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.

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.

Benicio 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.

Overthinking Doctor Who 6: Silence Will Fall

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

“On every world wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact midpoint, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, ‘Well done! Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.'”

“Hey,” said Steven Moffat, as his first Christmas special approached. “What if, right, what if the Christmas special was actually about Christmas, instead of coincidentally taking place on Christmas?”

(I mean really, Donna Noble, getting married on Christmas Day? Dick move, if’n you ask me.)

And so came A Christmas Carol, which may well still be my absolute favourite of the Who Christmas specials. (Last Christmas, which we haven’t reached, is competitive.) On Christmas Eve Amy and Rory, mid-honeymoon, are stuck on a spaceship about to crash due to unstable clouds covering the planet. The one man who can stop it, Kazran Sardick (Dumbledore his own self, Michael Gambon), refuses to do so. The Doctor has one night to turn a mean, rich, old man nice.

Fortunately his old pal Charles Dickens had a recipe for just that.

Over a series of Christmases*, The Doctor tries to find a way to make Kazran a good person… but he might do more harm than he expected. And along the way there are flying fish, visits to the Rat Pack, fezzes, and a for old school fans, a brief appearance by a familiar giant scarf.

It’s love and loss, hilarious and heartbreaking, and it features a tour de force performance from an extra energetic Matt Smith. Moffat explained it thusly: in The 11th Hour, Smith was an unproven quantity. He was replacing the beloved David Tennant, no easy feat, and he knew he had a crowd to win. In A Christmas Carol, he’d won them over. Some might still prefer Ten to Eleven (not I, though it’s super close), but Eleven was still a hit. Which means Smith got to strut. The second The Doctor arrives via chimney (it’s Christmas, he got excited), he is captivating.

*Moffat also said “What if this show about a time traveller used time travel a bit more?”

Series Six: River Song and War With The Silence

Moffat believed that Doctor Who should always be event television. It‘s arrival should be an event, which meant not being predictable like American network television shows. This meant rarely premiering at the same time any given year, and in the case of series six, it meant taking just under three months off around the halfway point.

He had another new idea for series six as well. This was the year he said “Let’s open with the finale.” The two-part premiere, The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, is every bit as epic, sweeping, dramatic, and eventful as most finales tended to be, with the exception that the stakes are less universal and more planetary. It’s a knockout opener that sets the stage for the year to come… the Silence, hinted at in series five, make their terrifying debut, there’s a mysterious girl who might be a Time Lord, a woman with an eye patch only Amy can see, River Song’s back, Amy has a secret, and The Doctor dies in the opening minutes. Although a Doctor 200 years older than last time Amy and Rory saw him… and the next, as it swiftly turned out.

Of course, once you’ve opened that big, you have to keep the the momentum going. So just saying “Bad Wolf” once a week is off the table. They needed equally big moments at the mid-point and the finale, and A Good Man Goes to War, the last episode before the three month hiatus, didn’t disappoint. It’s a huge showstopper of an episode, filled with twists and action and unforgettable characters (plus a couple of returns), and it sent us off to break with an instantly intriguing promise: “The Doctor Will Return in… Let’s Kill Hitler.

And if the title of the finale, The Wedding of River Song, doesn’t have your attention, what show have you been watching?

Things get big in series six. The show embraces The Doctor as a galactic hero, only to have him realize he’s taken it all too far.

Although there’s a whole other reason the Silence is gunning for him… there’s a question The Doctor is destined to be asked. The first question, the oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight… a question they feel must never be answered. The Doctor must die. Silence must fall.

There’s a lot of prophesying in the back half. And worry not, it’s going somewhere.

The Doctor

Moffat realizes that The Doctor has been fighting off the worst that time and space have to offer for a long time now. Long enough that he’s become a figure of legend, heroic or horrifying depending on who’s telling the legend. Maybe this is one of the issues anti-Moffat people have… they preferred the anonymous wanderer to the man who stares down entire armies with a glib speech. But in fairness, this has been building for a while, since back in the Davies era. If not Dalek and The Parting of the Ways, then certainly when Ten stared down the Vashta Nerada in Forest of… the… Dead…

That’s a Moffat episode. Son of a bitch, that’s a Moffat episode.

In the back half, The Doctor himself realizes he’s become too big. He never meant to inspire the kind of fear that raises armies against him. So it’s time to step back. And, well, he is scheduled to die in two centuries, unless he can figure out a way around it.

(The continued existence of the show, and the two subsequent incarnations of The Doctor, might indicate he has a decent chance of figuring out a way around it.)

We also see a trait that has become a key part of the 11th Doctor: the old soul with a young face. Despite being the youngest actor to ever play the Doctor, Smith excelled at showing the weight of the Doctor’s 908 (1100 and change by the last couple of episodes) years of life. When his scheduled end draws near, he can’t pretend he hasn’t gotten tired.

That said, this might have something to do with having spent two centuries travelling more or less on his own. Sure, there’s some escapades with River Song along the way, but for those two centuries we don’t see, he’s mostly alone after parting ways with two returning friends.

The Companion(s)

Amy Pond is the first returning full-time companion since Rose Tyler. And she remains as Amy as ever.

Rory’s back as well, and now he’s a full companion instead of just popping in and out. He expands on his role from last year as the man willing to call out The Doctor when necessary. He loves the travel, and he loves doing it with Amy, and sure he likes to help people, but while he likes The Doctor fine, he’s never been under The Doctor’s spell. When a line’s being crossed, when Amy’s life is being risked, when there’s hypocrisy to be called out, Rory is on it. Also he dies a lot. But if you’ve made it this far that’s not news. He died twice last year alone.

Series Five Spoiler

Oh, and he can remember those 2000 years he spent guarding the Pandorica while made of plastic. Sometimes he can, anyway.

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Series six also dips its toes into a whole new concept where companions are concerned: the idea that they can be dropped off at home for a spell. Classically, when a companion leaves the Tardis, that’s it. They’re done. An odd few might pop back for a visit (Rose, Martha, Sarah Jane), but in general, good-bye was good-bye, not “see you in a bit.” But The Doctor wanted to give them a chance at normal married life. Maybe a kid or two, which… well… you’ll see.

When we rejoin the Ponds in Impossible Astronaut, they’ve been on their own since the honeymoon. A month, maybe two, not more than three. But then after watching the older Doctor die, they’re back on the Tardis with younger Doctor for ooo, six or seven months before getting dropped back off after A Good Man Goes to War. No, yeah, that’s accurate, I have reason to know that time frame is about accurate. And after a realization hits late in the series, The Doctor sends them home again, to a new home he’s purchased for them (somehow), this time for good. Well, he thinks. The thing about The 11th Doctor is that he can never turn away from Amy forever. And even when he does, he can’t replace her. For two centuries, she leaves a void he can’t bring himself to fill.

(Some anti-Moffat people decry series six for two scenes in which The Doctor asks Rory for permission to hug Amy, rather than asking Amy, claiming that The Doctor is acknowledging Rory’s ownership of his wife’s body. To that I say… be serious. The Doctor and Amy hug all the time, he knows Amy is okay with hugging him, this is well and truly established and has been since The Beast Below. Rory, on the other hand, can be sensitive about his place in Amy’s life compared to The Doctor, and there are moments when The Doctor wants to make sure he’s not setting that off. He asks Rory for permission to hug Amy because Rory is the only person who would mind. Come on, people, surely there are better ways to fight rape culture than attacking platonic, consensual, mutually appreciated hugs. Because when you blow things like this out of proportion, you make it harder to talk about the real stuff.)

(Yes, hugs do require consent, so if Amy were uncomfortable about hugging him, this would be an entirely different conversation, but she’s not and it isn’t.)

The Life and Times of River Song

Sure our main story is the Silence’s latest effort to kill The Doctor, and the reason why they’re trying so hard to do so, but along the way we answer a key question… who is River Song? Who was she, and who will she be to The Doctor? Is she The Doctor’s wife (do not expect this question to be answered in The Doctor’s Wife)? Is she a murderer? She is good with that gun.

Look… I shouldn’t talk about it here. But suffice to say, it’s a satisfying story, every bit as twisted and timey-wimey as it deserves to be.

The Supporting Cast

Hmm… Amy, Rory, River… that’s about it, really. There are some spectacular one-offs along the way, some of whom even survive meeting The Doctor, but none I’d call a “supporting cast.”

Oh, except this. Remember when I said that Silurian Neve McIntosh (The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood) and Sontaran Dan Starkey (The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky) would be back as more notable characters? Well, it’s happening. A Good Man Goes to War introduces us to their more popular selves. McIntosh plays Madam Vastra, a Silurian who started solving murders in Victorian London (including catching– and eating– Jack the Ripper) with her maid/wife Jenny following a run-in with the Doctor. Starkey is Strax, a Sontaran The Doctor punished by making him serve as a combat nurse. Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are some of The Doctor’s first stops assembling his task force to hit Demon’s Run. We’ll be seeing more of them, even the one who seems to be dead.

The Monsters

The Big Bad: Chief among the Silence, and the species known by that name, are aliens who look a little like the classic grey aliens, with a suitably spooky twist. The trick of the Silence is that the second you stop looking at them, you forget they exist. They could be in the room with you and you wouldn’t know, because unless you’re looking at them you forget anything was there. They also work alongside some of the Catholic marines we met back in Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone.

(Some anti-Moffat people used The Doctor’s method of dealing with the Silence in Day of the Moon as a way of decrying Moffat and Eleven. To this I say… they had enslaved the Earth, they killed innocents on a whim, The Doctor gave humanity the only way of driving them out he could… and you’re taking their side? Who hurt you? And why didn’t it stick? Also, the scene where he springs his trap is amaze-balls, so nuts to you.)

This Year in Daleks: They mostly get the year off. One unfortunate Dalek gets a cameo appearance in the finale, but other than that, Moffat decided that maybe the most dangerous yet also most defeated race in the universe could use a year off to recharge. The Cybermen drop by a couple of times, though.

Classic Monsters Revived: None this year, but they double up with some deep-dives in series seven.

The Good: The Flesh are a good sympathetic creature, providing another two-parter where it isn’t clear whose side The Doctor should even be on. Actually there’s a lot of “monsters” who aren’t as bad as they seem this series. A siren preying on the sick and injured who’s less sinister than she appears; a minotaur feeding on faith that’s as eager as anyone for The Doctor to stop him; killer robot nurses who just want to help, it’s not their fault their medicine is lethal to humans; a shapeshifting person-shaped time machine with a minaturized human crew that actually wants to do some good for the universe, even if their idea of good is a little… Black Mirror. The giant wooden doll zombies with children’s voices, however, they’re just jerks.

You heard. Giant wooden doll zombies with children’s voices singing an ominous nursery rhyme. One friend snapped at that point, screaming “Fuck everything about this episode!” Also the nursery rhyme contains the theme for the rest of the year… “Tick tock goes the clock, he cradled and he rocked her… tick tock goes the clock… even for The Doctor.”

The Bad: They all work for me, really.

The Ugly: They don’t avoid having a lot of closeups of the minotaur just because that episode has some weird directing choices.

