Five years ago, Fox greenlit a series about Gotham City in the years before Batman. Why? Out of faith in one of comicdom’s better supporting casts of flawed do-gooders and colourful villains? Maybe, but as I’ve explained in the past, there were better ways to do that. Maybe it was because Smallville lasted ten years and– ten years. Son of a bitch. I watched that show for a decade. That is not a trivial percentage of my life. I was young and married and full of hope when that started, thinking George W. Bush was as bad a president as we’d ever see… all of that sure changed…
Anyway, five years and 100 episodes later, Young Jim Gordon’s quest to redeem Gotham City but not to a point where it wouldn’t eventually need a bat-themed superhero saviour has come to an end.
Earlier this season, I did defend portions of Gotham, if only to underline all the problems I had with Cloak and Dagger’s first season, but in the end… and we have hit the end… it was unique. Not in its subject matter… “DC Prequel Show Named After a Place” is basically a genre at this point… but in its devil-may-care bonkers approach to the subject matter. Gotham’s willingness to try any idea, no matter how insane or ill-conceived, led to some truly operatic battles between order and chaos, many of them really stupid, some of them bizarrely compelling.
As we say farewell to Gotham and brace for the showrunner’s new prequeller prequel Pennyworth…
I thought it worth a look back, through the veil of this 12-episode final season.
If anything else… they made 100 episodes of a show about the origins of Batman and a large amount of his rogue’s gallery that never said “Batman,” “Joker,” or “Catwoman” out loud, and that’s… kind of an achievement?
This season, because I love nerd stuff more than I apparently like myself, I decided to binge my way through two shows that I had very little reason to suspect I’d enjoy. Very little. But so determined am I to keep up on any and all comic book TV series… based on comics I’ve heard of… that don’t rhyme with “Smocking Smed…” that I dove in anyway.
On the one hand, we have the Runaways.
Their second season hit back in December. Their first season was… okay… (ranked 15th of 22 last year) but sluggishly paced, and didn’t really get anywhere. I described it as a ten-hour pilot, because I can’t really remember any storylines that weren’t just gradually getting pieces in place for the origins of the runaways or storylines from season two. Sure Preacher’s first season (5th of 13, 2017) did kind of the same thing, ending the season at the end-point of the first story arc, but it felt like Preacher had a lot more going on than Runaways did (hint: Preacher almost always has more going on, it’s great). Runaways isn’t the first show I’d name when describing how a slow burn can go wrong, but it’s on the list.
Titans, the first entry from the DC Universe streaming service (available here through Netflix), didn’t have a predecessor to compare to, favourably or otherwise, but it did have a super dark and very baffling trailer that made it look like an impending train wreck.
So we have two shows, based around younger heroes, that I had every expectation of not being good… and both surprised me. Runaways seemed to take my criticisms to heart… which, yes, heavily implies that I wasn’t the only one making them… and Titans managed to be the season’s biggest surprise so far. I came in expecting to make another “Let’s laugh at how bad Iron Fist was” post, and instead it’s… legitimately interesting?
That’s nearly all they have in common. One’s a YA series with occasional mild profanity that’s as grounded as a show with aliens and magic and a dinosaur can rationally be; the other is a hard-R, curse-filled, graphically violent tale of four damaged youths trying to learn to be a team. So I guess they both have “found family is sometimes better than blood family” going on as well, and that’s all I need to justify the joint post. And along the way, I bet we find more. Rock it.
With the last cancelations now announced, Marvel/Netflix’s Defenders franchise is winding down and will end with season three of Jessica Jones.
So it kind of makes sense, at this point, to begin looking back at this sometimes great, sometimes terrible collection of shows… and it makes extra sense, because within Punisher season two, we can see nearly every way they went wrong.
Now, I’m not saying Punisher will show us why Netflix started canceling the whole lineup. We already know why that’s happening. Disney, Marvel’s parent company, is starting their own streaming service, and that soured their relationship with Netflix, which like a white man in Hollywood is probably really annoyed that they’re no longer the only game in town.
No, I’m saying that if we examine all the ways Punisher season two didn’t work, we find nearly all of the routine failings of the five series (and one mini-series) that made up the Defenders-verse.
Including the fact that it’s not connected to the films and it never was. If Kevin Feige reboots Daredevil in three years with new actors, will you all believe it then? Or will you just blame it on the Thanos snap somehow? Probably the latter.
As I go… I’ll slip in the things they did well. Unless I run out.
Okay, so, we should all know the drill by now, yeah? The Oscars are about to happen, and even though they’re a deeply flawed ceremony that tends to play to the sensibilities of an out-of-touch voting block rather than award films that will truly stand the test of time (see The King’s Speech, which is aging into a hard Jeopardy question and an obscure Office reference), and hand out acting trophies to people seen as “due” rather than deserving (Al Pacino losing for The Godfather Part 2 to Art Carney for a film nobody remembers, so Pacino had to win for Scent of a Woman over Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, and so on and so forth), they remain my little film-based obsession.
So here are the nominees for Best Picture of 2018, in the order I prefer them, this time with Hot Takes and, borrowing a page from this Twitter genius, out of context John Mulaney quotes, why not!
8. Bohemian Rhapsody
Premise: The rise to fame of Freddy Mercury, and to a lesser extent the other members of Queen.
Hot take: So we’re still doing these, huh?
The camera zooms in on Mike Myers while he makes a Wayne’s World reference. That’s not a joke. That is a thing that happens in this Golden Globe-winning movie that somehow isn’t a parody. The future is not what any of us hoped it would be.
Rami Malek does give a great performance as Freddie Mercury, he really does, but then that’s what Bohemian Rhapsody is. It’s a biopic about someone generally loved designed to say “Look at how great he was” and win someone a Best Actor Oscar. I can’t say I learned anything about Freddie the person, I just watched Freddie the persona walk through all of the key moments* from him joining the band that would become Queen, to the moment of inspiration for some of their better known songs, to their entire Live Aid set.
Much like The Darkest Hour had nothing to say about Winston Churchill’s more controversial post-war political career, there’s also nothing about Live Aid’s famine relief money being spent on guns from the Soviets, because we’re just here to watch Freddie Mercury be great, not, like, interrogate the man and his life and his choices or anything.
Maybe if we start doing that, these endless biopics might serve a purpose, but for now… well, at least it was more fun than The Imitation Game. I almost said The Theory of Everything but actually that one was also okay.
*Save for signing on to write the soundtrack to Highlander. Who Wants To Live Forever is snuck into the soundtrack but that whole album is skipped over.
7. Green Book
Premise: Named after a guide book to help black people travel through segregation-states without Incident. Based on a true story which has been angrily refuted by family members of one of the characters, a famous jazz musician hires an Italian-American bouncer to be his driver and assistant on a tour of the segregation-era South, showing us how institutional racism affected this black musician…’s white driver.
