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

Comic TV With Dan: Welcome Back, Jessica

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: Jessica’s back! Two and a half years after Jessica Jones’ first season arguably set the high bar for the Marvel Netflix franchise (only Daredevil’s first season can compete), was the best comic book show of the season according to highly credible sources, and after being one of the highlights of last year’s slightly disappointing team-up, Jessica Jones finally gets her follow-up season.

Man. It’s good that Netflix has started cranking these things out faster, because that was too long a wait.

So how’d it turn out? Marvel Netflix hasn’t been doing that well since. Is Jessica Jones season two a return to form, or another Iron Fist?

Short version: It’s okay. Not as good as it was, not as bad as it could have been.

Premise

We rejoin Jessica and pals… ex-child star-turned-radio-host Trish Walker; Jessica’s assistant, ex-junkie Malcolm; and high-powered attorney Jeri Hogarth… a year after season one, and some unspecified and unknowable amount of time since The Defenders. This is the first show starring a Defenders lead to drop post-crossover, but if you’re hoping to see how the big team-up has changed life at Alias Investigations, you’re gonna be disappointed. The events of The Defenders and her temporary super-powered cohorts are never mentioned, even in passing. Other than cameo appearances by Foggy Nelson (mostly to acknowledge that he still works with Hogarth and would care about her plotline) and Manhattan’s most persistent black market gun salesman Turk Barrett, the other Defenders shows are utterly ignored. There’s not even a visit from Marvel Netflix’s number one utility player, Claire Temple.

And you know what, that’s basically okay. First off, Jessica was so annoyed to be involved in Hand-based shenanigans that I utterly believe her not even wanting to mention them now. I can picture a few annoyed “I don’t even want to talk about its” getting thrown at Malcolm and Trish the week after it all happened, and then everyone moving on. Second, there’s not much call for guest appearances. Daredevil’s still off the board until his third season (maybe later this year?); this show has enough hand-wringing over the ethics of killing as is that an appearance by Claire would have just been redundant; and no circumstance exists where Jessica would even consider calling Danny Rand for help. Or conversation. So really, it’s just Luke Cage that’s conspicuous in his absence, given what a key part of season one he was, but it’s still fine. There was only one point, in episode 12, when I thought “You know what Jess, maybe this is the moment you call your super-strong, bulletproof pal in Harlem,” but given everything that had just happened in episode 11, Jessica was in no headspace to trust other people or ask for help. So I’ll allow it.

Weirdly this is the most that any Marvel Netflix show to date has referenced the Marvel movies. Captain America gets referred to by name, not simply as “the flag-waver,” and a threat hanging over the season is the Raft, the superhuman prison introduced in Captain America: Civil War. This isn’t enough to get me to rethink my position on whether the films and TV shows actually co-exist. There are still far too many ways they don’t, and accepting that they’re separate just makes things easier. But hey, kudos for the effort.

That was a bigger diversion than I expected. Where was I. Right.

Premise (For Reals)

One year after season one (two and half years ago for us, Marvel timelines are messy), Jessica is still haunted by having killed Kilgrave with her bare hands–hand. That people consider her a “vigilante superhero” potentially willing to kill people for money isn’t helping. She’s as lost in booze and anger as ever, causing a rival to exclaim “Super? You’re the weakest person I’ve ever seen.” Malcolm, her ex-junkie neighbour, is now working as her assistant/apprentice. Jeri Hogarth comes back into Jessica’s orbit when some bad health news requires some drastic actions. And most notably, Trish, Jessica’s adoptive sister/best friend, feels that the solution to Jessica’s rage issues is to look into how she got her powers in the first place.

It turns out some people don’t like Trish asking questions about the company behind Jess’ powers. When bodies begin piling up, Jessica starts chasing her own past, confronting the death of her family… and digs up some things she hadn’t expected.

I could criticize this season for ensuring that their sophomore outing has all of the tired tropes of a first season, those being origin stories and reluctant heroes, but… the fact is, Jessica’s origin hasn’t fully happened yet. It might never fully happen. She’s a reluctant hero because she hasn’t decided to be one yet. Maybe she never will. That’s Jessica, folks. Love her or watch Legends of Tomorrow. Or both. Yes, both. That one.

The Killer, as they’re referred to… damn. “The Killer.” That is seriously the only codename they think up. Marvel Television needs a Cisco Ramon to think up better villain names in just the worst way. The Killer becomes Jessica’s dark reflection: not only created by the same company, The Killer is also possessed of incredible strength, also isolated from society, and also driven by rage they can’t always control, only more so in all cases. The Killer is what Jessica is afraid she herself might become, especially with Kilgrave’s death on her hands.

How does it work? Well… there are good points and bad points.

Strengths

Ripping off the bandaid, “They’ve finally fixed their habitual pacing problems” is not on the list of strengths. It took the film branch nearly a decade to finally start writing decent villains, who knows how long it will take the Netflix branch to learn about pacing or episodic television?

That said, there is one improvement. In the back half, where Daredevil‘s second season and Luke Cage fell apart, Jessica Jones season two actually picks up speed. Instead of collapsing into Hand or Diamondback related nonsense in episode nine, they actually find their footing in episode seven. Sure it’s not all smooth sailing from there, but we’ll cover that below. This right here is the good stuff. And the first and most obvious strength of the show should go without saying, but here it is anyway…

Krysten Ritter is goddamn phenomenal. 

She was always good with the anger and the one-liners, but she gets some heart-wrenching material this season and she absolutely crushes it. Even when her material was weak or inconsistent, her performance never was. Someone give her an Oscar movie while we’re waiting for season three, because she is an incredible talent.

Also on that level this year? Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth. The early episodes drop some heavy stuff on her, and damned if she doesn’t rise to the occasion. And a good thing, too, because if not, her entire story would be under “weaknesses,” on account of it being only slightly connected to anything else that happens. Jessica is off dealing with mad science and the monsters it creates (and whether she might be one of said monsters), Jeri is confronting mortality and deciding who, exactly, gets to take anything else away from her (spoiler: it ain’t a long list), and sure the two stories share some common characters but they’re basically in their own worlds. Fortunately, thanks to Moss, Hogarth’s story is consistently one of the best parts of the show, connected to the main story or not.

Other strengths… Trish Walker isn’t her best self this season, but Rachael Taylor is still nailing it playing her. Jessica’s new love interest ultimately works as an arc, even if it starts with that old chestnut of “They dislike each other immediately, and we all know where that goes in the long run.” (Paraphrased quote courtesy of the late, legendary Terry Pratchett)

Good news: This is the first Marvel Netflix show to have Asian characters who aren’t part of or connected to a ninja death cult! Bad news: they are both still assholes. So… not a huge win for Asian representation.