High Point

Back in the Davies era, Moffat would come in, write one story, and it would be the best one of the year. In series six, Neil Gaiman arrived to do the same thing to Moffat with The Doctor’s Wife. Although… when someone on Twitter attempted to get Gaiman to talk smack about Moffat, he not only heaped praise on Moffat as a writer and person, but also gave him credit for “all the best lines in The Doctor’s Wife.” And there are some great lines in that episode. Gaiman’s initial goal was to explore the larger Tardis interior, and to make it a hostile environment, but along the way he tripped over something wonderful.

The Doctor gets a distress call from a Time Lord named the Corsair, leading him to take the Tardis outside of space as we understand it to a meteor calling itself House. Soon the Tardis goes dead, because the soul of the Tardis has been planted into a woman named Idris. Finally, for the first time in seven centuries, The Doctor and the Tardis meet face-to-newly-acquired-face, and it’s amazing. Or, as The Doctor and Amy put it…

“She’s a woman and she’s the Tardis.”
“Did you wish really hard?”

The Doctor is hoping that he’ll find living Time Lords here. He thinks that if he does, maybe he can explain why he did what he did in the Time War, wiping his own people out.

“You want to be forgiven,” says Amy. The Doctor freezes, half turns back, and with just a hint of a crack in his voice, asks “Don’t we all?” Amazing moment, subtle and profound, utterly relatable and just a touch crushing.

Great lines. Fun episode. Really touching end. And I knew Moffat had to have written at least one line, the one about “the only water in the forest is the river,” but it wouldn’t be the first time Gaiman wrote a TV episode and left a note for the showrunner saying “put a prophecy in here.”

Low Point

Curse of the Black Spot is pretty forgettable, and it’s sandwiched in between the far superior Day of the Moon and The Doctor’s Wife. But frankly that is as bad as series six gets: fun, interesting, but somewhat disposable. It’s a pretty solid year, all told.

Highlights?

The primary arc episodes–Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon, A Good Man Goes to War, Let’s Kill Hitler, and The Wedding of River Song– all range from really damn good to utterly spectacular. God Complex may have some really spotty directorial choices, but is notable for its sweetly tragic end, and the introduction of Tivoli, the most invaded planet in the galaxy (“Our anthem is ‘Glory to Insert Name Here.'”) Closing Time brings back an old friend, and it’s a perfect reunion.

Skippables?

Curse of the Black Spot and Night Terrors are adequate episodes that don’t add a lot to the overall year. I doubt you’d hate them, you’d probably enjoy them, but if you didn’t watch them you wouldn’t really miss much.

Actually, I kind of see Night Terrors as what Fear Her should have been. At the centre… spoilers… is a child who is actually an alien, but instead of trapping people inside of drawings out of selfishness, this alien child traps people inside of a doll house out of terror. Replacing an extended tantrum with a child’s nighttime panic attack makes all the difference in terms of sympathy. At least I felt so.

Parting Thoughts

Notable Guest Stars

  • Professional Awesome Guest Star Mark A. Sheppard, best known as Crowley on Supernatural but also a veteran of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Chuck, White Collar, Leverage, and that’s just off the top of my head, brings his usual growly charms as ex-FBI agent Canton Everett Delaware III in the two-part premiere, one of those temporary companions that you wish could stick around. And his older self is played by his father, William Morgan Sheppard.
  • Craig’s back! James Corden returns in Closing Time, as Craig pitches in for what The Doctor thinks will be his last ride. Every series could have involved a Doctor/Craig adventure and I’d have never minded.
  • Supermodel Lily Cole is the siren-like figure haunting the pirates of Curse of the Black Spot. A phantom-like figure who lures men to their doom but doesn’t talk much is right up her alley, I feel.
  • Perpetually underrated but always excellent British actor Michael Sheen, Frost in Frost/Nixon, Tony Blair in The Crown, and many other things, plays the voice of sentient meteor House in The Doctor’s Wife.
  • Imelda Staunton also lends a voice as the Interface in The Girl Who Waited.
  • Apparently Raquel Cassidy was on Downton Abbey. Not sure as who. Look, if you want Downton Abbey cast spotted, you’re mostly on your own.

Between the end of The God Complex and the start of The Wedding of River Song, The Doctor is happy to keep running, pretending he doesn’t have an unmissable appointment at Lake Silencio. The thing that changes that? The moment when he decides it’s time to head back to Utah (albeit after pulling one little trick)? He tries to call up his oldest human friend, Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, friend to Doctors Two through Seven, for a night on the town. But the nurse on the other end of the phone informs him that the Brigadier has passed on. This isn’t just a sad moment for The Doctor. It’s the show acknowledging the recent passing of Nicholas Courtney, who played the Brigadier across three decades of the original series and two episodes of more recent spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. The Brigadier may have never made it to new Who, but his legacy, and his importance to the show’s history, aren’t forgotten.

Closing Time opens with a nice parallel to the opening of The Lodger, as Craig once again swings open the door expecting to see Sophie but instead is greeted by The Doctor. And on the subject of Craig, turns out that spaceship that was parked over his flat in The Lodger was an abandoned Silence craft.

One night in 2011, after a few nightmares, it was clear I wasn’t getting any more sleep, so I got up a few hours early and decided to catch up on Doctor Who. What did I get? God Complex. A hotel full of nightmares. Thanks.

Speaking of God Complex… every room in the hotel The Doctor and the Ponds find themselves in has someone’s nightmare in it. Including The Doctor’s. He finds his room, but we aren’t shown what’s in it. If you think that’s a cop-out, well, I used to think so too… but be patient.

Six years, six years I have been convinced that in one episode, The Doctor called Rory “Mickey,” confusing him with former companion-boyfriend Mickey Smith. I finally found the moment. It’s in The God Complex… but he didn’t say “Mickey.” He called Rory “Beaky.” Needless to say, I’m crushed.

The Doctor’s Wife is also the first episode I can think of to establish that Time Lords can and do shift gender during regeneration, beginning to pave the way for Jodie Whittaker. Sure it took six years to get there but, hey, it was a start.

Shoulda paid closer attention to that diner in Impossible Astronaut, Doctor. It’s gonna turn out to be significant in a while.

Impossible Astronaut changes the saddest moment of series four, as it shines a new light on when River and Ten crossed paths.

If you didn’t notice, a lot of complaints about Moffat and Eleven were aimed at series six. And these were the complaints that made it hard, if not impossible, for me to take the anti-Moffat crowd seriously. Two of the ones I flagged? Nonsense. Shenanigans. Although next series there’s… well… we hit a problem.

Doctor Quote of the Year: “Those were the days.” Nobody infuses that line with sadness like Matt Smith.

Historical Guest Star of the Year: The most notable comes in the first two episodes. Moffat and the writers thought “We keep having The Doctor meet all these really great characters from history, so this time why not have him meet someone who was a little bit rubbish?” And so did The Doctor team up with President Nixon in Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon.

In addition, Winston Churchill is back when time breaks in The Wedding of River Song. Charles Dickens also has a cameo in that episode, as a news team asks how he plans to top A Christmas Carol. Seemed a little meta, since the next episode would be the Christmas special, and people must have been wondering how Moffat would top his own A Christmas Carol. (Spoilers… he didn’t, but he tried.) And Hitler does predictably make an appearance in Let’s Kill Hitler.

Saddest Moment: “I just wanted to say… hello. Hello, Doctor. It’s so very, very nice to meet you.”

Overthinking Doctor Who 5: Enter Eleven

Been a while since the last one of these, huh? Well, I was working on a script, had a tight deadline facing me, and was about to hit a six-episode stretch of pure Doctor greatness, and thought it would be too distracting. And so the 2017 Doctor Who Rewatch hit a pause for a spell. But we’re back. So, where was I?

Ah yes.

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

…No it isn’t. Tennant’s farewell tour took up the last two Christmas specials, so the Moffat era begins in the regular series. Moving on.

Series Five: “The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall.”

When Nine regenerated into Ten, the show didn’t change much. Sure, The Doctor changed. Became more cheerful, more open to people, ever so slightly less haunted by the Time War. That… that never goes away completely. Not yet, anyway. But other than that, things stayed the same. Same companion, same supporting cast, same Tardis, same Doctor’s Theme, same will-they-won’t-they relationship between The Doctor and Rose, only amplified.

Not so this time.

In series five, everything is new. Steven Moffat took the reigns from Russell T. Davies, he had a new Doctor to break in, so he cleared house. New Tardis interior (after the cliffhanger-resolving cold open, the first cold open in a season premiere since the revival began), new sonic screwdriver, new opening credits, new opening credit theme, new theme for The Doctor (I Am The Doctor, one of my favourites), new supporting cast, new everything. 

This included a new approach to the arc for the year, but we’ll talk about that below.

Also returning for a few episodes is River Song. Who she is and the nature of her relationship with The Doctor is still a mystery, but the truth is coming. In the meantime, she’s around for two key adventures… and does her best to curtail The Doctor’s newfound love of fezzes.

The Doctor

Matt Smith was… still is, by four months and 25 days… the youngest actor to ever play The Doctor. I would say that this meant he brought a new, youthful energy to the role, but he followed David Tennant, and his Doctor was energetic enough to power London. No, being young enough to be unfamiliar with The Doctor meant that in the year (about) between being cast and staring filming, he had to do his research. And as Moffat tells it, one night Matt Smith called him saying “I just watched Tomb of the Cybermen. I’ve got it.”

Matt Smith took his inspiration from the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. And what Troughton brought to the role was a surface-level clownishness that hid how dangerous he truly was from his enemies, and an alienness that comes from never being 100% sure how to interact with humans, resulting in awkward shenanigans.

Also a bow tie. The bow tie is key. Bow ties are cool, or so he assures us.

Eleven combined The Doctor’s brilliance with a general cluelessness about social cues or normal behaviour that was reliably good for a laugh. Witness his attempts at dancing in The Big Bang, his efforts to blend in with the lads in The Lodger, and, of course, the bow tie.

But it’s not just humour Smith can nail, either. Witness the subtle tragedy when Amy asks him if there are other Time Lords: “…No. There were, but there aren’t… just me now.” And then his anger. Ten’s rage burned hot like a volcano, Eleven’s is cold as ice. It’s all there in his six word warning to the Atraxi in his first episode: “Hello. I’m The Doctor. Basically… run.

There’s something about Eleven that spoke to me. That I connected to more than any Doctor before or since (fine, at the time of writing, “since” is two guys). The way he loved the people around him, but never fully knew how to connect with them. And that while Amy was the most important person in his life (something they dig further into down the road), he was not the most important person in hers… and that was okay. He didn’t need to be. Not as long as she was happy. Seeing Amy happy made his own loneliness easier to bear.

I get that.

Also I’m obviously going to connect to an awkward Doctor more than a confident, handsome god who won hearts wherever he went.

The Companion

Amy Pond. The Girl Who Waited.

Being a Scottish redhead in a miniskirt could have been enough to make Amy my favourite companion, but she’s so much more than that. Amy is what saved The Doctor. After an unknown amount of time on his own, after having his hearts broken losing Rose and Donna in one day, after crossing the line on Mars, after being the least ready to face regeneration/death since Six banged his head on the Tardis control panel and became Seven, encountering young Amelia brought him back to himself. He took on a companion again, albeit partly because he saw that she may have needed more help than she knew thanks to the pesky crack in her wall.

