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.)
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.
This season, because I love nerd stuff more than I apparently like myself, I decided to binge my way through two shows that I had very little reason to suspect I’d enjoy. Very little. But so determined am I to keep up on any and all comic book TV series… based on comics I’ve heard of… that don’t rhyme with “Smocking Smed…” that I dove in anyway.
On the one hand, we have the Runaways.
Their second season hit back in December. Their first season was… okay… (ranked 15th of 22 last year) but sluggishly paced, and didn’t really get anywhere. I described it as a ten-hour pilot, because I can’t really remember any storylines that weren’t just gradually getting pieces in place for the origins of the runaways or storylines from season two. Sure Preacher’s first season (5th of 13, 2017) did kind of the same thing, ending the season at the end-point of the first story arc, but it felt like Preacher had a lot more going on than Runaways did (hint: Preacher almost always has more going on, it’s great). Runaways isn’t the first show I’d name when describing how a slow burn can go wrong, but it’s on the list.
Titans, the first entry from the DC Universe streaming service (available here through Netflix), didn’t have a predecessor to compare to, favourably or otherwise, but it did have a super dark and very baffling trailer that made it look like an impending train wreck.
So we have two shows, based around younger heroes, that I had every expectation of not being good… and both surprised me. Runaways seemed to take my criticisms to heart… which, yes, heavily implies that I wasn’t the only one making them… and Titans managed to be the season’s biggest surprise so far. I came in expecting to make another “Let’s laugh at how bad Iron Fist was” post, and instead it’s… legitimately interesting?
That’s nearly all they have in common. One’s a YA series with occasional mild profanity that’s as grounded as a show with aliens and magic and a dinosaur can rationally be; the other is a hard-R, curse-filled, graphically violent tale of four damaged youths trying to learn to be a team. So I guess they both have “found family is sometimes better than blood family” going on as well, and that’s all I need to justify the joint post. And along the way, I bet we find more. Rock it.
With the last cancelations now announced, Marvel/Netflix’s Defenders franchise is winding down and will end with season three of Jessica Jones.
So it kind of makes sense, at this point, to begin looking back at this sometimes great, sometimes terrible collection of shows… and it makes extra sense, because within Punisher season two, we can see nearly every way they went wrong.
Now, I’m not saying Punisher will show us why Netflix started canceling the whole lineup. We already know why that’s happening. Disney, Marvel’s parent company, is starting their own streaming service, and that soured their relationship with Netflix, which like a white man in Hollywood is probably really annoyed that they’re no longer the only game in town.
No, I’m saying that if we examine all the ways Punisher season two didn’t work, we find nearly all of the routine failings of the five series (and one mini-series) that made up the Defenders-verse.
Including the fact that it’s not connected to the films and it never was. If Kevin Feige reboots Daredevil in three years with new actors, will you all believe it then? Or will you just blame it on the Thanos snap somehow? Probably the latter.
As I go… I’ll slip in the things they did well. Unless I run out.
Oh hey guys. What’s up? Been a little while. Plenty to talk about. I have a nostalgia trip to wax poetic about, stories to tell about the Big Apple, and since by the time I’m done my Doctor Who rewatch series 11 will be done I guess I may as well write it up… but before I get to any of that, there’s just oooooone little thing I need out of my brain.
Let’s talk Daredevil.
Daredevil Season Three: Fall and Rise
Daredevil season three dropped not so very long ago, making 2018 the first year that Marvel Netflix released a solo season for each of the four Defenders… and, given that it came on the heels of the cancellation of both Iron Fist and Luke Cage, the last.
(Also, real quick, gonna cram in another blog topic I’m probably unlikely to get to.)
