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.)
Locke and Key and the tricky balancing act of writing a magical kids’ adventure story for the adults who grew up on them.
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.
I know I talk a good deal about TV, but that’s because I watch some really great shows that I really want to talk about, but so few people I know have also seen them. Because they’re consuming a bunch of media I’m not, or spending time with their families or whatever people who aren’t media-obsessed shut-ins do.
So while I figure out the best angle to talk about our two days visiting Spain, let’s just briefly sum up some great TV that you should be watching.
Watch it. Watch it all. None of them are all that long.
Okay. Here we go. But first… one piece of new business.
Every year, some show in the rankings has been in its last season, but never enough to keep the list from growing from seven to twenty-two. But we’ve hit a point where there are enough that they’re killing themselves down to a more sustainable level. Thus, some farewells.
The Tick. Oh, The Tick… like always, maybe you were just a little too cult to live. But while you lived, you were nailing it. Wait– you had one fewer episode overall than Iron Fist? No wonder God has forsaken us.
Gotham. You were never the best show, not by a wide margin, but there were flickers of greatness… well, pretty-good-ness… that meant you weren’t the worst, either. Well, okay, sometimes you were the worst, but not recently.
The Gifted.You may have been the Agents of SHIELD of Fox’s X-Men universe, the red-headed stepchild not allowed to play with the other kids, but you did your best. Still, that Disney buy-out was your death. And come on, man, you did not have the ratings to be ending on a cliffhanger.
Literally all of Marvel Netflix. In the beginning, you set a high bar for comic TV, but you never quite matched those first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Until the end you struggled with pacing issues, unnecessary side characters, inability to pick a main villain, and a refusal to do anything too “comic booky.” And yes, you bungled the big crossover. Still, the franchise had more good than bad overall. Even Iron Fist was starting to get its act together. Was Jessica Jones’ third season a fitting send-off for the entire franchise? No, and that’s irrational, it couldn’t have been, that would have required a second, hopefully better Defenders series, maybe involving the “Who can stop Luke Cage, King of Harlem” fight they kept teasing, but “proper send-off” wasn’t on Netflix’s agenda. Disney+ was your franchise’s end. Via con Dios, Defenders.
The idea that the Marvel movies and TV shows share a universe. Not even Agents of SHIELD, which is normally first in line to name-drop any event from the movies, acknowledged the events of Avengers: Infinity War. And given when season six takes place, and when Endgame takes place, it would have to. So… guess that’s over.
Now, on with the show! (I apologize if the last two posts maybe drained some suspense out of who’s taking the top spot.)
Okay! Let’s get into the best superheroes, supervillains, and other comic-related characters of the season!
Honourable Mention: Real talk… few of these characters delighted me like the one character who defies every single category I have: Doom Patrol’s Danny the Street.
Danny’s a sentient, teleporting, genderqueer street that houses a community of misfits and outcasts, and they’re delightful, and I was so happy the writers embraced the Grant Morrison weirdness of the Doom Patrol franchise enough to include Danny. Their debut episode, “Danny Patrol,” was a blast.
(I may eventually need more non-gendered categories, especially if one of these shows casts Liv Hewson or Asia Kate Dillon or another non-binary actor of their caliber… but not today.)
Anyway, on to characters a little easier to categorize. So easy they don’t even need introductory paragraphs to explain the categories.
Best Female Supporting Character!
Honourable mentions: Carrie-Anne Moss and Rachel Taylor had some good spirals into self-destruction on Jessica Jones; Yara Martinez remained fun as Miss Lint on The Tick; Julie Ann Emery had great edge as Featherstone on Preacher.
Bronze: Rachel Taylor as Trish Walker, Jessica Jones
For the first two seasons of Jessica Jones, and a bit of The Defenders, Jessica’s best friend and adoptive sister Trish pushed Jessica to be a better hero, to use her gifts to help people and fight evil. But after the events of season two, Trish finally has powers of her own. She can finally be the hero she’s always wanted Jess to be. Sure the process that gave her powers has a slight history of also causing homicidal rage, and yes, her need to feel powerful caused all sorts of bad choices in season two, but this should be easy! Right?