Amy is strong, resourceful, and clever. She saw solutions The Doctor was missing on her first day in the Tardis, and she acted as his conscience, his drive to be better, even after she ultimately left. The Doctor becomes the hero he was meant to be because Amy won’t accept anything less. And because there’s no crisis, no enemy, no army he won’t stare down in her name. Although I guess that’s true of all Doctor/Companion relationships since the revival, isn’t it? With the possible exception of Nardole. Who’s Nardole? Spoilers. We’ll get there.

Also, while Amy does develop a crush on The Doctor, she’s nowhere near as passive about it as Rose or Martha. She makes her move early, allowing The Doctor (Not quite so pro-kissing as Ten sometimes was) to try and pump her brakes a little.

No, I heard it as soon as I said it. As Eleven would say… “Oh… shut up, not like that…”

The Universe is Cracked

Moffat’s “everything new” approach included a new way of tackling the season arc.

Russell T. Davies was happy just to say “Bad Wolf” or “Torchwood” once an episode, then finally pay it off in the two-part finale. Well, more “explain why he kept doing that” than “pay it off.” Moffat, on the other hand, likes to dribble out details of the main plot over the course of the year, while often keeping a mystery or two close to his chest while he does it. In the case of series five, the universe is cracked. The Doctor runs into this fact minutes after regenerating, in fact while still finishing his regeneration cycle, clad in the raggedy remains of Ten’s signature suit. A young girl named Amelia Pond asks him to examine a crack in her wall, which turns out to be a crack in time and space, which allows a toothy worm named Prisoner Zero to escape into Amelia’s house, which results in a high-octane real-time adventure that ends in Prisoner Zero having a laugh at The Doctor’s expense. See, he thought Prisoner Zero made the crack. That he doesn’t know where the cracks came from amuses it.

“The Doctor in the Tardis doesn’t know,” it laughs, before delivering a warning: “The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall.”

The cracks follow The Doctor and Amy through time and space, but unlike his previous selves and the Bad Wolves, Eleven isn’t willing to just ignore this until it comes back to bite him. When he and Amy spot the cracks, he does his best to look into why one specific crack is following them wherever they go. And the results point him towards a secret Amy’s been keeping about her plans before she left with him.

Basically, every multi-part episode reveals another piece of the puzzle. But in the end, the Pandorica opens. Silence?

Well, you’ll have to wait and see.

The Supporting Cast

Ladies and gentlemen, Arthur Darville as Rory Williams. Rory is introduced as Amy’s boyfriend (a label she is reluctant to fully grant him, possibly because she was having slightly squelchy thoughts about The Doctor at the moment). Later, he’s her fiance (a lot happens to Amy in her first episode). But he’s not the new Mickey, even if I’m occasionally sure there’s an episode where Eleven calls him that by mistake.

Rory is at first terrified of everything Doctor-related, from the aliens of death (his words) to the time travel, and most of all what being around all of this does to people. Girl-people, more specifically. Amy, most specifically. That said… he does grow to love it. He has his worries that Amy’s going to get herself killed trying to impress The Doctor, but one trip to Venice, fish aliens pretending to be vampires notwithstanding, and he’s hooked.

Also Arthur Darville has his skills at comedy and drama. He’s one of my favourite Legends of Tomorrow for a reason.

The Monsters

The Big Bad: It’s a crack in a wall. Or rather a crack in the universe. Anything else I could tell you, you should really learn yourself.

This year in Daleks: In Victory of the Daleks, The Doctor discovers Daleks (or Ironsides, as they’re being called) being used as Britain’s secret weapon during the Blitz. Which he is correct in assuming isn’t a great sign. And… spoilers… it’s not called Victory of the Daleks for no reason. Steven Moffat decided to get off of the “Oh no the Daleks survived somehow! There, killed all the Daleks. Oh no the Daleks survived somehow!” rollercoaster once and for all. Sorry, universe, the Daleks are back to stay. That said, it is a pretty great episode. I mean, some fighters get modified weirdly fast, but other than that, great episode.

Classic Monsters Revived: The Silurians, lizard people from the age of the dinosaurs, who put themselves into suspended animation deep underground… and don’t care for being woken up to find that monkeys have taken over the world and driven it off a cliff. The Silurians are great for moral dilemma episodes, because it’s always hard to claim that they’re in the wrong. This was, after all, their planet first. The main antagonist Silurian(s) is/are played by Neve McIntosh. Like Dan Starkey in The Sontaran Stratagem, she’ll be back… but not as the same Silurian(s).

The Good: The Weeping Angels are back for a two-parter that’s basically a Jack Harkness appearance short of being titled “Steven Moffat’s greatest hits.” There are those who claim that they don’t fully live up to Blink this time, but they’re still effective.

The villains in The Beast Below might not seem like much, until you realise that the real villain is humanity yet again.

Pay attention to that spaceship in The Lodger. You’ll be seeing a similar one soon.

The Doctor gets jumped by an all-star rogues gallery towards the end.

The Bad: I actually didn’t love the Silurians. Just as well they don’t tend to get used as villains after this.

The Ugly: The CGI on Prisoner Zero must have set someone back $12.

High Point

I cannot, will not, shall not downplay my love for The 11th Hour, what may well be the greatest introductory episode for any Doctor ever, even Rose. Remember how good I said The Christmas Invasion became once Ten finally woke up in the last ten minutes? The 11th Hour is a whole episode of that, and it never gets tired. An amazing showcase for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, and the perfect antidote to the End Of Time blues.

Low Point

You know what I don’t love The Hungry Earth. Cold Blood is decent, but Hungry Earth is just a lot of set-up for part two.

Highlights?

Gonna have to set a higher bar for this, because series five is great. If I don’t get picky I’ll be naming most of the series. Okay, speed round, and then two of particular note… The Beast Below is solid throughout and the moment Amy first shines as a companion. Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone unite two of Steven Moffat’s three best inventions during the Davies era, as River Song recruits The Doctor and Amy to help with the Weeping Angels. Vampires of Venice brings Rory into the fold. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang was, at the time, my favourite two-part finale. Did it make a ton of sense? Maybe not, but next to The Journey’s End or Last of the Time Lords or Parting of the Ways it’s downright straightforward.

Okay. So. Vincent and the Doctor and The Lodger. Two episodes that would have been the high point of any season that didn’t contain The 11th Hour.

In Vincent and The Doctor, The Doctor sees something alien and nasty-looking in one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. Having done so, he whisks Amy off to meet the sad, tortured, brilliant artist, despised by the local villagers, but the only man who can save them from the invisible beast stalking their village. It’s one of the greatest examples I can name of how sadness can be beautiful. Well, after all, Moffat creation Sally Sparrow put it best… sad is happy for deep people. And if you don’t tear up a little when Vincent sees the museum, you, sir or madam, are dead inside.

In The Lodger, a man named Craig is trying to figure out how to tell his best friend Sophie that he’s in love with her. This is complicated by the fact that his new flatmate is The Doctor, a strange bloke in a bowtie who begins to outshine Craig in every aspect of his life. Also there’s a sinister being upstairs killing passers-by and leaking an incredibly toxic rot into Craig’s flat but honestly that is not his biggest concern right now. Third biggest at best. This episode is just a delight through and through (despite minimal Amy Pond), and the ending gets to me every time. It’s not only one of my favourite episodes, it became one of my favourite Chameleon Circuit songs.

Skippables?

Once again, my least favourite is indispensable to the main arc, so… not really, no.

Parting Thoughts

Notable Guest Stars: 

It’s almost weird to talk about notable guest stars when the leads of this season are some of the best known and most visible Who veterans of the past ten series. Matt Smith is now Prince Phillip on The Crown (let’s all just try to forget Terminator: Genysis); Karen Gillan is a full-blown movie star now, most notably a Guardian of the Galaxy; in addition to Broadchurch, Arthur Darville founded the Legends of Tomorrow as DC’s time travelling Rip Hunter; and Alex Kingston’s been a notable name since ER. And yet there are more.

  • Watch enough British television and you’re bound to come across Olivia Colman. Peep Show, That Mitchell and Webb Look, The Night Manager, Broadchurch, she keeps busy. She was even a favourite to become the first female Doctor, but her Broadchurch co-star David Tennant said that he knew her schedule, and there was no way she had time. Anyway, she’s the most vocal of Prisoner Zero’s disguises in The 11th Hour.
  • Actor, late night host, and Carpool Karaoke innovator James Corden plays Craig in The Lodger. Or from my perspective, Craig from The Lodger is currently hosting The Late Show.
  • Toby Jones, particularly notable as Arnim Zola from the Captain America movies, torments The Doctor and the Ponds in Amy’s Choice.
  • Bill Nighy is a tour guide who shares The Doctor’s taste in ties in Vincent and The Doctor.
  • Mark Gatiss lends his voice to the pilot Danny Boy in Victory of the Daleks.

Game of Thrones Guest Stars: Iain Glen, who plays Daenerys’ stalwart and Snow-icide Squad member Jorah Mormont, is Octavian, head of the Catholic marines in Flesh and Stone/Time of Angels. And Robert Pugh, known briefly as Caster, the worst person north of the wall (possibly including the ice zombies), is a geologist in The Hungry Earth and In Cold Blood.

In The Beast Below, the people of the UK are fleeing Earth due to deadly solar flares making it uninhabitable. This is a time in human history that The Doctor pops by from a lot of angles. A neat coincidence: the second Matt Smith story and the second Tom Baker story (The Ark in Space) both involve ships of humans fleeing the solar flares.

The Daleks discover that The Doctor does not, in fact, have a self-destruct button for the Tardis: “Okay, it’s a jammie dodger, but I was promised tea!” This will be Eleven’s favourite biscuit for the duration.

“It’s a fez. I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.” They get that particular fez off of his head, but he’ll never give them up entirely.

Doctor Quote of the Year: “Bowties are cool” and “Come along, Pond” are real contenders, but in this, Eleven’s first series, it can only be “GERONIMO!”

Historical Guest Star of the Year: Prime Minister and friend to The Doctor Sir Winston Churchill commands the totally-not-Daleks-don’t-worry-about-it Ironsides, and we already mentioned Vincent Van Gogh. Both turn up a second time as part of a historical chain that gets The Doctor to the Pandorica.

Saddest Moment: “I don’t understand. We were on the hill, I can’t die here.”

Comic TV With Dan: We Gots us a CRISIS!

Okay, nerds, nerdesses, and innocent bystanders just stopping by, it’s time for the big game. The epic battle between good and evil, the superhero team-up I’ve been waiting months to see play out in all of its four-colour glory.

These guys?

No. I said “superhero,” “colour,” and “glory.” Not four people trying their very hardest not to be superheroes in a show about a ninja cult harvesting dragon marrow that somehow still manages to drain both of those concepts of fun or interest. No. Think brighter. Think DC.

THESE guys?

What? No. No no no. Not that one. This one. The good one.

The only Justice League we need.

