The year was 2013. A year and change after The Avengers changed the game for the film industry. Marvel Studios had gone from uppity newcomers to the juggernaut of Hollywood, and it seemed like they were announcing their intention to conquer TV as well, starting with the unexpected return of recently deceased fan-favourite character Phil Coulson in Agents of SHIELD, created by Avengers writer/director and nerd icon Joss Whedon.
We did not yet know that Marvel Studios and Marvel TV were very different entities, and once Joss Whedon stopped working for either, the connections between the two would suddenly and irrevocably cease. Or that Joss’ ex-wife would publicly air his infidelities, and Ray Fisher would openly complain about his behaviour during the Justice League reshoots, leading to some shit from Buffy coming up, and now liking Joss Whedon is a problem…
So to get past that, we’ll instead credit Agents of SHIELD to its true showrunners, the husband and wife team of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen.
Agents of SHIELD was Marvel TV That Was’ first salvo, and it was nearly the last show standing, with its final season airing after Cloak and Dagger, Runaways, and all of Marvel Netflix wrapped up, knowingly or otherwise. So they’d be first in/last out… except that similar to Fox’s X-Men franchise limping across the finish line withthe long, long delayed New Mutants, apparently Marvel decided to film and release supernatural series Helstrom despite the fact that the shows based on better known characters it was supposed to be paired with were all cancelled when Kevin Feige shut down Marvel TV. Seriously, everything got shut down, but they still said “Go ahead, do a season of Helstrom.” That show had better not end on a cliffhanger.
In any event, Agents of SHIELD had its work cut out for it. Other than Coulson, the show starred no familiar Marvel names, just a bunch of original characters. The most notable name in the cast had to be Street Fighter and Mulan’s Ming-Na Wen, who is not the household name she goddamn deserves to be. People expected weekly crossovers to the movies, but the movies never ever acknowledged them back. Other than a couple of appearances each from Thor’s Lady Sif, Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, for known Marvel characters they were mostly restricted to at best C or D-list villains for the first three years. And because they debuted seven months before Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they weren’t allowed to have a plot until episode 16 or so, meaning that the first season moved at the glacial pace of early Lost and played more like NCIS: Fringe Science than something connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not only wouldn’t the movies recognize or acknowledge them, neither would other Marvel TV shows, not even the ones on the same network. You were NOT good enough to pretend to be above AOS, Inhumans.
Somehow despite all of this, despite everything working against them, they managed to be Marvel TV’s longest running and, according to studies, most popular series. And there are reasons for that, and also reasons why it’s always been a middle-of-the-pack show in this blog’s annual rankings… save for the one year it came last because the bar was much higher and their “Oh crap we’re still on the air now what” sixth season couldn’t compete.
The final season of Agents of SHIELD wrapped up recently, in which the Agents found themselves jumping through history, trying to stop a race of robots called Chronicoms from wiping out SHIELD in the past to facilitate their invasion in 2019. And much like The Punisher’s final season allowed us to examine Marvel Netflix as a whole, the final season of Agents of SHIELD shines a light on everything the series did well, and all the places they struggled.
Let’s begin with our core cast, the nobodies who became fan-favourites.
The leading voice in fighting climate change is a Swedish teen girl, furious that inaction by world leaders has jeopardized her chances of having an adulthood. Some of the strongest responses to both COVID and gun violence are coming from New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern. My home province has been steadily collapsing ever since all the right-wing idiots decided to vote out the woman running it and replace her with an inept hillbilly out to privatize health care during the worst health crisis in living memory. And to my left-leaning ears, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seems to be the only person in Washington talking any sense.
Seems obvious to me, if anyone can save the world, and the world needs some saving… it’s gonna be the ladies.
So it’s fitting that Quarantine Times brought us two teen girls with a mission to save the world: DC’s Stargirl, featuring a character DC wunderkind Geoff Johns created in the 90s as a tribute to his sister who died in a plane crash; and Warrior Nun, based on a manga by Ben Dunn. On the surface, they seem very different, but they have some interesting connections in the ways that they’re completely opposite.
