s latest hero. There are some stumbles along the way. There’s a regrettable wig, a fun trip to a fetish store for costume pieces when it becomes clear that tights are not good fighting wear for her figure, and guilt over taking on a low-level drug dealer a touch over-zealously. But Thunder becomes every bit the hero Black Lightning is, strong, brave, clever, and she’s a gay hero of colour on top of it all.

Racial tensions: Having showrunners of colour means that Black Lightning joins Luke Cage in having the best examinations of the far-from-perfect race relations in the US. Twice in the pilot, Jefferson finds himself targeted by white cops who take an aggressive approach with black suspects. A government agency was using black youths as test subjects. And they touch on black people hating on other black people for not being, in their eyes, black enough. It’s a stark and honest take on American race relations, which is a nice change from having black people be the bigots. Looking at you, Gifted and Jessica Jones.

Vox Populi: The local Freeland news channel (which seems to be blissfully free of the Sinclair media propaganda machine) does person-on-the-street interviews at several major plot points, giving we the viewers a look at what the average people of Freeland think of Black Lightning and his crusade. It’s a fairly effective technique for conveying public opinion. My only beef is that the text crawl on the bottom of the screen never changes. Which… I guess it means you never have to pay attention to it, so that’s okay. Just saying, if one were to try to slip in a subtle reference to The Flash or Arrow that doesn’t get in the way of their own story, that would have been the place to do it.

Pacing: The multiple acts of Black Lightning’s first season help provide a steady clip for the show’s pacing. The season doesn’t lag the way Marvel Netflix shows tend to. Streaming shows are great for bingeing, but for strong episodic narrative it’s hard to beat broadcast.

Despite the fact that we’re not starting at the origin, but are in fact meeting Black Lightning nine years after he retired, the world of the show feels remarkably natural and lived-in. The history of the characters makes sense, and we understand the key relationships quickly. The people’s love for Black Lightning is crystal clear when he goes to storm Lala’s penthouse apartment, and the doorman not only sells out Lala without hesitation, he opens the door for him with a “Black Lightning! My man!” Someone else offers to hold the elevator, but Jefferson feels like taking the stairs, in order to stomp a few more gangsta asses on the way. 

I like how in addition to disguising his voice, Jefferson changes all of his vocal mannerisms, speaking more “street” as Black Lightning. He could teach Barry “reveal my identity to anyone who asks, except my girlfriend” Allen some tricks about keeping a secret identity.

There’s also solid action. Fight scenes have Arrow-level fight choreo (not quite Preacher but miles ahead of, say, Iron Fist), with occasional lightning-based effects thrown in.

Weaknesses

The Bigger Bad? Is this show a case of Villain Swap? At first, it’s all about Tobias Whale and the 100, but after Tobias and Black Lightning are briefly reunited, Tobias takes a few weeks off while the show’s attention moves to the ASA (American Security Agency). The ASA is the covert group that created Black Lightning when their attempt at a “vaccine” to make the black residents of Freemont “more docile” (openly and dangerously racist, remember?) accidentally gave people powers instead. Now ASA agent Martin Proctor is back in Freemont and restarting the experiment.

Eventually the show was going to come here. The ASA is a key player in Jefferson’s origin tale. Tobias Whale only became his nemesis because of ASA involvement. Gambi’s ties to the ASA, and through them Lady Eve and Tobias, were going to need explanation. It just… well, for the first few episodes it felt like this was going to be a season two thing. Season one would be Black Lightning taking on the 100, and in future seasons he could move up the ladder to the cartel pulling the 100’s strings. Instead, the 100 stepped aside and Proctor took over as the main villain.

It’s a more natural transition of primary villain than we saw on Luke Cage in its first season, or on Iron Fist every third episode, but it is still a swap of villain, and I did once identify that as a troublesome trend. In this case, though, I choose to defend it: the ASA made for a decent one-arc villain, tying the present say to Black Lightning’s hinted-at past. That’s good for one season. Tobias Whale, on the other hand, is the Nemesis. Black Lightning’s archest enemy.

And you shouldn’t write out the arch enemy in season one. You keep them around so they can go more rounds with the hero(es). And sure, death hasn’t exactly slowed down Reverse-Flash or Damien Darhk (yet), but it’s better to just keep the good villains around.

Other quibbles…

We get it. Thunder’s powers are linked to her breathing. Maybe you can trust us to remember that for a while? Because her big, echoey, “deep inhalation” sound effect is getting on my last nerve.

The Warriors’ James Remar does what he can with Gambi, but as an actor he is not quite on Cress Williams’ level.

Jefferson’s ex-wife Lynn spends a lot of the season being opposed to Jefferson being Black Lightning. As I’ve said in the past, this is rarely an interesting character choice.

I’m all for exposing conservatives as prone to being awful people, but maaaaaayyyyybe having sinister racist government agent Martin Proctor shout “Make America great again” twice in one episode was gilding the lily just a bit? Trust me, the first one landed.

High Point

Either “The Book of Little Black Lies,” in which Thunder suits up for the first time and Jennifer grapples with new knowledge, or “Shadow of Death: The Book of War,” (they’re all the Book of something) in which the ASA finds itself under siege from both the 100’s growing band of meta-villains and the entire Pierce family.

Also worth mentioning: “Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion” is less fun to watch than the ones I named, but its examination of the all-too-real threats faced by all African-Americans when confronted by white cops makes it one of the most necessary episodes.

Low Point

“Three Sevens: The Book of Thunder” is our obligatory ride on the “no, Main Hero, killing is wrong!” merry-go-round. Given that later on, they’ll go the same route as Daredevil season two and decide that “killing is wrong, but if you’re working with someone who happens to kill your enemies, hey, that’s okay,” it’s an awkward moral to push. And Khalil proves himself to be a jackass in Jennifer’s plotline, which is some go-nowhere filler stuff involving a mean girl nemesis whose attempts at cyber-bullying aren’t more effective or more interesting than her failed attempts at physically bullying Jennifer the previous week.

Anissa did use her powers to obliterate a Confederate statue, though, and that pissed off some easily-offended conservatives. So that was fun.

MVP

Nafessa Williams as Anissa Pierce. There are times when they’re simply using Black Lightning to tell Thunder’s origin story, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

Tips For Next Season

So Arrow has had at least half a dozen archers. Flash has had nine speedsters so far. Black Lightning uses electricity, and a new generation of Freeland youths are being given powers… so how long until Static makes an appearance? And why stop there? Why not bring in more of the Milestone Comics crowd? The 100 could find themselves at odd with the Blood Syndicate, Thunder could track down Icon and Rocket, Gambi could go head to hacker-head with Hardware... if Black Lightning intends to remain separate from the larger Arrowverse (we’ll see), there’s plenty of options for when you’re ready to expand beyond the Pierce family.

Overall Grade: B+

It’s honour, duty, family, and the shoddy state of US race relations with solid action and decent pacing. Not every piece fits together perfectly, but as first seasons go it’s solid and shows a lot of promise.

Might be the last full write-up for a bit. Most of the veteran shows don’t call for one and I’m not convinced Krypton deserves one. Guess we’ll have to find something else to talk about for a few weeks.

Image: CW

The Gifted not Quite a Gift: Comic TV With Dan

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This instalment: C-list X-Men characters gather for a tale of family, bigotry, and what it might be like if America’s law enforcement agencies were openly and dangerously racist.

Heh. “If.”

Short version: Fox’s Island of Misfit Toys is a lot less fun than the Arrowverse’s, I tell you what.

Premise

Theoretically set in the same, or at least a similar, world as the X-Men movies, things have taken a turn for the worse for America’s mutant population. A few years back, on July 15th, a mutant rights protest went bad, resulting in riots and violence. And where violence meets a whole bunch of mutant powers, collateral damage happens, resulting in new anti-mutant legislation. Worse still, both the heroic X-Men and the more violent Brotherhood have vanished, so there’s no one left to fight for the mutants in any context. All that’s left is the Mutant Underground, just trying to keep their people alive and out of the hands of the mutant-hunting agency Sentinel Services.

Years of government-mandated prejudice later, the Strucker family finds themselves in the middle of the fight in ways they didn’t expect. Kate Strucker (the delightful Amy Acker) is a nurse, while Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer, from some obscure vampire show called True Blood) is a prosecutor specializing in mutant crimes. When their son, Andy, is pushed too far by bullies, the Struckers find out that both he and his sister Lauren are mutants. And the incident causes enough damage that the Struckers find themselves targeted by Sentinel Services, especially the dedicated mutant-hunter Agent Jace Turner.

They fall in with the Mutant Underground: John Proudfoot/Thunderbird, whose powers involve tracking, superstrength, and tough skin; Marcos Diaz/Eclipse, capable a firing intense bursts of heat and light; Lorna Dane/Polaris, with suspiciously Magneto-like control of metal, and who’s pregnant with Eclipse’s child; newest recruit Clarice Fong/Blink, who can open portals from one place to another; and several more support mutants. Together they must avoid Agent Turner, break various team members out of various prisons, and figure out how to deal with Dr. Roderick Campbell (Garret Dillahunt) and Trask Industries’ evil experiments on and against mutantkind.

Strengths

Race Wars: There’s a lot of diversity in the Mutant Underground. Hispanic, Asian, Native American… sure, the Strucker family are as white as it gets, but that’s actually better for the story. Only a middle-class white family could be that shocked by systemic racism in the US. Any POC family would see over-aggressive police, or doctors calling 911 on a guy in the emergency room because the woman he’s with is sporting a bruise, or neighbours forming a lynch mob on a dime, and say “Yep, sure, that’s white America for you.”