I won’t tell you much about The Killer here, ’cause you should let the show tell you if that’s something you care about, but… they made some really interesting choices, and they pay off in Jessica’s arc. Also the “mad scientist” is an interesting ethical grey area. He’s not exactly doing ethical science, but he’s not a bad person. He’s authentically trying to do good, there are just a few shortcuts he really shouldn’t be taking but is anyway.

And seriously, I can’t remember the last time I ended episode nine of a Marvel Netflix show and didn’t think “Jesus, four more hours?” So good job putting all the bad pacing up front.

On that note.

Weaknesses

There is so much goddamn padding on this show. I want to say “If you can’t fill 13 episodes, don’t write 13 episodes,” but Defenders was only eight episodes and it was still badly paced, so honestly I don’t know what it would take at this point. Let’s take a quick tour of pointless subplots they stuffed this season full of in order to fill 13 hour-long episodes.

  • Trish’s storyline is about a recovering addict’s desperate need to feel as powerful as her adopted sister, and how it drove a relapse into addiction. So why did we spend so much of the first five episodes with her boyfriend, the impossibly noble journalist Griffin, only for him to be wished away to the fucking cornfield just as her story is hitting its stride? Did they think we needed to see her lose a boyfriend to understand her life was spiralling out of control due to addiction? Because we didn’t. Trish’s life had plenty going on to lose to addiction without creating and almost immediately tossing out a love interest. He was such a big deal and then he was just gone in an instant with no payoff whatsoever. Waste of time.
  • Also introduced this year is Pryce Cheng, a rival PI trying to push Jessica out of business. He eventually creates two inconveniences, one of which convinces Jessica she should work with the police, and the other of which is the third of at least four times that Jessica thinks “You know what, I take it back, The Killer does belong in jail,” and that is it. That’s not enough plot to require four episodes of building up a character and his go-nowhere conflict. He’s a main-credits regular, by the way, while the scientist who gave Jessica her powers is a “Special Guest Star,” despite being in exactly as many episodes and being far more important to the story. Which might be mostly about Callum Keith Rennie’s agent figuring “Special Guest Star” gives more status than being, at best, fourth-billed as a regular, but it suggests they plan to bring Pryce back next season, which… BOO. Pryce Cheng would lift right out of this season and nobody would miss him. He is dead air. Only worse.
  • There is a major reveal just before the halfway point but in order to ensure that it was at the halfway point… of a 13 episode season… they make getting there so convoluted. They reveal that Trish was sexually abused by a director so that they could threaten him into pressuring a hospital he donates to into giving them some information (what?) that points them towards a homeless ex-nurse that directs them to a mentally handicapped convict who gives them a name that leads to an encounter which points them to a university which sends them to a lawyer that can be pressured into sending Jessica to a house that finally leads to the reveal… what the hell. That journey takes six episodes. That is the very definition of padding. And every single thing that happens along the way (save for the homeless ex-nurse being tossed into Jeri’s arc) is basically meaningless to the back half of the show. I’m not saying that giving Trish a “Me too” story about an abusive director from her child star days was a bad idea, if they’d stuck with it then maybe it could have informed her need to feel powerful, but only including him to be one rung in a convoluted ladder then dropping it immediately is a weird choice.
  • A flashback episode at the midway point introduces an old boyfriend of Jessica’s who was apparently a pivotal figure in her early 20s, yet was never mentioned before that episode. And only once since. Kind of tacked on, there. (I will give the flashback episode this… for a spot-on satire of empty, insipid, top 40 pop music, Trish’s big hit “I Want Your Cray-Cray” is kind of a jam.)

Now, besides all of that, there are a few things beyond the padding that just don’t really work. To wit:

  • There’s a whole thing about prejudice against powered people. It doesn’t really work. Do you know why it doesn’t work, Marvel Television? Because you’re not the X-Men. Do not try to be the X-Men. The Gifted is kind of cornering the market on being hated and feared by the common people, don’t try to steal their bit. The Inhumans aren’t replacement X-Men and neither is Jessica.
  • Also, every person who’s prejudiced against the powered is a POC. Every single one of them. I don’t love that. There aren’t a ton of major POC characters on this show as it is, do they need to be the only bigots? Does the only black woman on the show for more than one scene need to use the phrase “you people?”
  • Jessica flip-flops back and forth over what’s to be done with The Killer (what I would not give for a better codename) constantly. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing if they’d handled it well, because she should be conflicted over this person, she should be torn as to what they deserve, but it doesn’t play out as being conflicted. It plays out as swapping back and forth as to which side she over-commits to. I should turn you in, I should help you escape, you need prison, you need help, you’re going to the Raft and that’s good, you’re going to the Raft and I’ll help you escape, nothing can redeem you, only I can redeem you… never grey area. Either she’s willing to do whatever it takes to bring The Killer to justice or she’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect The Killer from the police, and the change happens on a dime. One noble act changes Jessica’s mind instantly and utterly, even though last season Kilgrave proved that one noble act doesn’t change who a person is. It doesn’t play as Jessica being conflicted, it plays as Jessica being inconsistently written.
  • How is it that addiction and substance abuse are such a key element for two characters on this show, yet Jessica’s obvious alcoholism never comes up. Save for one moment where she admits she’s not the best person to be around when you’re an addict who’s fallen off the wagon.

So in short (too late, I know…), while there is a lot of good stuff in there, the first half is mostly filler and the second half forces Jessica’s arc to go in circles in order to fill enough time.

Stop doing 13 episode seasons. You don’t know how to fill 13 episodes.

High Point

AKA Three Lives and Counting. Jessica begins to unravel as her friends screw up, the line between her and The Killer begins to dissolve, and a familiar face is all too willing to push her over the edge. Absolutely their best hour.

Low Point

AKA Pork Chop. “So we need Jessica to cross a line on behalf of The Killer. Let’s introduce someone unambiguously evil so that her crossing the line isn’t so bad.”

“But we’re playing it as being super bad–”

“Yeah, sure, fine, but the audience should think he had it coming. We have all this cake, we just need to eat it, too.”

MVP

Krysten Ritter. She even makes Jessica’s third trip through the “You’re irredeemable, no wait maybe not” loop-de-loop mostly work.

Though props to Carrie-Anne Moss for selling Jeri’s arc so hard that it didn’t end up on the list of filler arcs that served nothing. That it was the most consistent and well-written arc of the season helped, but a lot of it was her.

Tips For Next Season

Look… are you married to this whole skeevy, power-hating-rival Pryce Cheng thing? ‘Cause I’m not loving it. Could he just shuffle off to whatever island for discarded supporting characters you sent Trish’s boyfriend to? Please? And maybe, in general, avoid having characters and plotlines with no payoffs. Write as many episodes as you need, but use them wisely.

Aside from that… I think Jessica hit rock bottom where “pushing away the people in her life” is concerned, only to end the season by reaching out and trying not to be isolated anymore. You need to build on that next season, not just regress. I wouldn’t normally think that was an issue, but you just did a second origin story for Punisher, so who knows.