Hot take: Two movies with black protagonists, the word “black” right in the title, and the frontrunner is a movie about a white man learning to be less racist because he has a black friend? Oh, Oscars, why you gotta be so white about everything…
So the main strength of this one has to be in the performance of the two leads: a wonderfully stoic take from Mahershala Ali as jazz musician Dr. Don Shirley, attempting to tour Segregation South while both black and gay, playing for people that will act like he’s a star but refuse to let him use the same washroom as them; and a nigh-unrecognizable Viggo Mortensen as the gluttonous, unpolished Tony Lip. Segregation South is played as cartoonishly evil, but is there really another way to portray it? Aside from that… we watch a man who tried to throw out two drinking glasses because black people drank from them witness how aggressively evil that sort of racism actually is, and become basically better, while Dr. Shirley learns that maybe he should lean into the stereotype and try fried chicken? Is that his character arc? I don’t know why I’m asking you, I’m the one who watched it…
Anyway, it’s… fine. It’s okay. I remember laughing a few times, if not at what, specifically. I was disappointed that Tony Lip didn’t go upside the heads of more racists, but I get it. You watch it, you enjoy it more than you’re bored by it, and then it’s over and you basically move on, largely unaffected, because either you know racism is bad, or you probably didn’t watch this one. I just remember a time when “It’s okay” wasn’t enough for an Oscar nomin– no, wait, turns out I don’t remember that time, I just wish it would hurry up and get here.
6. A Star is Born
Premise: Jack, a fading country singer, meets Ally, a songwriter who doesn’t think she has a chance. Their relationship launches Ally’s career, and delays Jack’s descent into self-destruction from alcoholism and pill addiction by, oh, several months, at least.
Hot Take: Any conversation about Hollywood being out of new ideas surely needs to include this one, right? This is our fourth time on the Star is Born roller coaster.
So once again our main strength here is in performances. Lady Gaga gives a stellar performance, especially in the key scene where Jack lures her on stage at one of his concerts to sing a song she wrote. The emotions that play over her face as she makes the choice to join him onstage, through to the elation at singing her song in front of a crowd of thousands. That scene is killer. From there, it’s just waiting for Ally’s push into actual music instead of country and Jack’s substance abuse issues to drive them apart, and wondering how bad it will be when everything hits a breaking point. Not… not the happiest ending, no it is not.
So… can’t say that the second half lives up to the first. Also the first half was a little troubling, because Jack’s pursuit of Ally was the sort of thing Me Too stories are made of, but I guess we were supposed to find it charming? I was busy trying to figure out if Ally was actually attracted to Jack or if she was too scared to walk away from a really uncomfortable flirtation.
It wasn’t as unhealthy as, say, that freak relationship from The Phantom Thread last year, or even Rocky Balboa’s first date with Adrian, but… Bradley Cooper’s my third or at least fourth favourite Alias veteran*, so I’d really like him to not be a creep, but he wrote that creepy-ass first date, and now I’m worried.
*He’s competitive with Kevin Weisman, but nobody can outrank Jennifer Garner and Victor Garber. Also it warmed by geek heart that he slipped two other Alias castmates into small but key roles.
Premise: An indigenous maid in early 70s Mexico works for a richer, whiter family. The family is falling apart, and her dirtbag boyfriend gets her pregnant and then vanishes faster than that Live Aid money disappeared into some Russian arms dealer’s bank account (callback joke! I am nailing this!), and then she gets to deal with all of that.
Hot take: I know Hollywood was just arguing that cinematography is a more essential part of film making than screenplay, but I don’t know, maybe tell a story?
That’s a harsh hot take, to be sure, but that is what hot takes are for, if I understand the term correctly.
This is certainly the most artistic of the nominees, so if it were to win, I could live with that. More than I could if it went to Green Book, I tell you what. The film, if I understand the discourse I’ve read since properly, is meant to be like memories. Most shots are from a single perspective: fixed but rotating cameras, inserting the viewer into the moment more fully than a lot of cuts and coverage would. And this is a very interesting shooting technique, more so, possibly, than Birdman’s faux-single take approach. So it’s well-shot, well-acted… it just feels a little narratively thin to me, and I am nothing if not a slut for narrative.
Probably worth watching, but if you watch it, don’t be on your phone. The visuals are as important as anything, even the dude doing martial arts with his dick flapping around.
I’m not kidding, that’s a thing that happens.
4. Black Panther
Premise: In the wake of his father’s death in Captain America: Civil War, Prince T’Challa returns to the secretly super-advanced kingdom of Wakanda to replace his recently departed father as king, only to face an unexpected challenge for both the throne and the role of Wakandan champion the Black Panther from the American cousin he didn’t know he had.
Hot take: Let’s not pretend that Disney didn’t throw their immense money and influence into finally breaking the “Super hero movies don’t get Oscar nominations” stigma.
Look. I’m not here to dis Black Panther, or complain how CG the third act is, or claim that it’s nomination is entirely based on Disney money, or any of the things that, I have to assume, primarily white comic nerds are doing in the wake of Marvel’s first black hero also being the first to land a Best Picture nomination. And it was never going to be Infinity War, because Infinity War broke a very simple rule… never show a man half a job. For all of its strengths, Infinity War is half a story.
Black Panther, however, is a complete tale, with an exploration of what a great nation’s responsibilities to the world might be, with a top-tier villain turn from Michael B. Jordan. If I were to name one Marvel Studios picture that deserved to make the Best Picture shortlist, yeah, I’d pick this one. In terms of superhero movies as a whole I would have backed Wonder Woman last year but that third act had some flaws, and not just in terms of CG. Logan certainly deserved more love than it got, but we’re here now.
Just remember, Marvel Zombies (a preferred term for hardcore Marvel fans)… this wouldn’t have happened if the Oscars hadn’t expanded the Best Picture category to “Up to ten” in the wake of the massive public uproar over The Dark Knight getting snubbed for that waste of time movie The Reader. So a Marvel movie was first to the podium, but DC changed the system.
3. The Favourite
Premise: Queen Anne (a delightfully batty Olivia Colman) rules England, but the worst kept secret in the palace is that her best friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) is essentially running the country, and pushing it towards an expensive war with France. All of this is threatened when Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), arrives at the palace seeking employment, her family having been ruined by her father’s gambling. Abigail’s attempts to secure a place back in high society and Sarah’s ambitions for the country find themselves at loggerheads, as they compete to be, well, the Favourite. Right there in the name.
Hot take: Flip some genders and glamorize the rulers a bit more, and this would run for six seasons on Starz.
Well this one was a lot of fun. Abigail’s attempts to climb the ladder without getting whipped too much, Lady Sarah’s push for war, Nicholas Hoult as Harley, the Leader of the Opposition, trying to foil Lady Sarah, and an oddly engaging refusal to make any of these people 100% worth rooting for. Sure Lady Sarah’s harshness and Abigail’s sympathetic circumstances push you in a direction at first, but things don’t stay that simple for long. And yes, Harley wants peace and lower taxes and those are pretty good, but man can he be a dick about it.
And at the center of it all, a wonderfully deranged take on the Queen from the splendid Olivia Colman. Even if the other women weren’t on her level, she’d be worth it. Thankfully, they are, and while the movie loses a bit of steam in the last half hour, the whole trio make for an impressive battle of passive-aggression.
Premise: From the director of The Big Short, another fourth-wall-breaking comedy/drama attempting to help you understand a way in which American society broke recently: this time, the rise to power and the attempt to seize absolute power by Dick Cheney.
Hot take: The current president is a wannabe dictator with no leadership abilities and his vice-president wants to take money out of AIDS research and use it to torture gay teens, but sure, let’s hop in the old Wayback Machine…
The makeup effects to turn Christian Bale into old, crotchety Dick Cheney were certainly impressive, and Bale had Cheney’s character down pat, but young Cheney was less impressive. Bale never looked younger than 42.