Which is to say, the first half of the season is an effective examination of systemic racism in law enforcement, corruption in prisons, and hate groups and hate crimes. And the fact that it’s all happening to pretty white people might make a certain mindset take it more seriously.

World Without Heroes: I wasn’t sold at first on the idea of an X-Men show with no X-Men in it. I wasn’t certain about Fox’s apparent lack of interest in a cinematic universe, with Deadpool and Logan and Legion and now The Gifted and soon New Mutants all existing in X-Men-related worlds with no connection to each other or the main X-Men movies whatsoever. And I have concerns that between this, Logan, and the fact that every main X-Men movie since 2006 has taken place in the past, Fox’s endgame seems to be killing off the X-Men at some point in the late 2000s, early 2010s. With the Disney buy-out in motion, one could wonder if Dark Phoenix is their “kill all of the X-Men before Kevin Feige reboots them” movie. But in the case of this show, a lack of X-Men works.

The entire premise, of mutants in desperate straights, hiding or on the run from Sentinel Services, works so much better when there’s no one to call for help. No super team giving mutants a good name by taking down Magneto and fighting villains while wearing colourful costumes. The real-world issues that The Gifted touches on are all complicated, and none have a solution as easy as “Just call the big-name Good Guys for help,” so it works that the Mutant Underground don’t have that option either.

Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Polaris and Eclipse are an engaging couple. It might have been nice if they hadn’t spent so many of the first few episodes apart, as Eclipse made a deal with the free Struckers and Polaris showed us how screwed up American prisons are. It took many episodes for the show to make a case for why the Struckers should be the leads and not Polaris and Eclipse, and it was not 100% convincing.

Blink and Thunderbird work well, too. Together, the mutant underground just about makes a team worth watching, save for the nonsense they tend to get bogged down in, which we’ll get to shortly.

Variety is the Spice: There are an impressive variety of mutant powers in play, and they’re all well-done visually. It’s still network TV-budget special effects, but they’ve got more money behind them than Legends of Tomorrow.

Skyler Samuels acquits herself quite well as the Frost triplets, telepaths with untrustworthy agendas.

If you need an actor to play a modern-day Joseph Mengele with no visible human emotions, you could do a lot worse than Garret Dillahunt.

The mutant riot that caused all of these draconian anti-mutant laws to be passed is rightly referred to as “7/15,” a term Americans would use. It is not called “the occurrence” or “the unpleasantness” or “the whoopsie-doodle” or, for those who don’t see where I’m going with this, “the incident.” Everyone gets this but you, Marvel Netflix.

Also they have yet to do a “forced to fight as underground gladiators” episode, and this show is a high risk for that, because historically rich people love to make minorities fight for their amusement, so every season they resist it is a triumph. Wouldn’t make a wager they avoid it for all of season two, though.

Weaknesses

No Plan: The Underground’s whole deal is that they’re trying to live up to the X-Men, to find a way to peacefully co-exist with humanity… but they never really seem to have a plan to make that happen. They spend the entire season either breaking people out of prisons/secret laboratories or trying to shut down said secret laboratory before it can do any more damage. There is zero plan for improving human/mutant relations, for undoing any of the anti-mutant laws. There is no hint that they might have a plan later. And this is a problem.

Without some indication that they have a plan to improve mutants’ lot in American life, what we have is a bunch of people hemming and hawing about using violence against the fascists, violent bigots, and mad scientists trying to commit a genocide against them, and that is… look, preaching non-violence is fine and all, but we are also back in a stage of history where people need to know that fascism must be fought. Not tolerated while you cross your fingers and hope that maybe eventually they’ll begin to see you as an actual person. As to those bigots…

Agent Turner is the Literal Worst: Agent Jace Turner is an asshole. He exemplifies what’s wrong with the American police. He is actually worse than the racist cops from Black Lightning because at least they’re honest enough to take bribes and be corrupt instead of pretending they’re the heroes. But I’m not convinced the writers know that’s the character they’ve created. Jace’s daughter died during the 7/15 violence, which should make him sympathetic, but it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. In the wake of 7/15, he decides that he doesn’t care which are the good mutants and which are the bad mutants, he just wants to round them all up and lock them away.

Which… this is their only major black character*. It’s not great having the one black guy in the main cast be the huge racist, saying he doesn’t see a difference between the “good ones” and the “bad ones.”

They sometimes seem like they’re trying to turn Jace into a good man unwittingly doing bad things, but he just isn’t. He sometimes furrows his brow in mild concern over the sinister and clearly immoral deeds of Dr. Campbell, but almost never raises a finger to stop them, and certainly enjoys the benefits of Campbell’s evil research. One time, after being shamed by his wife for letting his grief make him a monster and accessory to monstrous deeds, he agrees to trade down from cartoonish supervillainy to mere fascism, but that’s the episode that the Hellfire Club pulls some shenanigans and a whole bunch of his fellow agents end up dead, so it doesn’t take.

He’s a bad man who does exclusively bad things and pretends he’s somehow noble for doing it. Every time something bad happens to him and his, instead of seeing his side of things, I think “You had that coming, you jackbooted asshat.” And it is possible, it is utterly possible to take a character like this and make them sympathetic. I know this because Legion did it last year. In one cold-open montage, they took a clearly villainous character from the pilot and made us see his side of things, showed us how he’s the hero in his own story, to the point where he’s a regular this year and I’m thrilled about it. Sure, not every show can be Legion, but no show has an excuse not to try. Quality-wise, I mean. Not aesthetically. Probably shouldn’t try that.

*Some of the mutants have pretty heavy makeup, and one of them is black underneath it, but he’s not exactly a major character.

Pacing Problems, Always Pacing Problems: Every single plot point on this show takes longer than it needs to because we need to wade through a stream of “This is wrong” and “This is too dangerous, but what choice do we have” and “This is/isn’t what the X-Men would have wanted” and the ever-popular “I don’t want my kids mixed up in this.” There are 13 episodes in season one, and between them they have maybe eight episodes’ worth of plot. The rest is just constant hand-wringing.

Also the Struckers are not the show’s best characters, which is a problem, because they are the main characters. And it pains me to say that, because one of the Struckers is Amy Acker, and to reiterate Amy Acker is delightful. But the generic, cliche dialogue they feed her, and others… oy.

Actually, let’s add that to the list. There is some bland, clunky dialogue all over this show.

High Point

[Deep sigh] Let me think… “threat of eXtinction,” in which Reed discovers some dark family secrets, and some things about his kids’ powers, and he is not happy learning any of it. The Strucker family finally became as interesting as everyone else.

Low Point

I’ll say “eXtreme measures.” Eclipse has to repay a favour to the cartel he used to work for, while Reed and Kate Strucker [gasp] don’t approve of Lauren’s new boyfriend! Honestly, this episode could have been cut and nobody would have missed it. The only lasting thing it accomplishes is making Sentinel Services even more purely evil than they had already been, which just was not necessary.

MVP

Emma Dumont as Lorna Dane/Polaris. This show could have a great deal of potential if they shaved off a bunch of the side plots (I’m counting the main characters as a “side plot”) and focussed on Lorna, Eclipse, their unborn child, and their growing philosophical divide. They might never be Stewart/McKellan Xavier and Magneto, not even MacAvoy/Fassbender Xavier and Magneto, but they could be as close as network TV is likely to get.

Tips For Next Season

Ugh. That asshole evil scientist is going to become an evil cyborg, isn’t he. Damn it.

Okay. So. We have a schism in the Mutant Underground. Some want to follow in the X-Men’s “co-exist” footsteps, some want to join up with the Hellfire Club, go the Magneto route, and start punching back. That’s cool. That’s sensible. That’s a logical direction for the show to go. Classic X-Men stuff right there.

Couple things.

Their opponents were all way too willing to hunt down, lock up, and wipe out mutantkind. So the whole “don’t kill, try to not fight, just pursue peace” thing is already looking like the wrong call. When the Frosts killed a whole bunch of Sentinel Services officers, it was really hard to see why this was a bad idea. I felt about as bad for them as I did any Earth-X Nazis Green Arrow put down back in December. When you’re fighting Joseph Mengele and the SS, damn it, you hit back.

The whole X-Men vs. Brotherhood thing only really works if co-existence is somehow on the table, if humans are willing to accept mutants in their midst. In the wake of 7/15, that seems to be a pipe dream. There’s talk of pro-mutant movements, mutant-rights-friendly congressmen, and that Sentinel Services is on thin ice with the Department of Justice, but… kind of seems like Polaris’ choice in the finale has put an end to all of that. Seems like all the Hellfire Club has accomplished is cranking up the heat on the war between mutants and humans. So for the Underground, well, to quote a certain King of Men… “Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not.”

In short, you’re going to have to work much harder to make the Underground’s anti-violence stance make sense. If you don’t want us to side with the Hellfire club, then the Underground needs a plan.

Also, you’ve dropped a lot of hints about Polaris’ birth father. Say his name. Say “Magneto.” Say it, or drop it.

Overall Grade: C-

You’ve got the ingredients of a good show here. But a pile of sugar, flour, yeast, eggs, and vanilla dumped on the counter ain’t a cake just yet.

Next time in this feature: the CW breaks some habits with Black Lightning.

Photo: Fox

My Subconscious is a Jerk, and Other Dream Tales

My dreams get weird. Like, notoriously so. Let’s discuss.

Happy V. Scary, Dawn of Insomnia

I hate happy dreams more than nightmares.

See, if I dream that zombies have overrun the city, or to use a more frequent, more adult sort of nightmare, that one of my best friends died in a car wreck, I can usually wake up pretty easily, confirm that it isn’t true, and shake it off. Said friend is alive, the city is not overrun with zombies, Tom Cruise did not play the lead on Doctor Who for a season (that was the other night), easy to shrug off.