Crisis on Earth-X, the biggest, most ambitious, and best of the annual Arrowverse (sadly I am still not influential enough to make “DCW-verse” catch on) crossovers has arrived, and did it ever–

Look, what do you want me to say about Justice League, exactly? We all must know the general consensus by now. It’s… fine. Fun but shallow. Enjoyable but occasionally forgettable. Forty minutes’ worth of footage was cut and it kind of shows, and not entirely from the fact that every trailer has a moment that got cut from the movie. The action scenes are often gorgeously shot, including an acrobatic duel between Batman and a burglar that might be one of the best-shot Batman action scenes ever… fine, not counting anything Lego-related… and it certainly tries to be more fun, but while many of the jokes land, sometimes it’s trying too hard to be “quippy.”

I wanted it to be Wonder Woman good, and instead it’s somewhere between Ant-Man and Age of Ultron. It’s a B- superhero movie that had the misfortune of coming out in a year when the genre was averaging A-. Logan, Wonder Woman, even Thor Ragnarok of all goddamn things, these were all home runs, improbable ones given the lower success rate of X-Men movies, the DCEU, and movies about Thor. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming weren’t entirely knockouts but had more than enough charm to smooth out their flaws. 

But enough about that. Not here to talk Justice League. Just Crisis on Earth-X. Just that. Probably just that. Almost definitely maybe probably just Crisis.

Evolution of an Event

The annual CW crossovers have been a tradition as long as there have been multiple DC shows on the network. Longer, really, since Barry Allen made his debut on Arrow the season before The Flash debuted, around the same time of year the crossovers normally happen.

First they were simple. A handful of Arrow characters went to Central City for Flash Vs. Arrow, so that the two CW leads could go two rounds against each other before bringing down meta-human bank robber Roy G. Bivolo, known to comics fans as either “Prism,” “Rainbow Raider,” or “the guy once deemed too lame for a crossover that introduced amped-up versions of Major Disaster and Killer goddamn Moth.” A day or two later (real time), a handful of Flash characters headed to Starling City so that Flash and the Arrow could team up against Rogues’ Gallery Also-ran Captain Boomerang. Simple, self-contained, fits easily into a marathon binge of either show, but had the fun of seeing the different casts and show styles bounce off each other.

That was the fun of Avengers, wasn’t it? Seeing Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and whatnot all flow into one team. Which is what Justice League could have been, except they’ve been trying to reinvent their tone so much that it’s hard to actually see it as a continuation of the previous four movies. Sure, it has references to Wonder Woman and continues stories from Man of Steel and Batman V Superman but it doesn’t have that Avengers-style-the-franchise-comes-together special feel, you know? Not like Crisis on Earth-X. Which is what this blog is about. Crisis on Earth-X. Not Justice League.

Ahem.

They amplified the crossover the following year, with Legends of Yesterday and Legends of Today, which set up the centuries-long Hawks Vs. Vandal Savage relationship that was central to the coming third DCW show, Legends of Tomorrow. Sure that one was held back by the same problems that plagued all the CW shows that season: too much narrative capital devoted to setting up the new spin-off, and an unsatisfying take on Vandal Savage, but it was still a fun two-parter. And the year after that, things got epic, as Flash, Arrow, and Legends came together (with special guest star Supergirl, whose own show wasn’t really involved) for the three-night, super fun, heroes vs. aliens extravaganza of Invasion! Watching Kara get to know Oliver Queen and the Waverider crew, and seeing everyone have a big post-victory party was just as much fun as seeing the combined heroes take down the Dominators. Plus each chapter still felt like an episode of that particular show. Flash addressed Barry’s Flashpoint screw-up, Arrow served as a perfect 100th episode celebration of the show’s past, and Legends brought time travel into the mix.

So the question seemed clear… how the Hell would they top that? Well, they found a way, readers, they found a way.

Barry and Iris’ wedding brings characters from all four shows to Central City, and it looks to be a happy day for all, but when the wedding is crashed by Nazi soldiers led by evil versions of Green Arrow and Supergirl, Team Arrow, Team Flash, the Legends, and the Danvers sisters have to square off with strange visitors from an evil planet.

The Faces of Evil

If one were to claim that the CW crossovers have flaws, one could argue that they have, in the past, let us down villain-wise. Vandal Savage, as discussed, was underwhelming, and a cameo by Neal McDonough’s Damien Darhk really drove that home. Prism was… well, Prism was a half-assed take on Rainbow Raider who existed to give Flash and Arrow an excuse to fight. And the Dominators provided some effective global menace, but they were a horde of CG aliens.

Fortunately their machinations meant that the plot never hinged on largely interchangeable CG aliens, and they had some concrete motives. Like in the event book that inspired it, they felt Earth’s high rate of meta-human development was problematic. Could be worse. They could have been an entirely CG villain with a horde of faceless minions, a magic space rock, and a vague-at-best motivation to take over/destroy the world.

Which is the shade I used to throw at the weaker Marvel villains, at least the ones not out to kill Tony Stark and sell weapons. But man alive no one lived up to that terrible archetype like Steppenwolf. Making him all CG was awkward any time they showed his face, and if you haven’t grown up on DC comics like me, who exactly this mook is and why he’s doing anything he’s doing might feel obscure at best.

Right, yes, Crisis on Earth-X. Earth-X, as any longtime DC fans knows, is the Earth where the Nazis won World War II, and are opposed by a small band of heroes known as Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters. Which essentially makes this a crossover between five shows, as Earth-X, the Freedom Fighters (possibly minus Uncle Sam), and the Reich’s top warriors were introduced in the CW Seed show Freedom Fighters: The Ray.

Having Nazis as your villains, and depicting them as absolutely, irredeemably evil shouldn’t be a big political statement, but it’s 2017, the New York Times is running sympathetic stories on actual Nazis, and here we fucking are. So watching the heroes of four shows and an online animated series tear into some Nazi stormtroopers is incredibly satisfying.

But what’s impressive is that they set out to create fully developed characters out of their main villains, making the Nazi Oliver Queen/Dark Arrow and his general Overgirl flesh-and-blood people without justifying their abhorrent beliefs. They’re monsters, but they’re still driven by love. Dark Oliver isn’t just out to conquer a new world, he’s out to save the love of his life. He and his followers believe that strength is virtue, that compassion is weakness, and that they’re doing the world a favour by ruling it. They’re wrong, and we know they’re wrong, and the back half makes a very clear statement of “This is what Nazis do and it’s terrible, are you listening, Republicans” but giving them human motives and emotions buried under the hate and intolerance makes them more interesting than, say, some rat-faced vet who lets vague talk about “real Americans” turn him into a mad bomber. Or a horn-headed CG alien named after a late 60s-70s rock band for reasons no rookie viewer will ever, ever know.

Back on topic… Also on team Nazi is an Earth-X Prometheus, who is not the Prometheus from last season of Arrow. He’s got a surprising identity that gives Oliver a meaty scene when they come face to face.

Plus, the Reverse-Flash is back! Not some Nazi version from an alternate Earth, but the one we know from Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, who admits that he probably should be dead by now, but never seems to recognize the Legends, so maybe this is from before his Legion of Doom days? Anyway, he’s back to looking like Tom Cavanaugh’s Harrison Wells, which I suspect is a cost-saving measure. The crossover was already hell of expensive, and having Tom Cavanaugh do double-duty saves them paying for Matt Letscher. Also it’s fun. Good as Tom is/has been as the Harrisons Wells of Earths 2 and 19, it’s been too long since he’s gotten to properly chew the scenery as the Reverse Flash. So as long as Stephen Amell and Melissa Benoist are pulling double duty, why not let Tom “Playing just one character on a show is for lazy people” Cavanaugh join in?

Our Heroes

Now these shows have big casts. Green Arrow leads a team of four other vigilantes, five if you count Felicity “Overwatch” Smoak. Flash has two part-time sidekicks and two superpowered assistants. Supergirl rolls with the Martian Manhunter and has Superman on speed dial, and the Legion of Superheroes just came to town. And the Legends are a full team of time-travelling would-be heroes. That’s way too many people. So obviously not everyone gets to play all the time. Some characters get sidelined for one to three episodes, some get restricted to quick cameos. J’onn J’onz, for instance, gets maybe three lines in the first five minutes of part one.

It’s like how Justice League tries to slip in cameos by various supporting characters of the heroes, to varying success. Connie Britton’s return as Hippolyta makes for an impressive sequence; JK Simmons makes a great Commissioner Gordon in his two scenes; Billy Crudup does his best impression of John Wesley Shipp’s Henry “Flash’s Dad” Allen in a scene that does okay setting up Barry’s character, but seriously feels lifted out of the first season of the TV show; Amber Heard gets handed much more ham-fisted exposition as Mera, but I’m still interested to see what she does with a proper role in Aquaman. I mean her scene was only a little more character-driven than Anthony Hopkins’ voice-over narration at the start of the bad Thor movies. Meryl Streep couldn’t have made “Here’s who Aquaman is in twenty words or less” work much better.

And we’re back… so while most of the shows’ casts get at least a little screen time*, if not necessarily on their own show, Crisis on Earth-X focuses on a smaller team. Specifically, Kara and Alex from Supergirl, each nursing a heartache; Oliver and Felicity from Arrow; Barry and Iris from Flash (and to a lesser extent Caitlin… Tom Cavanaugh is there all the time, but mostly as Thawne, not Harry Wells); and Sara Lance, Jax, and Martin Stein from Legends (and to a lesser extent Heat Wave), as Sara’s essentially the lead of Legends and the crossover helps wrap up a Firestorm arc that’s been running through the season. And in the back half, The Ray turns up, alongside his cohort, the Earth-X Leonard Snart. Good to have you back, Wentworth Miller, if only temporarily.

Oliver’s team and the rest of the Legends are mostly there to make the final heroes vs. Nazis showdown sufficiently epic. And sure, some arbitrary lines got drawn here. Sure, a solid entrance by Mr. Terrific, Wild Dog, and Black Canary was undercut by what happened afterwards. Sure, I wondered why Ray Palmer didn’t get an invite to the wedding if Barry’s former nemesis Heat Wave did. But that’s okay, and I forgive all, because when The Atom finally makes his entrance, it is a stand-and-cheer moment, and the rest of the late-to-arrive Legends keep that momentum going. Plus then Team Arrow, Vibe, Killer Frost, and the Legends get to kick the stuffing out of Metallo and it is niiiiiice…

The finale of Justice League works that well too, especially one Superman joins the fray. Partially because Superman is finally the Superman we’ve been waiting for. And also the League refusing to let Batman make a sacrifice play is a nice moment as well. And yes, that one has more production value and is more spectacular, but while seeing the League come together to kick Parademon ass is fun, seeing a dozen or so heroes beating the tar out of Nazis is a pretty great finale as well.

*Regular characters getting the week off are Lena Luthor, Samantha “Reign” Arias, Black Siren, The Thinker, and Thea Queen. Sorry, my brain needs to list them, and here we are.

Emotional Impact

Past crossovers have just been fun adventures with no lasting consequences. Not negative ones, anyway. In fact, Invasion! is when Barry finally found forgiveness for all that Flashpointing, and the musical crossover fixed Barry and Iris and Kara and Mon-El’s relationships… man, given how much work the seemingly all-powerful Music Meister put into getting Barry and Iris engaged, he surely was blasé about extra-dimensional Nazis crashing the wedding… no. No, leave it there, do not get into the weeds about Music Meister again.