Today I’d like to get into all of that, but before I can, let’s cover…
Stargirl: Teenager Courtney Whitmore finds her life upended, as her mother Barbara (Amy Smart, nice to see her again), her step-father Pat Dugan (Luke Wilson, doing pretty great), and step-brother Mike leave Los Angeles for Barbara’s childhood home of Blue Valley, Nebraska. Nothing seems to be going well… until among Pat’s things Courtney finds a powerful weapon called the Cosmic Staff, which is slightly alive and has chosen her to wield it.
See, ten years ago, on the same night when Courtney and Barbara lost touch with Court’s father, Pat was the sidekick to Starman, leader of the Justice Society of America… but nearly all of the JSA were killed in battle with the incredibly cleverly named villain group the INjustice Society of America… cold and cruel telepath/telekinetic Brainwave, master tactician the Gambler, the musically-powered Fiddler, the magical Wizard, deadly fighters Sportsmaster and Tigress, evil scientist/slightly immortal Japanese war criminal Dragon King, the hulking monster Solomon Grundy, The Shade (who doesn’t really appear as apparently he rage-quit the group a while back), and their ice-powered leader Icicle.
And damn, can we give props to Geoff Johns and the other writers for going to DC leadership, saying “Which villains can we use on this show,” being handed Sportsmaster and Icicle, and still somehow nailing it.
Courtney decides that the staff chose her because Starman is her long-absent father, and the reason he never showed up for Christmas ten years ago (or ever since) is because that’s the night the JSA fell. And so despite constant protests from Pat that this is far too dangerous and Starman is not her father, because despite a resemblance to the blurry photo Court keeps in a locket, her father was not named Sylvester Pemberton*, she takes up the staff and becomes Stargirl, and not a moment too soon, because the ISA have pretty much taken over Blue Valley, and they are up to no good. So Courtney turns to the outcasts among her new classmates to build a new Justice Society to take them on… while Pat breaks out the giant robot armour he’s been working on to begrudgingly help as S.T.R.I.P.E.
*I’m probably the only one who was bothered by the fact that there have been at minimum six different heroes who called themselves Starman and Sylvester Pemberton, the Star-Spangled Kid, was not one of them… but I get it. Comics-Courtney initially adopted the legacy of the Star-Spangled Kid, then became Stargirl when Starman #5, Jack Knight, gave her his cosmic staff to carry on in his name. For the TV version, it’s hell of simpler if she takes her inspiration from one person, so sure, make Sylvester Starman, it cleans things up.
Warrior Nun: for centuries, the fighting nuns of the Order of the Cruciform Sword have battled demons on Earth, with weapons made of an unearthly metal called Divinium and under the leadership of the Warrior Nun, who is bonded with an angel’s halo, giving her powers and abilities to fight the demons that possess humans for evil purpose, and with some more difficulty, the hulking Tarask demons that seem to hunt the Warrior Nun.
After an ambush on the Order, led by people who somehow know the Warrior Nun can be killed with Divinium and also have some, the current Warrior Nun dies, but instead of her heir apparent Sister Lilith, the halo ends up inside recently deceased 19-year-old Ava Silva (Alba Baptista), who has spent most of her life a quadriplegic living under the care of an abusive nun. This is not seen as a great result for the Order, as Ava doesn’t have a strong interest in fighting demons for the church that made her life even more miserable than the car accident that crippled her and killed her parents already had. Plus not-quite-nun Shotgun Mary is out to uncover the conspiracy behind the assassination of previous Warrior Nun Sister Shannon (who it’s strongly implied was Mary’s girlfriend); scientist CEO Jillian Salvius thinks she can use Divinium to build a portal to heaven; and papal candidate Cardinal Francisco Duretti thinks the Order needs some restructuring. It’s a hectic time. Sure hope there aren’t any shocking revelations coming about the Order’s history, boy that wouldn’t help anything.
So already we see a few common threads between Stargirl and Warrior Nun. Both have teen girl heroes (although Ava is only barely still a teen); both invest a lot into the ideas of legacy and destiny; both have their heroines inheriting a weapon capable of deciding who is and isn’t worthy to wield it (the halo sometimes rejects an unworthy host, I failed to mention that); and each has a reluctant mentor figure who is convinced she shouldn’t have said weapon but were rejected from wielding it themselves. But once you get past those similarities, it’s a little interesting how these two shows tackle their first seasons in completely opposite ways.