The problem is– actually the Doctor Who thing fell apart mid-dream, so that didn’t even wake me up. It was just a little weird.

The problem is– because I couldn’t think of his regeneration, that’s why it fell apart.

The problem is– look, the moment when a Doctor regenerates, even a short-termer like Christopher Eccleston or Scientology’s own John the Baptist, it’s a huge moment. One of the most memorable moments of their run, their last big speech before the role gets turned over, and the most recent regeneration that came to mind involved Peter Capaldi’s glorious Series Ten mane of silver hair, so there was nothing to do but go back to rehearsing my Five Doctors stage play… but I digress.

The problem is that I wake up from happy dreams just as easily, and when your dream featured getting the girl, winning the lottery, being pals with your favourite celebrities, it can be very annoying when your brain jolts you awake at the exact moment you get everything you ever wanted, and tells you that all of that was a lie. It can put you in a mood, give you an emotional meltdown in the shower, throw off your entire day.

Although I did have to respect the effort my subconscious made into being a dick about it once.

The Cyclone

In the late 80s, I was particularly fond of the video game Bubble Bobble. So fond, in fact, that my mother became convinced for multiple years that every game I was playing was somehow Bubble Bobble. Or maybe it was just an easier to assume that than keep track of them all? I don’t know.

For my younger readers, there was a time in video game history when the newest games (fine, other than PC games) weren’t available at home right away. New video games were found in places called “arcades,” where you’d play them on large machines for the price of a quarter. Or two quarters. Or eventually a dollar. It never got higher than that, though, on account of home consoles rendering arcades largely obsolete before the two-dollar coin could take hold.

Anyway, Bubble Bobble was a fun game about two friends turned into cute dinosaurs who trapped monsters in bubbles and then burst the bubbles, turning them into delicious treats, all so they could save their abducted loves from the king monster, which like all classic 80s arcade games sounds like word salad when described out loud, but was fun enough to play you’d risk dumping an entire week’s allowance into the machine just to make the next level.

So of course I was restless for the day to come when I’d be able to just play it at home. It wasn’t a graphically complicated game, not like the Don Bluth cartoon with a joystick Dragon’s Lair, or the photo-realistic Mortal Kombat that would come later. Surely my Nintendo could handle this one, and I’d finally be able to make it to the end.

Knowing this, my subconscious decided to have a little game.

The part of the dream where we got an actual full-sized Bubble Bobble arcade machine (the dream, back when, because you owned the game and a status symbol) wasn’t the mean part, no. That’s normal stuff. You want a thing, so in your dream you have it. Standard. Boilerplate. Waking up the second I start to realize this is, in fact, too good to be true, also standard. But that’s where things got different. The realization hit… no, this wasn’t really happening, I was just dreaming, wasn’t I? And so I was going to lose all of this.

“And so you are!” cried out a voice. “So let’s take it away NOW!” And a cyclone descended, sucking away Bubble Bobble and everything else nearby, and as the landscape was reduced to a barren wasteland, I woke up.

“Huh,” I thought. “Well played.” I mean, sometimes you have to respect the artistry.

Musical Numbers

Sometimes people ask me why I haven’t written a musical. I explain it’s because I am utterly unable to write music and can only barely manage parody lyrics to a pre-existing song. My dreams have been a little more successful than me, in that twice they’ve managed to come up with songs that stayed stuck in my head for years.

The first time must have been… damn, ten and a half years ago. I hate you, time. The nineties were the previous decade and the 80s were relatively recent, that was the DEAL, but you kept crawling forward and–

Ahem.

So, we’d just finished a production of a play called Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, an unauthorized look at the teen years of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang. The director (and more than one of the cast) were likely moving on to do Cabaret with a different company later in the season. I had a dream about that production shortly after the show, only in this version, the entire Dog Sees God cast was involved, and it was one of those “The play is happening in every room simultaneously, wander around” deals. Clearly the main room was the big draw, because almost nobody was outside watching Sam do her Kit-Kat-Girl number. That may also have been poor direction, because honestly, the big opening number was happening inside, nobody was going to miss that.

The big opening number was not, however, “Willkommen,” the actual opening number of Cabaret. It was a song my dream invented from whole cloth called “Geddamke Monsieurs,” which is a weird title, combining German and French words into one greeting okay this is going to take some explaining, isn’t it.

Yes, I know that “Geddamke” is not… [quickly checks Google] …is not an actual German word. This, like the tune, was an invention of the dream. “Geddamke” was a slang term, a Weimar Germany saying for men out on the town. A way of saying “Good luck, gentlemen,” or more crudely, “Go get ’em, boys,” that was exclusively used in situations where there were women to be courted.

A silly concept, this word. I think we can all agree that if there was a real German word for that, there’s no way it would be that short, it would be “Vielglücksindverliebtschwingschwing” or something like that, but it wouldn’t have fit with the tune.

I still remember that tune, by the by. A piece of it, anyway. Ten years later, I can still recall the actor playing Cliff belting it out, “I may not have been born with an awful lot, but I’m gonna use what I’ve got! Geddamke monsieurs!” Not the worst way to kick off a show.

The other tune was longer, yet somehow still simpler. I don’t remember the verses, but I do recall exactly what it was about. It was part of some sort of sorority girl luau musical extravaganza, on an outdoor stage surrounded by a pool. I feel like I wasn’t supposed to swim through the pool to find a better vantage point for the show, but that’s just another way my subconscious likes to mess with me. Put me in situations that agitate my anxieties surrounding breaches in protocol. Act out the voice in the back of my head that constantly asks “How bad would it be if you stuck your feet out on the stage and an actor tripped?” (Pretty bad)

Anyway, what’s stuck with me over the years is the chorus to this number. The ensemble was mostly off stage, leaving one female ventriloquist onstage with her dummy. She was doing a Harley Quinn bit, with the dummy playing the Joker role. This might have been somewhat inspired by a Cracked article I read about how the camgirl industry gets weird. The number was all about how the ventriloquist knew she’d never really be free of the Joker-dummy, even if it’s what she really wants. Their destinies are intertwined. They were, in the words of the chorus, “born together.”

“Born together, born together, baby we were born together…” This one still gets stuck in my head sometimes. Not hard to do, really, it’s a total of five words and about three notes. I suppose the impressive thing is that I’ve been able to remember not just the tune, but the tragic meaning of the song, like the secret meaning of an obscure German slang term. It would be enough to tempt me to try to write these snippets into actual musicals, if I had any idea how to do that. And, well… as I said… five words, maybe three notes. My subconscious might be a little better at songwriting than I am, but Lin-Manuel Miranda it ain’t.

Also, again… “Geddamke monsieurs?” I know the MC greets the crowd in three languages, but why is Cliff, an Englishman, using a German term if he’s talking to French people? If anyone was going to have a single word that means “Go get ’em” in reference to women, it’s the French.

The Nightmares

I haven’t had recurring nightmares since I was a kid, young enough to sleep in a double-decker bus bed. Yes, you heard, double-decker bus bed. Not a race car. My brother had a race car, but I had a super sweet bus. Taller, cooler, less mainstream. Absolutely me. As I was–

Fine, yes, I inherited the car bed when we changed rooms in 1987, but I only slept in it until… erm… 1995. And summers and Christmases when my brother was back from Ontario until 1999ish. Shut up. It was covered in nostalgia.

So. Recurring nightmares. Only three, really, and one wasn’t a recurring dream, per se, and the other two weren’t exactly frequent. I had those two nightmares on two occasions each. In one, I was at the zoo, where a giant Frankenstein monster emerged from a large barn and started chasing all of the kids. The dream was the same each time, from the barn, to knowing the creature was coming, to all of the kids running away in a group shaped like a tennis racket (we thought it would help, because… reasons?), to finding it patently unfair that of all of these kids, I was the one Giant Frank grabbed. This was a common occurrence with nightmares growing up: I often wouldn’t realize how scared I was until I woke up, face flushed and heart racing. So it was with candidate number two: the zombie Fraggles.

I’d dream that I was in my bed (the bus), only to have zombified Fraggles (or one, at least) start crawling up the side, lurching towards me. I’d swat them away easily enough, thinking that if I acted like the Hulk I could keep them at bay. Again, these two dreams were identical, right down to calling them “Fickle features” in my best Hulk voice (it wasn’t great, I was under ten years old). “Fickle features” rhymed with their actual name… something creatures. I felt “fickle features” would demoralize them. Of course it would not. You can’t demoralize zombies, Fraggle or otherwise. Nor does swatting them away stop them. Each time I did, it came back. Unstoppable. Undeterrable. Inevitable. Therein, after all, lies the horror of Romero zombies. Not these modern fast zombies.

Although while both nightmares freaked me out, they didn’t cling to me like the time I dreamed that the Count was sucked through a wall into an alternate universe because of sinister numbers. He had one number (a seven, maybe?) that he was quite pleased with, but a bunch of other numbers appeared that terrified him, a rupture opened in the wall, he was sucked through, boom, I’m haunted by the image of the Count clinging to a bannister for dear life for years. All because he was targeted by, I don’t know, evil Numberwang.

But the zombie Fraggles and giant Frankensteins and evil Count-abducting numbers were but rank amateurs. There was only one figure of absolute dread, one figure who could turn any dream into a nightmare. A dream would be perfectly normal, say, hanging out on the set of the Supergirl movie, when suddenly my face would flush, my heart would beat loudly, and I would know. He was here. He had found us. My own personal Freddy Krueger. A spectre of terror known as the Thing.