But this… this isn’t just a crossover. They invoked the name “Crisis.” And that is not a word DC just throws around. When it’s a Crisis, Earths are in peril and people die. Permanently, for decades, or just for a little while, controversial or forgettable, a Crisis has a body count. This one is no different.

Some crossovers try for this, but don’t nail it. Think of Superman’s death in Batman V Superman, and how it had no emotional impact at all. Maybe because you didn’t like the movie at all so nothing did, or maybe because you know that come Justice League he’ll be back. See also Defenders. 

Spoiler

Matt Murdock sacrificing himself for the others meant basically nothing because Daredevil season three had already been announced. Daredevil’s “death” was just a way to get him off the board for a while so we wouldn’t ask where he was during Punisher.

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But Crisis on Earth-X was playing for keeps. And it…

It hurt.

A lot.

I went from cheering to crying several times over the course of the final hour, and actually yelled “Don’t do this to me” at the screen. A hero’s death, dying so others can live, it might be noble… but it doesn’t hurt much less in the moment.

Sorry. I thought I was ready to talk abut this. I was wrong.

This wasn’t an issue in Justice League. They were going for hopeful, inspiring, and a sense of wanting to see these characters in their own solo movies. Guess we’ll have to wait 13 months for Aquaman to see how well they managed that last one.

The Little Moments

Half the fun of these crossovers is watching characters from different series interact, and Crisis on Earth-X does not let us down. First and above all others, Sara Lance finally meets Supergirl’s sister Alex, and it is everything I wanted and more, given that in a satisfyingly roundabout way, meeting Sara helps Alex move past her breakup with Maggie. They also make a fun duo kicking Nazi ass together.

Heat Wave meets Killer Frost, which is fun. I’d love to see those two get into trouble for an episode or two. Barry, Oliver, and Kara work together so well (Nazi or otherwise) that it’s a shame they only get to do this once a year, twice at most. Eobard Thawne claims that at some point in his past/everyone else’s future, he fought Superman. A tease, or a promise?

Of course there are missed opportunities as well. Just like how we never really spend a lot of time with Aquaman, Flash, or Cyborg outside of the group context in Justice League because of all that cut footage. For instance, we’ve never gotten to see how Sara “White Canary” Lance feels about her late sister’s codename, Black Canary, going to newcomer Dinah Drake. They never interact at all, in fact. Also I haven’t gotten a proper Detective Joe West/Detective Officer Captain Deputy Mayor Quentin Lance* team-up in over two years.

And there are questions. Lingering things that I require answers to, and in one case won’t get them. The fact that the main Earth calls itself “Earth-1” and nobody calls them on it… when did the numbering of the Earths become a multiversal standard? What representative came to the Nazi world and said “You’re not Earth-1, that’s Earth-1, and you’re Earth-X, and we’re all going to pretend you don’t exist when we’re counting the total number of Earths if that’s okay,” and which super-Nazi said “Sure, that’s fair, Earth-X it is?”

But more importantly, and in this case I do need an answer… are we just ignoring the fact that the overeager server who was offering Barry a sparkling water and gushing about being at the wedding… that was clearly Barry and Iris’ daughter or granddaughter from the future, right? I mean it must be, she was way too excited about being at the wedding of a CSI and a reporter, but they just, but they just, they just moved on and she vanished and they never came back to it but I’m right, aren’t I? I must be right. Just tell me I’m right. Explain that. Explain yourselves, Flash writers not fired for sexual harassment.

*Dude has worn a lot of hats in six seasons.

To Sum Up

The one catch about Crisis on Earth-X is that for anyone watching, say, only The Flash, you’re going to be a little lost. Unlike Flash Vs. Arrow/Brave and the BoldCrisis on Earth-X doesn’t work as individual episodes. And unlike Invasion!, each show doesn’t maintain its own feel. That is, the Arrow chapter doesn’t feel more Arrow-ish. In fact, they cut the usual title cards and replace them with a unified Crisis on Earth-X title sequence combining images and themes from all four shows. And to those upset that they can’t just watch Supergirl this week because it’s full of other characters and plotlines from other shows, I say…

Nuts to you.

Because this was awesome and the only way to do it is to blend all four shows into one four-hour event, and I’m sorry that makes your Netflix binging harder, but watch all four, you numpty.

Once again narrowing down to Oliver and Barry in the end remains charming, but unlike following Invasion’s celebration with Oliver and Barry having a quiet drink, we needed something a little more celebratory to shake off the preceding, well, funeral. 

Gonna get into spoilers.

Some people complain that when Barry and Iris have their sudden, improvised, “finish what we started” wedding ceremony in front of no one but Oliver, Felicity, and Diggle, Felicity shoehorned herself and Oliver into it, making it a double ceremony without asking. Well, frankly, it’s not like she did this in the church. Barry ran to Star City to get Felicity and Oliver’s best friend just so they could do a three minute exchange of vows. It’s not that big a deal, and now Arrow doesn’t have to spend seven episodes on Oliver and Felicity’s wedding. It’s done. No mess, no drama, no derailing season six with Olicity wedding stuff.

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In the end, Crisis on Earth-X was amazing in the ways Justice League was just okay, and is a pinnacle example of why the Arrowverse hosts the best superhero shows on TV.

Watch and learn, Defenders.

And seriously. Was that Barry and Iris’ daughter? Was it!?

 

Comic TV With Dan: The Punisher

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: a breakout character from Daredevil gets his own solo series.

Short version: fun if you like violence, but Marvel Netflix, we need to talk about your pacing problems.

Premise

Frank Castle, as established in Daredevil’s second season, has been on a violent rampage of revenge ever since his wife and children were killed in a gang fight that was somehow orchestrated by rogue operatives of the US military to cover up something that happened in Afghanistan, and now that I write it out it sounds pretty convoluted… man Daredevil got scattered in its second season.

Anyway, given that when we last saw Frank he was learning that his former CO and his bosses were behind the assassination attempt via gang fight, naturally we join him having opted not to care about that and live in lonely, quiet seclusion… in the city where he was very publicly tried for mass murder a year or so ago. It’s hard to tell with Marvel Netflix, their timeline is fuzzy.

But Frank’s retirement doesn’t last long, as a former intelligence analyst turned outlaw hacker calling himself Micro tracks Frank down in an attempt to go after those guys we thought he was already going after.

Frank sets out to kill everyone responsible for his family’s deaths (for reals this time), but a Homeland agent named Dinah Madani is trying to get justice for one specific part of all that stuff Frank and his comrades-turned-nemeses did in Kandahar.

So the question looms: what will win, vengeance against the military/CIA conspirators, or justice? Or are they both basically the same? No. They aren’t. They try to be clear about that, but… we’re here for all the gun battles, but they don’t want to endorse vengeful murder-sprees, per se… awkward.

And for a change, I’m not going to complain about lack of connection to other Marvel properties. First off, the Punisher as a protagonist works better on his own rather than surrounded by other Marvel characters. Second, Marvel Netflix and the Marvel movies are not connected, they just aren’t, let’s all accept that. And third, it’s not even a problem that the only link to the other Netflix shows is a few appearances by Daredevil‘s Karen Page. Daredevil is out of play until his third season; The Punisher might be set in New York, but it never makes it to Harlem, so no Luke Cage; nobody has need or desire of a private detective, so no Jessica Jones; and unraveling the events of the series requires covert intelligence connections, forensic abilities, situational awareness, and the ability to recognize basic patterns, and that rules out Iron Fist.

Strengths

John Bernthal remains great in the title role, capturing Frank’s rage, grief, and even flashes of charm. Westworld’s Ben Barnes shines as Frank’s former combat buddy-turned-private military contractor Billy Russo. 

Spoiler

And when he inevitably turns out to be one of the bad guys, as we all must have known he was going to, he’s utterly believable as Frank’s equal in violence.

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Agent Madani follows in the footsteps of Marvel Netflix’s frequent attempts to pair a male hero with a strong, badass female co-lead. Actually not the men, ’cause Jessica Jones had Trish Walker. But this one might be one of their better attempts. She doesn’t need constant rescuing like Karen Page in Daredevil, doesn’t consistently fail at the one thing she’s supposed to be good at like Misty Knight in Luke Cage, and she isn’t savagely undermined by her writing like Elektra in Daredevil or Colleen Wing in Iron Fist, becoming subservient to the male hero’s arc at the cost of her own. She always has her own motives and agency.

Micro works, and is well acted.

And if you do enjoy bloody, violent revenge stories, they do not let you down on that front. Well, in episodes with action beats. Which I think is most of them?

Weaknesses

If the “Secret military wrongdoing in Afghanistan” plot doesn’t do it for you, or rooting for a guy whose go-to solution to problems is murder doesn’t appeal to you, well, there’s not much else to enjoy here.

Rawlins, the man behind Kandahar and architect of the Castle family’s deaths, is kind of just a blank slate of “corrupt, criminal, torture-happy would-be patriot.” He lacks depth, humanity, or redeeming qualities of any kind. But then Punisher villains can’t really be nuanced. A Daredevil villain can come down to philosophical differences driving different ideas of The Good; a Batman villain can be driven by sympathetically tragic events in their past, like Kite Man (hell yeah); an X-Men villain can be a good man thinking he’s protecting humanity (I’m referring mostly to Legion, not The Gifted, police dude from The Gifted is just an asshole); but when you exist to be someone for Frank Castle to murder for our entertainment, you kind of have to be unambiguously evil. Which… I mean, that’s fine, but at least try to be fun like Damien Darhk, or engaging like Kilgrave. Rawlins is just there and you want him not to be.

Madani’s partner, Sam Stein, is incapable of speaking without delivering ham-fisted exposition. Like, really ham-fisted. “Quite a story. Doesn’t bode well for me, your newly-assigned partner.” As natural-sounding expository dialogue goes, he’s somewhere between a Star Wars text crawl and Narrator Smurf.

Let’s talk about Lewis. In the first episode, Frank lurks around his old military pal Curtis’ support group for veterans. It’s the one scene in that episode where he acts like a human person with emotions. One of the veterans is a gun nut, liberal-hating, “keep America for white Christians” asshole, and his rantings catch the attention of a younger vet named Lewis, who mutters “sic semper tyranis.” A weirdly educated remark for someone who falls for ignorant hate speech so quickly.

Here come the spoilery bits.

If that had been the last we saw of Lewis until episode nine, that would have been fine. But no, we spend swaths of the first two thirds of the series watching Lewis have PTSD, decide that the only cure to his PTSD is to be back in combat, get rejected by Russo’s company Anvil because he’s very clearly too unstable for any sort of combat, and then slowly but surely turn to domestic terrorism, all so that he can distract Frank Castle from the main story for two episodes near the end of the season. Which, okay, while putting the plot on pause, allows for a couple of key character beats to happen (two in two episodes, that’s not a lot), but there must have been a more elegant way to do them.

And sure, yes, an examination of how life on the homefront is difficult for vets would be good, if not necessarily germane to classic Punisher stories, but surely the right approach would have been to show how not all vets turn into Castle-style murder machines, not to imply that PTSD turns vets into domestic terrorists because mental trauma renders them incapable of not fighting. Lewis had all the love and support you could ask for, and still went mad-bomber, and that does not feel super respectful to struggling veterans.