(Ahem. Dear Iron Fist. You were pretty shit in your first season, and you dragged down the first and only season of The Defenders, making this whole Marvel Netflix connected universe feel like a let-down. But damned if you didn’t at least try to bounce back. You took some of the big problems of season one… Danny has no personality beyond being the Iron Fist, Danny is bad at being the Iron Fist, Colleen was more interesting as a lead… and made them into your narrative arc for the year. Clever move that made for a better show. The show still wasn’t perfect… I never had any sympathy for Joy Meechum as a character, Colleen’s subplot got put on hold so many times I kept forgetting what it was, and your A-plot boils down to two five-episode slogs to two plot points of interest… but hey you were trying. Shame you left so much on the table for a third season that isn’t coming, but you were no longer Marvel’s worst TV show, not even the worst this season.)
So. Yes. Daredevil. A few spoilers will result, there’s really no way around that if I’m going to discuss this in any detail, and I mean to do just that.
First off, the basics, in which Daredevil has fallen but the Kingpin is on the rise. We pick up a couple of months after Defenders. Matt, presumed dead by his pal Foggy Nelson but merely missing by still-not-his-love-interest Karen Page, is in the church where he was raised after the death of his father, healing from having a building fall on him, and spiritually crushed from the whole business with Elektra. Wilson Fisk, meanwhile, begins to enact a plan to get himself out of prison and back into the heights of high society, while building a new crime empire. Matt, Foggy, and Karen each search for ways to get Fisk back in prison, but he’s worked hard to be untouchable, sets out to destroyMattand the very name of Daredevil, and begins grooming a new chief enforcer in Ben “Dex” Poindexter, an FBI agent with lethal aim and severe borderline personality disorder.
Yes, I know exactly which comic character he is, thanks, but I’ll call him Bullseye when they call him Bullseye. Until then he’s “Dex” or “Fake Daredevil.”
It’s the follow-up to Daredevil’s great first season that season two failed to be, the Fast and Furious to season two’s 2 Fast 2 Furious. Season two, in fact, is all but scrubbed from memory. There are some lingering effects… The law firm of Nelson & Murdock remains broken up, we address what happened immediately after the season two cliffhanger of Matt confessing his other identity to Karen (through a flashback, since all of Defenders happened since then), Fisk seeming to have figured out Matt’s secret comes into play, and Elektra gets mentioned exactly once, but otherwise season two is forgotten. We just pick up on everything that’s been dangling since season one and try to pretend the Hand didn’t happen.
Which is for the best. Marvel Netflix fucked up the Hand so thoroughly there’s no real redemption for it now.
So how’d it turn out?
Good. Pretty good. Couple… couple of problems I want to get into, but first let’s cover what they did well.
The cast is stellar. Charlie Cox does solid work as the spiritually lost Matt Murdock, turning his back on his old path and considering breaking his no-kill rule to keep Fisk from hurting anyone. Vincent D’Onfrio remains excellent as Fisk, now adopting the name Kingpin (leaving him off the Best Villains list three years back remains my biggest blunder in comic TV rankings… also I seem to be the only Flash fan who liked Tom Felton as Julien Albert, but that’s another issue). Deborah Ann Woll is riveting as Karen Page. She’s been doing great, subtle work conveying Page’s guilt and torment over killing Fisk’s right-hand man Wesley back in season one, but this year it finally comes to a boil. Wilson Bethel kills it (excuse the expression) as Dex, and newcomer Jay Ali is great as FBI Agent Ray Nadeem. And Elden Henson (Foggy) doesn’t whiff his big moments as badly as he did in season two.
A more centralized arc makes for a stronger season than… most Marvel Netflix seasons. The focus on Nelson, Murdock, and Page against Fisk and Fake Daredevil means no third act collapse like early Luke Cage or season two Daredevil, and no games of villain roulette like early Iron Fist. All without spending six episodes getting to the point like Jessica Jones’ second season.
There is, however, one large problem. Let’s discuss it.
The Problem With Kingpin
In last season’s rankings, the silver medalist for “Worst Trend” was the all-knowing mastermind, and that one’s all over Daredevil this year.
Okay. Let’s assume that you, reader representing all readers, don’t watch as much comic book TV as I do. This seems highly probable because I don’t actually know anyone who watches as much comic TV as I do. So based on that, let’s further assume that you haven’t done this dance with Prometheus, Cayden James, Ricardo Diaz, Shadow King, Hiram Lodge, and lesser versions like the Thinker. That your reaction isn’t “Jesus, not this again.” Kingpin being five steps ahead of Daredevil and pals all season still doesn’t really work. Allow me to explain.