And maybe in addition to repairing her relationships with her core cast, she could also try being willing to consult with Luke Cage or Matt Murdock or… nope, can’t think of a third person for that list.

Overall Grade: B

I thought it would be higher, but the season just takes so long to get out of first gear, and Jessica’s flip-flopping bugs me enough that it kind of blew the ending.

Next time: I’m probably finishing at least one of The Gifted, The Tick, and Runaways this week.

Photo: Netflix

The So-called “Best Pictures” of 2017


The Oscars are just around the corner, and despite deep flaws in their voting board and a long, storied history of blown calls, they remain my Superbowl. They’ve once again rolled out nine films they’ve nominated as best of the year, once again I have some quibbles, but not on the same level as, say, last year.

Once again, I’ve seen them all (only partially so you don’t have to), and once again I’m here to rank them for you, say if they’re worth your time, and whether or not I think they’d even exist without Oscar season.

Enough intro. Lots to cover. Allons-y, Alonso.

9. MoonWhite

I kid, I kid, the only thing this and last year’s winner have in common is gay youths finding their chosen loves difficult to pursue. I mean, that’s all they can have in common. Turns out that being gay, like everything on this Earth save for pulling off cornrows, is way easier when you’re rich and white rather than poor and black. So if this isn’t Moonlight, what is it?

In the early 80s Elio, his father the American professor (Oscar Season 2017 MVP Michael Stuhlbarg) and his French (Italian? Both?) mother, are spending the summer at the family’s villa in small-town Italy. When his father’s summer research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), arrives… eh, describing it in detail bores me. They don’t like each other, but that’s because they do like each other and this isn’t the easiest time to be gay, even in Europe, and then eventually they bang until the summer ends. There are a lot of pretty shots of the lush Italian countryside and a heartfelt speech from Stuhlbarg near the end, but that’s basically it. It’s a well-acted, prettily shot, but paint-by-numbers star-crossed romance flick that happens to have arrived at a time when doing a movie like this about two men is no longer so scandalous that it would earn an X rating and be banished to the back shelves of independent video stores, but not so commonplace that it doesn’t garner attention.

And frankly… it’s slow and a little dull. The stakes are low, the editing is self-indulgent, the whole thing is at least half an hour longer than it needs to be, the ending is soft (the only other thing it has in common with Moonlight)… it’s not great. Not, I would argue, Oscar calibre. I can think of several movies from last year that deserved the nomination more… The Big Sick, The Greatest Showman, and even War for the Planet of the Apes off the top of my head.

And as to the title… as pillow talk, Oliver says to Elio “Call me by your name… and I’ll call you by mine.” And Elio goes for it, instead of saying “Those are terrible codenames, everyone will see right through them” or the more simplistic “What? Why?” Naming the book/movie after this one doofy moment is like calling the first X-Men movie “What Happens to a Toad When It Gets Struck by Lightning,” or calling Age of Ultron “Avengers: Thor’s Magical Spa Day.”

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I doubt it? Not my usual thing.
Glad you did? I’m not upset that I watched it, but… before long, I will forget it, and its absence in my memory will leave no hole.
Would it exist without Oscar Season?
There’s every chance.
Oscars How White? Rich people in rural Italy in the 80s. If this movie were any more white it would be an albino.

8. That Other Time Fighting Nazis Was Somehow a Controversy

(“Boring Dunkirk” was already taken, damn it)

Darkest Hour focuses on the rocky first month of Winston Churchill’s first stint as Prime Minister of Great Britain, from when Neville Chamberlain resigned as PM due to the opposition parties’ unwillingness to form a coalition with the architect of the appeasement policy, to the day of Operation Dynamo, the civilian-aided evacuation of the British forces from Dunkirk. During this time, Churchill tried to rally his country for war against Hitler, while facing pressure from Chamberlain and his first choice of successor, Viscount Halifax, to instead negotiate peace.

Chamberlain valued peace. He didn’t want his country in a second world war. Any other time in history, that might have been admirable. As it stands, his legacy is to be a historical cautionary tale, and to be one of the antagonists in a movie about his successor.

Gary Oldman is nigh-unrecognizable as Churchill, and he gives his usual great performance, so it has that going for it. But that’s kind of the problem. It feels like it exists as a “Great man in his most noble moment” Oscar-bait biopic and that is a genre I feel needs to die. There isn’t a lot of tension nor engaging material in watching Churchill attempt to keep his position and motivate the government to stay in the war. Movies about “that guy you’ve heard of is just as great as you’ve been told, and here’s an actor trolling for an Oscar playing him” just feel a little… empty.

Also I can’t watch this sort of biopic and not wonder how hard they’re working to make the adversaries worse than they need to be. Chamberlain isn’t done many favours (that he was dying and just wanted to see his nation at peace before the end is a little sympathetic?), but Halifax? With his angry glowers, unflattering hair, and Elmer Fudd speech impediment (which might be historically accurate, I don’t know), he is played as a straight-up villain. He didn’t want to be at war with Germany because they’d just watched all of western Europe be conquered at alarming speed, and he didn’t want England to be next. Sure it was the wrong call, we all know that now, obviously there’s no way to depict “Let’s negotiate with Hitler” positively, I’m just saying that maybe history is judging them enough and they didn’t need to play Halifax like he murders puppies when he gets home.

Parliment is well-shot, though.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Maybe? I do like Gary Oldman.
Glad you did? Eh.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? 
This movie reeks of “Win Gary Oldman an Oscar.”
Oscars How White? There’s a black guy in a pivotal scene in the London underground. He gets lines and a name and everything. Which sounds like a goddamn pittance but puts this one in the top half, diversity-wise.

7. Obsessive Compulsive Vs. Passive Aggressive: A Love Story

This poster upsets Uwe Boll, so try to only share it always.

Phantom Menace Tollbooth Thread is the story of a waitress named Alma, who encounters a famous dress-maker named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he’s claiming is his retirement performance). Some would say Woodcock is the central character. I dispute that assertion. Anyway, Woodcock asks Alma to be his live-in model, she falls in love with him, buuuut…

See, in their very first interactions, Woodcock makes it abundantly clear that he is extremely controlling. Sure, at first he does it with a smile on his face and a song in his heart but still. Shortly thereafter, he also makes it abundantly clear that his routines and his work will always take precedence over the happiness, comfort, or any feelings of those around him, save possibly for Cyril, his razor-tongued sister and business partner. But despite his cold-to-the-point-of-cruel reactions to any kind gesture Alma makes that even remotely disturbs his work or habits, she is determined to be allowed to love him and be loved back on her terms.

Also I get the feeling he’s supposed to be gay. When she asks him why he never married, he gives the following responses:
“I make dresses.”
“I’m a confirmed bachelor. Incurable.”
“Marrying would be deceitful.”
At least one of those is old-timey-Hollywood code for “homosexual.”