My favourite moment in this movie comes as a young(?) Cheney asked his new mentor, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), “What do we believe?” and Rumsfeld just laughs, and laughs, and laughs. This, to me, was the most important message of the movie, even more so than Cheney’s attempts to seize as much unchecked power as he could. It’s why I don’t trust conservative political parties. The modern Republican party, and more and more right-wing parties like them, have no values. No beliefs. They just want power, as much of it as they can grab, and to use that power to make themselves and their rich friends even richer.
Sure there’s entertainment in how they depict Cheney’s rise through the ranks, and they have a few fun Big Short-style “To explain subprime mortgages, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath” moments. Also the narration works, provided by Jesse Plemons as a character with an unexpected connection to Cheney.
I also liked the mid-credit scene where they poke fun at how Republican voters are probably just going to dismiss the whole film as liberal bias and the country will remain divided. But if we’re talking biopics about the deep flaws in America that are more of a problem than ever…
Premise: Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel), first black police detective in Colorado Springs, decides to launch an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan, posing as a white man over the phone, and enlisting Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to take over the role for in-person meetings.
Hot take: And the only acting trophy goes to the white sidekick? Why you gotta be so white all the time, Oscars?
Hoo doggy. If we thought Green Book was unflinching in portraying racists as terrible people, check out what Spike Lee does. But while the dangers of the Klan are never understated, he also does enjoy making them look the fools. Something aided by a cameo from Alec Baldwin as… you’d just have to see it… Topher Grace as a seemingly-genial, easily-duped David Duke, and the inclusion of I, Tonya’s Paul Walter Hauser, who has a gift for playing bad guys who are no less dangerous for being comically stupid.
Sure, Stallworth’s investigation didn’t exactly bring down the Klan, as the montage at the end of the movie of news footage from that long-ago year of 2017 reminds us that they remain a resurgent problem, but it is a tense and satisfying story just the same.
Anyway that’s all of them. There have been worse years, there have been better years… and yeah, there’s something uninspiring about being this middle-of-the-road, but I’ll be watching the show just the same.
It’s getting close to my annual post ranking the best picture nominees at the Oscars. I just need the Academy to decide what the best picture nominees actually are so I know which ones I haven’t seen yet. Other than A Star is Born, probably.
So while we’re waiting on that… and my Arrowverse Year Three rewatch is ongoing… let’s talk about the year’s superhero movies.
But not a rank ordering. I don’t see the point. There are interesting trends and symmetries this year, but the worst superhero movie I saw was fun, just a little disposable.
(I refer to Ant-Man And The Wasp, but if you thought I meant Aquaman... well, we disagree a little but that’s fine.)
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.
So I wanna talk about ’em. And I have a blog, so I’m gonna, in a series chronicling the highs and lows, successes and failures, twists, turns, and tragedies of what shouldbe 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.
So let’s dig into it.
Year two remains a simple one… just one show, Arrow season two. But it began to set the stage for something bigger, grander, and glorious.
The journey from Arrowverse to Beebo-Verse begins in year two.
Arrow: Season Two
Season two is thought of as one of, if not the very best season of Arrow. It’s based on the five-year-old rivalry of friends-turned-nemeses Oliver Queen and Slade Wilson, although they spend the first nine episodes on Oliver vs Brother Blood so we won’t know what’s coming. It’s an operatic battle of revenge that forms Oliver’s first real crucible as a hero, and there’s only one season of Arrow that can compete with it.
Season seven is… ongoing at time of writing.
In the flashbacks, Oliver, Shado, and Slade are living on Lian Yu, but find themselves being targeted by a group of mercenaries working for a mad scientist named Anthony Ivo who have arrived via a freighter called the Amazo. Ivo’s seeking a Japanese super soldier serum called mirakuru, which I thought was going to be a reference to Miraclo, the drug that gave golden age hero Hourman his powers, but ultimately wasn’t. Just a similar bastardization of the word “miracle.” Mirakuru gives a person enhanced strength, speed, and resiliency, but also drives them a little crazy, and when they inject Slade with it to save his life, he soon turns on Oliver. Thanks mostly to the death of Shado, which Oliver indirectly causes by choosing to protect Sara Lance.
Oh, yeah, hey, Sara Lance isn’t dead. Not in the flashbacks and not in the modern day. They hide this from us for a couple of episodes by recasting her with Caity Lotz, who later takes the character to heights they didn’t even think possible back in year two. We’ll cover that below.
In the present, Oliver graduates from being the Hood to the Arrow, and in Tommy Merlyn’s memory, attempts to give up killing. It’s… a rocky road, as he does arrow-murder the heck out of the Count a few episodes in, but he’s mostly determined to stick to it.
Diggle begins to reunite with his ex-wife. Felicity becomes a full member of the cast, with a clear crush on Oliver that he’s trying to duck around. (They play it fairly subtly at this stage… when Oliver has a questionable hook-up, she asks “Why her?” and only subtext in her delivery makes it clear that there’s a second part to her question of “And not me?”) Comics-Roy Harper classically had issues with heroin, and as a possible reference to that, TV-Roy Harper gets injected with mirakuru, which makes him predictably unbalanced. There is no similar comics equivalent for Laurel, who becomes an Assistant District Attorney but loses the job when she gets hooked on pills. Thea has taken over Oliver’s nightclub, despite not being old enough to drink there, but when she finds out her biological father was actually Malcolm Merlyn (who, surprise, isn’t dead), begins to unravel back into whiny season one Thea. And Detective Lance, a rock we didn’t fully appreciate in season one, has faced a career setback for working with the vigilante, and is now Officer Detective Quentin Lance.
The Rough Spots
I call it “Felicity interruptus.” Every time, every single time that Oliver needs to attend a meeting to protect his company or have a quick conversation to save his personal life, Felicity or sometimes Digg will call/show up with news about whoever needs Arrow-justice that week, and he’ll have to run off. Without fail. Every time. I gave Spider-Man: Homecoming crap for the same thing… if he chooses hero stuff over personal stuff every single time an important personal matter turns up, it gets old and loses impact.
In one case Felicity actively asks him not to go, and to instead sort out his family business so that he, his mother, and his sister wouldn’t lose their home, their nightclub, and their trust funds (who gave the board of Queen Consolidated control of Oliver and Thea’s trust funds? That is eight brands of dumb). Something that could have been accomplished by saying “Call me back when you have a minute” when Oliver said “I can’t talk right now.”
That’s the one that broke me. That’s the worst one they ever did. It might also be the last one they ever did. In season three I believe he runs out of friends and loved ones who don’t know his identity. But it was still a bad, bad trope.
Also, when Thea’s being written better, Laurel develops a pill addiction that is not a flattering colour on her. As soon as Laurel gets clean, Thea starts endlessly whining about being lied to all the time. Which… she isn’t wrong, but there’s being right and there’s being… not insufferable.
Why is the worst written character always a woman? Well… except on Supergirl, but we’re still two years out from that.
The soap opera romance is better this year, though… the only major occurence being some awkwardness between Oliver and Laurel when Laurel’s sister Sara Lance turns out not to be dead and she and Oliver start banging again.