Yes I have to get into spoiler territory. I’ll try to avoid specifics but I have to talk about the season as a whole, yeah?
For twelve episodes Kingpin can’t be touched. For twelve episodes we learn again and again that his influence is worse than we knew, that he has leverage everywhere. For twelve episodes every single move Matt, Karen, or Foggy makes fails completely.
It is one thing for Ethan Hunt to be playing defence for an entire Mission: Impossible movie. Over two or two and a half hours, with action movie pacing, it’s thrilling. Over 13 hours, it’s a slog. When you’re ten episodes deep on a show, and the heroes haven’t had a win yet, and there are three episodes left, it can make pushing through a challenge. And it’s repetitive. It’s a slog and it has no levels. Daredevil’s first season managed this so much better, with Fisk’s criminal cabal of international stereotypes acting as minibosses, giving Matt a sense of progress as the season played out. Now it’s just Fisk winning more and more and the audience thinking “I don’t know, maybe Matt does need to kill him.”
And the other issue is, when Team Daredevil hasn’t managed a win in twelve episodes, it makes the wrap-up super forced and very unearned. There isn’t a thing they’ve been able to do to get Fisk one step closer to prison the entire season, their one big chance collapsed at the finish line in episode 12 because Fisk is that good, and then in the finale, they topple his entire operation with two phone calls and a viral video. Poof. Mission accomplished in one afternoon, with time to grab a slice downtown before dark. Fisk was a brilliant mastermind, constantly five steps ahead, able to counter any gambit, and then all of a sudden he wasn’t and his whole life fell apart (literally, thanks to the big final fight). That’s weak writing. Maybe if over the course of the season Team Real Daredevil had actually made progress, whittled down some of Fisk’s infrastructure and support system (like they did in the superior first season), the ending would have felt more earned. But they didn’t and it felt forced. They reached a mega-happy ending that would make a decent series finale so fastthat it’ll give you whiplash. Of course, if the Marvel TV purge that brought down both Iron Fist and Luke Cage hits them next, we’ll be glad for the closure, but still.
At first, towards the end of the premiere, when all the characters we knew disappeared and we shifted to some guy we’d never met having a party for his kid, it was a little throwing. He’s Special Agent Rahul “Ray” Nadeem, and he’d had to foot the bill for his sister-in-laws’ cancer treatments, which makes him ineligible for promotion because he’s seen as a criminal recruitment risk, or so they tell him. If you’re like me, when he takes up maybe a third of the premiere, you might think “What’s up with this guy?”
But do it with genuine curiosity in your voice, not annoyance, because he works pretty damn well.
Agent Nadeem puts a human face on Fisk’s ability to control people. The way he creates a need, provides a solution, and then leverages that to control his target. Ray’s a good guy, but he’s forced into a bad place, because that’s what Fisk does. Were it not for Ray, Fisk’s growing influence would have been even harder to choke down as a long arc, but viewing it all through Ray’s increasingly troubled eyes makes it almost work (again, all-knowing masterminds are just… they’re not as interesting to watch as people think).
And as I said above, Jay Ali sells the hell out of it, especially as he tries to dig his way back out.
Would that our actual lead was quite as well realized. However.
Matt’s Moral Code (Or Lack Thereof)
The ethics of killing are always, always a talking point in Marvel Netflix shows. The Defenders take a much harder line against bloodshed than the cinematic Avengers ever have. The morality of killing was the point of contention between Daredevil and the Punisher in the good part of Daredevil’s second season, and between Danny Rand and Davos in the second season of Iron Fist (although Davos’ willingness to kill his enemies proved to be slightly less of an issue than how quickly he was willing to classify someone as “enemy”). A desire to prevent deaths was Luke Cage’s only contribution to the main story of his second season. Jessica Jones is tormented by every death on her hands.