But that ultimately doesn’t matter to the story. The point is, she wants to be a partner, but he’s determined to treat her like an accessory, and their various dysfunctions go to quiet, bitchy war.

This one gets tons of hype behind it, because Paul Thomas Anderson is a known quantity for quality films and Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t get out of bed if there’s not an Oscar nomination in it for him, but it’s… just pretty okay. I didn’t see anything that special in it. Also, Day-Lewis will not be getting one last Oscar. His performance is good, but subtle. The Academy doesn’t have a track record of rewarding subtlety, especially not when “Bombastic, in a biopic, with a lot of facial prosthetics” is on the table.

Also… I know there is nothing to this, but… the director’s name is two letters away from the auteur of the implausibly successful Resident Evil movies, Uwe Boll thinks they stole his poster design for Bloodrayne, and the male lead shares a penis-joke of a name with a failed and terrible-looking Billy Bob Thornton comedy. All of that is meaningless but it’s a weird confluence of shit cinema surrounding a prestige picture.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Doubtful.
Glad you did? The ending was actually pretty neat, but it was a long road to get there.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? 
Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis do not work together for other reasons.
Oscars How White? Like the driven goddamn snow.

 

6. Remember Journalism? Man. Those were the days.

Jebas, the cast on this thing. Even aside from Streep and Hanks, nearly every frame had someone I know and like from somewhere. Alison Brie, Zach Woods, Carrie Coon, Bruce Greenwood, Bradley Whitford, Fat Matt Damon Jesse Plemons… David Cross and Bob Odenkirk? Big year for sketch comics doing prestige pics. But it is a Spielberg picture. People show up for Spielberg.

Meryl Streep is Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, first female publisher of a major American newspaper. Tom Hanks is her editor-in-chief, who’s eager to publish the leaked Pentagon Papers which revealed damaging secrets about America’s involvement in Vietnam. A masterful director and solid cast tackling a topic of depressing relevance: the responsibility of news media to hold the government accountable. But as legendary and Oscar-attracting as Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep are… this isn’t really any of their best work. I mean, even Spielberg’s B-game is pretty watchable, but this one is likely to get shut out and not for no reason.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I’d have gotten to it.
Glad you did? Yep.
Would it exist without Oscar Season?
You know at this point I think Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks just do whatever they want and if it gets Oscars, it gets Oscars.
Oscars How White? Couple of black women in the crowd scenes. Jesus. This is a white-ass year.

5. Worst Layover Ever

The British army, in full retreat from the Nazis, find themselves trapped on a beach in Dunkirk, waiting for a miracle, while a massive fleet of civilian craft sailed in an attempt to rescue the troops before the panzers arrived. Christopher Nolan tells the story through three perspectives, each with a different time frame: the men in Dunkirk (primarily Tommy, who is particularly eager to get away), which covers a week; one of the boats heading for Dunkirk, and a rescued sailor quite determined not to go back to Dunkirk, which covers a day; and one air force pilot (Tom Hardy, doing some intense but silent eye-acting for most of his screentime) desperately trying to keep the German bombers from sinking the rescue ships, which covers an hour.

The various, non-synced timelines mean we encounter a few key moments from multiple perspectives, but if you’re paying attention it’s not hard to follow. Actually kind of cool realizing that the “sea” plot has caught up to “air” and whatnot.

It’s super tense, well done, and there are some solid performances throughout. I just ultimately liked a few others more.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I never miss a Nolan movie except Interstellar for some reason.
Glad you did? Yeppers.
Would it exist without Oscar Season?
 The Oscars have taught Nolan to make movies for other reasons.
Oscars How White? White chocolate dipped in vanilla. Come on, man, there had to be people of colour in that army. They had an empire.

4. Awful People Trying to Do Good, also Explosions

You’ve heard of this one. Grieving mother Mildred (Frances McDormand, who makes the character a force of nature), filled with anger that her daughter’s killer hasn’t been caught yet, rents out three billboards to shame the local police chief (Woody Harrelson), angering many in the town. None more so than Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who has problems with anger. And alcohol. And racism. And basic human empathy. He’s a mean drunk with a badge.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh is pretty good at throwing together deeply flawed people and getting a pretty solid story out of them (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). The central theme this time around is that people in pain lash out. Mildred lashes out at the police (and others), Dixon lashes out at her, her billboards, and anyone connected to them. Also it’s made clear he does this a lot.

That, then, is the centre of the Three Billboards backlash: the redemption arc for the violent, racist, drunk cop. Because I guess people would rather that bad people stay bad people? I mean the point, right, the point of his arc is not that “Sure he’s a racist, violent thug of a cop, but that doesn’t mean he’s all bad.” The first step of his redemption is realizing, with a push from the chief, that he is a bad person now, but he doesn’t have to stay that way. Woody Harrelson delivers a beautiful speech, the central thesis of which is “Hate never solved nothing, but calm did.” Or as The Doctor put it… “Hate is always foolish, and love is always wise.”

Because a topic the film tackles, one that I am just now seeing, actually, is that perhaps the line between justice and revenge is love and forgiveness. The chief gives Dixon the push, but an act of forgiveness that he had not earned makes sure the push takes. Whereas Mildred’s rage just brings more destruction.

There are a lot of layers here. A lot to unpack. Which is why it ranks higher than the others: sometimes I’d rather my best picture nominees start a conversation rather than just say “Wasn’t Churchill great,” or “There was a time when Stephen Hawking was bangable.” Also it’s got a great cast bringing their respective A-games.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I had every intention.
Glad you did? Indeedy.
Would it exist without Oscar Season? 
This is the first real Oscar buzz McDonagh’s gotten, so I imagine so.
Oscars How White? Just “Mostly.”

3. None Suffer Like White Drama Kids

A coming of age tale set in Sacramento, California, Lady Bird is about a teen girl (Saoirse Ronan, earning the crap out of her third Oscar nomination) on the verge of college trying to find an identity outside of her parents. Her family’s poor, her mother is passive aggressive, controlling, and short on kindness, so she tries to break away. By changing her name to Lady Bird, dating boys (with a few variations of failure on that score), getting into drama (though not exactly landing any leads), trying to trade up friend groups, and eyeing school in New York, waaaaaay away from home, which her parents do not love.

Do I have anything in common with Lady Bird? No. Well, mostly no. I was a drama kid and there was a hot minute in grade, I wanna say three, when I thought I wanted my name to be Robert instead of Dan. Then my dad called me “Robert” to play along and it felt weird and I never brought it up again. I lacked Lady Bird’s commitment to reinvention. Where was I? Right. I’m not much like Lady Bird, but I surely connected with her more than that stoner punk from Boyhood. It’s a film rich in charm, wit, and emotion, with outstanding performances from Ronan and Laurie Metcalf (poor woman, stuck doing the Trump Apologist Roseanne Reunion). I quite adored this movie.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Look, she may have had to do an American accent, but if Saoirse Ronan is involved I’m probably gonna show up. She is concentrated adorable.
Glad you did? Oh my yes.
Would it exist without Oscar Season?
 Yes, but the studio would have buried it and we’d be poorer for not knowing it exists.
Oscars How White? A few people of colour in significant supporting roles. So, “Very.” Very white.