No, not the classic John Carpenter horror movie monster. That would make so much more sense. No, not Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four. We’re talking about the Thing from Readalong.

In other words, a beaver puppet who spoke in growls from a daytime TV short program in which a talking boot helps pre-school kids learn the basics of reading. Don’t bother looking for him, he’s basically un-Googleable, but by the time I could ride a bike I learned he was not exactly a figure designed to inspire terror in said pre-school kids so much as a love of literacy. So, fine, not most logical night terror.

You are making fun of the nightmares of a six-year-old, you get that, right?

Speed Round

  • Back in the bus bed days, my dream went to a test pattern. A still frame of my bedroom door open a crack, elevator music, and an announcement that the dream will resume in just a few minutes.
  • In university, a dream involved my friend group being pulled into a pocket universe by shadows. While getting my bearings, I saw my friend Tim had taken a job as a driver for a local gang. There he was, the least gangster person I knew, sporting sunglasses, a gang-colour ascot, and a backwards cap, driving a car of gangsters around with a giant smile on his face. “Huh,” I thought, “Tim’s blending in okay.” Upon hearing this, real-world-Tim thought this was the coolest dream he’d ever heard of.
  • The biggest way my subconscious is a jerk is by creating a dream in which I have superpowers, then refusing to let them work. It takes a sheer force of will to make the characters in my dreams play along and accept that they are, in fact, being shot with lightning.
  • There was an episode of NYPD Blue where Detective Sipowicz is visited in a dream by his recently murdered son and someone claiming to be Jesus. The dream provided a choice between revenge and forgiveness… Sipowicz chose poorly. Since then, if a deceased loved one turns up in a dream, I do not waste it. Just in case. My childhood dog has gotten a lot of posthumous cuddles in dreams.

Praise Beebo and Pass the Cold Gun: Comic TV With Dan

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: the Arrowverse’s Island of Misfit Toys continues to be its best offering.

Short version: Take two parts Doctor Who, two parts A-Team, one part Flash, and a dash of Brooklyn 99, and you get the most fun superhero show on TV.

Premise

The Legends are former assassin and team leader Sara Lance (White Canary); inventor and size-changing superhero Ray Palmer (the Atom); Justice Society of America member and protector of Zambesi Village Amaya Jiwe (Vixen); genius physicist Martin Stein and mechanic Jefferson “Jax” Jackson, who combine to become the nuclear powered Firestorm; forensic historian and metallic metahuman Nate Heywood (Steel, on the few occasions they bother to give him a codename); and pyromaniac former thief Mick Rory (Heat Wave).

They’re a band of misfits, outsiders, and one covert war hero (that’d be Amaya) who’ve made a life on the time ship Waverider protecting all of history, ever since they wiped out the last group in charge of that. (In fairness, they did have it coming.) At the end of last season, the Legends managed to prevent the assembly of villains they called the Legion of Doom from re-writing all of reality, but in doing so employed big enough paradoxes that they shattered all of time, causing countless anachronisms: people, animals, and the occasional building displaced in history. As the third season opens, the Legends are still wrapping their heads around the damage they’ve caused, when team founder/former captain Rip Hunter pops up. Seems that in the few minutes since he left the team, he’s spent five years (time travel) building a new agency to protect time and fix all of these anachronisms: the Time Bureau. And they’re quite adamant that they no longer require the Legends’ help, especially Rip’s protege, Ava Sharpe.

Six months of unsatisfying civilian life later (mostly, Nate tries to stay in the crime-fighting game, but tends to get upstaged by Kid Flash), the Legends decide they disagree with this assessment and steal the Waverider back in order to repair the damage they’ve caused.

But it turns out there’s a greater danger behind the anachronisms. Amaya’s people once imprisoned a demon named Mallus inside of the timestream itself, and the anachronisms are loosening his cage. Mallus recruits a new legion of villains to cause further damage to history in order to free him: returning villain Damien Darhk, his now-grown and similarly magically powered daughter Nora Darhk, Amaya’s least noble grandchild Kuasa, and on special occasions (ie. when the budget allows for it), Gorilla Grodd.

The Legends must occasionally avoid, sometimes work with the Time Bureau to find a way to shut down Mallus and what they tragically never called the Darhk Legion before Mallus conquers all of time. Conquers? Destroys? You know what I’m sure they explained but I kinda forget. Evil demon, needs to be stopped, after that I get fuzzy.

Along the way they pick up a cynical, magic totem-bearing hacker from their future named Zari Tomaz, who’s based on a DC-adjacent character whose superhero name they can’t really use anymore, lose a couple of team members to the annual Arrowverse crossover, and eventually bring Kid Flash on board as the Flash writers found it hard to come up with reasons why any threat they wrote couldn’t be stopped by two full-time speedsters by the second commercial break.

Strengths

Having trouble deciding where to start. So many to choose from.

Fun With History: Legends of Tomorrow has stuck with the one thing that propelled them from the weakest Arrowverse show in their debut season (and this was the same year as Arrow’s least popular season, so ouch) to their best last year: embracing a spirit of zany, time-travel fun. There is very little brooding on the Waverider, just high-energy shenanigans as they blunder through history, hoping that they’re breaking things for the better. (They basically make that their motto.) And they also have even more fun with their historical guest stars.

Back in season one, what few historical figures appeared were just drop-ins. The child that Martin Stein risks history to save from illness turns out to be HG Wells, which means I guess Stein didn’t need to bother? A student in a science class Ray Palmer teaches in the 50s turns out to be Bill Gates’ father. That’s it. That’s literally the whole thing. There was no payoff. No point. In season two, they started actually having fun with their historical figures, and in season three, they doubled down on it. With historical figures scattered through time, they find all new hijinks to get into.

In season three, Julius Caesar tries to recruit a fraternity’s spring break toga party; PT Barnum gets his hands on a sabre-tooth tiger; Helen of Troy sparks a literal war between studios when she turns up in the Golden Age of Hollywood, accidentally damaging decades of technological advancement by stealing a breakout role from actress/inventor Hedy Lamarr; Napoleon Bonaparte must be prevented from getting his hands on a copy of Abba’s “Waterloo”; Viking explorer Leif Erikson decides against bailing on his new discovery North America when his sister embraces a time-displaced, fuzzy, blue, Tickle-Me-Elmo-esque doll named Beebo as their new god of war, I swear I am not making any of this up. Those are all real episodes* and it is glorious.

(*Fine, the Napoleon thing was a background gag they came up with as an excuse to put most of the cast is disco clothes for a week, but still.)

(This isn’t to say that it’s always fun and games. Legends gets sad too. They cut me a couple of times this season, cut me deep.)

#Avalance: The relationship between Sara Lance and rival-turned-ally Ava Sharpe was well developed, and Ava made a fun addition to the show. She won over the audience for a reason. Also I kind of love that if social media can be believed, actresses Caity Lotz (Sara) and Jes Macallan (Ava) are pals now, and ‘ship their characters as much as their fans do. Also nice to be watching a CW show where a romance plot doesn’t incite riots from a portion of the fanbase.

Keeping Up With the Darhks: Neal McDonough’s Damien Darhk was a delight back when he was trying to kill Green Arrow, but he’s flourished as a nemesis for the Legends. The faster-paced and goofier atmosphere of Legends fits his style of gleeful villainy better than the dour, grounded aesthetic of Arrow. The sheer joy he takes in villainy makes him too fun a villain to ever want to see defeated forever, and Courtney Ford brings the same level of campy fun to Nora Darhk that Neal does to Damien. Throw in John Noble as the voice of Mallus and it’s a stacked deck of evil. Also, and this is important, Damien celebrates being resurrected with both his powers from Arrow season four and his memories from Legends season two restored by having a fight scene choreographed to 90s jam “Return of the Mack,” and it makes sense in context of the episode. Not so much in this clip but here it is anyway.

But other than being delightful menaces played by top notch actors, the villains are also deeper characters than you’d expect. Damien is driven above all else by love for his daughter, compromising his commitment to the plan now and again, and making him more three-dimensional than he’s ever been. Nora is trying to raise an ancient demon and build a relationship with her father, who she hasn’t seen since he was killed when she was a kid. Kuasa, also back from the dead (apparently?) after the events of the Vixen animated series (which I should try to watch sometime), just wants to undo the destruction of her village… and keep her grandmother from continuing to hook up with that nerdy super-powered historian from the future, which could erase Kuasa’s existence. Mallus… Mallus is a literal demon whose unprisoned existence would be bad, I guess? Look, they can’t all be winners.

Zari and Ray: Zari is a fun addition. Actress Tala Ashe has a great dry wit that worked well for the character. She also played wonderfully off of Brandon Routh’s more upbeat Ray Palmer, who this season was tweaked into a perpetually cheerful, unbreakably positive Ray of sunshine (sorry) with a love of musicals and a faith in people that gets him into a little trouble here and there. Together they’re a fun double act, and this has been Brandon Routh’s most entertaining season as Ray Palmer… which is saying something.

Also Zari was rightly praised as a positive, non-stereotypical Muslim superhero, especially for the episode where she tries to explain to perpetual glutton Mick why she’s fasting until sundown. There isn’t another comic TV show with a hero who observes Ramadan.

New Friends: Matt Ryan’s back as John Constantine! Delightful. I wanted this for two years and now it’s happening. Also Kid Flash moving here from Flash is a decent fit.

Weaknesses

WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT WRITING OUT RIP HUNTER. WHAT DID I SPECIFICALLY ASK YOU TO STOP DOING.

Fine, I guess this season they used him similarly to Flynn Rider on The Librarians. He turned up at the beginning, the middle, and the end, and in between was off doing more big-picture stuff while the team chased anachronisms, but I don’t like the way they seemed to be weaning the show off of him. I don’t like it at all.