Of course this branch of Marvel TV also has The Punisher, a story driven by dozens of justice murders, which is kind of a mixed message, but anyway.
So the big question facing Matt this season is whether or not he’ll break his moral code and kill Wilson Fisk, assuming he can even get an opening to do so. They certainly try to make the stakes on this as high as they can, but… this hard and fast “no killing” rule they’re talking about hasn’t been hard or fast for a while. The second season, which they might want to forget but definitely happened, already established that while Daredevil doesn’t kill, if someone else is killing his enemies to help him out, that’s just fine by him and God, I guess. In the second season finale, both Elektra and Frank Castle killed a bunch of Hand ninjas right next to Matt and I didn’t see him complaining.
Man. Remember when the Hand actually had ninjas? We didn’t know when we were well off.
At first, Matt just wants to get Fisk back into prison, where the Albanian gang he betrayed to set his plan in motion can kill him at their leisure. That seems to fit with Matt’s moral code thus far. He isn’t killing Fisk himself, he’s just arranging for someone else to do it on his behalf, like Frank sniping all those ninjas so Matt could throw Head Ninja off the roof and Stick could cut his head off. Like that but less colourful and more prison-stabby. But something changes after Plan A goes awry with the arrival of Fake Daredevil. From there, Matt becomes determined that he must kill Fisk himself.
Him and him alone, it seems. Because upon arranging matters to put Fisk’s life in mortal peril (those two phone calls I mentioned), Matt then saves his life so that he can do it himself? That seems unnecessary. I guess not wanting to sully anyone else’s hands with the act seems like Matt’s endless martyrdom all over on paper, even if the hands he’s keeping clean are already drenched in blood, but letting someone else do his killing for him actually is Matt all over based on his actions in season two.
Man but season two has a lot to answer for. No wonder they’re trying to forget it happened so hard they gave Punisher a second origin.
And there’s a second failing on Matt’s part. His sin, as the Operative from Serenity would say, is pride.
Despite having just made three super-powered pals (four now, with Colleen), and having a potential new friend inside the NYPD in the form of Misty Knight, Matt decides to take on Fisk’s nigh-infinite resources and unstoppable muscle all by himself, only begrudgingly turning to Foggy and Karen for help.
When Sister Maggie, the nun who raised him (and comic fans know where that’s going), asks why he doesn’t focus on healing and ask any other powered hero to take point on this, he just says “It’s not their fight.”
That is just the laziest goddamn excuse.
I’m not saying this should have become the defacto second season of Defenders, the way Captian America: Civil War was essentially Avengers 2.5. That isn’t how these things work, and ultimately it’s too easy. The real reason he never calls Luke Cage for help, even when he finds himself needing to be in two places at once, is that they needed Fake Daredevil to win his first two rounds against Real Daredevil, and Fake Daredevil wouldn’t have lasted five minutes against Luke Cage, given that being able to throw a pencil with lethal precision won’t matter to someone with bulletproof skin and super strength. But they really needed a better excuse.
Outside of the annual crossover, the Flash almost never comes to save Green Arrow, and vice versa, and nobody ever thinks to ask Supergirl to pop by and solve all of their problems (Earth-1 in the Arrowverse has maybe four villains who aren’t laughably outmatched by Supergirl). This doesn’t happen because “The Hero Bravely Asks Someone to Solve Their Problems” might sometimes be the right play, but it isn’t narratively satisfying. But at least there are reasons why this doesn’t happen. First and foremost, these are episodic shows that air simultaneously, so we can always see what the Flash is busy with that’s keeping him from popping over to Star City when Green Arrow’s stretched thin. And if necessary, they come up with other reasons. Such as in this year’s Flash premiere, when they have a time travel problem, and someone actually thinks to say “Hey, why don’t we ask that spaceship full of time travellers we know for help?” and then they do (off camera), and we’re given an explanation as to why they can’t fix everything. A made-up-science explanation but still an explanation.