2. Aquaman Begins

(Again, someone funnier beat me to “Grinding Nemo,” god damn it)

Elisa, a mute woman working as a cleaner at a government lab, encounters their latest discovery: a fish man brought up from the Amazon. She and the fish man grow attached to each other, but the head agent is more interested in torturing and vivisecting him to see if they can find something to help with the space race. Elisa, her friends, and a surprising ally scheme to liberate Fishy.

Also Elisa wants to tap that amphibian ass.

Guillermo Del Toro directed one hell of a romance adventure here. Visually it’s great, the cast is outstanding, and it’s subtly subversive. Well, maybe not that subtle. I’ll explain. Who are the heroes? A mute, a black woman, an older gay man, and a communist. Outsiders. The marginalized. Who’s the villain? A personification of white US-style patriarchy and intolerance. People who find something miraculous and want to tear it apart to see how it works. People who see outsiders and think of them as “less than.” It makes the case that pretty is no substitute for kind.

Quite delightful, this one.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? Sure would. Looked fun, was fun.
Glad you did? Darn tootin’.
Would it exist without Oscar Season?
Nothing about this screams “Oscars” at all. Quality won out over Oscar bait box-checking.
Oscars How White? Octavia Spencer has the largest role for a person of colour in eight out of nine best picture nominees, but pretty damn white. The fish-man counts as “white,” ’cause the actor is white.

1. White People are Horror Monsters, Literally This Time

A horror movie directed by a sketch comedian with black protagonists is a serious Oscar contender? Is this real life?

Whoo boy this one was a ride. Tense, creepy as all get-out, Jordan Peele in his directorial debut nailed racial awkwardness as horror fodder. See, it’s not that the villains are stereotypically racist. They don’t hate black people. They seem to even admire them. But that doesn’t make them good people, that doesn’t make them good at dealing with race. They still try to claim ownership of black bodies. The whole situation is demonstrably uncomfortable even before the really creepy part kicks in. It’s like it’s calling out white liberals, saying “Hey, you’re not as woke as you think.”

And man is that the horror movie America needs, since it turns out a huge swath of the country was so mad about eight years of a black president that they would elect an incompetent orangutan to the White House if it meant undoing Obama’s legacy.

You probably know this but just in case...

And because so many white viewers can’t process that Allison Williams’ character is indeed just as much of a monster as she seems. No she’s not mind controlled, no she’s not a victim, she harvests black bodies and keeps trophies, that is some evil right there.

[collapse]
When people show you who they are, believe them. Otherwise you end up married to mentally abusive dressmakers. FULL CIRCLE! BOOM! … Crap, Phantom Thread was number seven. Less of a circle and more of a spiral. Damn it.

Would you have watched it without Oscar nominations? I did. I did watch it without Oscar nominations.
Glad you did? Surely am.
Would it exist without Oscar Season?
 A black-led horror movie released in February? They can’t have thought Oscars were on the table.
Oscars How White? Only, like, half white! And the good guys are both black!

…Not the best year. Nothing was Fences bad, but nothing was Spotlight good, either. The prestige picture industry was so off their game that a horror film and a fantasy romance snuck onto the shortlist.

Also a really damn white year. Get Out and Black Panther are not swinging that pendulum as fast as you’d like.

The Arrowverse in Review: Year One

Not everyone agrees with me on today’s topic, but I can’t help it. I loves me some superhero shows, I loves me some DC heroes, and the CW delivers me both of those things through a series of shows that, while flawed, I find overall much more entertaining than annoying. And while they have their own sets of recurring flaws, they lack Marvel Netflix’s habitual pacing problems, failure to understand episodic narrative, disastrous third act twists (goddamn Diamondback), and all things Iron Fist, and their annual crossovers have managed to improve year by year, setting a high bar for what superhero TV can be that The Defenders (and a certain movie) just did not manage to reach. The franchise has grown from one show trying to escape the shadow of the teen-drama-with-occasional-superheroes that preceded it to a five-show empire slightly too big for its network.

So I wanna talk about ’em. And I have a blog, so I’m gonna, in a five-part series chronicling the first half-decade, the highs and lows, successes and failures, twists, turns, and tragedies of what should be called the DCW-verse, or if you prefer whimsy, the Greg Berlanti Mask-Based Action Fun Factory, but remains called the Arrowverse because the internet makes bad choices.

Except for naming new road gritters in Doncaster, UK, David Plowie and The Gritsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Anti-Slip Machiney. That’s brilliant.

(Don’t worry, still gonna alternate TV and non-TV blogs, I haven’t forgotten that.)

Arrow: Year One

Hard to believe it started so simply. One show, trying to bring Batman Begins to television via a different DC character that the parent company was less protective of. Yes, let’s cover that right away… Arrow is very much a Batman show, with Green Arrow (or rather a crime-fighter who grows into being the Green Arrow) replacing Batman. The switch isn’t a difficult one to make… Oliver Queen and Bruce Wayne are both billionaires who use their seemingly endless fortunes to wage war on crime, sometimes with a lair and a young sidekick. There are a few key differences, though. Oliver Queen, unlike Bruce Wayne, has a tendency to go broke from time to time to change up the character. And most significant to Year One… you can have Green Arrow kill people without all of the controversies that happen when Batman does it. I mean, seriously now, Oliver… or “The Hood,” as he’s known throughout season one… racks up more of a body count in a handful of episodes than Ben Affleck did throughout Batman V Superman, even by the most liberal of estimates.

Why the body count? Well, and this is just for starters, he does use a bow and arrow. Not the easiest weapon for non-lethal combat. Not impossible, but not natural. And second, if you’ll permit some wild speculation on my part, I feel like Arrow had a large priority in its first season: don’t be Smallville. Now I could be wrong about this: Smallville was a big enough hit for the CW and its predecessor, the WB, that it ran for a decade. And it’s doubtful that anyone would have greenlit a TV show about Green Arrow of all people if Justin Hartley hadn’t made him a highlight of Smallville’s back half*. That said… if they wanted more of that, it was probably an option. They could have just spun Smallville’s Green Arrow (and probably Chloe) off instead of starting over from the beginning with Stephen Amell in a world with no Superman.

So they kept the things that made Smallville work: a blend of season arcs and villains-of-the-week, and plenty of fan service, in the form of nerd-friendly guest stars and appearances by other comic characters, which we’ll be looking at below. They abandoned almost everything else, especially Smallville’s mission statement of “No flights, no tights.” Well– he doesn’t fly. Green Arrow can’t fly. That’s not a thing he does. But instead of spending four years in high school foiling random monsters while refusing to wear a costume, Oliver’s in a green hood seeking arrow-justice against his city’s worst millionaires in episode one.