Remember that time John Oliver did a deep-dive into the US bail system, and how it’s weaponized to keep lower-income people, especially African-Americans, in jail? The best way to combat that right now is The Bail Project, a charity committed to paying the bail of those who can’t afford it, so that, say, being arrested for protesting police brutality doesn’t financially cripple you. Visit them at https://bailproject.org/, spread the word, and if you can spare a donation, they can always use it.
Back to it.
Okay, here we go… 21 shows ranked! And let me say… this might have been the highest-quality season since I started doing this. Shows that would have made the top ten easily in previous years, if not the top five, are down where we used to find shows I’d make fun of. There are some very high highs, but none of the low lows that marred previous years. No Iron Fists or Inhumans, or even bland Cloak and Daggers or wildly inconsistent Gothams. The worst we have is “Okay, but not nearly their best work.”
But first, press F to show respect to the following fallen shows.
Arrow. How crazy is it that the grand mack-daddy of all superhero crossovers, Crisis on Infinite Earths, got adapted on network television all because of the success of a show about Green Arrow, of all people? Arrow wasn’t always the best Arrowverse show… actually according to these annual rankings, it wasn’t ever the best Arrowverse show from the first year there were other options… but, as the name suggests, without it, there wouldn’t be an Arrowverse. No duelling speedsters, no spaceship full of time travelling misfits, no annual crossovers putting Defenders to shame over and over… no Beebo. You did good, Arrow.
iZombie. In the general scheme of things, five seasons was pretty much just right for their overarching storyline of the zombie outbreak and subsequent conflict with humanity. In another sense, five seasons was never going to be enough time to spend with Liv, Ravi, Clive, Major, Payton, and even ne’er-do-wells Blaine and Don E. This show was a delight, and I’ll miss its core cast for a long time. You were the least faithful to your source material of any show I’ve covered, lacking even a character in common with the comics, but you were special while you lasted.
Krypton.I admire Krypton’s dedication to self-improvement. From halfway through the first season, they did their best to find more interesting takes on their story. And they delivered a decent Lobo, a solid General Zod, and by second season a really interesting Brainiac. They were just way too confident they’d have as much time as they wanted to tell the story, and that was not the case. So… are we done with shows about the pasts of famous heroes named after the place they’re from? Smallville lasted a decade, sure, and Gotham made it half that, but Krypton is over after twenty episodes and Metropolis seems to have died in development. So… we’re done?
Legion. Some shows can’t run indefinitely. Some shows need a set plan. And Legion was one of those. Noah Hawley brought us a three-act story told over twenty-seven mesmerizing episodes, with a stellar cast and visual flair like nothing else. There has never been a show like Legion. There may never be again, because you can’t be Legion if you’re trying to be like something else.
Preacher. To my chagrin, I think Preacher’s legacy will be how weirdly unbalanced the pacing was. The slow-burn first season and the final season’s race for the finish line almost feel like different shows. They spent three years really digging into key moments from the comic run, then when AMC said they had one year to wrap it up, they had to slam on the gas to get to the climax. Still… they delivered an amazing, gonzo yet character-driven adaptation, one which provided some key lessons (including not taking your time in early seasons) for the even-less-probable Garth Ennis adaptation The Boys. I wish it had run another four years, but I’m glad I had it while it lasted.
Swamp Thing. We hardly knew ye, Swamp Thing. You delivered the exact Swamp Thing series we needed, a perfect fit to the R-rated tone of every other DC Universe show they’d made (prior to Stargirl). You had great takes on a lot of DC’s magic characters, characters I’m mad I won’t get to see again. Apparently, the only people who didn’t think a dark, horror-themed Swamp Thing was the way to go were the people running your network. Idjits. Here’s hoping the CW reairing it in a desperate bid for fall programming leads to a revival.