Okay, fine, sure, with Sara captaining the Waverider and his protege Ava Sharp gradually taking over the Time Bureau, there isn’t a clear need for Rip, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing to… no, no, you cannot make me approve of this.

Moving past that… I love the fun tone, I definitely do, but maaaayyyyybe it undercut the stakes a little? All of time and space was theoretically under threat from Mallus, but I just didn’t feel it, you know? Last season they showed us what a Legion of Doom victory would look like, with Mallus they asked us to take their word for it. (We needn’t discuss Vandal Savage from season one. Ever again.)

High Point

…Man, this one is not easy. Which to pick? “Here I Go Again,” where Zari gets stuck in a time loop? They earned name-dropping Groundhog Day on that one. “No Country For Old Dads,” in which Ray, Nora, and Damien have to team up against Younger Damien? Real-life spouses Brandon Routh and Courtney Ford had amazing comic chemistry and it began the road to possible redemption for both Darhks. “Guest Starring John Noble,” (yes that’s what it was called, yes this is real life, apparently) in which the Legends notice that Mallus happens to sound exactly like Denethor from Lord of the Rings, and recruit actor John Noble to con Nora? That’s a lot of highlights and I haven’t even mentioned Rip Hunter and Kid Flash going to 90s Japan for drunk karaoke.

Forget the goddamned “Snyder Cut,” give me an extended edition of that.

But ultimately it has to come down to one of two episodes. I don’t know for sure that they had Leonard “Captain Cold” Snart’s Earth-X doppelganger Leo “Citizen Cold” Snart stick around for two episodes post-“Crisis on Earth-X” to ease the pain of the crossover’s conclusion, but if they did, it worked, and since Wentworth Miller’s take on the various Snarts has always been one of the highlights of the Arrowverse, the season’s high point can only be one of those two.

(“Crisis on Earth-X” doesn’t count, that really played as its own four-hour event, not episodes of each individual series)

But which to pick? “Beebo the God of War” introduces the cuddly giggling toy Beebo that the fans embraced as their new god, has a great planning montage, and involves Leo providing grief counselling via puppet. That’s a tough line-up to beat. But “Daddy Darhkest” has Leo and John Constantine, and one of the better Ray and Zari team ups.

Tough call. But I’m going with “Beebo.” They were on that week.

Low Point

Also hard. They really brought their A-game this year. I guess… maybe… you know what, I’ll admit it, “Amazing Grace,” in which pre-fame Elvis Presley gains dominion over the dead, ran out of steam partway through. And the white male preacher from 1950s Tennessee being convinced that rock’n’roll music isn’t evil by a black man and a Muslim woman after one speech rang kinda false. That combo would have trouble getting through to white southern preachers now.

MVP

There are so many people doing such good work on this show, and everybody except maybe Kid Flash gets a great spotlight episode (Kid Flash comes closest in his recruitment episode, but drunk Rip Hunter overshadows him. Poor Wally. Always the sidekick), but the heart and soul of this show (plus all of the best fight scenes… save for the final duel against Mallus that cannot simply be described…) remains Caity Lotz as Sara Lance. Oh captain my captain, long may she reign.

Tips For Next Season

You know, Constantine was such a fun addition for his two episodes (and two cameos) that you should consider making him a regular– oh, that’s happening? Huh. Okay.

I’ll just have a Coke, then.

(Also there’s a couple of things in the finale I’d like you to walk back, if that’s okay, thanks much)

Overall Grade: A-

My only concern is that they might go a little too far with the wacky irreverence. Like how Happy Endings started overdoing the rapid banter just a smidge in their third season.

Also...

Also, you can’t kill two of my absolute favourite characters AND my favourite villain in the same season and get a full A, you just can’t, that’s the way it is. I hold that nonsense against Game of Thrones, and I’m holding it against you. That’s three of my original five absolute favourite characters gone, with only three new absolute favourites added. Yes that evens out to the same number, shut up.

[collapse]

Next time in this feature… either I’ll finally get around to finishing The Gifted, or I won’t and it’ll be time to cover Black Lightning. Only a week left on that one. Maybe hop on Netflix and try it out.

Next time in general: my subconscious is a jerk.

Cities I’ve Loved, and Why

Glancing over recent blog posts, it seems I’m overdue for something non-TV. And glancing outside at the winter that will not die, it is April, move along already… it’s easy to get into a travel kind of headspace. But since my next proper trip (excluding long weekends in Vancouver, which just sort of happen from time to time) won’t be for five to fourteen months, I thought I’d take you on a verbal tour of some of my favourite cities, and how they came to be so.

Let’s start with the April eighth, it is April eighth, stop snowing stop goddamn snowing and be spring sorry, sorry, I’m very sorry, I’ll try that again…

Let’s start with the grand poobah, my number one, the place I will go to die if given the option.

London

The first time I went to London I was fourteen. My dad was heading to Germany for a conference, and he decided to bring me along with him. Just me, not my brother. Maybe because my brother was on the verge of his third school trip to Europe, maybe because he knew I’d been having a rough go of it in junior high and thought a trip would be a nice break. Whichever the reason, the thing that most stuck with me about that trip was starting and ending it in London. Who wouldn’t love that city? They had way more lax rules about nipples in newspapers and there seemed to be a Pizza Hut on every block!

(I have since revised my opinion on Pizza Hut and the necessity of having multiple Pizza Huts within sight of each other, look, I was fourteen, did I mention that?)

We went to a museum on film and television called the Museum of the Moving Image. I loved it. I wanted to go back so bad, but I never managed it. Tried once in 1994, but didn’t get there in time. Weirdly, I don’t think we made it to a play that first trip. One of only two times I’ve been to that city and not seen a West End show.

Two out of three of my high school trips (my time came) also went through London. Sure it wasn’t the only place we went, but somehow it became the only place that my brain translated into “happiness.” When tough times came in the late nineties, I’d have dreams that I was back in London, and the realization hit me like a wave of pure joy, happiness so overwhelming that sometimes I couldn’t stand, collapsing into a gift shop filled with Big Ben slow globes and belt buckles. When times got tougher in the early 2000s, I decided to chase that feeling, and started putting money away for a return visit.

I did not collapse out of sheer joy when I stepped off the plane in 2003, but it was close. How can I explain what this city is to me? Sure, there’s the culture. The West End can go toe to toe with Broadway anytime. Sure there’s the history. Castles, apartment buildings older than my country, landmarks like crazy, the kind you only get in cities that trace their histories back centuries. And sure there are the museums, so many museums… even if the Museum of the Moving Image shut down right when I started saving to go back to it, their most famous museum has been described in places as “an active crime scene,” and the National Gallery won’t let the public see its most important painting, but damned if there isn’t a museum for any taste somewhere.

But it’s really just how I feel the second I step into Leicester Square, or stroll along the Thames, or walk Westminster Bridge, covered as it is in tourists taking photos, street performers, and nut vendors. I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. I feel like I’m home. It’s a feeling that has eased heartaches, brought peace of mind, and been bright enough to overcome occasionally spotty weather.

Let’s go there sometime, I can show you around.

New York

Look, you’ve heard songs and seen movies, so there’s not much I need to teach you about the charms of New York. But I had a good enough time there one day in 2016 that it almost single-handedly redeemed a summer that was coming to be shaped by failure, crumbling friendships, financial strain, and deep, deep blows to my own self-image that I lack time or interest to discuss here. Or elsewhere. But let’s talk about one good day.

As I had a landmark birthday that year, I was gifted a long weekend in New York, right when several friends were going to be there. Matt, you see, had long talked about doing a Brooklyn pizza tasting tour, wandering the pizzerias of a borough my two previous trips had largely neglected, save for Coney Island. It sounded like something I wanted in on. Also, I’d learned about a restaurant called Raclette that seemed custom-designed just for me.

Now, the pizza tour didn’t quite work. Turns out upper-tier pizza places don’t sell by the slice, and some of our companions lacked commitment to the journey. So we managed two thoroughly tasty pizzas before the gang decided to depart for Coney Island, where most rode the rides while Matt and I moved from bar to bar in search of beers.

“I suppose if nothing else, we can get a beer at Applebee’s,” Matt said.
“Wouldn’t be the first time I went to that Applebee’s for lack of a better option,” I replied.
“…You’ve been to that Applebee’s?”
“It’s the Applebee’s of Last Resort.”
(It didn’t come to that. My only regret is that we didn’t drink at the bar with the freak show attached that is clearly the inspiration for Harley Quinn’s Brooklyn hideout in her solo comic.)

But the next day, now… the next day was special.

There’s something extra fun about being in a different city with friends. What would normally be just another night at the pub or the rehearsal space is now an adventure. And so this day would be. I was to meet Matt and his wife Kate in Manhattan at Beer Authority, a bar near Times Square so overladen with craft beer options we could have drank there every night for hours and not gotten through them all. But first… first I had a mission. I was going to Raclette and getting myself the cheesiest lunch I could.

Have you ever seen a video online for a place that seemed so cool you needed to go there, but it’s in some other faraway city or country? Have you ever made the pilgrimage there all the same? I’ve managed that on a handful of occasions. The Doctor Who Experience in London and Cardiff. Dismaland. Mr Fogg’s Residence, a Victorian speakeasy in London. Each time it’s been a triumph, a good experience made great by the journey to reach it. So it was with Raclette. It wasn’t just a delicious lunch of gooey cheese goodness, it was an accomplishment of gooey cheese goodness. I saw it, I wanted it, I found it, I rule. So, off to a good start.