I get it, man, I get what you were trying to do. When the second-amendment, concealed-carry douchecanoes show up to point at Frank Castle and say “That’s my guy! A good guy with a gun! That’s what we’re saying!” the producers can point at Lewis and his “Jews control the internet” mentor and say “You idiots aren’t the Punisher, you’re these morons.” But if that’s what he’s for, you did not need to spend ten episodes failing to build Lewis up as a character just to make him a third-act bonus villain. If a third-act bonus villain is even needed, which brings us to…

The Ever-Present Pacing Problems, or “It’s called episodic narrative, look it up.” If you needed to pad out the first season with all of these dull, reductive Lewis scenes, maybe it’s time to rethink your episode counts. It’s happening more and more with Marvel Netflix, so it must be said… if you don’t have enough story for 13 episodes, you don’t need to make 13 episodes. And there’s more.

It takes three episodes for the Frank-vs-corrupt-CIA-guy arc to kick off. Three episodes waiting for the show to catch Frank back up to where he left off when Daredevil ended. Three episodes giving Punisher a second, worse origin. Guys, it’s time you gave up the whole “The reluctant hero must be gradually dragged back into action” routine. Only Daredevil has ever managed to hit the ground running. Even The Defenders took three episodes to get out of first gear, and it was only eight episodes long. Punisher could have been a tight ten, if they’d sped up the first act and restricted Lewis to that first scene and his bombing spree.

Being on Netflix means people can and often will binge-watch, but not always. Stop treating each Marvel Netflix show as one really long movie and learn how episodic narrative works.

High Point

It’s easy to spot off-episodes of the first season, but it’s a little harder to name standouts. There’s sort of a baseline level of decent quality that they sometimes fall short of, but never really break past. I guess… either episode three, “Kandahar,” in which we examine Frank and Micro’s pasts as they have the most awkward “getting to know you chat” possible, or “Virtue of the Vicious,” a Rashomon-style examination of the long-awaited end of Lewis’ arc.

Low Point

With two flow-breaking Lewis-centric episodes and an hour-long torture session to choose from, it should be hard, but… let’s talk about episode one, “3 AM.”

First off, Frank hunts down the last members of the gangs whose gunfight left his family dead, despite knowing that his ex-CO arranged all of that, so really he’s just hunting down pawns in his ex-bosses’ sick game. Having killed the final possibly unrelated peon, Frank takes the iconic skull costume it took him 12 episodes of Daredevil to get around to wearing and burns it. Then moves back to New York and, despite being a notorious criminal with a very distinctive face, takes a job with a construction crew, knocking down walls with a sledgehammer. Knocking down walls. On a construction crew. Don’t tell me they’re a demolition team, why would a demolition crew need a cement mixer.

Save for introducing Curtis and Lewis the Rat-Faced Time Waster, they spend the next forty-five minutes, forty-five goddamn minutes, with Frank’s asshole criminal co-workers verbally harassing and threatening him while he silently ignores them, hammering his walls and thinking about his dead family all day and all night. Finally, in the last five minutes, when the assholes try to kill the one co-worker who was nice to Frank after a botched robbery of a mobsters’ poker game, his former self is unleashed upon the assholes and the mobsters they robbed. Which would have been a great jumping off point for a classic Punisher vs mob story, but is instead when Micro spots Frank, after months of waiting for him to notice that intel he’d slipped Frank back in Daredevil. If it had been Frank vs. the mob, sure, maybe I could see him needing to be convinced to take up arms, since this Punisher didn’t fight mobsters, he only hunted people he blamed for his family’s death. And some ninjas. But this is just the same vengeance rampage.

The Punisher had an origin. We did not need to drag him back to square one just so he could be reluctantly pulled back into the same vengeance spree he was on when we last saw him. Stop with the reluctant heroes. Stop it.

It’s a weak opening, designed to fill in anyone who didn’t watch Daredevil, while annoying anyone who did watch Daredevil by taking a huge and unnecessary step backwards.

MVP

Gotta be John Bernthal. Like Daredevil season two, the show is at its best when he’s on screen. Unlike Daredevil, that’s most of the time.

Tips for Next Season

He’s run out of vengeance, so it’s clearly time for an Equalizer-style grudge match between the Punisher and the mob. That would be some classic Punisher storytelling, far more on-brand than taking on black ops groups. Maybe try something like that.

Also… The first episode ends with Micro spotting Frank through “gait recognition,” which, no, what is that… and then says “Welcome back, Frank.” Garth Ennis’ “Welcome Back, Frank” is a classic Punisher story filled with humour (often black), memorable villains, oddball supporting cast, and frequent, innovative action beats, like a shootout in a morgue or a chase scene through a zoo, forcing Frank to use zoo animals as weapons. It is everything you should have aspired to, and if you’re not going to manage it, then keep Welcome Back Frank’s name out of your mouth.

Overall Grade: B-

Coming soon to this feature: can I find a source for Runaways? Let’s find out.

Dan Watched Inhumans and Wow But You Shouldn’t

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: what happens when the showrunner of Iron Fist doesn’t try so hard.

Short version: If you are watching Inhumans, then stop.

Premise

Behold, the Inhumans! Created centuries ago by the Kree (this is not specifically explained on the show), the Inhumans live on the far side of the moon, safe from the prying eyes of the humans below. Well, except for all of those Inhumans that lived in the secret village we saw in season two of Agents of SHIELD, who are never mentioned, and all of the new Inhumans that have been springing up in seasons three and four of Agents of SHIELD, who are begrudgingly acknowledged and a couple of whom even make appearances… but no mention of the government agency that worked so closely with them before ending up in space at the end of their last season.

So, like season two of Agent CarterInhumans continues the trend of other ABC shows being the only Marvel properties willing to very, very vaguely reference events on Agents of SHIELD. As little as they can get away with. Which… you know, Agents of SHIELD has been Marvel’s best TV show since Daredevil stopped trying halfway through season two, so maybe… whatever.

The Inhumans use a process called Terrigenesis to unlock their true selves, which sometimes just grants a power, sometimes causes a physical transformation (good or bad… just ask Eldrac, who got turned into a wall), and sometimes does diddly-squat, in which case welcome to the Moon Mines, you genetic failure.

The Inhumans are ruled over by Black Bolt (short for Blackagar Boltagon… not a joke) and his royal family. Black Bolt’s voice has incredible destructive power: speaking at a whisper hits like a cannon ball, and normal volume can obliterate a person. His wife, Queen Medusa (Serinda Swan, who in better days was Zatanna on Smallville, yes I just called Smallville better days, that’s where we are with this), has prehensile hair. I don’t know how to describe it to make it seem more dignified. Karnak (Ken Leung, of many things, one of which was Lost), one of the top warriors, can see and exploit the flaws in anything, and precisely plan any scenario in seconds. Gorgon… has hooves for feet and can stomp on things like super hard. Crystal is cute but boring. That is… she can, like… control the elements and whatnot, fire and air and… I mean she looks good in jean shorts but she basically adds nothing to this show except being the closest one to Lockjaw, the adorable giant teleporting bulldog.

And Maximus (Game of Thrones’ Ramsay Bolton, Iwan Rheon), Black Bolt’s brother, has no powers, but a serious lifelong case of throne envy. Which is where we find ourselves in the first episode.

They were really banking on us being on board with the apparent protagonists right from the top, because we open with Maximus staging a coup to seize the throne. The royal family retreats to Hawaii (sure), gets split up, and attempts to regroup so that they can retake their home from Maximus.

Maximus, by the way, won the support of the royal guard through his platform of “Maybe we shouldn’t take everyone who didn’t get powers in Terrigenesis and force them to work in the Moon Mines, maybe a rigid caste system based on genetic accident isn’t cool.” Black Bolt, therefore, is pro genetic-caste-system, which is problematic, but they compensate for Black Bolt being on the wrong side of history by ensuring that Maximus is the sleaziest sleeze in Sleazetown, dripping malice and creepiness every time he’s on screen.

Okay, let’s break this thing down.

Strengths

The big teleporting bulldog is pretty cute.

He’s a good boy who doesn’t get the pets he deserves.

And it’s short.

Weaknesses

Where. To. Start.

Every character is made the least interesting version of themselves possible, whether for budgetary reasons or just utter lack of vision from showrunner Scott Buck, who just a few months ago also failed to deliver an even slightly interesting take on Iron Fist. That he was given a second Marvel show demonstrates flawed leadership at Marvel’s TV branch, even if going from Netflix to network is the equivalent of being sent down to the minors. Right, the characters…

Medusa has super-strong prehensile hair, so of course that’s taken away from her immediately as Maximus shaves her down to a buzzcut. Sure her CG hair couldn’t have been cheap, and it looked bad, but the fact remains that they swiftly took away her most notable feature, and made it really rapey when they did it, and goddamn you guys that wasn’t cool. Karnak is a master strategist, so by the end of episode one, he walks off a cliff, I say again the master strategist walks off a cliff, and suffers a head injury that compromises his power. Black Bolt, king of Attilan, is overthrown inside of half an hour. Maximus, in the comics, is an insane genius, brilliant but untrustworthy, and here he’s just a power-mad douche incapable of thinking anything through. Eldrac is a person who got turned into a wall that can open portals and they barely even touch on that. Crystal… I don’t know much about comics-Crystal but she must have had more going on than looking cute in shorts. She couldn’t have less going on than she does here.

Look, every comic book show eventually does “Are they still a hero without their powers,” but a) it’s always a drag, and b) they don’t make it the whole first season. But this is just where our problems start.

Every single aspect of the show is punishingly bland at best. The dialogue is bad, the acting mediocre, the effects cheap, the characters uninteresting, and while Maximus is insufferably terrible it’s hard to ignore that fact that he seems to be right about everything. He doesn’t want to live under a genetic-lottery caste system and thinks maybe forcing 1400 people to live in cramped hiding on the moon isn’t the best call, and he’s right on both fronts. It takes 10,000 individuals to maintain genetic diversity. With 1400 people in Attlian it’s amazing that the Inhumans aren’t as inbred as an Austrian duke by now.

Sure, there’s apparently another reason they live in hiding, some larger danger hinted at repeatedly in the finale, hints almost assured to never be paid off, but it’s the Kree. They were hiding from the Kree, the aliens who created them, and in season two of Agents of SHIELD made it clear they thought that was a mistake worth erasing, that’s the deal, fuck you for making a show this bad and thinking you could lure us in to wanting a second season with such obvious cliffhanger-bait.

Medusa and Black Bolt keep wanting to give Maximus one more chance to turn things around despite him taking every opportunity to not be worth it. It gets old.

And it’s not a recent development, either. A flashback to Maximus and Blackagar’s youths shows young Blackagar moping about not wanting to be king, while his brother keeps shouting “I do! I’ll be king!” And when their father says no, it has to be the elder brother, Maximus literally says “But if he dies, I get to be king, right?” And Father-of-the-Millennium lets it slide. Sure, pal, nothing to worry about there.