Watchmen. Series creator Damon Lindelof brought us a collision of the dark side of America’s history and the possible future of Alan Moore’s world of masked crimefighters, twisted masterminds, and one living god with a broken view of time, mixing real-life atrocities and racial tensions with the aftermath of the Watchmen graphic novel, and it was great. He poured every idea he had into this one season… meaning he had nothing left in the tank to keep it going. Like Alan Moore before him, he never envisioned a follow-up. So for now at least, Watchmen ends again as one self-contained story, and we should be thankful we got it.
Marvel TV as we knew it. For the past half-decade, there were two sides to live-action Marvel entertainment… Marvel Studios, as run by Kevin Feige, reporting directly to Disney; and Marvel TV, run by Jeph Loeb, reporting to Feige’s former boss Ike Perlmutter. And while fanboys clung to the hope that the Marvel TV characters would appear, or at least be referenced, in any of the movies, people paying attention (such as me, hello) could tell they were very clearly separate worlds that would never mingle. But now Feige has been put in charge of the movies, TV and comics, so Marvel TV as we knew it now yields to Feige’s empire, and everything from before is cancelled. And maybe that’s for the best, because while we might lose the smaller, street-level stories like Daredevil or Runaways, frankly Jeph Loeb brought too much of Smallville’s old “No flights, no tights” aesthetic to Marvel TV, leading to an apparent fear of seeming “comic-booky” that made the whole franchise a little… bland. Basic. Routinely embarrassed of their source material. (Google, find a supercut of Marvel Netflix characters hating their costumes from the comics–no? Damn it.) The fanboys are waiting for the Defenders, Runaways, Agents of SHIELD, and Inhumans to find their way to new seasons on Disney+ or Hulu, but… I wouldn’t hold my breath on that. Expect, at best, reboots. Eventually. Probably best to say goodbye to them all now and beat the rush later. So farewell, Cloak and Dagger; bon voyage, Runaways; via con Dios, Agents of– what’s that? Still on? For how many weeks? Huh. First to arrive, last to leave, I guess.
Honourable mention: I don’t include animated series in these things because a) that feels like a hole with no bottom and there are already 21 shows on the list… again…; b) I don’t know how to find most of them; c) I’d mostly be comparing cartoon shows made for pre-teens to Preacher and how do you even do that, even Riverdale was a stretch. But all of that said, if you can find a way to watch Harley Quinn, then do it, because oh my god it’s so hilarious, and also weirdly heartfelt. Do what you have to, but check it out.
Apparently YouTube videos whose ads donate to BLM charities are a moving target, as YouTube pulled the last one right after I posted it. I’ve replaced it with this one, which hopefully also works, so give it a spin, and while you’re doing that, check out this list of ways you can help fight racism. Find something that works for you, then meet me in the next paragraph.
No, really, I’ll wait, go do that. Done? Okay, let’s get going.
Alright nerds, we’re through the technicals, into the performances. Some of the most brutal, hard to call categories coming at you, ’cause there was some talent this season.
Let’s see if I can do them in a sensible order for once.
The Wentworth Miller Award For Best Guest Star
Putting aside series regulars and major recurring characters, who brought something special to their limited appearances, as Wentworth Miller did on The Flash as Captain Cold?
These people did!
Honourable mentions: Haley Joel Osment as a formerly famous child hero on The Boys was just perfect casting; Neal McDonough made one last appearance as Damien Darhk on Legends of Tomorrow, and was delightful as always; and of all the alumni they brought back for Arrow’s final season (damn near all of them), the one who most reminded us what they brought to the show, and how much they’re missed, was Paul Blackthorne as Quentin Lance. His brief reunion with Oliver and Earth-2’s Laurel Lance was particularly emotional.
Bronze: The Crisis Cameos, Crisis On Infinite Earths
Really all I can do here is present a complete list, except for the dozen and change that were pretty clearly recycled footage from DC Universe streaming shows.