I met up with Matt for the first of many delicious beers, and we decided on our course for the day: a Hell’s Kitchen craft brew pub crawl. Beers we can’t get at home, pub experiences that only exist here in Manhattan. We looked up the best in the area, found five to try out, and each one provided a delicious beer I’d never even known existed.

Beer, watermelon, and puns. Triple threat right here.

But we managed to save the absolute best for last… Bar Bacon. Craft beers and artisanal bacons. Sure, by that point we were tipsy enough that anywhere had a decent chance of being a good time, but man, I’d have lived in that bar if it were an option. They even made a kale salad tasty.

Yes I had a kale salad at Bar Bacon, I couldn’t just eat cheese and bacon all day.

That’s the kind of trip that makes a city special forever, even if it only lasted three days.

(Should have used the bathroom before I left Bar Bacon. That was an uncomfortable subway ride back into Brooklyn.)

Las Vegas

Viva.

Look, if you want to cut loose, if you want to have good times with friends no other place can provide, if you want to see a Cirque du Soleil show with a stage that turns into a pool as if by magic, accept no substitutes.

I thought I had a story for this one but what it comes down to is that even though I had the most expensive hospital stay of my life there, I still had a good time on that trip.

Los Angeles

My best times in this city predate digital photos, and I don’t know if I could find and scan a photo that would sum this one up.

Until I was 18, LA was just that place where Disneyland was. We’d been twice, once when I was six and again when I was ten, the first stop on the long road to our seven months living in Australia. But in 1995, it became something else. A magical place.

One of the things I love about Comic Expo here at home is being at a place full of people with the same nerdy loves as me. The first place I got a taste of that experience was FOLCfest in 1995.

Okay. Let’s rip this bandaid off quick. I did not misspell “folkfest,” FOLC stood for “Fans of Lois and Clark,” an online community I’d been part of almost as long as I’d been using the internet, for fans of the TV show Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Look, you know I like superhero TV, you know that even today in the golden age of geek TV I even watch the bad stuff… to entertain YOU… but back in the nineties we didn’t have networks devoting half of their lineup to superheroes or streaming services cranking out other, often more adult fare, good or bad… so we enjoyed what we had. Yes, that show had its flaws, but it was also fun a lot of the time. Although there is a reason the first superhero show I bought on DVD was Arr– wait, Birds of Prey? Aw, man, come on past me… I know it was cheap and all but that thing is still in shrink wrap…

Anyway, the FOLCs, the preeminent online fandom for the show, decided to do an IRL get-together (we didn’t use the phrase “IRL,” people still used complete sentences online back then) in Los Angeles, including a tour of the Warner Bros. lot where Lois and Clark filmed.

This was a magical weekend. Names I had only seen online became real people I could laugh with, party with, drink with… not, like, alcohol, because I was underage in the States and actually I didn’t start drinking for another four years, but I did have plenty of lemonade and whatnot. Between that and the size of the average American cheeseburger, I was constantly full.

We went to Disneyland, and I not only had the best time, I kept “It’s a Small World” from getting stuck in my head by humming the Star Wars Cantina Theme to myself (I had also recently re-embraced Star Wars in a big way). I took my first trip to Venice Beach, and yes, there were, in fact, Lois and Clark fans who looked pretty damn good in bikinis. On the way back to the hotel from one of our excursions, someone in the same car as me said “I suddenly feel like a milkshake,” that craving spread like wildfire through the car, and before you could say “They should never have killed off Lex Luthor at the end of season one,” we were pulling into a cool fifties diner for milkshakes and cheeseburgers.

And coolest of all, our tour of the WB lot ended in the Daily Planet set, where we were greeted by the Lois and Clark showrunners and K Callan, who played Martha Kent… and who was soon joined by Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher, and Justin Whalen (the second Jimmy Olsen, who was not immediately embraced, so it was ballsy for him to come chat with us), who didn’t just do a flyby, they stayed to chat and seemed legitimately thrilled to greet us. K even had dinner with us all at the hotel. My pictures didn’t turn out. Her head got clipped clean off. Annoying. But this was my first encounter with any sort of famous person, other than former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, who is at best “cameo on Corner Gas” famous.

There was no chance of me not going back the next summer, none at all. There had been an entire summer’s worth of fun, friends, and good times crammed into one incredible weekend that couldn’t even be ruined by getting incredibly ill the last morning, or my failure to capitalize on being one of the prettiest guys there (damn you Tad Takara, that crown could have been mine!). The buzz didn’t die for weeks.

The following summer, at FOLCfest 2, now that I was in charge of doing the entertainment for the last night, I did capitalize on being at worst the third prettiest guy there (damn you Rob from Vancouver), somehow learned how to flirt, and fell in love for the first real time, enhancing the magic of the city, of the FOLC community, of writing entertainments, of devoting myself to shows about Superman. …Is that why I watched Smallville for a decade? No, no… must have been the lack of other superhero shows… Anyway, sure that relationship didn’t end great, but to quote V For Vendetta, for five years I had roses and apologized to no one.

But that’s a whole other story. Suffice to say, LA is a magical city to me. I should really get back there one of these days. Has it really been 21 years? Goddamn. My memories of LA can get legally drunk in LA…

I wish I was still in touch with some of the FOLCs, but our time as a fandom so well known to the producers that we got shout-outs in the final season (I met the co-creator of Firefly, you guys) came and went a decade before Facebook, and we all lost touch. Even the ones in my city.

Goddamn tragic. Let’s talk about wombats to take the edge off.

Wagga Wagga

Not every quest works out. That doesn’t mean they weren’t worth doing.

In 2010, the entire Gibbins clan went south for three weeks in Australia, the country that had been my home for half of 1987, which I had never made it back to. The only rule for the trip was that, in week three, we all meet up in Brisbane so we could go to Lady Elliott Island together. In the end, I stuck with my parents for most of the time, ’cause it turns out I actually like them, I wanted to do 90% of what they were doing, and doing it all one day earlier or later just to be contrary seemed a weird choice. There was but one exception. Two days when I took off on my own. For I had a crazy quest to see to.

This crazy quest did not involve returning to either city I’d lived in. Darwin was too far away, and I spent three months in Canberra and I’m pretty much done with that.

Back in ’87, we bought two books of an Australian author’s true bush stories too weird for his fiction, The Killer Koala and Wombat’s Revenge. The title story of the second book was about the author being asked to go to a Chinese graveyard filled with wombats, in order to acquire a bull wombat for a friend’s zoo. Like most of the stories in these books, he ended up fearing for his life when an unexpectedly large male wombat shredded his net like tissue paper. The Chinese graveyard full of wombats was said to be on the highway between two towns called Tumut and Jindabyne, not far from metropolitan Wagga Wagga (I swear I am not making any of this up). So my course, crazy though it seemed, was clear.

Drive the highway from Tumut to Jindabyne, find that graveyard, and commune with the wombats.

I rented a car in Sydney, and off I went. Five hours to the city I had chosen as basecamp, a mid-level city called Wagga Wagga. Why there and not Tumut or Jindabyne? Two reasons. First, Wagga Wagga was on the highway to my ultimate driving destination, Adelaide, and Tumut and Jindabyne were not. Second, I really wanted to confirm that Wagga Wagga was a real place. That real people, and not a series of Fozzy Bear impersonators, lived and worked in a town called Wagga Wagga.

I didn’t make it too far past Tumut. Turns out when you have to pull over and search any patch of land that looks graveyardy from a distance, it slows your progress a little. I found great bounding mobs of kangaroos, roaming emus, and a spectacular sunset behind a mountain reflected in a lake. This last thing, while pretty, was the breaking point of the quest. I did not love my odds of being able to spot a graveyard from the highway in the dark. Also I was in the Australian wilderness and was beginning to have real concerns about spiders. And so I made the choice to return to Wagga (as the locals called it, making every address read out over the radio delightful) before I’d completely burned my daylight. That evening I headed out into what passed for downtown Wagga in search of dinner, settling for Australian Subway. I saw the crowds of young Aussies gathering in the streets, which made me nostalgic for being young and… seeing other groups of youths having fun I would opt not to try to join. Being chronically introverted is the worst sometimes.

Maybe I should have found something more adventurous to do. Found a bar, had some beers, seen if locals were up for chatting. I certainly have friends who’d have done that. Who’d have succeeded at that. Not I. I bought my sandwich, went back to my hotel room, hunted and killed the crickets that found their way in (this is Australia, trust nothing that walks or crawls), and discovered that the fourth season of Doctor Who that I’d been neglecting to watch for almost two years was actually really good.

So I guess Wagga is a place where cool things almost happened, but always seemed just out of reach. And as fun as seeing David Tennant live on stage, Hell’s Kitchen pub crawls, Disneyland, or drinking one dollar beers on the way to a burlesque show in a casinoare, can they ever compete with the adventures that might have been? Yes, by and large, they definitely can, but the glimpse of potential still gives Wagga Wagga a place in my heart. Enough of a place that when pondering doing a road trip from Melbourne to Brisbane, I give serious thought to stopping in Wagga again.

Also I did confirm that “Hungry Jack’s” is just Australian Burger King when I was there. One 23-year suspicion proved correct. Go me.

So those are places around the world that have a special meaning to me. Places I’d be thrilled to return to, any time I can. But here… here is home. Here is where I made the best friends I’ve ever had, where I built a theatre company that’s my greatest accomplishment, where my plays received their first productions. So be it ever so humble, there’s no place like Jesus Christ it’s going to go above zero for three days then start snowing again on Thursday? FUCKING HELL JUST BE SPRING ALREADY!

…How much could a trip to LA cost, really…

Comic TV With Dan: Runaways

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: you know how teens begin to suspect their parents aren’t all that great after all? Well, what if your teen suspicions that your parents are jerks were way, way more correct than you ever thought? Based on the first Marvel comic to be written in the same seasonal model as TV shows, surely Runaways should be an easy fit for TV, right?