Marvel Netflix shows drop months apart from each other, and we’re often shown they happen sequentially (Iron Fist season two clearly takes place after Luke Cage season two, although it’s anyone’s guess when Jessica Jones’ second season is in comparison). So while Danny Rand is probably out of town, Jessica, Luke, Colleen, Misty, and Frank freaking Castle aren’t, and I have no idea what they’re doing that’s so great they can’t take an interest in the return of Wilson Fisk. Hell, Fisk’s plan should absolutely be of interest to the new King of Harlem. And while I can’t see Matt asking the Punisher to come and help him do a murder (as we discussed above, he became really weirdly insistent on doing it himself), I can certainly see Karen Page turning to her super-violent friend for backup, or at least protection.
Not to mention Punisher vs. Fake Daredevil would be a fight to see. But the Punisher isn’t even mentioned. Jessica Jones at least had her name dropped once, if not in a flattering light.
No, all we’re given is “It’s not their fight,” an excuse so hollow it becomes a weakness of character, Matt’s pride not letting him reach out to his new friends, even if they could have tipped the scales before he suffered some hard losses. I mean come on, Matt, at least let them know you got out from under that building.
(Also why did none of them come poking around when Fisk made Daredevil public enemy number one? Stubborn idjits, all of ’em.)
The more I think about it the less I’m on board with Matt giving up the Daredevil costume to go back to those black pyjamas from season one. His whole thing was giving up being Matt Murdock to focus on being the Devil (I know I say this a lot but this time for sure, can we be done with “The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen,” please? At least they only said it once that I remember this time), but why go all the way back to his first outfit? Sure he mumbled something about turning his back on what the costume represented, but it’s not like he completely changed methods and tactics when he put the red suit on. He’s the same hero in red he was in black, and going back to the PJs simply means less protection. Daredevil loses one of his fights with Fake Daredevil for only one reason: Fake Daredevil is wearing body armour and Matt isn’t. Matt was landing way more blows, but Fake Daredevil’s armoured suit could take the punishment better than Matt’s sweatshirt, something I could swear he learned back in season one when that ninja sliced him up like lunch meat. It feels to me like somebody decided the Daredevil suit is a little too comic booky, and that’s the mindset that turned the Hand from a ninja death cult to a multinational corporation of diverse businesspeople who also do crimes sometimes, and that’s the worst thing Marvel Netflix ever did other than hire Scott Buck to write a TV show, so to Hell with that approach. In the event that Daredevil survives the apparent Marvel TV purge, ditch the PJs and get him back in the suit.
Dex is never called Bullseye because he isn’t Bullseye yet. This is meant to be his villainous origin, with Fisk pulling him into the dark he’s spent his life trying to avoid. I just… I never really thought of Bullseye as needing an origin. And since the whole lethal aim with any object thing turns out to go back to childhood, it still kind of isn’t an origin? That skill is never explained. It’s just something he can do.
For the second time, Stephen Rider is credited as a series regular as District Attorney Something-or-Other. Beats me why. He is a minor recurring character, plain and simple, and should just be a guest star.
No Claire Temple, no other Defenders, not even Turk. I don’t know that any Marvel Netflix show has skipped a Turk appearance.
[spoiler title=’Okay so this is about the actual final climax’ style=’default’ collapse_link=’true’]I disagree with the AV Club on one thing. I thought that the big final free-for-all between Daredevil, Kingpin, and Fake Daredevil was at least thematically sound, as it involved literally destroying the home Kingpin had spent the season piecing together. It provided a physical representation of Kingpin’s downfall, the collapse of everything he’d built.[/spoiler]
A lot of people are doing talented work, but there comes a time when the writers have to figure out that 13-hour TV shows need more dynamic arcs than two-hour movies.
Cloak and Dagger is the latest offering from Marvel TV’s latest branch, what I refer to as Marvel Young Adult. Marvel YA currently consists of two shows, Freeform’s Cloak and Dagger and Hulu’s Runaways, which between them demonstrate a house style for the Marvel YA branch. Decompressed storytelling, slow-burn character development, simplistic visuals, grounded characters dealing with fantastical elements being shoved into their lives.