The human scientist who teams up with Medusa is trying so hard to channel Arrow’s Felicity Smoak that I can only think of her as Faux-licity. Also she might be in love with Medusa. A more interesting show would have run with that.

My only theory is this. Head of Marvel Entertainment, Ike Perlmutter, has been desperate to introduce the Inhumans to the MCU as a replacement for the Fox-owned mutants (even though the Inhumans are terrible replacements for the X-Men, do not work as metaphors for oppressed minorities, and Fox’s The Gifted is proving why mutants do it better on a weekly basis). He tried to force Kevin Feige to make an Inhumans movie, only for Feige to break away from the rest of Marvel Entertainment and cancel the movie the second he didn’t have to report to Perlmutter anymore. So Ike made it into a TV series. Maybe, maybe Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel TV, knew that the only way they were going to shut Ike up about the damn Inhumans was to make the show, but make it Fant4stic bad so that the concept would lose appeal. And so they hired the Iron Fist guy to write it.

I mean that’s the only explanation that makes sense to me. They screened the pilot on IMAX. They read the script, saw the dailies, and then still felt comfortable putting the worst thing Marvel Studios has ever, ever done onto the largest screens possible and charged people money. I don’t see how that happens unless they are actively trying to fail.

High Point

…Um… “Make Way For… Medusa,” maybe? They finally managed to add a character I enjoyed, even if he’s one of the bad guys.

Low Point

“…And Finally: Black Bolt.” The season (and gods willing series) finale managed to be just as excruciatingly bland and pointless as the pilot while delivering a thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion (seriously, the final scene was entirely dull) and spending too much time setting up a second season that I cannot imagine anybody actually wants at this point.

MVP

Lockheed the giant dog, I guess.

Tips for next season

Fuck you. I shall think of this show as cancelled until ABC’s May upfronts confirm it as so, and then I will think of it no more.

Overall Grade: F

Like, it’s not even fun bad.

Gonna have to finish series five of Doctor Who just to wash that crap-fest out of my brain.

Dan on TV: Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire is the best show you’ve never heard of. Allow me to explain.

The first thing to understand about Halt and Catch Fire is that despite being a period drama on AMC, it is not Mad Men. I say that to you now, suspecting that one of the creators had to say this to the network at some point during season one.

Halt and Catch Fire just completed its fourth and final season, and it has been a hell of a roller coaster. In the beginning, it was about a would-be tech visionary recruiting a failed computer designer to create the next big thing in PCs, but it was so devoted to re-invention over its four seasons (as is fitting for a show about tech visionaries) that in the final episode, those two characters barely appear. And along the way, it went from a pretty good period drama to a great one.

Love, War, and Computer Culture

Halt and Catch Fire centres around five brilliant but often broken people trying to be the next big thing in computer culture, a place where “the next big thing” shifts frequently and unpredictably. It begins in 1983, as they attempt to break into the home PC market, but goes on to cover 11 years of developments and advancements in the dawning internet age as the leads continue to chase the bleeding edge. Online gaming. Online community and commerce. Anti-virus. The dawn of the world wide web. In all cases, united or divided, they strive to be the leaders in an ever-shifting, hyper-competitive marketplace.

All five are lovable and hateable in equal measure. Together or apart, they form a riveting ensemble. Between 1983 and 1994, they love each other, hate each other, support each other, try to destroy each other, build businesses, lose businesses, and are constantly on the verge of being the first or best to market with some new innovation. But no matter how many times they screw each other over, no matter how much damage they cause to each other, there is still a bond between them that often weakens, but never fully breaks. Which is good, because it keeps them banging off each other.

Sure, in the beginning, it leans towards Mad Men. We have an enigmatic, charismatic leading man with a mysterious past in a period drama, but within season one they wisely move past that. And even in the beginning, there’s an important difference between Halt and Mad Men… a little thing called pacing.

Mad Men had a very nuanced, subtle, gradual pace. Events would creep along through small actions and awkward silences, building slowly until everything burst in the finale. Throughout the first season, Halt and Catch Fire would introduce a crisis, build it to a fever pitch, force someone to make a compromise someone else hated to fix it… and still have enough episode left for some even worse crisis to destroy their momentary peace. Future seasons calmed down a little, but you could never call the show uneventful.

The setting, the central plot, and central theme all shift throughout the series, but the core never does: Cameron, Donna, Joe, Gordon, and Bos. Let’s meet them.

Cameron Howe

The Prodigy

When we meet Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis, who’s picked up three high-profile sci-fi gigs since doing this show– The Martian, Black Mirror: San Junipero, and Blade Runner 2049), she’s a punk programmer sneaking into college lectures about the coming computer age. More often than not, she’s the smartest person in the room, and painfully, aggressively aware of that.

Cameron dreams of true innovation. She doesn’t want to build a slightly better IBM, she wants to build a truly new computer. When video game design draws her interest, she doesn’t want to just make Centipede. She wants a wholly new, wholly different game experience. Cameron Howe would be the bleeding edge of the internet age if it weren’t for a few… quirks.

Cameron does not play well with others. She’s a loner by nature and doesn’t excel at “collaboration” or “cooperation.” She views partners and investors as encumbrances, not teammates. She expects her teams to dance to her tune, even when she’s making no effort to teach them the words. She alienates people, forces them to take actions she doesn’t agree with, and even when she’s right, she’s usually burned too many bridges for it to matter.

And the show really took off when it realized that she was its actual heart. Her and…

Donna Clark

The Businesswoman

Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) was set up to be simply the long-suffering wife of one of the main characters, and thank the TV gods they sobered up from that, because a) that’s a tired cliche, and b) both Donna the character and Kerry the actress are better than that.

Donna is married to Gordon, and is mother to their two daughters, and while season one sets up Gordon as the big, gifted, engineer and computer builder, it also makes it clear that Donna is his equal. She can’t program like Cameron, few can, but she can build as well as anyone.

Not that people tend to notice, because it’s 1983 and she’s a woman. And, spoiler alert in case you haven’t noticed all of the everything, being taken seriously as a woman did not exactly get easier over the next ten years. And that’s more of an issue for her than it is for Cameron, since she’s the one actually willing to work with people to get ahead.

Also, she doesn’t really care for being the mother to anyone but her kids, and her compatriots have a tendency to force her into the position. Being the responsible one, the grounded one, the one willing to make the compromises, the one who has to see the larger picture beyond just the dream. And when you’re dealing with volatile visionaries like Cameron and Joe, or just the habitually wounded pride of her husband, that can cause turmoil.

Donna has dreams, she has ideas, she’s as capable of chasing the next horizon as anyone else in the cast, but there are a couple of things she’s missing. She doesn’t have Joe’s manipulative charms or Cameron’s determination to live or die by her work alone. What she does have, in place of those things, is a willingness and ability to work the system. To make connections, build relationships, to care about audience engagement and put what they want over what she thinks they should want, something Cameron struggles with. Or something Cameron would struggle with if she didn’t find it all so beneath her.

Look, I love Cameron in general, but sometimes… look, the ain’t anybody you can root for every episode.

Case in point, our theoretical lead character…

Joe MacMillan

The Visionary

Joe MacMillan is played by Lee Pace, who was the Piemaker in Pushing Daisies and as a result has my love and loyalty forever. In the beginning, he has recently left IBM, fancying himself a visionary. He can see where computers are heading and is determined to get there first at any cost: financial, human, or otherwise. He comes to Cardiff Electric, Texas-based manufacturer of typewriters and radios, and infiltrates it to push them to build a home computer that will challenge his former employers. It is 1983, one year before Apple debuted the Macintosh. The timing is not coincidence.

Joe McMillian was introduced as an enigma, a man of mystery with a hidden past and unexplained scars and a mysterious agenda, and thank Buddha and all of his wacky nephews that they got the Hell over that. There are two things they did with Joe in season two that improved the show immeasurably: first, they made him more of a fun human being; second, they realized he wasn’t the lead. Even if he would be top-billed all the way through, because opening credit politics are what they are.

Joe does have a certain amount of vision. He must, because he finds himself at the forefront of a lot of industries, one way or the other. He also has a certain amount of charisma, because he keeps drawing people to his banner… even the other leads, who after his initial actions have so many reasons to doubt him.

Because more human or not, Joe’s got his flaws. He’s not the best team player, since he’s willing to fight entire companies if he feels they’re holding back his vision. He’s willing to burn anyone he has to if the project demands it. And when a project or a company goes wrong (which they often do, this is not a happy show where everything always works out), he can lash out in sometimes extreme ways. Joe MacMillan does not fail gracefully.

But once they’re done trying to turn him into Computer Don Draper, they find something worth rooting for at his core. A love for his colleagues that makes the shift from “Manipulating them to create the Cardiff Giant” to “He created the Cardiff Giant as an excuse to work with Gordon and Cameron” believable and touching.

Even when his story is mostly detached from the others, he’s a key part of the show, but it’s still for the best that they moved the focus away from him after the first season. Not because he doesn’t work, but because the ladies just work better.

Gordon Clark

The Builder

Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy, who you’ve certainly seen in something) tried and failed to launch his own computer alongside Donna, and the failure was a costly one, in terms of savings, pride, and Gordon’s standing in the eyes of Donna’s parents. When we meet him in 1983, he’s a simple engineer at Cardiff Electric, a broken man who’s abandoned ambition. Until, that is, Joe talks him into reverse-engineering an IBM to build their own PC.

Gordon’s a builder at heart. He’s never happier than when he’s prying open a machine and putting it back together, better and stronger. He and Joe have the best working relationship, if still not consistently, which makes sense because he and Joe were supposed to be the leads until it became clear that Donna and Cameron should take over.

Maybe it’s because Joe can sense that Gordon still has the drive, the need to be a success on his own terms rather than just a Cardiff Electric cog. But the sting of his previous dream’s death hasn’t fully left him, and it means he has one thing Joe doesn’t: a willingness to settle. To plateau. To say “This is enough.” But the line where he’s willing to do that isn’t low enough to make life simple.

Gordon and Donna’s dreams do not sync up as often as either of them would like. Often one’s dream comes at the expense of the other, and that puts a strain on their relationship, and their relationship with their kids. All is seldom well in the Clark household, and Gordon makes some typical 80s-success bad choices that don’t help in the matter. Or help him in general.

But if there’s something to be created in order to find the next big thing, Gordon’s not hard to talk into joining in.

John Bosworth

The Salesman

John “Bos” Bosworth (Toby Huss), career salesman, has been at Cardiff Electric since most of the cast were kids. His is a simple life of southern-charm sales pitches and golf with clients, which is utterly upended when Joe MacMillan arrives and, before Bos and any of the bosses know it’s happening, tricks/forces them to rebuild Cardiff into a computer company, bringing down the wrath of IBM.

But as much as Bos resents how Joe is changing Cardiff, the more important change is what’s happening to Bos himself. His resentment thins. He bonds more and more with Cameron, becoming a surrogate father to her (her father is alive, but she and her parents don’t exactly get along). The glow of the computer age infects him, even if it doesn’t endear him to Joe in a rush.

Older than most? Sure. Computer literate? Not very. But he sees the future the others are building, and he wants in, even if he’s past his prime. He’s hungry to be part of this, and hunger plus limited time equals desperation, desperation leads to bad choices, and on this show, bad choices lead to big consequences.