Trish’s journey over season three is a rollercoaster, I tell you what, and Rachel Taylor came to play.
Silver: Tala Ashe as Zari Tomaz, Legends of Tomorrow
Playing a character whose classic hero name they can’t really use anymore, Tala Ashe’s dry wit was a welcome addition to Legends last season, and it remained so this year. But we also got to watch Zari’s tough shell begin to crack, as her survival instincts from the ARGUS police state future she came from began to relax. Her gradual, mutually awkward flirtation with fellow Legend Nate Heywood (spurred by something simple: pretending to be a couple for a heist and then thinking “Huh, we’re both hot, we could just do this”) was consistently adorable, and led to both one of the year’s best musical numbers (see last entry) and an emotional finale where she has to risk having her entire history rewritten to save Nate.
Plus she cut loose on some witch hunters (emotional), impersonated a 70s DJ (funny), and got turned into both a cat and a puppet (legendary). And if all of that weren’t enough, she opened the season with a powerful monologue on how fear took over her society, ending with one small but killer line. Lots of shows tackled fear and hate this season, but few managed as simple and powerful a moment as Zari watching her hijab-wearing mother smiling and laughing with young Zari in a playground, and asking “How could anyone be afraid of her?”
This season may have had slightly too little time for all of its character arcs, but Zari always shines.
Gold: Katie McGrath as Lena Luthor, Supergirl
There is a marvellous subtlety to Katie McGrath’s performance as Lena Luthor. She went through a lot of unpleasantness this season, loss and heartbreak and betrayal and more betrayal and a global hunt for her brother, and Katie McGrath managed to convey all the pain and sorrow Lena went through without dropping the cold, hard exterior she’s had to develop as both a successful businesswoman and a Luthor. Not the most open and loving family. Katie handled Lena’s bleak year with incredible nuance.
Katie is masterful at this role. Lena’s heading to a dark place, but I’m hoping she doesn’t go full-villain, because I don’t think I can bring myself to root against her.
Best Male Supporting Character!
Honourable mention: Jay Ali’s take as the tortured Agent Nadeem on Daredevil; most if not all of the male cast of The Umbrella Academy. Unless you consider all the Hargreeves kids to be leads, in which case just Hazel and Hargreeves Sr, I guess.
Bronze: Jesse Rath as Brainiac-5, Supergirl
Last season, Jesse Rath swiftly won me and others over as Querl Dox, aka Brainiac-5, the Legion of Superheroes’ resident super genius. In season four, he takes the departed Winn Schott’s place at the DEO, working as both a DEO agent and secret superhero ally to Supergirl and her band of alien do-gooders when relations between the two groups deteriorate.
Rath’s always done a good and amusing job at portraying Brainy’s alien, calculating nature, existing somewhere between and to the left of Data and Spock, but as he began an awkward flirtation with Nia Nal, who he swiftly recognized as an ancestor of his old teammate Dream Girl, Brainy found new levels of cute.
But what really gets him on the podium came late in the season, as the alien-hating Children of Liberty accidentally unleashed Brainy’s dark side. As anyone familiar with Superman’s rogues gallery knows, the Brainiac line is not filled with pleasant people, and under torture, Brainy lost control of his ancestral memories. After an emotional moment, a darker, crueler Brainiac was unleashed, and Brainy went from cute to chilling.
I miss Winn sometimes, but damn Brainy’s fun to have around.
Silver: Robin Lord Taylor & Corey Michael Smith as Penguin & Riddler, Gotham
There were definitely a few things Gotham did well, in the sea of things they did poorly. The art design, cinematography, at least half of their villain creations. But if I were to point to one thing that kept me going through all 100 episodes, one facet of the show that made coming back worthwhile through all the Mad Hatters and Jeromes and Jim Gordon never bringing backup, it was Robin Lord Taylor’s performance as Oswald Cobblepot. There is a time and place for restraint in acting, and Taylor understood that Gotham is not it, throwing every inch of himself into every scene he had. But he worked best when part of an unexpectedly great double-act.