Less charitable terms would include “slow” and “kind of basic,” taking ten episodes to work through pretty simple plot points.
And then there is Gotham.
Gotham is wildly creative in its design and in its villainous characters, often gorgeous in its set design and shot composition. Characters constantly forge and break alliances, make and change plans, and every now and then a maniacal ginger sweeps through to upend everything for a few episodes. It burns through multiple plots over the course of one season, ranging from simple to operatic in scope. And most of them are really, really stupid.
In other words, it’s a wildly inconsistent show with no stable characterizations that has the odd moment or scene of greatness but is mostly a trash fire.
Cloak and Dagger is a grounded, narratively sound show about two young people dealing with real issues like police corruption, corporate greed, and addiction; and also the fantastic, as they both develop magic powers that might mean they’re preordained to save all of New Orleans. So why is it that I struggled to get through its ten episodes so much more than I did Gotham’s latest season? Why am I more excited to see Gotham wrap up than I am to see what Cloak and Dagger does now that all of the origin stuff is out of the way?
I think what it comes down to is craftsmanship vs. vision, and how each show only has one. Cloak and Dagger has craftsmanship. It’s good at building consistent characters and by-the-numbers plot points that, in most but not all cases, build and payoff naturally. They’re just basic and a little dull.
Gotham… well it’s never dull, I’ll give it that. They come up with three ways for all of Gotham to be in peril per season, each big and epic, each gorgeously shot. There are moments, every now and then, usually in a scene featuring Penguin and the Riddler, where the show nearly reaches greatness. However, try to describe any single character arc and you end up sounding like a raving lunatic.
Okay. Let’s throw up some subheaders and look at some specifics.
“Skill without imagination is craftsmanship, and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets.” -Tom Stoppard
So at the lead of Cloak and Dagger are Tyrone and Tandy. Tyrone’s a private school basketball player whose brother was killed by a police officer, Tandy’s living rough and scamming rich douchebags because her father was wrongly blamed by the Roxxon corporation for the destruction of an offshore rig, leaving Tandy and her addict mother broke. And the night Tyrone’s brother and Tandy’s father both died, both thanks in part to that rig explosion, they both washed up on the same beach. And when they’re reunited years later, they discover that the explosion gave them powers. Tandy can summon daggers of light, Tyrone can teleport, and when they touch people, they can see visions of their hopes or fears respectively.
Tandy’s addiction issues are well done and not overplayed, as she goes from being hooked on opioids (I assume, what other prescription pills do you grind up and snort?) to being addicted to a simulation of her father’s voice to freebasing people’s hopes and dreams (our hero, ladies and gentlemen). She’s a tough character to like but easy enough to empathize with. Tyrone is a well-built character, to be sure, and the better of the two. He’s still filled with anger over the death of his brother, and the utter lack of repercussions for the officer involved (who, by the way, is now Bad Lieutenant levels of corrupt), but his parents are riding him to stay on the straightest of narrows lest he die too. His motives make sense, his frustrations are real, his arc speaks to an important issue in the US, and that would all be great, it’s just, it’s just…
No, we’ll get to that later.
Gotham, as I described… well, no fewer than five people have, at one point over the series, launched a scheme of mild to mass destruction in an effort to show Jim Gordon “who he really is,” and it is an ordeal each time and whoever’s doing it is instantly the worst person on the show. Well, okay, that’s not entirely true, it takes a lot to be worse than perpetual nogoodnik Barbara Kean, and not everyone out to prove a point to Jim Gordon manages it.
Ugh. Barbara Kean. I guess the producers like the actress playing her because she has been a train wreck since season one, has almost never been in a good storyline, certainly not as a main character, but she just won’t go away. Death couldn’t do it. Although, really, to be anyone in Gotham’s crime circles you really need to die at least once. It’s like a rite of passage.
They’re so thirsty to bring in as many Bat-villains as possible that they introduced Jerome, the proto-Joker, who commits a series of carnival-themed mass murders while acting as Joker-like as possible (even with a sewn-on face at one point, to homage the recent classic “Death of the Family”), but they never commit to him actually being the Joker, because they seem perpetually unwilling to think more than one story ahead. At one point he magically shows up at Wayne Manor (which has the worst security in the known universe, villains stroll into Bruce’s study all the goddamn time) and literally smashes a more interesting plot point.