Sure it takes him three more years to start using the name “Green Arrow.” I’m not saying Arrow isn’t an origin story, it’s just a different kind of origin story. A five-year flashback story recounts Oliver’s journey from a spoiled, arrogant trust-fund kid marooned on a hostile island to the hood-wearing, justice-seeking, archery-based-vigilante we meet in the pilot, and in the first four(ish?) seasons he grows from a killer fixated on a list of names his father left behind to the true hero of Star City.

*Because Smallville wasn’t allowed to use Bruce Wayne. When Batman’s unavailable, Green Arrow is close enough.™

The Rough Spots

Now, Arrow didn’t shake off all of Smallville’s flaws, and in them, we see the biggest flaws of the Arrowverse. First off, and I feel this is a network mandate of some sort because this flaw just screams “CW,” there is a definite over-reliance on pretty people having teen-soap-style romantic drama. Now I’m not against romance in my superhero shows. I prefer the characters in my entertainments to be decent facsimiles of three-dimensional people, with hopes and objectives, rather than simply bundles of personality quirks and sunglass manoeuvres that solve murders with science. Which means that yes, sometimes they’re going to hook up and fall in love. So that’s not the issue. The issue is that the romance arcs tend to be overwrought and kinda cheesy.

In season one, that’s the triangle between Oliver, his ex-girlfriend Laurel, and his best friend and fellow trust-fund billionaire Tommy. Irresponsible Tommy and lawyer-for-the-common-folk Laurel were having an affair before Oliver came back from the dead, and former womanizer Tommy is hoping to make that a more official, ongoing thing, but he worries how his resurrected best pal will react. Oliver is still very much in love with Laurel, but there are a couple of problems. First, she is still pretty angry about Oliver a) cheating on her with her sister Sara; b) bringing Sara along with him on his doomed yacht trip to China; and thanks to that c) getting her killed* when his yacht sunk, marooning him on the mercenary-infested island of Lian Yu. Second, he is launching a plan of arrow-infested justice-vengeance, and doesn’t think he can do that and make things right with his high school sweetheart. Who, again, he betrayed pretty epically before his five years away from home**. He tries to push her away, but Oliver’s about as good at staying away from Laurel as I am at staying away from extra cheese on a pizza, so he keeps popping up in her life. It’s very Dawson’s Creek.

I assume. I have seen precisely zero episodes of Dawson’s Creek but I’m led to believe overwrought romantic drama was a thing they did, yes?

The second major flaw… there is almost always one character per series who gets savagely underwritten, and what stories they do get are cringe-worthy. This year, it’s Oliver’s sister, Thea Queen, who for the first half of the season just complains about how closed-off Oliver is, does ecstasy and the new designer drug Vertigo, and is generally a brat. She begins to improve a little as the season progresses, but overall she keeps soaking my Green Arrow show in Gossip Girl nonsense.

I also have never seen Gossip Girl but that feels apt.

*The presumed-late Sara Lance comes up a lot in season one, including a mini-arc where Laurel’s mother thinks she might be alive. Given that Mother Lance’s lead turned out to be false, I don’t think they’d decided that Sara wasn’t actually dead yet, let alone that she was coming back as a badass assassin. They definitely didn’t know she’d end up the leader of a time-ship filled with misfit superheroes. But that’s later.

**They must have known he didn’t stay on Lian Yu the whole five years. They established he was somehow a captain in the Russian mafia within three episodes, and they can’t have thought that would happen on a remote island in the North China Sea.

The Name Quirk

Not technically a flaw of the series, unless you’re a longtime fan easily disturbed by small differences. Like me. I mean, change the races, genders, or sexualities of whoever you want, but tell me Metropolis is in Kansas, like Smallville did, and I will freak out. In the Arrowverse, the little details that keep annoying me are changes to the names. Character names get changed for reasons I have never understood. Dinah Lance is the classic alter ego of the Black Canary, but on Arrow she went by her newly invented middle name, Laurel. (“Dinah Laurel Lance,” Tommy says, in a promise to fans, “Always trying to save the world.”) Star City is Starling City… although that’s a shorter leap than in the Rebirth era, where the recently renamed Star City was formerly known by the even stranger name of “Seattle.” At least when Arrow finally fixed the city name, they didn’t have to blow up a famous landmark to do it.

In three more years, they’ll introduce Curtis Holt, clearly modelled after the comics character Michael Holt. I don’t understand. There might be multiple Dinahs (her mother is also named Dinah) but no Michaels, and even if there were, there are two Rays and two Rorys…  Why do they do this. I don’t get it, I don’t get it at all.

The Heroes

Oliver Queen is not good at heroing when we begin. Sure, he wins some victories early on. He successfully steals from the rich and gives to the poor, stops assassins, foils some bank robbers, does some minor hero stuff pretty well. Known by the press and police as “The Hood” (a name even Oliver thinks is awful, though around Christmas he rejects “Green Arrow”), he’s got a list of names of corrupt millionaires his father left him, a quiver full of arrows, and a thirst for justice, but doesn’t know the first thing about how to protect a city. He merely takes vengeance on those who betray it, never asking where the List came from and what it might mean. And by Christmas, this gets his ass kicked, as his first encounter with the Dark Archer goes brutally bad, and he learns that the List isn’t what he thought. It’s concealing a darker purpose than he ever imagined.

All of this means that the best thing Arrow did in its early days was introduce John Diggle. First he’s Oliver’s would-be bodyguard, an annoyance to be ditched at the earliest opportunity, but by episode four he’s being asked to join Oliver’s crusade. This accomplished two things: it let them drop that godawful voiceover they had Stephen Amell do in the first few episodes because they didn’t trust us to follow what was happening, and it gave Oliver a conscience. Diggle pushed Oliver to be a better hero and a better man. He is the first and still greatest of Oliver’s allies, although year one introduces a few of the others: Felicity Smoak is gradually worked into the cast, a genius computer hacker from Queen Consolidated’s IT department who fans either love or hate*. Laurel’s father Detective Quentin Lance is there from the start, who wants to put the Hood behind bars, but gradually gets drawn into helping him out. He and Oliver will have a complicated relationship for the next few years, hood or no hood. And last but not lea… actually, since he’s the only one not still on the show, I guess he technically is least… late in the season Thea meets a surprisingly nimble street thug with a heart of tarnished gold named Roy Harper, who comics fans know as Green Arrow’s original sidekick.

The boldest part of Oliver’s journey in season one, and the final example of how The Hood isn’t enough of a hero for his city? Oliver loses. He got in a fight he didn’t understand, underestimated his adversary, let rage and vengeance take the wheel, and it costs him and the city in the end. Your five year journey from castaway to vigilante may have ended when you came home, but you still gots some learning to do, son.