Right?

Short version: If you think the CW superhero shows don’t have enough teenage melodrama, does Hulu ever have a show for you. Well… half a show.

Premise

Alex Wilder, Gertrude York, Nico Minoru, Karolina Dean, Chase Stein, and Molly Hernadez used to be the best of friends, hanging out during meetings of their parents, a group of wealthy philanthropists called the Pride: tech dynamos, scientists, construction moguls, and the leader of the Scientology-esque religion Gibborim. High school and the apparent suicide of Nico’s older sister divided the gang, but Alex attempts to get everyone back together during the latest Pride meeting… only for everyone to witness their parents ritually sacrificing a teenage runaway Gibborim had plucked from the streets for “help.”

Turns out Pride is up to something far more sinister than building a new school, and are working at the behest of a mysterious and extremely jerky man named Jonah, with an unknown past that– he’s an alien. Total alien. If they don’t want to spell that out for you in ten episodes, I’ll just go ahead and rip the band-aid off myself. Now the teens are the only ones who can uncover Pride’s real goals and try to stop them… if they can put their personal issues aside long enough to make it happen.

Along the way, they pick up gifts to help with the fight. Nico’s mother has a magic staff called the Staff of One. Chase, with help from his inventor father, builds a set of powered gauntlets. Gertrude learns that her parents have a dinosaur that responds to her thoughts, no you read that right. Molly has super-strength, though using it tires her out. Karolina can glow, fly, and fire energy blasts when she takes off the bracelet her parents have made her wear her whole life. And Alex… well, Alex has to rely on his wits. There’s always one who just has to make a superpower out of being clever.

And eventually, they may have to run away. As the title suggests.

If anyone still cares somehow, no, there are no references to the larger Marvel universe. None. Not even the half-assed references you get from the Defenders shows. Runaways flies under the Marvel banner, because they’re not stupid, but narratively they stand alone. And good for ’em, says I.

Strengths

There were a lot of complaints about the story in early episodes, specifically the fact that the titular Runaways had yet to run away at all. Sure, in the comics, that happened immediately. In the first issue, they were learning about their parents’ villainy, and by issue two they were on the run. On TV, they take a bit longer to get there. Essentially, they’re doing the same thing as Preacher: they’re taking the first story arc and making a season out of it. They’re taking their time to explore where the story begins instead of rushing past it.

There are good and bad points to this approach, but the header suggests which one we’re going to talk about first.

Not jumping to the running away part of Runaways allows a much more complicated dynamic between the teens and their various parents, and in the Pride itself. It’s been many years since I read the first volume of Runaways, but I don’t recall there being much definition to the Pride beyond what exact brand of supervillain they were: gangster, magician, alien, mad scientist, etc. Here, there are far more levels. There are shades of grey: some of the Pride are more evil than others. Some take to the human sacrifice thing pretty easily. Some are mostly good people stuck in a bad situation. And also having their benefactor around in person changes things up as well. In the comics, the Gibborim were a race of goat-like aliens that had bestowed gifts on the Pride, which we didn’t even meet until the end of the first volume. Here, it’s Jonah. Instead of mysterious goat-beasts, it’s Nip/Tuck’s Julian McMahon, which allows for more complicated relationships between the various Pride members and their extremely dickish benefactor. Not everyone is a true believer, and that is definitely something new.

Also, we dig more into the parent-child relationships, as each child is forced to see their parents in a new light. Instead of instantly becoming mortal adversaries (save for one Runaway who was secretly on the Pride’s side, a storyline the show might or might not pursue), they try to hide their new knowledge and grapple with what it means. Some kids start feuding with their parents. Some actually get closer to theirs. It’s a complex tapestry and a more realistic approach than “Cheese it! We live on the run now!” being their opening gambit. Not to mention it lets more and darker secrets slip out as the season continues.

Other strengths. The bulk of the parents are well cast, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s James Marsters as the brilliant but abusive Victor Stein; Ever Carradine as his long-suffering wife; 24‘s Annie Wersching as Karolina’s cult-leader mother; Alias’ Kevin Weisman (love that dude, he’s great, his character on Alias was the best… well, the best non-Bristow) and Brigid Brannagh as Gertrude’s dorky, cheese-loving parents (and foster parents to Molly); and Angel Parker and Ryan Sands as the cold, unflinching Wilder parents, a gangster and a lawyer who got their piece of the pie through the Pride and will yield it to no one, possibly even Jonah.

The teen cast, though not always on the adults’ level, are spot-on for each of their roles. Well, except maybe Molly, who is written as several years younger, but doesn’t really look it. (Making her latina works well, and reduces the whiteness of the group from two-thirds to only half–still really white, sure, but progress?)

Combining the Gibborim and whatever species comics-Karolina was into one singular alien, Jonah, was probably a good idea. Really, how many types of aliens does this story need?

That’s a pretty great dinosaur Gertrude has.

And props for breaking from the canon, comic-book relationships and saying “You know what, the gay girl gets a win, too.”

Weaknesses

Multiple times in this first season, Jonah or a Pride member would get caught doing something Hell of shady, and they would stare down the person who caught them, saying (often with murder in their eyes) “You have to trust me,” while providing no real reason why that should happen. That is the show speaking to us, the audience. To explain, let’s look at the flip side of their use of the Preacher model.

Stretching the first Preacher story from four issues to ten episodes worked, mostly because of everything they layered into it, which made the first season feel like more of a complete story. Jesse had an arc whose natural end was leaving Annville in search of God. Not so much with Runaways. In a way, this plays out like the average season of Game of Thrones. The various plot points build to a big event in episode nine, then the season finale is all about dealing with the fallout while setting the stage for the next season.

The problem here, though, is that the first story arc of Runaways doesn’t translate as well to a full season. The first volume of Runaways was meant to read as the first season, not the first arc. As a result, what we have here is a first season that offers zero closure on almost any storyline. We don’t know what Jonah’s really after, or what he even is, Geoffrey Wilder’s frenemy rival is still an ongoing thing, I think they only barely dealt with “Who secretly killed who.” And that’s not even covering the fact that when the season wraps up, the main plot has only just made it out of first gear. The gradual pace of the first episodes was forgivable when I thought they were building to a satisfying climax, but then the finale rolled around and it turned out we’d spent ten episodes only introducing the premise.

And if you’re going to go the Game of Thrones route, with each season only being one part of a bigger, more complicated story, man, you gotta be Games of Thrones level good. Because when everyone else is doing season arcs with beginnings, middles, and ends and you’re opening with one chapter of a multi-year arc? That is a risky move, and in this case, it felt like Runaways was writing a cheque we don’t know that they can cash. They’re Jonah, staring us down and saying “You need to trust me,” when the last two episodes did not make it clear whether I can.

So the ending had some flaws. What else?

The dialogue is often not naturalistic, and instead really awkward. There might be a way to make “The circumstances of my sister’s suicide are not something you can keep secret from me” sound natural but goddamn they did not find it. Someone at the first table read needed to be flagging awkward dialogue, and it just wasn’t happening.

The younger actors are not always on the level of their adult counterparts. Well, mostly Molly. Molly struggles the most. Nico and Alex… they just can’t always deliver the really weirdly awkward lines convincingly. And that’s understandable, it is, but… Veronica on Riverdale doesn’t always have dialogue you believe a human teenager would say, but damn it Camilla Mendes still sells it.

They must have blown their effects budget on the dinosaur, ’cause those are some 80s-direct-to-video effects they’re using when Karolina lights up.

High Point

Either “Kingdom,” when the kids suit up for the first time, trying out their new toys (minus the dinosaur) to protect Alex and discover what they can all do, or “Doomsday,” in which the kids suit up to try and stop the Pride’s big plan, and confront their parents for the first… time… actually that confrontation ultimately fell pretty flat. Yup, it’s “Kingdom.”

Low Point

“Hostile.” For whatever strengths the season finale had, I came into it thinking “So how to you top ‘Doomsday,'” and the answer turned out to be “Well we don’t.” “Hostile” is an episode you break for Christmas with, not for the season.

MVP

James Marsters gives Victor Stein the most dynamic character arc of any Pride parent, and I’m most afraid for the safety of the Yorkes, so that’s bonus points to Kevin Weisman and Brigid Brannagh.

Ideally, the MVP would have been Alex, the unnamed leader of the team, but that just didn’t happen. Love his hair, though.

Tips For Next Season

We’ve had ten episodes of setting the stage. Now tell a story. (Also, don’t even think about writing out that dinosaur.)

Overall Grade: B-

Was almost a B+ but then they forgot to write an ending and here we are. Still too much potential in the show to slip into C territory, though.

Next time… ugh. Fine. Time to finish The Gifted. Also some non-TV blogs to even things out?

Photo: Hulu

Comic TV With Dan: The Tick

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: The Wild Blue Yonder is back on TV!

The Tick began as an independent comic from writer Ben Edlund, a loving satire of comic book superheroes in which a mental patient in a blue… outfit? With antennae? Or maybe it’s his skin?… anyway, he escapes, then starts fighting evil with the help of an ex-accountant named Arthur sporting a moth suit of unclear origin. It then developed into its most popular iteration, a 90s Saturday morning cartoon show featuring a softer satire of superheroes, dropping the mental patient angle and the notion that most sidekicks are required to have full, pouting lips for reasons they’re not sure about. The Tick and Arthur, would-be champions, guarded The City with the help of a cadre of fellow misfit superheroes, taking on bizarre and wacky villains ranging from Chairface Chippendale (his head was a chair) to Eastern Block Robotic Cowboy (a vending machine with robot arms, a stetson, and a Russian accent) to everyone’s favourite, The Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs at Midnight. And one of the only villains to be imported from the comics, the 100+ year-old legacy villain the Terror (described by Tick as “One of the greatest villains of the 20th century! And parts of the 19th, I think.”)