Let’s see… Felicity interruptus, Laurel’s on pills, Thea bitching about being lied to… I think that’s it.
Oliver’s quest towards being a hero begins with his attempt to stop killing people, which, yes, kind of an important step, especially when you consider how many of his season one victims were just hired security as opposed to actual villainous millionaires. So the transition to hero continues, expressed by changing his vigilante name from “the Hood” to “the Arrow,” but I really want to talk about one of the most important Arrowverse leads, who makes their first appearance this year.
Aside from Barry Allen, I mean.
So. Sara Lance. In the flashbacks, Sara’s on the Amazo working for Ivo… in the present day, she’s the Canary, who spent five years with the League of Assassins before returning to Starling City to prey on men who get violent with women. Soon she and the Arrow are crossing paths, and she joins Team Arrow.
Sara continues the trend of “the costume predates the character,” as she is called “the Canary,” but isn’t A-list comics hero Black Canary. That’s still to come. Still, Sara was such a compelling addition to the show that fans couldn’t help but fall for her. Like Oliver, she’s doing her best to put killing behind her. Like Oliver, her past isn’t exactly willing to let her go that easily. Like Oliver, she’s an impressive badass. Unlike Oliver, she manages not to get lost in brooding and self-pity all the goddamn time.
There’s nothing about Sara Lance, proto-Canary, that screams “make her the captain of a time-travelling spaceship,” not yet anyway, but she was a breath of fresh air and the franchise was and is lucky to have her.
This is the first example of an Arrowverse trend… a warm-up villain who sets the stage for the Big Bad to come. It’s also one of the few times that said warm-up villain sticks around for the whole season. It’s Sebastian Blood, played by Kevin Alejandro, formerly of the James Woods legal drama Shark (not the only Shark veteran to sign on this season), and soon to be of my beloved celestial drama/crime procedural Lucifer. Despite the fact that he’s named “Sebastian Blood,” I somehow didn’t figure out that he’d be the Arrowverse twist on Teen Titans nemesis Brother Blood until someone called him that, probably because Brother Blood has never been a Green Arrow villain per se, but there really aren’t so many iconic Green Arrow villains that they can limit themselves to that. He basically works. Kevin Alejandro is a solid performer, and the growing mystery behind Sebastian Blood is well-played.
But the primary villain of Arrow season two is, perhaps, the very best villain the Arrowverse has ever, ever done… Deathstroke.
The season two flashbacks show how Oliver and Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett) began to turn from friends to enemies. At the end of the fall finale, it’s revealed that he’s alive, well, and has been in Starling City for some time, plotting some truly operatic revenge against Oliver. Called “Deathstroke” by ARGUS, the Arrowverse’s clandestine government agency of choice, Slade is a physical menace that Team Arrow combined can barely hold up against, and a tactical threat Oliver can hardly keep up with. And it’s all rooted in a compelling performance by Manu Bennett. The complex relationship between Oliver and Slade, past and present, gives the season bite and depth. Plus, flank him with Brother Blood and an ice-cold Summer Glau as Isobel Rochev, and we’ve got a highly effective cabal of villains. I like a good cabal.
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).
Two, count ’em, two Firefly vets this season. Sean Maher makes a couple of appearances as the Arrowverse version of Shrapnel (minus the meta powers and exploding body), but far more significant is Summer Glau’s season-long turn as Isobel Rochev, who on the show and in the comics makes a play to steal Oliver’s company.
Bronze Tiger isn’t traditionally a villain. Yes, I certainly know him best as a member of the Suicide Squad, but one of the “good characters who guides the squad” rather than one of the villains pressed into service. And while the episode Suicide Squad gives him a moment of redemption, it will take five years for Tiger, as the show calls him, to begin to move from villain to complicated potential hero. But he’s played by Black Dynamite himself, Michael Jai White, and that’s great.
Early in season two, Oliver and the Canary take on a serial killer named the Dollmaker. This might be the one time Arrow and Gotham both use a villain and Arrow does it better.
Robert Knepper, formerly of Prison Break and Carnivale, soon to be of iZombie, menaces Oliver as the precision-timed villain Clock King.
Can’t ask for a bigger fan service episode than the assembly of the Suicide Squad, on a mission to DC Comics’ fictional European nation of Markovia.
Nicholas Lea of The X-Files helps Moira Queen run for mayor.
The Huntress is back, and still evil. They call her episode “Birds of Prey,” because it involves the Huntress meeting the Canary, but they do not bond or become friends. Failed WB series Birds of Prey did this pairing better, and that’s nothing to be proud of.
Amanda Waller comes to the Arrowverse, with the Suicide Squad in tow… but maybe because this is the CW, they went with a young, skinny Amanda Waller. The New 52 reboot of DC tried the same thing, and it just doesn’t suit the character. Cynthia Addai-Robinson does well enough with the role, but it’s just not… well, she’s no Viola Davis.
The flashbacks… and one present-day episode set in Russia… introduce Anatoly Knyazev, known to Batman readers as the KGBeast. He isn’t called KGBeast for another five years, and he bears little resemblance to his comics counterpart (being more of a tactician than a physical menace), but I do love him.
Speaking of season two fan service that would be corrected five years later… Professor Ivo’s boat is named in honour of comics-Ivo’s most notable creation, the android Amazo, who can copy the powers of the entire Justice League and is not, canonically, a boat. In year two, it’s an Easter egg for comics fans. In year seven, they introduce Ivo Labs, and a proper Amazo android, who in deference to season two is infused with mirakuru. It was a bit of a wait, but worth it.
Slade’s first mirakuru-enhanced minion is named Cyrus Gold, a clear reference to classic comic villain Solomon Grundy, something backed up by Gold’s fascination with the Solomon Grundy poem. Once again… Gotham did this one better. I hate saying that. They keep making me say that.
Diggle’s ex-and-future-wife, Lyla Morgan, has the codename “Harbinger” in the episode “Suicide Squad.” Making her a reference to the comics character Harbinger (real name Lyla), a key player in the mack-daddy of all comics crossovers, Crisis on Infinite Earths. At the time, we had no reason to believe that they might be working towards a TV version of Crisis. Things… things have changed.
Jean Loring, the Queen family defence attorney, and Starling City DA Kate Spencer both have one thing in common with their comics counterparts, in that they have similar professions. But Kate never fights crime as the Manhunter, and Jean seems unlikely to marry Ray Palmer or… do any of the dark-ass things Jean got up to starting with Identity Crisis. A story DC is probably trying to queitly walk back.
There still isn’t a real crossover in season two, because there’s still only one show… but we have a crossover of sorts in “The Scientist” and “Three Ghosts.” After filling the first third of the season with TV reports on the impending and controversial opening of a particle accelerator at Central City’s STAR Labs, future Flash Barry Allen makes his way to Starling City in the eighth episode… which for the next few years is exactly when the crossovers happen. Barry assists Team Arrow in stopping Brother Blood’s first successful mirakuru minion, gets closer to Felicity than Oliver liked, and returns home to Central City just in time to get struck by lightning after the STAR Labs particle accelerator goes kablooey.