Because when Penguin’s plots linked up with Ed Nygma’s? Magic. As begrudging allies, best of friends, or sworn enemies, their scenes together routinely popped. As we bid farewell to Gotham, it seemed fitting to give a final tip of the hat to their two best and most consistently entertaining villains.
Gold: Pip Torrens & Joseph Gilgun as Herr Starr & Cassidy, Preacher
Last year I talked about how perfectly Pip Torrens captures the cold, vicious, and utterly captivating Herr Starr, chief enforcer for the Grail, Earth’s secret rulers. Well, I’m not going to do that this year.
Because if anything he is surpassing his comics counterpart.
The chilling calmness with which Starr goes through his bloody business is always riveting to watch, and often hilarious. It’s at the point where I’ll be sad to see his joust with Jesse come to an end. And not just because I wasn’t ready for the show to be over after next season.
Meanwhile, Cassidy had some big moments this year, from fighting his best pal Jesse (a few times) over Tulip, even taping himself back together to go an extra round; to a quiet, sad, moment of choice where he realizes there are lines he can’t cross to keep Tulip; to his discovery of Les Enfants du Sang, a group of vampire wannabes led by the first fellow vampire Cassidy’s met in decades. Gilgun found new depths to Cassidy this season, and nailed them all. And he keeps the humour of the character, if his debate with the Enfants over how to kill a Grail infiltrator proves anything.
It’s that time again! Time to look through a season’s worth of comic book TV shows, look at who did what best, and deliver a conclusive ranking, based on my highly scientific standard of “Which ones I liked more, and also you didn’t watch them all so you don’t know I’m wrong.”
So, here are this years’ competitors, with links to blog posts if posts there do be:
(Why are the two seasons of Cloak and Dagger ranked separately but not Sabrina? Because Netflix ordered twenty episodes of Sabrina then released them in two chunks and a Christmas special, while Cloak and Dagger did ten episodes then had to get renewed before they made ten more.)
TV shows are constantly being released. Krypton and Legion started up new seasons in the past couple of weeks, and The Boys is coming up fast. So I have to draw the line somewhere. As such, I’m only including shows that ended their season between July 1st 2018 and June 30th 2019. This means some personal favourites are off the list this year because their finales are still a few weeks or months out, and Game of Thrones reminds us not to build monuments to the living, for they can still disgrace the stone. Or in other words, any show can trip over its own feet at the finish line.
So this year doesn’t include the latest seasons of Agents of SHIELD or Krypton, the final seasons of iZombie and Legion, or what is apparently the only season of Swamp Thing.
Or Walking Dead because I don’t care and you can’t make me care.
Or anything I hadn’t heard of until it was already cancelled, like whatever Deadly Class was.
Things are bad out there, you guys. Really bad. The world is dangerously close to climate-based mass extinction, and instead of banding together to stop it, more and more of the world is getting sucked into alt-right, arch-conservative, anti-science, bigoted, “us first” nationalism. The American south is attempting to treat women and reproductive rights with all the care and respect that the Confederacy treated people of colour, and Canadian conservatives are watching it happen and thinking “Say, that gives me an idea.” Nobody’s willing to call a mulligan on that whole Brexit debacle. Disney owns 40% of the concept of entertainment, and the layoffs have begun.
It’s dark out there. But I don’t have a lot of answers for that, outside of STOP. VOTING. FOR. CONSERVATIVES,so today I’d just like to talk about something related to the apparent collapse of human society.
How do superheroes respond to today’s world?
The CW superhero shows, still known as the Arrowverse and not the DCW-verse because we are incapable of coming up with good names*, devoted themselves this question this season, potentially their final season as The Best Superhero Franchise on TV. (The CW shows are of higher average quality than Marvel Netflix was, fight me, but the DC Universe streaming service came to play, peeps. Titans was better than it deserved to be and Doom Patrol is so good you guys.) Each of the four Arrowverse shows (Black Lightning remains separate for at least another half-season) spent their season addressing the state of the world in some way or another, some more nakedly than others.