(Meanwhile, Flashback Oliver is just trying to stay alive and deal with the mercenary army led by Edward Fyers, with the help of an Australian soldier named Slade Wilson, a mentor named Yao Fei who betrays him constantly, but not for no reason, and Fei’s daughter Shado.)

*The so-called “fans” who hate Felicity are the second most odious and obnoxious faction of Arrowverse fandom, so side with them if you like, but know that I’m judging you for it.

The Villains

The Arrowverse tends to do surprise twists with its villains, and thus far most of them have been far more successful than when Marvel Netflix tries a third-act villain-swap (the replacement villains have never been improvement, Netflix). As such, this section will be reliably packed with spoilers. Y’all been told. Anyway.

Does it get better than John Barrowman? Maybe. But not often.

Doctor Who veteran and living treasure John Barrowman plays the List’s architect, Malcolm Merlyn, yes he does have the same last name as Oliver’s best friend Tommy, no that isn’t a coincidence. They roll Malcolm out pretty gradually… first he’s just the sinister figure who created the List, and is aggravated that the newly arrived vigilante is targeting his cabal’s members. Only after establishing this did they reveal that he was, indeed, Tommy’s father and a long-time friend to the Queen family. And once we knew that… in the fall finale (last episode before the Christmas hiatus) he’s revealed to secretly be the cabal’s enforcer, the Dark Archer, the man who earlier that episode beat Oliver like a pinata.

Malcolm Merlyn is one of the better villains the Arrowverse has come up with, based on comics villain Merlyn, an archer assassin. (They leave out his ridiculous mustache, not only because covering any part of John Barrowman’s face is a crime.) His season one motivation is simple, understandable, if twisted. This is a trademark of the better Arrowverse villains. Plus menace and great performances. John Barrowman brings the performance, his mask-wearing stuntman brings the menace when the Dark Archer goes to work, and motive-wise, he’s fittingly Oliver’s polar opposite. Oliver fights a crusade against corrupt one-percenters for failing his city; Merlyn recruits corrupt one-percenters in a crusade against the city for failing him. His wife was murdered in the Glades, the poorest and most crime-riddled neighbourhood of Starling City. His solution? Reduce the Glades and everyone in them to rubble. 

A monstrous overreaction, sure, no question, but in season three we do learn that his wife’s killer was a total dick. An atrocity born from grief is much easier to relate to than an atrocity born from “I just love killing.”

Merlyn’s backstory is also part of a long game the producers were playing, slipping in less and less subtle references to DC A-lister Ra’s Al Ghul, to see if they’d get in trouble. They did not. Whether it was worth it… well, that’s a year three thing. Merlyn is an ex-member of the League of Assassins, which is why he’s so good at fighting and uses arrows instead of, like, guns or something.

Fan Service

Fan service in the Arrowverse comes in three varieties: the good (characters from the comics and geek-friendly guest stars), the bad (characters grossly misinterpreted), and the weird (characters named after comics characters but not even vaguely similar to them). Examples? You got it, ’cause we have all three this year.

The Good: 

  • Slade Wilson, known to comics fans as Deathstroke the Terminator, is one of Arrow’s best comic imports.
  • Deadshot makes his debut three episodes in, and Arrow Deadshot is probably, no, definitely a better take on the character than Will Smith in Suicide Squad. Hm. Flash, Superman, Deadshot… is the only character the DC movies do better than the Arrowverse Captain goddamn Boomerang? Maybe Amanda Waller.
  • The bank robbers Diggle uses to teach Oliver that heroism extends beyond the List are the Royal Flush Gang, DC’s go-to expendable robber villains. In the comics, the Royal Flush Gang have been taken down by so many heroes in so many cities, they eventually revealed the name had been franchised.
  • Farscape’s Ben Browder plays Diggle’s ex-CO, who may or may not be someone the Hood needs to cross off the List.
  • Seth Gabel, best known at the time for Fringe, makes a couple of appearances as The Count, designer of the drug Vertigo. This is a clear reference to DC villain Count Vertigo, and based (probably) on this, Count Vertigo was brought into Green Arrow’s comic. So it goes. The Count is almost certainly the most ridiculously over-the-top campy villain this series… no, this franchise has ever had. And I say this knowing that the Flash has fought both a giant, hyperintelligent, telepathic gorilla and a similarly giant man-shark. Really, only Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff is giving him a run for his money, and that’s five years later.
  • Our first Batman villain to be borrowed by Arrow is Firefly, here a fireman out for revenge against the old boss who left him to die. I almost never say this, but… Gotham did this one better. Ugh. That did not feel good.
  • Dinah Lance the Elder is played by Dr. River Song herself, Alex Kingston.
  • Battlestar Galactica’s James Callis and Tahmoh Penikett make appearances, because BSG actors tend to hang around Vancouver (where all Arrowverse shows, if not the entire CW network, film) and are easy to cast in nerd-friendly projects.
  • And one of my favourite TV villain actors, David Anders (who I became a fan of in Alias and now peddles brains on iZombie) drops by as well, as the would-be kingpin of Starling City.

The Bad:

Helena Bertinelli, The Huntress, was almost in “The Good.” Based on her first episode and a half, she seems to be a decent take on the post-Crisis Huntress (please don’t make me explain “post-Crisis” right now). Then in the end of her two-part debut, she turns on Oliver, and eventually goes full villain. Same thing with the Blackhawks: heroes of World War II in the books, a corrupt security firm on Arrow. They keep doing this, taking lower-tier heroes and using them as villains. I don’t get it. Expect everyone in “the Bad” to match this description.

In her third appearance, Huntress gets a comics-accurate costume… but only when she’s pretending to be a stripper. Says a lot about female superhero costumes in the 90s, doesn’t it. Yeah. Not… not great.

The Weird:

Edward Fyers and Shado are both key characters in a classic (if controversial) Green Arrow story called The Longbow Hunters, which was apparently influential enough that John Diggle gets his last name from the story’s author, Andy Diggle (John’s brother gets the full name, which turns out not to be the best tribute). They both became long-term recurring characters in Green Arrow lore, and other than Fyers’ mercenary background and Shado’s fondness for archery, neither of them are what you’d call similar to their comics counterparts. Fyers was ultimately his friend, for Zod’s sake, whereas he and Shado (lovers on the show) do not get along at all.

One-off villains Dodger and Drakon are also pretty dissimilar from their pre-Flashpoint (Google it if you’re so damn curious) comic incarnations.

Also worth noting here that there was, back in the 80s, a comics character named Felicity Smoak. She was a nemesis and later stepmother of Ronnie Raymond, one half of the hero Firestorm. It’s pretty obvious they just borrowed the name and nothing else. But in their defense, they didn’t know they were creating one of the series’ central characters. It just kind of went that way.