This is more of a proto-crossover than last year’s introduction of the Huntress, because they very much intended for Barry to spun off into his own series. He was supposed to come back for episode 19 as a backdoor pilot for a Flash series, but reaction to his first appearances was positive enough that they decided to make a proper pilot instead. Episode 19 does, however, introduce two of Barry’s future best friends: Cisco Ramon and Caitlin Snow. And name drops Harrison Wells and Iris West.
There’s always deaths in the Arrowverse, and it’s usually someone you didn’t want to go.
Needless to say, here there be spoilers.
Farewell to Oliver’s mother, Moira Queen. She was complex, rarely entirely trustworthy, but as soon as they revealed that she knew Oliver was the Arrow we had to know her time was limited. Moira Queen is a casualty in Slade’s war against Oliver.
Moira’s final episode also involves flashbacks to a fling of Oliver’s who ended up pregnant. This… this is going to be important down the line.
Isobel Rochev was on Robert Queen’s list.
Arrow season two introduces us to Nyssa Al Ghul, the lesser known daughter of Batman villain Ra’s Al Ghul. Lesser known to the point where even I’d never heard of her. Later Nyssa would be given her own DLC in the Batman: Arkham Knight game, which I have to believe Arrow is responsible for. Nyssa is a very popular character with Arrowverse fans, but sadly actress Katrina Law got busy, so we don’t see much of her lately.
Nyssa’s debut is also the first occurrence of something the Arrowverse is really good at. The Arrowverse has a strong track record with LGBT characters, and they’re great at one specific thing… normalization. People don’t strongly react to a character being gay on an Arroverse show, even one who’s just come out. Being gay or bi isn’t a scandal or a shock or a Condition, references to same-sex relationships aren’t treated differently. Which is how it should be. In “Heir to the Demon,” Nyssa’s first appearance, the entire gang learns that Sara and Nyssa were romantically involved during Sara’s five years with the League of Assassins. Everyone, from her sister to her parents to her past and future lover Oliver, responds with at most a simple “….Oh.” And then they’re fine. Hell, Quentin’s just happy that Sara had someone special for the last five years, he could not care less what gender they were.
I talked to Manu Bennett shortly after Moira’s death aired. I told him that in the moment, I almost felt bad for Slade, because it seemed like he wished he didn’t have to do this. His head popped up, a smile on his face, because this was exactly what he was going for, and he was glad to know it landed. Cool guy, Manu Bennett. Shook my hand twice.
Next time in this series, The Flash becomes the makeshift Superman to Arrow’s pseudo-Batman… something they dig even further into… and a certain British con-artist magician garners attention.
Next time on the blog in general… who knows. I have other projects demanding my time. We’ll see.
Of course no one can really know where the best slice in New York is.
I mean first you have to deal with the fact that taste is wholly subjective, if the ongoing and bizarrely fierce debate over pineapple on pizza teaches us anything.
(I’m personally against it, but instead of railing against the very concept, I just don’t order it, and then I don’t have to eat it. It’s 100% effective. Also works on other horrible toppings such as olives (gross), broccoli (vile weed), and that hollow shade of a pretender “Canadian bacon.”)
Second… there must be hundreds upon hundreds of pizza places in New York. Possibly thousands. What does Google say… 32,000. Merciful Zeus.It would take a lifetime to taste each and every one of them, test them against each other, develop a conclusive ranking.
Not, like, a long lifetime. But certainly the sort of lifetime one gets when one lives off pizza and only pizza.
Still… here I was. Back in NYC. And I certainly needed to eat while there. Matt might not have been with me this time (newborn children have a tendency to rule out spontaneous food odysseys), but I would finish what we started.
I would find the (probably) Best Slice in New York.
Sure, I’d been alone in New York… past trips had times when I was on my own for a while, but there were always people to link back up with later. Not so this time. Just me.
Every time I go somewhere, I’m choosing between going somewhere I’ve never been, and revisiting someplace I know I love. Each have their appeals… much as I might like to see Morocco or Miami or… Macedonia… alliteration is a terribly tempting trap… there are places I want to revisit. As an example, I never want to think that I’ve left London for the last time until the day I fly there to die. Or, for preference, until I watch the sun swallow the Earth from my immortal android body. Its luxurious, lifelike hair flowing in the artifical breeze.
Returning to places can have advantages, especially if I’m going with people. Much as I’d enjoyed all my past London trips, showing it off to Ian was nice. Being in New York with friends was an incredibly fun experience, something hanging out with them at home couldn’t replicate.
But the flip side is that once I’ve been somewhere with friends, new or old, when I go back the city can become haunted by their absence. I don’t want to go full “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” or anything, but when you come back to a place you’d been to with family or friends, it’s hard not to miss them a little.
This became clear in LA. Venice Beach was just a lot of sand, bars, and stores selling mid-level raunchy t-shirts and underpants without Diane, Peri, Allison, and all my other fellow FOLCs. Disneyland was a lesser experience after Dara and my parents had gone back north. All of this came into relief as I arrived in New York for my fourth visit.
Of course, there’s no guessing who you might miss when you arrive at a place.
My first two trips to New York, and my longest before this one, were with my parents. And both of those trips were great… there are always nightcaps at the hotel at the end of the day, and that’s always nice. But somehow, despite walking past both hotels we’d stayed in at various points, the people I missed the most were Matt and Kate. Maybe because we had unfinished business.
Back When: Pizza and Beer in the Big Apple
In 2016, I flew to New York for a Brooklyn pizza tour. It failed.
Three couples I knew… Chelsea & Tommy, Erin & Ted, and Matt & Kate… flew down to New York for a week and change. My thoughts were, at first, “Well, neat for them,” and nothing further, because when you’re my age and single, your couple friends do stuff without inviting you and that’s just how it is. But Matt kept talking about one thing he wanted to do that really resonated with me.
A Brooklyn pizza tasting tour.
But not just by reading food blogs or “Ten best slices” lists, which it turns out can actually damage the restaurants they name. Specifically, he wanted to find two guys lifting weights on a stoop, ask them what’s the best slice in the neighbourhood, and write down everything they said while they argued.
While that sounded less like a plan and more like a cutaway joke on Family Guy, the idea of seeking out the best slice in Brooklyn did sound like my exact idea of a good time, and the exact thing I would have done on my second NYC trip had I not bought into the myth of there being one, true Original Ray’s.
Spoilers for an upcoming post: I had one pizza in eight days that did not massively outshine my slice from Original Ray’s. By the end of the next post, see if you can name it.
I mentioned this offhandedly to my parents, who decided they had some spare Aeroplan points and I had a birthday coming up, and soon I had a long weekend in the Big Apple planned, and Matt had a partner in pizza crime.
It then turned out the rest of the collective also wanted in, which… well… it helped until it didn’t.
The first issue we hit is that the two places we’d initially identified didn’t do “by the slice.” Grimaldi’s, for example, which certainly belongs in any conversation about Brooklyn’s best pizza, and often ends up in them, judging by the lines to get in. So having seven people did make it easier to split up the pizzas… but evidently not enough, because when we arrived at our second stop, Dellarocco’s (more classic Neapolitan style, from which New York style evolved, better toppings than Grimaldi’s but overall the silver medalist), a third of our group decided they were full and that they wanted to explore Brooklyn instead of eating more pizza.
And with that, the tasting tour began to implode. One pizza from Dellarocco’s later, and the group position was to bail on the quest and head to Coney Island… despite the fact that the sun was setting and we were past prime beach time.