Four years after the beloved cartoon ended, The Tick was adapted into a live-action comedy starring Patrick Warburton as the oversized would-be hero. The live-action version tried to bring back some of the edge of the comic version, while still being wacky superhero fun. Sadly it was short-lived, being sent to die as part of Fox’s futile attempt to bring down… what was it… whatever network shows were dominating Thursday nights in– 2001? Son of a bitch, time is a motherfu–

Anyway, now The Tick is back on television with a whole new take, thanks to Amazon Prime, with a 12-episode season that they dropped in two chunks, all of which is now available. And now we’re going to talk about it.

Short version: if you’re looking for the cartoon series brought to life, this is the wrong place. But The Tick show they’ve made worked out really damn well.

Premise

As a child, Arthur Everest saw his father die right in front of him… because when hyper-elderly supervillain the Terror (him again, this time played by the always impressive Jackie Earle Haley) nearly wiped out patriotic super-team the Flag Five, they crashed their ship onto Arthur’s dad. So young Arthur watched the Terror kill both his father and their city’s greatest heroes, after which the Terror strode up to him, gloated, and stole his ice cream. It’s a famous moment. Ended up on the cover of magazines.

Flash to the present, and Arthur is convinced that despite the world’s belief that the Terror was killed by the world’s first and greatest superhero, Superian, he’s still out there, still plotting. Arthur’s family, mostly his overprotective sister Dot (like Tick, Arthur, and the Terror, one of the four characters to appear in all four iterations of The Tick), thinks he’s dealing with mental illness in the wake of his childhood trauma. But Arthur gets unexpected support when the Tick, an immense blue superhero (now played by delightful British actor/Darth Maul voice Peter Serafinowicz) drops into his life. Superstrong and mostly invulnerable, the Tick claims to be taking his cues from destiny herself, and that part of destiny’s plan is that Arthur start wearing this experimental moth suit of unclear origin Tick just found while busting up an arms shipment Arthur was observing.

Arthur continues to search for the Terror while avoiding attacks from the Terror’s electric former henchwoman Miss Lint, dodging concern from Dot, dealing with his friendly but meandering stepdad, and managing a lumbering, somewhat clueless blue tank of a superhero. The Tick tries to guide Arthur to a heroic destiny, while also figuring who he himself is, what he is, where he came from, and why he gets a little fuzzy about his purpose when Arthur isn’t around.

Also Superian is dealing with a giant naked man known as the VLM (Very Large Man). That might be significant.

Fans of the cartoon should know… don’t expect to see any characters you know save for Tick, Arthur, the Terror, and Dot. Ben Edlund doesn’t own the rights to any characters created for the animated series, so no Die Fledermaus, Sewer Urchin, or American Maid. Nor their live-action counterparts from the Warburton series, Bat-Manuel and Captain Liberty (there is no way to make a version of Sewer Urchin that isn’t legally actionable). But the new supporting cast is pretty solid too.

In addition to Miss Lint and Superian, there’s Overkill, a rogue government agent turned murderous vigilante also hunting the Terror (Arthur’s description of their first meeting is priceless); Danger Boat, Overkill’s sentient aquatic headquarters, voiced by Alan Tudyk; Tinfoil Kevin, a surprisingly resourceful local homeless man; and Midnight, a talking dog that’s one of the only survivors of the Flag Five, voiced by Townsend Coleman, who provided the Tick himself his iconic voice in the animated series.

Those are players, how was the game?

Strengths

One of the main writer/producers is the Tick creator himself, Ben Edlund, who’s been busy in the years since the last two Tick series writing fan-favourite episodes of shows like Supernatural (basically any meta-episode) and Angel (he wrote the classic puppet episode “Smile Time,” and here reuses the phrase “Wee Little Puppet Man”). Which is to say, under his supervision, the show has tons of wit and a lot of heart. Despite some dark themes in the first act (we’ll get to that), there’s consistent humour, and it’s never a drag to watch. And the back half just soars. There are amazing lines in nearly every episode, and nobody knows better than Edlund how to write a great Tick narration monolgue.

Serafinowicz and Griffin Newman, who plays Arthur, make a great duo. Arthur’s panic, anxiety, and confusion over what to do next bounce well off of Tick’s clueless confidence, which is punctuated only by the occasional burst of existential uncertaintly. Arthur’s lovable, and the Tick is hilarious, and you can’t help but root for them to work things out and triumph over evil.

The rest of the cast is great, too. That Jackie Earle Haley is amazing as the Terror should go without saying, but he brings a wonderful joviality to Terror’s schemes. Yara Martinez is terrific as Miss Lint, beginning to question if she’s hitched herself to the right evil wagon. Valorie Curry presents what I suspect to be the best version of Dot thus far, a derby girl/med student/black market paramedic that is able to pick up details as to what the Pyramid gang are up to by healing their various crime-wounds. Brendan Hines brings just the right level of smug celebrity to Superian (whose name I like as a nonsense hybrid of various Superman clone names) without falling too far into douche territory. Alan Tudyk is predictably entertaining as the voice of Danger Boat.

Overkill is an interesting addition, with his dark, gritty, surprisingly graphic, stab-happy style of justice colliding with Tick’s Adam West-ian crusade for Sweet Lady Justice (Tick feels Overkill may need “The Talk”). It’s a great juxtaposition that ends up being a better Punisher/Daredevil team-up than Netflix is ever going to deliver. Also Overkill has a fun chemistry with both Miss Lint and Dot, when despite Arthur’s protests she inevitably becomes more heavily involved in the hunt for the Terror.

It’s not a huge thing but I love how Arthur figured out that only he could see or hear the Tick right in time for Dot to point out that no, in fact, she can see him just fine, he definitely exists. They set up the “Tick is imaginary” reveal well, then swerved away charmingly.

The lampshade hang over Arthur noticing that Tick’s costume received an upgrade after the pilot was shot and their full-season budget rolled in was cute.

Plus they fit in two Easter-egg references to the battle cries Tick and Arthur developed in the classic animated episode (which introduced the Terror), “The Tick Vs. Arthur’s Bank Account.” For the Tick, the classically nonsensical “SPOON!” For Arthur, the less iconic (and shorter-lived) “Not in the face! Not in the face!” That delighted me, especially the less-expected second one.

Weaknesses

You know it’s a little weird that so much of the first six episodes is devoted to exploring the very real mental issues brought on by Arthur’s horrific childhood trauma. It’s odd. It’s a darker take on Arthur’s origin than we’ve ever seen before, which was a key part in the tone being so drastically different from the two previous Tick series that it had me wondering who this radical departure from previous iterations was even for. People hoping for the exact sort of silly fun of the animated series, still the most popular version as far as I can tell, are in for a hell of a surprise.

Also, there’s way more swearing than I expected (limited mostly, if not entirely, to Overkill, which actually helps build the dichotomy of Overkill’s Punisher-style vigilantism vs Tick’s innocent, four-colour heroics). And you’ll catch some glimpses of VLM’s VL butt. And fair warning, VLM is not in shape.

But then you could also twist that into a strength, couldn’t you? This version of The Tick wastes no time trying to live or die on nostalgia. It doesn’t ask you to let it skate by on references to classic episodes (save for the odd Easter egg, like those battle cries I mentioned), and is aware that everyone who watched the cartoon as a kid either grew up or is being shown the DVDs by fans who grew up. So they’re doing their own, more grown-up thing. And if anyone’s going to reinvent the Tick for the current state of the superhero genre, nobody’s gonna be better at it than Ben Edlund.

Hmm. I’m kind of spinning the weakness into strengths, aren’t I. Let’s see…

Well, Arthur’s attempts to flee from Destiny and not wear his iconic moth suit surely did stretch on an episode or two longer than I would have liked. It basically took the entire first half for Arthur to accept heroism, which was a really great moment, but it wasn’t until right before the mid-season break, aw damn it that made it a perfect end-point before hiatus, I can’t even criticize this show…

That whole thing about Miss Lint being forced to share a condo with her ex got dropped pretty hard in the second half. I’d have to rewatch the series as a whole but it’s possible I could have used a little more of that? Also the Terror having an Alexa was kind of blatant as product placement goes.

And they came so close to including Eastern Block Robotic Cowboy. One cowboy hat. All it would have taken.

High Point

Can I just say “Episodes seven through twelve?” Or to put it another way, who among you thinks you can stop me from saying “Episodes seven through twelve?” Because I’m not sure I can whittle it down further.

Low Point

Ummm… hmm… well… maybe… “Secret Identity?” Arthur loses the suit, that was more of a setback than I wanted three episodes in.

MVP

There are a lot of talented people doing a lot of good work here, but it has to be Peter Serafinowicz. Townsend Coleman and Patrick Warburton were tough acts to follow in this role, but he’s nailing it with every single line. He’s called this “the best job [he’s] ever had,” and he’s making the most of it.

Tips For Next Season

This is gonna be tricky. But let’s see…

Really now… exactly how jealously is Fox guarding the rights to Chairface Chippendale? Could we at least have the scene from the comics where Tick tries to throw a sinister monolith into space? That’s a classic.

Honestly, though, just do this again and we’re probably fine.

Overall Grade: A

I finished it yesterday and I’m just about ready to rewatch the whole thing.

Until next time, remember… never let your sister talk you into the “normal” thing.

Picture: Amazon