But nothing short of death ever drives these people apart forever, and Bos’ folksy charm hides real skill for business and with people, something the others sometimes find themselves needing. Which works for Bos, because he needs them to need him, as after decades of life in sales, it’s only chasing after the dreams of his younger colleagues that he’s spotted his purpose, and he can’t lie down and rest before he’s caught it.

Final Thoughts

I feel like I should do more than talk about the characters here, but the fact is that each season is a new ride (featuring time jumps mild and extreme in between), each ride is bumpy as hell, and I feel I’d be doing you a disservice  by hinting at what any of the bumps are. I can say this: if the Cardiff Giant story of season one isn’t grabbing you, skip to the last two episodes of the season. Witness COMDEX, the birth of Mutiny, the first great fracturing of the central cast, and dive into a much-improved season two as Cameron and Donna take centre stage, attempting to invent online gaming in the time before Nintendo and Sega resurrected home consoles. See Bos rise from the ashes, Joe struggle to bounce back from a humbling computer convention, Gordon flounder for a new purpose, see the whole board change as the show finds a new structure.

There are incredible visual flourishes on this show. In one episode, there’s what seems to be a single tracking shot following Gordon, but this simulated single shot covers months or even years as a company grows from conception to construction to growth and expansion and finally to stagnation, and relationships strain and collapse in a few minutes that encompass a season’s worth of of drama. But lower-key than usual drama, nothing super exciting, so it’s okay that it’s just one shot in just one episode.

See Gordon and Donna’s girls grow up, one of whom grows into a computer whiz in her own right, and begins to steal the last season.

See Joe discover what the One Big Thing he’s been chasing this whole time really is… and whether or not he ever catches it.

See Cameron’s dream of what computer games can be collide with the birth of a drastically different take, the ultra-violent first-person shooter.

And let an incredibly talented cast make you love the flawed, sometimes broken, often wonderful characters pushing the story along.

If you’re in Canada, the first three seasons are on Netflix and the fourth will be along eventually, I’m sure. I know that it’s peak TV, and everyone and their streaming service has a recommendation, but the finale… the finale was a thing of beauty, and not every series can claim to have gone out that strong, and based on that I felt I had to share this show with you all.

And then life happened and this post got hell of delayed on me, but it’s still valid. So go, my pretties, binge, binge.

Next time… hadn’t we just gotten to my favourite era of Doctor Who? I should get back to that.

A Love Letter to Glove and Boots

So there are certainly no shortage of horrors to be found in 2017. No shortage at all. But in the midst of it all, a few special people, a groundhog, and a red thing tried to make the world a little brighter, only to get cut down by YouTube deciding to screw over creators worldwide. They are Glove and Boots, the funniest non-Henson puppets on YouTube.

Mario and Fafa. No, nobody is actually named “Glove” or “Boots.”

Based out of Brooklyn, New York, they’ve been doing puppet-based YouTube comedy blogs for a few years now. In 2017, they decided to try to grow their channel with an ambitious plan to crank up their output. They set out to make 100 videos in one year, from their usual work to various new mini-episode series to monthly live shows on their main channel and weekly streams on Glove and Boots Gaming, where Fafa the Groundhog and Mario the… Mario would try out games for our amusement. And all of it was fun, but all of a sudden it wasn’t working, because YouTube changed its algorithm.

And anyone who’s noticed how social media channels have been getting progressively worse lately just reflexively clenched up reading that. Facebook pushing “Top stories” and hiding things from your news feed, or demanding that Pages boost posts just to reach their audiences; Twitter taking a perfectly functional chronological feed and ruining it with “In case you missed it” tweets from days ago; and now YouTube is screwing over small-to-medium channels. Algorithms ruin everything. Mario and Fafa try to explain what they think happened here, but basically viewership was taking a bigger hit than they could handle.

But I come not to bury Glove and Boots, but to praise them. First of all, they’re not dead. They’re just taking an unplanned and indefinite hiatus while they try to figure out how to deal with their viewership issues. But while that’s happening, there’s a lot of great material on their channel that I suggest you check out. Every view and subscriber could help bring Fafa and Mario back faster.

And also someone has to point viewers at their A-material, because the only video YouTube’s algorithm thinks to recommend is the one where Gorilla dances to Gangnam Style. Goddamn algorithms ruin everything.

The Blog

I mean they called it a blog, but really it was a series of comedy videos starring puppets. Which isn’t to say that they didn’t occasionally try to inform. Witness this explanation of the characters found in the Monomyth, with assistance from Fafa’s toad cousin Johnny T, and why their absence makes Adam Sandler movies suck now. (Sure, that’s the problem.)

Once upon a time a friend and I were considering writing a modern-day Robin Hood movie. This video really helped me break the general story, as I figured out who would fill which roles, and where that took us. And then Hollywood greenlit like half a dozen Robin Hood movies and there didn’t seem to be a point to writing ours anymore, but that’s hardly Fafa’s fault.

Another time, once again with Johnny T’s help, they tried to teach the internet a much-needed lesson about grammar.

And tips on visiting New York I wish I’d seen before my 2014 trip, when I blew an evening seeking out the Original Ray’s.

That was the first one I ever saw. Took me a couple of videos to learn that Johnny T wasn’t the star. And for the record, if you’ve been walking the Coney Island boardwalk for a couple of hours and it’s really sunny out and you just want to eat something indoors, maybe, maybe, there’s a valid reason to go to Applebee’s.

Maybe.

I mean the next time I was in that area we found multiple better places to be than The Applebee’s of Last Resort but at the time… anyway, he’s not wrong about Olive Garden. Times Square hosts the worst Olive Garden in North America, this is known.

But they’re not all educational. Sometimes it’s just about how life would make for a pretty terrible video game.

I could go on and on, because this channel is a gift, but I want to move to some of their other categories.

Product Testing

Sometimes they’d watch a bunch of infomercials, order the products, and field test them for our education and enjoyment, beginning with the most famous disappointing products of Vince the Shamwow guy.

Or witness their experiments with the Rollie: a device for people who find placing eggs over heat and then eating them to be too taxing.

(I have heard a theory that all of the infomercials showing people finding every day tasks to be too challenging are actually, on the DL, trying to sell products to people with disabilities who legitimately find these things hard, but that’s another post, innit.)

And since the end result is just a cylinder of basically normal cooked egg, they had little option but to get weird with it, and see what kind of nightmare tube-omelette they could create.

Now, this process involved watching a lot of infomercials, and this sometimes resulted in tripping over comedy gold, as explored in their first-ever live broadcast. Join me now for the saga of “I LOVE.”

You know, coming up with comedy is hard, coming up with comedy on the spot is harder… coming up with comedy on the spot whilst operating a puppet? You have to give it up for that.

Songs!

Turns out Fafa the Groundhog can also belt out a tune. So since YouTube is sometimes just a long Weird Al Yankovic album with zero quality control, Glove and Boots got into the song parody game. Sure, some of them are simple parodies, like turning “Uptown Funk” into a ballad honouring Shaolin kung fu, but they’ve done some fun music videos over the years. Here’s a for instance… when Canada’s king of space, gentleman astronaut Chris Hadfield, did a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity while actually in space, Glove and Boots decided they wanted in on it and snuck Fafa into space with him.

Well… not literally. But even if you don’t want Hadfield trivia sung to the tune of Rocket Man (it gets away from them a little), it’s mostly worth it for Mario’s initial confusion over who’s who.

Mario’s failure to get how the song goes is also what makes their cover of “All Together Now” so damned charming. Well, that and Fafa’s stuffed bear. And frankly the original doesn’t have enough references to old-school rapper Biz Markie. Good add, Mario.

Now, if you want to understand who the rest of the puppets are, and why two of the are Wolverine and Thor, you need to get into the back catalogue, but I’m fine with that since that is what I’m trying to get you to do.

Want to hear Blurred Lines turned into an explanation for Robin Thicke’s legal issues over the song? They’ve got you covered. Want to see The Beatles end some pop culture rivalries? They damn it I used “covered” too soon this one IS just a cover the wordplay would have been– anyway here it is. They also taught me what “mumblerap” is, and why it’s awful, yet still created something enjoyable by parodying someone calling himself “Lil Yachty,” and more egregiously, calling himself “talented.”

Moving along…

Shooting for 100 videos

Making 100 videos in one year was an ambitious goal, especially since the main videos have backgrounds to green screen and occasionally puppets to fabricate. So they came up with some easy-to-shoot shorts. Mario attempted to improve our vocabularies through “Mario’s Word of the Week,” sometimes to his own detriment…

Johnny T. tried to show us all a better way of living with “Don’t Be a Dummy…”

And one of their uncles was turned into a squirrel for some true stories that became some of their weirdest material since that countdown to Christmas from two years back, “Santa’s Secret Stories.” Man, those were odd.

Plus there was their gaming channel, which… look, Slime Rancher doesn’t seem, on paper, like a good game. Seems like an FPS merged with Farmville. But watching Fafa play it… or more accurately watching Mario watch Fafa playing it… if I hadn’t been having budgetary issues, I might have bought it and started playing it that day.

Really looking forward to resuming a lifestyle where spending $25 isn’t intimidating. But that’s neither here nor there.

Look, you guys, I know I just threw a lot of videos at you right there, but I promise you, watch even half of them and you’ll thank me, because these guys are delightful, and as someone who tried to launch a YouTube channel of his own, it’s heartbreaking to see them put so much work into providing free entertainment and then hit a wall that forces them to stop because of a goddamned algorithm. 

The worst part, the worst part, isn’t just knowing that Facebook and YouTube and Twitter aren’t adding these algorithms for us, they know we hate them, but are doing it strictly for monetization. The worst part is that knowing that and pointing it out doesn’t help, because as long as it is helping monetization, they’re going to keep doing it, and they’ve got us by the short-n-curlies on this, because I am not going back to calling people to see if they want to see Star Wars when I’m seeing Star Wars. And while new streaming sites are happening, none of them are YouTube killers.

That got away from me.

I had a dream. A dream that one day, my webseries would grow to a point where I could talk Glove and Boots into doing a guest appearance. That Jeff would do a bunch of peyote, end up on a vision quest, and have Mario and Fafa pop up to guide him, or possibly just point out just how badly he’s tripping.

Keith (my co-writer) and I would have guest starred as well. After a few seasons of us being background extras, Jeff would have snapped and demanded to know why we were always in the background of everything he did. Man that would have been a fun episode. But I knew it would be a hard sell. Our first season didn’t break out the way we wanted, so would we ever be worth their attention? And getting funding to keep it going proved daunting, and now it’s been long enough I’m chasing funds for something different… but I liked the idea that it was possible. And I always thought they’d be there if the time came.

Glove and Boots was never supposed to end.

And maybe it hasn’t! They certainly want to keep going. They have an absurd amount of fun making these videos, if the amount of shots that end in one or both of them cracking up tell us anything. But nobody knows when or, more importantly, how yet.

But in the meantime, check them out. Enjoy their back catalogue. There’s great stuff in there and more supporters are always better.

Hurry back, Fafa and Mario. My day was always better when you were in it.