But hey, the rides were open, so… off we went. Matt and I opted against the rides, and, still a little annoyed to have had our pizza quest cut short, sought out beers.
Which led to my favourite moment of the weekend, a story I’ve told again and again.
Two years and two months earlier, my parents and I had visited Coney Island, and after a few hours of beach, aquarium, and one roller coaster, we wanted lunch somewhere indoors with drink service, which meant leaving the boardwalk and arriving at a certain mid-level restaurant chain nigh-synonymous with “Whatever, this will do, I guess.”
Flash forward to 2016, and Matt and I find ourselves on the same block, just behind the rides, looking for a bar. He sees a familiar sign.
“I suppose if all else fails,” Matt says, “Applebees serves beer.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time I went to that Applebees for lack of better options,” I replied.
He stopped, turned, stared at me, and with a voice filled with incredulity, said “You’ve been to that Applebees?”
“Yes,” I replied. “It’s the Applebees of Last Resort.”
And so have I thought of the Coney Island Applebee’s ever since.
(It didn’t come to that. We found a bar mere seconds later.)
The Pub Crawl
We had a good time, Matt and I, wandering from bar to bar… sadly not the one that was no doubt the inspiration for Harley Quinn’s Brooklyn pad in her solo comic…
…and perhaps that was an inspiration for the next day. While the rest of the collective did… whatever it is they were doing, I don’t know… I headed north from my Brooklyn hotel to meet Matt and Kate at their home base brewpub, Beer Authority.
Well, okay, I grabbed lunch at Raclette, a cheese-based restaurant after my heart. Both in terms of food and cholesterol-murder.
Which, okay… Kate was pretty miffed at me for going there without her, but A) I needed to go to this place in the worst way, and after the previous day I was not willing to trust the collective with fitting it into their agenda; B) I would have gone back. I would have gone back that afternoon. I didn’t even care how full I was (very), I’d have gotten hungry again.
From there, we set off on a new mission… the Hell’s Kitchen Craft Pub Crawl. Which involved a faster and less stoop-intensive research method than the planned pizza quest… we googled “Hell’s Kitchen craft beer pubs,” found a list of the best ones online, and started wandering.
Because as I’ve said in nearly every Marvel Netflix review I’ve written, you can walk through basically all of Hell’s Kitchen in one afternoon.
We didn’t make it to all ten. More like three, because after opening drinks at Beer Authority (home of more draft beers than I could drink in a week) we were already a hint tipsy. Also one was closed, and only Kate wanted to hit Flaming Saddles.
“It’s a wild west themed gay bar with country music and dancing barkeeps!” she explained.
“No…” I replied. “…But I just want to be clear that it’s the country music I’m objecting to.”
I think deep down she knew that pitch was a lost cause.
And so it was that we discovered BarBacon. Craft beers and a bacon-based menu of delicious food. Even their kale salad had bacon.
(“You came here, and you’re getting a salad?” Matt and Kate asked me. “Lunch was a pound of cheese melted on potatoes,” I replied, “I need to eat a green plant today.”)
And of course, the best item on the menu, the bacon tasting flight. Four beers, four bacons. Perfect end to a fun afternoon/evening.
Except for not bothering to use the washroom before hopping in the Uber back to Times Square.
Not my best idea.
It’s a long subway ride back to Brooklyn. A long and less than comfortable ride that night.
These two days of food and drink-based fun in the Big Apple gave me a few spots to revisit… and a quest to complete.
Next time, an aborted Best Pizza Quest is resumed, two years later.
Hark now to the tale of my two trips to the 1920s, to unravel a mystery with a seductive PI in the making.
We’re spending more time on this than, say, The Lifespan of a Fact because in that case all I can do is give a synopsis and maybe try to recall the better lines, and that’s less satisfying.
Minky Woodcock, on the other hand, was an experience.
Minky Woodcock. Would-be private eye. Sharp mind, crafty in a fight, able to talk her way almost anywhere, and with a body that gets her anywhere else. Stuck in a time period that doesn’t appreciate her.
And the main character of the graphic novel-turned theatrical experience that lured me to New York eight days after getting back from LA.
Although Minky had some help getting my attention.
For the uninitiated, this is Robyn Adele Anderson.
The original singer for Postmodern Jukebox, way back when they turned contemporary hits into vintage ditties in a small apartment.
She has her own channel now, since Postmodern Jukebox now juggles many, many singers and possibly is based in LA now, not New York where they started.
I suppose my lo– chaste and respectful admiration for Ms. Anderson began the first time I saw Postmodern Jukebox live, June of 2015. All five vocalists brought the house down that night, but I became fond of Ms. Anderson in particular.
I was already quite fond of Ariana Savalas and this performance only solidified that so my above statement remains true.
A year later, I’m following the Twitters and Instagrams of both Ms. Anderson and Gracie Terzian, a jazz singer with a harp ukulele and a voice so beautiful it defies description, and she has nothing to do with this story, really, but here’s a video anyway.
Back on track… Both Robyn and Gracie seemed to be doing zero-cover gigs at jazz clubs across Manhattan, while I was stuck on the far side of the continent like a chump. That’s what got me thinking about a third New York trip back then… go to NYC, meet up with Maria, one of my Peru travelmates, then find some rooftop jazz bar and hear Robyn or Gracie sing live. Of course when I actually went to New York in the fall of 2016, for an ill-fated Brooklyn pizza adventure we’ll discuss another time, both were on tour and nowhere near the city and Maria was in Russia. So it goes.
Two years pass. As I mentioned earlier, Ms. Anderson plugs a show she’s doing with a group called Speakeasy Dollhouse. Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini. The title has my attention, so I check out their page.
An interactive theatrical experience… based on a, let’s be honest, pretty sexy-looking graphic novel… about Harry Houdini… that uses true facts about his death to construct a conspiracy involving spiritualists and the creator of Sherlock Holmes… featuring one of my favourite singers as Bess Houdini.
Other than the “audience participation” of it all, this was ticking a lot of boxes for me. It seemed like, were it playing remotely near me, it was exactly the sort of show I’d want to see. The Kickstarter was a fair distance from its goal, so I thought, what could slipping them $100 hurt? Other than $100 plus exchange rate. That’s two or three nights at home instead of a pub. Maybe they wouldn’t make their goal and I wouldn’t even be on the hook.
Anyway a week or so later I get an email saying they’re funded and asking when I want to see the show.
An interlude in my travel diaries to cover the many shows I caught during my two trips to opposite corners of America. I’m glad I saw each of them, to varying degrees, but some were definitely better than others.
As we move from LA stories to tales of New York, I present, in order of preference, a summary of my theatrical experiences abroad.
Just behind Harry Potter world, down the closest thing a theme park has to a back alley, is the corrugated metal wall of the Atoll, a miniature recreation of one of the floating cities from Waterworld, a Kevin Costner movie people absolutely still talk about. I guess once you have a giant water-based stunt show with an elaborate set, you keep it.
