21. Agents of SHIELD
Agents of SHIELD continues to experiment, finding new threats and new locales. And yet it also seems determined to constantly repeat itself. They love to open the season by splitting the party. This would be fine, as it can help explore the new plot from multiple angles, but the issue is that they really like splitting up Fitz and Simmons. Six out of seven seasons have opened by finding a way to separate their adorkable duo, sometimes doing it again mid-season, so that they can have an emotional reunion down the road. And frankly, by last summer’s sixth kick at the can, it lost impact. Really most of the season six character arcs fell kind of flat. Sure, Enoch the Chronicon discovering friendship and Zeke using his knowledge of the future to become a douche tech billionaire were fun plots, but after that, all they had was “break up the couple(s) to get them back together” and “How much of Coulson exists inside his doppelganger, Sarge.” The first felt pointless and the second was never fully answered. And as for the main plot, Clark Gregg did well as the late Coulson’s is-he-isn’t-he-evil doppelganger Sarge, but they surely did take their time explaining what the hell was going on. And when we got there? We got their weakest, least developed, most overpowered and straight-up annoying Big Bad possibly ever.
So we have their weakest A-plot since season one (which only barely had one), a B-plot scattered loosely throughout whose sole purpose was to set up season seven, and a determination to squeeze blood from the “split up Fitz and Simmons” stone right to the very end. Not their best work. It felt like they expected to get cancelled the season before, then kind of floundered figuring out what to do next.
Oh, Krypton. You certainly did try your best. Seg-El’s mental duel with Brainiac hiding out in the back of his mind was an interesting subplot. Adam Strange continued to be a fun sidekick, even getting close to his classic comic look by the end of the season, becoming more Adam Strange and less obviously-meant-to-be-Booster-Gold. And Colin Salmon was playing General Zod to the rafters. That said… a lot, and I mean a lot of the show hinged on everyone’s… literally everyone’s, the whole of Krypton‘s… affections for Lyta-Zod, Seg’s love interest-slash-Zod’s future mother and apparent ally, and I just… man, I was not feeling it. Also, it felt like Lobo was only there to give Seg-El and Adam something to do until the show was ready for them to be back in the A-plot.
They pulled some impressive moves this season, but I still wasn’t quite at a point where I enjoyed everything they were doing.
(Also they ended on a cliffhanger, and it’s always sad to end a show on a “To be continued” that never will be.)
19. Swamp Thing
There was so much to like about Swamp Thing. Putting the focus on Crystal Reed’s Abby Arcane, determined to find scientific solutions to magical problems; Ian Ziering as ex-star turned unlikely ally Daniel “Blue Devil” Cassidy; their take on the Phantom Stranger; the effects they used to convey the horror of all the swamp nastiness; Kevin Durand swinging for the fences as plant-obsessed mad scientist Jason Woodrue. I would have loved to see their take on Abby’s evil uncle Anton Arcane, his link to the sinister force known as the Rot, and Abby and Swampy’s evolving relationship as they battle them back. Sadly all we have is ten hours, which means the show was just getting out of first gear when it ended, but they were still a fun and spooky ride.
If they’d known they were only getting ten episodes, they probably wouldn’t have run with starter villains like the Sunderlands, maybe bring in someone who didn’t lose all menace from the way he pronounced “turtle soup,” but here we are.
Pennyworth was like 70% of a good show, a spy thriller about one man and his best friends caught in a war between two secret societies for the soul of England. I’d watch that show without needing a Bat-brand. But they did give it a Bat-brand, and made it about young Alfred Pennyworth meeting Thomas Wayne and both of them meeting Martha Kane and all of them doing spy stuff together like they weren’t going to end up as two married socialites and their butler. And there’s the whole second act plot of Alfred wanting to avenge his dead fiancee that has minimal connection to the main story and frankly is some “Women in Refrigerators” nonsense.
Still, they have a really solid cast doing some really solid spy stories, so it’s still a mostly legit show. Just not quite as good a show as it could be, because prequels are a dodgy business.
For the first time in their three seasons, Runaways managed to conclusively finish a season plot by the finale. And as series finales go, “Jump forward three years, then travel back to the pilot” is really solid, even if all the set-up for future seasons they didn’t think to cut out of the episode shows they did not make a near-perfect series finale on purpose.