So instead of a typical review of the Arrowverse shows, I want to look at how each one tackled the state of the world and their home country.
*The Canadian two-dollar coin is called the “toonie,” as the dollar coin was called the loonie, but “dubloonie” was on the table. I will never forgive my country for making the wrong choice.
Five years ago, Fox greenlit a series about Gotham City in the years before Batman. Why? Out of faith in one of comicdom’s better supporting casts of flawed do-gooders and colourful villains? Maybe, but as I’ve explained in the past, there were better ways to do that. Maybe it was because Smallville lasted ten years and– ten years. Son of a bitch. I watched that show for a decade. That is not a trivial percentage of my life. I was young and married and full of hope when that started, thinking George W. Bush was as bad a president as we’d ever see… all of that sure changed…
Anyway, five years and 100 episodes later, Young Jim Gordon’s quest to redeem Gotham City but not to a point where it wouldn’t eventually need a bat-themed superhero saviour has come to an end.
Earlier this season, I did defend portions of Gotham, if only to underline all the problems I had with Cloak and Dagger’s first season, but in the end… and we have hit the end… it was unique. Not in its subject matter… “DC Prequel Show Named After a Place” is basically a genre at this point… but in its devil-may-care bonkers approach to the subject matter. Gotham’s willingness to try any idea, no matter how insane or ill-conceived, led to some truly operatic battles between order and chaos, many of them really stupid, some of them bizarrely compelling.
As we say farewell to Gotham and brace for the showrunner’s new prequeller prequel Pennyworth…
I thought it worth a look back, through the veil of this 12-episode final season.
If anything else… they made 100 episodes of a show about the origins of Batman and a large amount of his rogue’s gallery that never said “Batman,” “Joker,” or “Catwoman” out loud, and that’s… kind of an achievement?
Runaways and Titans: two shows where I expected little, but got a lot.
This season, because I love nerd stuff more than I apparently like myself, I decided to binge my way through two shows that I had very little reason to suspect I’d enjoy. Very little. But so determined am I to keep up on any and all comic book TV series… based on comics I’ve heard of… that don’t rhyme with “Smocking Smed…” that I dove in anyway.
On the one hand, we have the Runaways.
Their second season hit back in December. Their first season was… okay… (ranked 15th of 22 last year) but sluggishly paced, and didn’t really get anywhere. I described it as a ten-hour pilot, because I can’t really remember any storylines that weren’t just gradually getting pieces in place for the origins of the runaways or storylines from season two. Sure Preacher’s first season (5th of 13, 2017) did kind of the same thing, ending the season at the end-point of the first story arc, but it felt like Preacher had a lot more going on than Runaways did (hint: Preacher almost always has more going on, it’s great). Runaways isn’t the first show I’d name when describing how a slow burn can go wrong, but it’s on the list.
Titans, the first entry from the DC Universe streaming service (available here through Netflix), didn’t have a predecessor to compare to, favourably or otherwise, but it did have a super dark and very baffling trailer that made it look like an impending train wreck.
So we have two shows, based around younger heroes, that I had every expectation of not being good… and both surprised me. Runaways seemed to take my criticisms to heart… which, yes, heavily implies that I wasn’t the only one making them… and Titans managed to be the season’s biggest surprise so far. I came in expecting to make another “Let’s laugh at how bad Iron Fist was” post, and instead it’s… legitimately interesting?
That’s nearly all they have in common. One’s a YA series with occasional mild profanity that’s as grounded as a show with aliens and magic and a dinosaur can rationally be; the other is a hard-R, curse-filled, graphically violent tale of four damaged youths trying to learn to be a team. So I guess they both have “found family is sometimes better than blood family” going on as well, and that’s all I need to justify the joint post. And along the way, I bet we find more. Rock it.