Besides, stunt shows have always been a part of the Universal Studios experience, since the days when the only ride was the backlot tour. So who cares if Waterworld came out closer to the Vietnam War than today? There are fights and dives and aerial stunts, pyrotechnics and jet skis. A plane crashes in the middle of the set at one point. It’s a stunt show. You’re there for the action, not the razor-thin narrative of “The Deacon, who we all remember was the bad guy in the movie, attacks the Atoll, but iconic and not at all obscure action hero the Mariner arrives to save everyone! Well, most of them. Some of them. Okay, just the one woman.”
Some of the cast warmed up the crowd by demonstrating that the splash zone isn’t an idle threat. There were water cannons, pails of water hurled at the crowd, and audience members being selected to get buckets of water dumped on them. Which was pretty funny for all of us in the dry section, and before anyone says “Aw, that’s so mean,” they were pretty clear– sit in this section, you’re gonna get wet. They didn’t say how, but they warned it would happen.
Things went boom and splash and there were jet skis and the foley on the punches was well timed. Absolutely worth the 40ish minutes of my day it took up. As an express pass holder, I could have stuck around for a behind-the-scenes presentation by the guy who played Deacon, but I still had… I want to say… three rides left to go on, two of which were down a couple of giant escalators in the lower section, and the 3D Kung Fu Panda short to see, and the park closed at 6:00, so I had to hustle.
Fun. Simple, but fun enough.
6. King Kong
There were several shows I kind of had my eye on in New York, aside from the two I already had tickets for. I’d even put Network, starring Bryan Cranston, into my calendar, hoping that the prepaid Visa I’d recently received would cover a few Broadway shows. And it absolutely would have, except that the first one I used it on was hell of pricey and now there’s only $24 left, which is an awkward amount and this isn’t the point.
King Kong wasn’t on the list because I didn’t even know it existed until I walked past the theatre it’s showing in. And even then I had to investigate before I was sure this was a legit Broadway musical and not, like, a museum or a walkthrough thing, where actors lead you through a series of rooms simulating a giant ape attack.
No, legit musical, with the book written by the same guy as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which I had nothing vaguely resembling the budget to see), and I thought I saw a connection to La La Land but I can’t find anything to corroborate that, so maybe I imagined it? A connection certainly doesn’t seem to exist. I did find out that this show originally debuted in Australia five years earlier, before getting some touch-ups to hit Broadway.
Man, I’m getting distracted on this one. Gotta focus, instead of segueing into wondering how, exactly, “City of Stars” won an Oscar for best song of the year when it wasn’t even the best song in La La Land and goddamn it focus right, here goes…
It’s King Kong, so I doubt I have to describe the story.
First off this was worth it just for the staging. The giant Kong puppet was incredibly impressive, with an expressive face, and arms capable of scooping up and carrying the female lead, and that was worth seeing on its own. But also of note is the way parts of the stage would lift up and become the front of a ship, or the way they simulated the top of the Empire State Building with a few smoke machines and a circular platform that rose out of centre stage. And then there were the multimedia screens in the background that created the locations, and the lighting effects that represented gunfire.
I also quite liked what they did with Ann Darrow, the female lead. Not only because they cast her African-American instead of the typical white and blonde, which added subtextual depth to her struggles to make it in 1930s New York. It’s best summed up in a line in mid-act one, when the male lead is trying to get her to scream on camera. After a few false starts, where she just gives startled but amused shouts, he tries to direct her into a huge scream of terror… but instead she delivers a powerful roar of fury.
“I know what you want from me,” she tells him, seeing his displeasure. “But I’m just… not a damsel in distress.”
It made for a fresh take, with a truly impressive and expressive giant puppet ape at the centre of it all. Some people snuck photos of Kong during curtain call. I guess I took the “No photos in the theatre” rule a little more seriously.
5. Grindhouse: The Ballet
If you can look at that poster and not think “I need to see what this is,” we see the world very differently.
We have multiple 70s exploitation genres all happening at once, all expressed through dance… and a few expository voice overs that played between scenes. We find ourselves in the seedy underbelly of a city under the grip of aerosol opioid the Scent, a few sprays of which is a quick and easy way to incapacitate someone or someones hostile, or boost the libido of someone, shall we say, friendlier.
The Scent is controlled by club owner Jorogumo, ruling over the underworld with her sexy and sinister lover Dixie Mason. Isis Aphrodite sings in Jorogumo’s nightclub while battling Scent addiction and earning the ire of Dixie, while Isis’ Shaft-looking lover Osiris Blaze tries to free her from that life. Cheerleader gang the Tough Cookies find themselves in servitude to Jorogumo after getting in trouble with the Fuzz, a popping-and-locking B-boy quartet of cops. And it all progresses to a violent, grand Guignol finale.
There’s mayhem and betrayal and revenge and death and the entire plot is conveyed so well through only dance and movement that I just described it thoroughly and accurately to you without needing someone to explain it to me. Well, I got the character names from the program, but I’d have to, wouldn’t I? Try dancing the name “Isis Aphrodite” into someone’s mind.
It was quite the spectacle, blending classical and modern dance styles, and it was in the same speakeasy-turned theatre as our next contender, which meant cheap Guinness before the show.
4. The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini
This is why I was even in New York in the first place. Hardly the only thing I did, because I was in town a whole week after seeing it, but I never would have considered this New York trip if not for this show.
Set during the last month of Harry Houdini’s life, The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini was written and directed by Cynthia Von Buhler, based on her graphic novel. It sees would-be private investigator Minky Woodcock (played by burlesque performer Pearls Daily, who modeled for Minky in the graphic novel) hired by Bess Houdini to keep an eye on her husband, who Bess fears is being targeted by spiritualists tired of being debunked by the famous magician. Spiritualists that may include the famed medium Margery of Boston and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It’s an interactive theatrical experience: rather than just sit in the theatre and watch the show, you start there and then follow an assigned character through the events of Houdini’s last days. As a spiritualist, you follow Margery or Doyle or possibly the guy who punched Houdini, maybe? As a pragmatist you follow Bess or Houdini’s doctor or maybe the guy who was drawing Houdini when the other guy punched him, I don’t… look, I don’t know every possible path. With a VIP “friend of the magician” ticket, you follow Minky or her brother or maybe Harry, hard to know, I just know that VIPs started the show thirty minutes earlier and had more time with Minky, which I envied.
Bess Houdini was played, for most of the run, by Robyn Adele Anderson, the original singer for and ongoing contributor to Postmodern Jukebox. I am… a bit of a fan, let’s say. When her Instagram started plugging the Kickstarter for this show, I was quickly sucked down a rabbit hole. The show seemed to tick a lot of boxes for me. Minutes later I’d pledged enough to get a “Pragmatist” ticket, which boosted my odds of being around Bess Houdini, and before long I was being asked what night I’d be seeing the show.
“Excellent question,” I thought. At which point is was time to plan a trip to NYC.
Later, I found out that the day I was supposed to attend, Ms. Anderson was starting her solo tour in earnest, and would be in Niagara Falls. Her last performance in the show was going to be the night I arrived in NYC.
Which called for a second ticket (something I was actively considering anyway) and a mild race against time.
Okay. So. It’s turning out I have a lot to say about this show, so it’s probably getting a separate entry, because we still have three shows to cover. Suffice to say, it was an impressive experience, worth doing twice, although I wished I’d been able to get a VIP ticket, because neither group I was in encountered Minky as much as I’d have liked.
Stay tuned, we’ll be coming back to this. Moving on. Fortunately, this next one should be fast.