Robert Wuhl reprising Knox the reporter from 1989’s Batman; Burt goddamn Ward reprising Adam West’s sidekick Dick Grayson; Wil Wheaton as a doomsayer; The Tick’s Griffin Newman hosting a trivia night; Erica Durance as both Supergirl’s Alura and Smallville’s Lois Lane; Johnathon Schaech reprising Jonah Hex; Tom Welling back as Smallville’s Clark Kent (punching out Lex Luthor, no less); Kevin Conroy from Batman: The Animated Series bringing his iconic Batman voice to live-action for the first time; patron saint of this category, Wentworth Miller, as the voice of Leonard Snart on an alternate-Earth Waverider; Tom Ellis bringing Lucifer Morningstar to the Arrowverse, face to face with John Constantine; Ashley Scott back in costume as the Huntress from the short-lived Birds of Prey series; John Wesley Shipp reprising his 1990 Flash one last time; Black Lightning finally joining the crew; Ezra Miller giving us a brief meeting of the cinematic and television Flashes; and original Crisis author Marv Wolfman hitting Flash and Supergirl up for autographs (he loves the team-ups, you see).
Is that everyone? I think so? And each one delightful.
(If I had to pick one, it’d be Tom Ellis by a nose, but I don’t so I won’t.)
Silver: Thomas Lennon as Mr. Mxyzptlk, Supergirl
A quick lampshade-hang about why they’ve swapped out the original actor for someone less dreamy, and Mr. Mxyzptlk came back to Supergirl, and he came back doing what Mxy does best… being an adorable trickster and screwing with the fourth wall. And Thomas Lennon excelled, always finding the humour in Supergirl’s 100th-episode trip backwards through the past four seasons, as Mxy and Kara tried to find a moment to tell Lena Luthor the truth about Kara that maybe wouldn’t destroy either their relationship or the world. Some of them destroyed the world.
I could really go for an annual Mxyzptlk appearance, if that’s an option.
Gold: Jemaine Clement and Jason Mantzoukis as Oliver Bird and the Big Bad Wolf, Legion
I feel like we discussed this episode and it’s rhythmic climax plenty last time. So for now I’ll just say that it was an immense delight seeing Jemaine Clement back, and the only thing that improved it was having Jason Manzoukis show up as the (symbolic) Big Bad Wolf, shouting to Oliver not to wait before teaching the baby about syphilis.
And then they rap battled. Come on.
Such a great episode, and these two (with help from Jean Smart) really anchored it.
The Tricia Helfer Award for Rookie of the Year
What new characters on an established show really brought something special, like the way Tricia Helfer’s Goddess Charlotte kicked Lucifer up to the next level?
Honourable mentions: Switch on Legion made the entire season three story possible, but she sometimes felt like more of a device than a character; Connor/Superboy was a fun addition to Titans, but he more created his own subplot than added to what had been the main story; Natalie Dreyfuss was great fun as Ralph Dibny’s long-awaited true-love-to-be Sue Dearbon on The Flash, but was only in three episodes, and due to reasons probably won’t be back.
Bronze: Iain Glen as Bruce Wayne, Titans
I’m not a big fan of “middle-aged Batman” in general, and I’m not sure what Glen was going for with that Brooklyn accent… sometimes it seems “neutral American” is too tricky an accent, so actors from, in this case, Scotland, aim for something more regional… but damn having Bruce Wayne around was a good and necessary addition to this show. Given how much of Titans revolves around Dick’s difficult history with his complicated surrogate father, never seeing him throughout season one was kind of awkward. Whether Bruce was there in person, or an illusion created by Raven, or a hallucination brought on by Dick’s guilty conscience*, Bruce added a lot to the season, and if you could roll with the accent, Glen was kinda killing it.
*That last one was actually pretty great, and involved Bruce Wayne doing the Batusi with burlesque dancers, and it was amazing.
Silver: Naomi Ackie as Bonnie, The End of the F***ing World
Series one of The End of the F***ing World was about James and Alyssa running from their traumas; series two was about having to confront the consequences. And so it made sense to have the consequences of their crime-ridden road trip personified in Bonnie.
The End of the F***ing World has always been about broken people finding inadvisable ways to face their traumas, and series two brought a new style of trauma to the mix in angry, confused, vengeful Bonnie. “I learned about punishment from a young age,” she tells us. Bonnie was raised with abuse and discipline instead of love, and now she has them mixed up in her head. Led astray by what she thought was love, she was personally wronged by the events of series one, and has come to deliver punishment to James and Alyssa. Poorly thought-out, at times hilariously inept punishment. Bonnie makes our road-tripping duo into a trio, and was a welcome addition.