The Crossover!

There isn’t really a crossover this year. I mean, how can there be, there’s only one show. Now, the episode when the crossovers typically happen, episode eight, is the episode where Helena Bertinelli puts on a mask and costume for the first time. But it’s also the episode where she and Oliver have their falling out and she begins her fall to full-on villainy, soooo…. wouldn’t really call it a crossover, per se.

RIP

There’s always deaths in the Arrowverse, and it’s usually someone you didn’t want to go. I’ll be putting this section in spoiler text for best practice.

Year one casualties

Oh, Tommy Merlyn. In actor Colin Donnell’s hands you had wit, charm, and were the second best friend Oliver could have had (after Diggle). The show tried to pull you to the dark side over the season, giving you more and more reasons to lash out at Oliver and side with your maniacal, poor-person-murdering father, but you never went bad. It’s a shame your storyline just got grimmer as the year went on, ’cause Donnell has a way with a one-liner that was delightful in the early episodes. See, for instance, “Have you noticed how hot your sister’s gotten? [very brief glare from Oliver] Because I haven’t.” On rewatching, Oliver being forced to watch his best friend die in the rubble of an attack Oliver failed to stop is pretty crushing. Donnell acted the hell out of his last moments.

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Parting thoughts

Two of the names on Oliver’s list are Isabel Rochev and Hannibal Bates. Shoulda… shoulda tried to cross them off sooner, Oliver. Could have saved yourself and the good people of Central City some grief down the line.

Season one sets a trend that lasts into season two: the costume tends to appear before the iconic character. Yao Fei was first to wear Oliver’s green hood (from which he gets his first nickname), Slade Wilson’s mask first appears on a thug we learn is his old partner Wintergreen (another departure, he’s basically Slade’s Alfred in the comics), and down the road Dinah Laurel Lance will not be the first person to use the codename “Canary.”

Another trend: names of key writers and artists from the comics are everywhere in this franchise. John Ostrander, Dan Didio, Gail Simone, that’s just off the top of my head. Suffice to say, if an address has names instead of numbers, they’re the names of comic creators.

Next time… Arrow opens the door to a larger, stranger world, multiple presumed-dead characters prove hard to kill, and no fewer than three cast members of The Flash make their debuts in what many considered to be Arrow’s best season.

Dan Writes Plays: Lost Time

So… been blogging about TV a lot, haven’t I?

Yeah. Yeah.

Well, I’m not exactly going to stop, but let’s mix it up a little. So, how long has it been since the last time I reviewed one of my old plays? Eight months and a few days? Well, better than last time.

When last we left this series, I’d just written one of, if not the funniest thing I’d ever written. So what to do next? Simple.

Abandon comedy altogether.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Lost Time.

What’s it about?

Years ago, Gabrielle Silverman was the victim of a horrifically violent attack. (Yep, apparently I was done with funny for a while.) After some time in the hospital, she fled Calgary (I was experimenting with setting plays where I lived… hi, hypothetical unknown reader, I live in Calgary, Alberta), leaving behind her best friend, Hal, and her boyfriend, Hal’s older brother Donny… who was secretly in love with Gabrielle as well.

Following the attack, Gabrielle went into seclusion, Donny got lost in his own mind, and Hal had to try to hold everything together. Now, Gabrielle is finally coming home, setting the stage for a reunion between her, her ex-boyfriend, her best friend who’s hiding secrets… and Jackie, one of her assailants. It’s a story of love, loss, violence, trauma, recovery, addiction, faith, antisemitism, the Jewish ten days of repentance, revenge, and forgiveness… all written by a white male gentile agnostic whose biggest success to that point involved men in togas spraying each other with oversized water guns.

Should be fine.

So as you can imagine, the people who sat down to read the early drafts, expecting to laugh, were in for a bit of a surprise.

So why’d that happen?

Like Salvage before it, this one came from a dream. My dream was focused around an absence. The absence of a woman, a woman who became Gabrielle. All the key aspects of Gabrielle’s past were there: the woman was my brother’s first girlfriend, who I’d also loved in my awkward, ineffective, bad-at-saying-it way (…ladies). Like Gabrielle, this woman (who, let’s be clear, does not exist) suffered a horrific assault as a teen and disappeared. She never appeared in my dream, just the void left in her place. Her parents, sleepwalking through life. Her empty bedroom, which I remembered the exact way to parkour into from when I was in high school (I could not parkour in high school, don’t let my subconscious tell you different). And above all of that, the way her absence weighed on me and my brother. No matter what the dream tried to become (at one point I was a Mountie, and another Doctor Who, and yes, I made that a line in the show), the absence of this woman haunted everything.

When a dream triggers an emotional response that strong, I feel a need to capture it. And so Lost Time was born.

How’d it turn out?

…Why is this Hal’s story?

Overall it seems… fine. Decent. The characters are well realized, the climax is solid, I think the basic premise is engaging. It just has two issues. First, it’s incredibly talky. Incredibly talky. Most of the show is people talking about things that happened years earlier, rather than anything happening now. And secondly, I reiterate…

Why is Hal the main character?

I mean I think the answer is “The Hal role was the POV character in the dream, and it was just easier to make him the POV character in the play.” That’s the obvious answer, but it’s not a good answer. Let’s be real, Gabrielle is the one on a journey here. She instantly becomes the most interesting thing in every scene she’s in, and not making her the focus of the story was folly.

It can still go the way it went, sure, I don’t think the overall plot needs to change. But this should be Gabrielle’s story from the word go.

Would you stage it again?

Not as is. As you may have noticed, I’ve discovered kind of a major structural flaw here. Overall I think maybe, but the central character would need to shift before I sent it back out into the world. And it could also use some further digging into Jackie, the ex-thug who turned his back on his friends when he realized what they were. But why did he end up with them to begin with? Why did he go along with the violence and the crime as long as he did? As Dylan Marron puts it, hurt people hurt people. I kind of skimmed over what, exactly, pushed Jackie to join a gang that became white pride thugs without him, born and raised Jewish, noticing.

Overall, it might be worth trying to brush up at some point, because I think this world could use some more discussion of forgiveness and redemption.

Repeated theme alert:

  • Let’s sit and exchange backstories for twenty minutes like that doesn’t kill the pacing! That describes more of this show than it doesn’t. Most of the show’s action took place in the past.
  • Fun with pop culture: There’s a reference to not knowing if a character’s trauma is from being hugged too much or not enough. Borrowed that from Con Air.
  • Not a repeated theme, but a repeated character… Theresa from Quarter Century is back as Hal and Donny’s therapist and a friend to Jackie. Which means she’s been in two of my plays but has somehow yet to have her own plot.
  • The phrase “Fair point” is used so often that nine years later I’m still hearing about it. It’s become a stage in my editing process: look for the “fair point,” the phrase that gets over used.