3. The Play That Goes Wrong
In the spring of 2013, as part of the trek known as Dan and Ian Wander Europe (the long-awaited sequel to which is expected in June of next year), Ian and I picked up tickets for a small show called The Play That Goes Wrong that was showing in the basement rehearsal hall of a West End Theatre. It was one of the best things we did, and one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.
That was then. Now it’s an international hit, a full-on franchise in the UK, and is wrapping its run on Broadway in a couple of months.
This was the third time I’d seen it, and the third cast, and it’s never stopped being funny.
What a delight this show is. If whoever brings this show to Calgary for the first time isn’t me, they’d better be great.
We didn’t get off on the best foot, since they started about 45 minutes late and I did not have a chair, but man they made it up to me quickly, opening with a woman doing a burlesque striptease while singing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” a song I’d heard of but never heard.
Soon enough, the intros were done and the wrestling began. I had to piece together who was the face and who was the heel strictly through context, as the announcer who introduced the fighters spoke only Spanish. And in fact was the only person who spoke Spanish. But it maintains the luchador traditions, so sure. Sometimes it took a while to figure out who I was supposed to root for, as someone I went with noted that the faces and heels all used similar moves. In other cases it was clear. If you can’t figure out that the guy using vampiric hypnosis on his opponent is the bad guy, I really can’t help you. However, I certainly didn’t guess that I was supposed to root for the two guys dressed as psychedelic chickens over the guy who entered to the Doctor Who theme, but I got there eventually.
I think even before they were joined by some Andy Warhol-looking “famous German singer” named Heino, who literally swung into the ring to lead them in the chicken dance, before hurling himself into the crowd to escape retribution from Lil’ Cholo and Dr. Maldad.
I don’t know why any of that happened but gosh I was somehow glad it did. I think even the ref hurled himself into the audience during that match. His name is Platanito, and he was celebrating 45 years as a lucha ref that night, and Lil’ Cholo was celebrating 20 years as a luchador.
And yet, for everything I just described, that wasn’t the “wacky” fight.
A little person dressed as a pinata, a second little person dressed as a devil, and a fighter named “Dirty Sanchez.” I was not expecting this match to be big on dignity.
It was not.
And of course the burlesque performers were great. Hoop tricks, aerials, a fan dance… all great.
It was just a spectacularly fun night, and only $40. I’d go all the time if I lived in the same city.
A lucky break I was able to see it this once… and not the only lucky break on this list.
1. The Lifespan of a Fact
A non-fiction author named John D’Agata submits an essay on suicide and Las Vegas to a magazine. The editor-in-chief tasks an intern named Jim Fingal to fact-check the article before they publish, knowing that D’Agata tends to takes liberties. Jim takes this job more seriously than she was braced for.
What follows is a knock-down, drag out fight between poetic truth and factual accuracy, as Jim digs deep into every fact, figure, name, date, and claim in the essay, from the number of strip clubs in Las Vegas to what constitutes a “traffic jam” on the Vegas Strip, to the exact origins of tae kwon do.
That’s a real story about a real essay, which was compiled in a book, framing the text of an early draft of John’s essay with Jim’s notes, questions, and suggested corrections… and where it existed, the debate between the two.
And now it’s an absolutely riveting play, as Jim (Daniel Radcliffe*) ends up at John’s (Bobby Cannavale*) Las Vegas home, with their editor (Cherry Jones*) playing referee between them.
*The cast when I saw it. Theatre being theatre, they won’t be playing those roles forever. In fact, not past mid-January.
Radcliffe was brilliant, bringing a twitchy, awkward energy to Jim, both eager to please but unrelenting in his pursuit of accuracy in every line. Cannavale brings a harder presence to D’Agata, menacing Jim from line one, making it all the more impressive when Jim digs in and stands his ground against his more respected opponent.
“Don’t try to stare me down,” he says, in a perfectly even tone of voice. “I have two older brothers. I will fuck your shit up.” Not a threat. Not bluster or posturing. A simple statement of fact.
Was there a scandalous pleasure in hearing Harry Potter deliver that line? No. Because Harry Potter was nowhere to be seen. Radcliffe nailed the role so thoroughly that there was barely even a trace of Daniel Radcliffe. There was only Jim Fingal: awkward, nervous, but ruthlessly thorough fact-checker.
I must also praise Cherry Jones, who consistently got laughs as her character becomes more and more frustrated with the situation between her intern and this star writer.
The direction was also excellent, and the script incredible. Frequently hilarious, powerful in places, deeply compelling, and leaving you unsure exactly who was right. John, and his fudging of the details in pursuit of a greater truth? Or Jim, and his claims that in these times of fake news, conspiracy theories, and cries of “crisis actors,” journalism must and can only be based on facts?
(I don’t recall the exact phrasing of the line where he says this, I wish I did, but I know they had to wait for the audience to stop clapping before moving on.)
(The audience also did that thing where they burst into applause as soon as a famous person enters. I find that tacky. Maybe they just want to do the scene, people.)
Not a moment was wasted. Every line, every transition, every moment was just riveting. I was glad it didn’t have an intermission, sad that it was only 80ish minutes. I savoured every moment of this story (live in the moment as hard as you can, remember?), every masterful beat of it. I walked out into the New York streets afterwards, bursting with gratitude that Robyn Adele Anderson had plugged a Kickstarter for her show, that my lack of impulse control caused me to back it, that my internet provider gave me a $300 prepaid Visa for sticking with them a while longer**, that Aeroplan is winding down and I had points to burn. For every twist of fate and lucky break that brought me here, to this incredible city, to be in that room, watching this amazing piece of theatre. For one night, I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was exactly where I was meant to be.
**Which was very necessary, I spent more on my ticket to this show than both performances of Houdini combined… possibly including all the drinks.
Naturally I bought the book. It’s not the script, no, but the textual battle between real-life Jim and John is just as interesting as the dramatized version starring Radcliffe, Jones, and Cannavale. Well, almost. Those three really nailed it.
Every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair and the Doctor comes to call, I’m blessed with a night like that one, with a show that leaves me walking on air for having witnessed it. May of 2013, seeing the original cast and creators of The Play That Goes Wrong bring down the house years before they became an institution. June of 2017, seeing David Tennant’s stellar closing night performance in Don Juan in Soho. 1993, the premiere of Blackpool and Parish. And now The Lifespan of a Fact. Nights that remind me why I love what I do, why I stay in theatre through all the tedious production meetings or thin crowds and the times when I don’t know if I have another script in me. Nights that prove the magic of theatre.
Also seeing the divine Ms. Sara Niemietz live in concert with Postmodern Jukebox but that’s less about theatre, soooo…
I had a play of mine open just in the last couple of weeks, a pocket-sized pantomime called Peter Pan and the Fairy’s Tale. I’m seeing what they did with it in a few days, as of this writing. My parents are bringing my niece out to see it. I hope my show can give her even a taste of the wonder I felt at The Lifespan of a Fact, a hint of the joy I felt when Bess Houdini shook my hand at The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini, a portion of the laughs from The Play That Goes Wrong. If I do, I’ll have done my job one more time.
Next time, we dig deeper into The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini as my New York adventures begin. Or maybe I talk about Doctor Who a bit as a palate cleanser. We’ll see how the week goes.