Gold: Shayan Sobhian as Behrad Tarazi, Legends of Tomorrow
In the third season finale, hacker and freedom fighter from the future Zari Tomaz finally altered her past/our present enough that her dystopia never happens… which means that her family was never hunted by a government that hated metahumans and also Muslims (I think we know any fascist American regime, fictional or currently-in-progress, is gonna come at Muslims), so her brother Behrad was never killed by ARGUS agents, so she never inherited the Zambesi air totem from him… and never joined the Legends. And also her last name is Tarazi now? Don’t fully get that last bit. But anyway, the last moments of the previous finale saw Zari erased from the team’s history… and replaced by Behrad.
So that left Shayan Sobhian with a bit of a trick to pull off… make this new character feel like a long term part of the team, make his relationships with the other Legends feel lived-in, and make us like him enough that we’d be invested in him sticking around instead of checking our watches wondering when “Internet Celebrity Zari” was going to blow over and things would go back to the way they were last season.
And damned if he didn’t nail it.
Behrad instantly felt like an old friend. Whether he was being best bros with Nate and Ray, or revealing that he’d had a secret tryst with Charlie the shapeshifter (which they probably kept on the DL since her primary form looks exactly like Nate’s ex), or dealing with his vain, shallow older sister Zari finding out he’s a time traveller, Behrad was a welcome addition from episode one, and I was quickly frightened something bad was gonna happen to him since he was only credited as a guest star.
And his presence let them do something fun and new with Zari, which was neat.
Before we get started… I’ve been sitting on these blogs for a week, because given all of the everything… this felt horribly frivolous. But as protests continue, we all need an occasional break, so I’m taking a piece of advice from someone more knowledgeable than I am in these matters (keep listening, keep learning)… release your art, but also take a moment to point people to ways they can keep helping ensure that Black Lives Matter. Today, I present this: this playlist is a way to support bail funds if you can’t afford to donate. Just throw this video on while you read, and make sure you’re not blocking ads because the ad revenue is going to a good cause.
And now, on with the show.
Another TV season comes to an end, and once again I’ve spent twelve months devouring all (well, many) forms of comic book TV, and I’m here to share with you what my exhaustive research tells us is the best of the best! Who had the best fights, elicited the biggest sobs, featured the best casts, and many more!
Specifically of shows that ended their seasons between July 1st of 2019 and June 3rd, 2020. With these specific exceptions.
Walking Dead:I don’t wanna and you can’t make me.
The Riverdale of it all: I am not the target audience of Riverdale. That’s fine. I don’t have to be. There is so much media that is geared specifically towards me that it’s fine that some of it isn’t. But it hardly seems fair to rank shows meant for a younger female audience against shows weirdly targeted right exactly at me, so I’m leaving out all of the Riverdales. That includes Riverdale Prime, Spooky Riverdale (The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), and Sex And The City Riverdale (Katy Keene, which could not be less targeted to me).
With that in mind, here’s what we are covering, with links to reviews where they exist.
Agents of SHIELD, season six (not the current one)
Sadly, due to Plague Times (or lack of vision by the DC streaming service), a few of those shows didn’t get proper season finales. Which I’m trying my best not to hold against them, but maybe they had a lot of plots going on and maybe I was really eager to get to the point where they started connecting in a more clear way and I don’t know I would have liked to see how they stuck the landing.
Anyhoo, let’s get into the technical awards, starting with what I keep telling you is one of my favourites.
So we’re still doing this, huh? Well, glad that the closest I’ve come to self-harm is a very strong urge to give myself what would no doubt be a disastrous haircut. My shaggy-ass hair is legit driving me crazy.
While society has begun to tentatively reopen enough for me to see friends in open spaces while two metres apart, 90% of Lockdown Life is still finding stuff to watch, and I, your Pop Culture Sin Eater (why isn’t that the name of my blog…), am here with recommendations and maybe some cautionary tales.
Keeping it a little shorter this time. And once again, here’s a Table of Contents, in case you want to pick and choose.