But the issue is, right, that the season three storyline doesn’t actually properly start until the fifth episode, because Runaways never fully recovered from the pacing issues of the first season. Since the first season finale didn’t happen until halfway through season two, for the first four episodes of season three, the plotline with Morgan le Fay (Elizabeth Hurley, oozing malice and looking… GREAT) is just hanging around like someone that definitely booked this venue for 3:00, but is noticing the 2:00 booking is somehow not wrapped up yet. Because while Morgan is certainly trying to corrupt runaway witch Nico here and there, for four hours we’re still dealing with body-snatching glowstick aliens and not a looming magical apocalypse.
So the third season has a four-episode wrap-up to the previous story, and an utterly unconnected six-episode story about magic and whatnot, and neither is bad, but it’s awkward to do both and not even try to connect them. Also, all the remaining Evil Parents get redeemed, but we’re still bracing for Alex to betray everyone, basically exclusively because that’s what he did in the comics? Alex can’t turn things around? How are we gonna find redemption for the teen-murdering parents and let them rebuild their relationships with their kids while at the same time telling the kids that once you take a life there’s no going back? Between this and “Daredevil can’t kill but how awesome is it when the Punisher does it” in the Netflix days, pick a lane, Marvel TV. Maybe with a few more episodes to build up “We can’t stop Morgan without our parents” it would have landed better?
Was a little neat to have Cloak and Dagger drop by for an episode, though. Even if I imagine, to people invested in those shows continuing to exist, the “Next time why don’t you guys come guest star on our show” line was a bit of a gut punch.
16. Black Lightning
See this is what I mean, a show that was easily top-ten for two years falling to 16, and not because they lost a step, ’cause they mostly didn’t. Competition is tough this year.
Season three of Black Lightning, in which the Pierce family (and all of their hometown of Freeland) find themselves caught in a war over control of metahumans between the rogue nation of Markovia and the corrupt American Security Agency (the Arrowverse’s shadiest intelligence organization, and I’m including the League of Assassins in that list), felt like they’re a little too eager to get onto streaming services. I watched 12 or 13 of the 16 episodes in a couple of days’ worth of COVID-quarantine and it took until episode 16 to feel like even one plotline resolved. Really made me appreciate The Witcher and The Mandalorian for bringing back episodic storytelling. And sure, some of the stories dragged a little… the struggle against the ASA’s cruel occupation of Freeland was a little slow in the first weeks (which is perhaps why it took me several months to catch up on the show); Jennifer Pierce is always mad at her family for not telling her things or being controlling in the name of protecting her, and never considers that maybe it’s because she’s largely incapable of making good choices* (she is frustrating, like “Jim Gordon on Gotham” frustrating… that’s a lot, keep up); nemesis Tobias Whale spends the season occasionally being defiant to various captors because while they want to keep him on the show and they definitely should, there wasn’t really anything for him to do this year. Markovia and the ASA did not leave room for additional villainy.
But the show still really works. Jefferson/Black Lightning is good, the elder and more sensible daughter Anissa/Thunder is good (and I love that she has a backup superhero secret identity, Blackbird, for when she has to do crime stuff for justice), matriarch Lynn had her meatiest plotline yet. The villains were solid. Bill Duke was great as Agent Odell, who mistakes patriotism for virtue, and thus thinks any act is righteous if it’s done for God and country. And in the final few episodes, Wayne Brady of all people was quite good as Markovia’s secret weapon Gravedigger, a former US soldier who was the first chemically-induced metahuman, and now fights against the US to avenge the century of systemic racism he’s lived through. really I enjoyed being able to use the sentence “That was a really solid oner of Wayne Brady murdering Nazis.” And at the centre of everything is the very real history of the American government experimenting on black people, given a superhero twist.
In the end, it was a really easy show to binge through, and now my only concern is that they’ve wrapped up a three-year storyline, and where do they go now? Also, Jefferson, you were trying to expose a whole hell of a lot of wrongdoing by a government agency, and halfway through the process you met not one but two Pulitzer-prize winning journalists who can fly and have super-hearing, I don’t know, maybe try to get their attention. Maybe end that first meeting of the CW Justice League with a quick “Oh, hey, the government is illegally occupying my city if anyone has a minute.”
*Jennifer spent several episodes mad at her entire family for not telling her the ASA had resurrected her dead boyfriend Khalil, reprogrammed his brain, and turned him into the assassin Painkiller, and not one family member said “He was dangerous and you habitually make terrible choices when he’s involved.”
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