Well, it’s May, and the world is still closed. My GPA in hospitality management remains high, though I do catch myself wondering if hospitality is an industry that will actually still exist or have sufficient openings this time next year. My place of employment, which I worked at for over six years, longer than I’ve worked anywhere, has shut its doors permanently thanks to five weeks of no revenue and no rent relief.Every movie I want to see has been delayed, and “new TV” is a soft maybe. I find myself only moderately more annoyed at anti-lockdown protesters than I am at people saying “Lockdown isn’t a big deal, stop whining.”
So let’s lose ourselves in entertainment, while there’s still entertainment to be had!
Here are some things I’ve been watching. You can too, unless I say you shouldn’t. I will definitely say you shouldn’t at least once.
Welcome to Plague Times! I, like most of you, am sequestered indoors until the infection rate drops enough that we’re willing to risk resuming society, which at time of writing is… at best a strong maybe? Nobody knows. Time has no meaning and we’re all going a little crazy from lack of human contact.
Which makes it a great time to watch stuff! Stuff you’d been meaning to watch but hadn’t found time for! Binge that series, watch that movie, don’t just say “Now’s a good time to finally watch Breaking Bad,” go for the weird stuff! Check out Psych or Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency or watch Lindsay Ellis’ entire series on film theory through the lens of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.
So being a non-essential worker (I mean I think my annual comic book TV rankings are essential but I don’t have to leave home to do those), I’ve been home alone nearly 24/7 since March 15th, with only the occasional escape for groceries, alcohol, or just being outside for thirty dang minutes, and I’ve been watching a whole bunch of stuff, and now I want to talk about it. So let me present what will no doubt be the first in a series of My Quarantine Watchlist.
(Not included in this blog: re-watching all six Missions: Impossible. Look, either I do an entire blog on Mission: Impossible, or you all agree to watch Patrick Willems’ video on why they’re great so I don’t have to.)
(Or the fourth season of Nailed It. What on Earth could I have to say about Nailed It that you don’t already know.)
When Spy Kids came out way on back in 2001, I thought “Man that looks pretty dumb.” And then a wise friend said “Sure, but I’d have watched the heck out of it when I was ten.” And I thought, sure, yeah, me too. That was the sort of story I grew up on. Kids my age (or close to) getting into high-stakes adventures with monsters and pirates and other sci-fi/fantasy/espionage elements. Monster Squad, Time Bandits,The Lost Boys, IT, The Neverending Story, and of course the chairman of the company, The Goonies. Sure Spy Kids wasn’t being aimed at me, but why shouldn’t the next generation have similar movies to latch onto?
(As well as The Goonies, of course, it is for all generations.)
That said… I wasn’t the only one who grew up on these magical kids’ adventure stories. And if there’s one thing the entertainment industry thrives on, it’s milking nostalgia in an attempt to squeeze money from audiences.
And so a new genre seems to be forming… 80s-style magical kids’ adventure stories, but designed to appeal to adults and youths alike.
The very obvious example, one that may have sprung into your mind the second I brought this up, is Stranger Things.
Stranger Things is both loved and criticized for the way it weaponizes nostalgia in its narrative, creating a pastiche of the Goonies and the Loser’s Club and having them battle otherworldly monsters alongside a magic girl, using Dungeons and Dragons and sometimes dressing as Ghostbusters. It’s a sci-fi fantasy conspiracy thriller that uses 80s nostalgia to flavour the story the way a fancy cocktail might use simple syrup*, and its a little hacky, but I love it.
(*I did just finish a course on cocktails, why do you ask?)
And on the far side of the spectrum, we have this lot.
Titans is about literal magic teens being mentored by 20-something former teen heroes. It would be perfectly aligned for a teen audience… except they curse like they’re out of a Tarantino movie, the fight scenes are often brutal and bloody, and yeah, in season one they go to Pound Town (if a non-graphic suburb of Pound Town) more often than any other superhero show save for Watchmen. (Sister Night and her husband have a passionate and fulfilling sex life and good for them.)
Or in other words, they act exactly like young people would in their situation. Hand-to-hand fights aren’t clean, they get in situations that frankly require frequent cursing*, and I’ve been reading comics about Nightwing almost as long as there have been comics about Nightwing to read, and I am here to tell you, Dick Grayson fucks.
(*I’m not mad that the Titans swear, I’m mad that Gotham wasn’t allowed to. Given what happened in an average season, Harvey Bullock should have been dropping F-bombs like it would cure cancer.)
It is… it is still a little weird that they took almost the exact lineup from successful kids’ show Teen Titans GO! (save for Cyborg, last seen hanging with the Doom Patrol) and made a hard-R curse-filled punchfest, instead of saying “All those TT:G fans are teens now, let’s make it a blend of action and YA romance, you know, like the entire Arrowverse, which one of our producers created.” But here we are, magical teens and ex-teen sidekicks in a show clearly aimed at adults that teens probably still watch, I mean it’s not the 80s anymore, teens find stuff.
And in between these two, we find Locke and Key.
Based on the graphic novel by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, Locke and Key finds the Locke family (mother Nina, high school students Tyler and Kinsey, and kid brother/possible oops-baby Bode, which against all logic is pronounced Boh-dee) moving from Seattle to small-town New England for a fresh start after family patriarch Rendell Locke is killed by a troubled classmate of Tyler’s. They move into the Locke family estate, Key House… a place Rendell and his brother (Smallville’s Fake Jimmy Olsen, Aaron Ashmore, playing a character who maybe will be important in a later season?) have avoided for years.
Tyler meets a girl he likes, but she’s passionate about causes and he’s only passionate about self-destruction; Kinsey meets some new friends who want to make a horror movie; Bode befriends a neurodiverse teen with a similar affinity for GI Joe. That would all be great, except for two little issues. One, Bode discovers that Key House is filled with magical keys (go figure), each with their own power; and two, there’s a sinister woman at the bottom of their well who wants the keys for herself, and it does not seem like it’s for a good reason.
The Locke siblings must find and decipher the keys, unravel their father’s past, and also try not to let their teenage melodramas distract them from the fact that a murder ghost is targeting their family to steal magical keys.
And the result is… good. Quite good. Really gripping. Yes, the leads can be frustrating, but they’re teens (and one pre-teen) coping with a horrifying tragedy, one of whom has some pretty strong PTSD and one of which thinks it’s his fault, you can’t entirely blame them for not being their best selves all the time. It’s close to the kids’ adventures I remember, but felt much darker and less… kiddy.
So let’s look at Locke and Key and how they built an adult-friendly magical kids’ adventure story, with Stranger Things* as our exemplar and also touching on Titans because it’s weirdly thematically similar, and also Titans really upped their game this season and that’s worth noting.
(*We’re three seasons in, either I don’t need to explain Stranger Things to you or you’ve decided you don’t care about Stranger Things and no explanation will matter.)
In 2004, after some cajoling from a friend, I dove into an HBO show called Carnivale, featuring a war between good and evil centred around a travelling carnival in the last age of magic, ie. 1930s dustbowl America. It’s… amazing. It was a great show with a great cast and I was sucked into it so deep… and then it was very suddenly over. The creator had a six-year plan for his story, then despite pruning the cast to save money in season two, HBO dropped them after two years. Without warning. And what sucks is that if it had ended five minutes earlier it would have been a nearly perfect finale, but instead…
I have both seasons on DVD. I can see them right now. But how do you recommend people watch a show that was cut down too soon? I guess by stressing that even if the ending comes too quickly, the ride is still worthwhile.
TV shows are like any other story… eventually they end. Sure, we live in the age of revivals, where any show with enough nostalgia value could come back at any moment. You could probably name at least three without even thinking about it. There’s even talk Happy Endings could return, which… don’t… don’t tease me with that. Don’t give me hope and then take it away.
But even with revivals, shows still end all the time. Some end exactly when they’re supposed to, like Chernobyl or Good Omens. Some end long after they probably should have, like The Big Bang Theory. Some end at what’s probably the right time, but still feels too soon… and some are taken from us cruelly early.
It’s those last two we’re going to talk about today, as I say farewell to some friends new and old.