Gotham is filled with big ideas but very little notion of how to pull them off.
Craftsmanship is what allows Legion showrunner Noah Hawley to craft a tight and compelling story arc each season. Vision is what makes every frame of Legion a painting, the most innovative show on TV.
And I am here to tell you that for all of Cloak and Dagger’s craftsmanship, it has precious little vision.
Okay. Let me back up to that rig explosion for a second. See, while Roxxon is happy to try to pin everything on Tandy’s father, the real cause was that they were cutting corners to save money while trying to drill for a weird and sinister magical energy like it’s oil.
Let me say that again. They are drilling for a weird and sinister magical energy like it’s oil and if that wasn’t enough corporate greed for ten episodes they are doing it sloppily to save money, which puts all of New Orleans at risk because exposure to this weird energy turns people into rage monsters, and every time some douche in a suit tries to save $50 by ignoring the engineers in charge of extracting the dark and sinister soul-juice mortal man was not meant to meddle with, they risk a citywide rage monster outbreak.
That… that should be the main story. Right? Shouldn’t it? Magical force gives two teens superpowers, same magical force threatens to wipe New Orleans off the map? Only Tyrone’s new girlfriend’s voodoo-slinging mother can point Cloak and Dagger to their destiny? Right?
Then why is it only a thing in episodes six, seven, and ten?
This is the main plot. This is what Tyrone and Tandy have been given powers to prevent. And yet it is at best the C-plot of the first season, and the A and B plots are… so, so basic.
Tyrone is out to bring the cop (Officer-now-Detective Connors) who killed his brother to justice. One cop. One cop who has graduated from shooting unarmed black youths to having some unspecified major role in New Orleans’ drug trade, which is being run by one person who maybe is Detective Connors? I don’t know. It is not clear. I think it’s supposed to be a plot point for season two and God I hate it when shows do that.
So with the secret mastermind of New Orleans’ drug supply off the table until next year, Tyrone’s out to bring down one cop. Just one. One committing so many crimes that you’d think it was only a matter of time before he got caught for something.
There are three really big problems with this taking up half of our season, to the point where Detective Connors is still demanding focus while rage zombies are swarming over New Orleans.
First. One corrupt cop doesn’t exactly live up to the likes of Damien Darhk, Wilson Fisk, the Reverse-Flash, or Kilgrave, does it? Doesn’t even live up to The Hand or Vandal goddamn Savage. An effort to bring down one single cop who killed a black youth back in the day is not something I look for in an entire season of a TV show that opens with the Marvel logo. It is, at best, a two-part episode of Elementary.
By comparison, Gotham is endlessly creative in its creation of villains. Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot is almost enough to keep me invested on his own. Cameron Monaghan’s not-Joker-but-Jokeresque Jerome improves with every outing. But the one highlight I’ll name is Anthony Carrigan’s take on Victor Zsasz, which is possibly… no, definitely… the best version of this B-list Bat-villain ever done. He’s used sparingly but is a delight every time he turns up. Detective Connors is used constantly and wears thin quickly.
Yes, sure, it is extremely difficult for the families of African Americans wrongfully killed by the police to get any sort of justice, but I don’t turn to superhero shows to tell me justice isn’t possible. I have the news for that. And this brings us to point two.
Second. In order to stretch Detective Connors’ schemes out to near the end of episode ten, they need to make the entirety of the NOPD hopelessly, comically corrupt to its very core. There are two good cops in all of New Orleans: Detective Brigid O’Reilly, freshly transferred from Harlem*, and Fuchs, the uniform officer she starts dating. Every other cop in New Orleans is willing to do whatever it takes to cover up any and all crimes Connors commits, up to and including unambiguously murdering other cops. Why? Why is this? Because of the uncle he mentions after he kills Tyrone’s brother, the one who presumably made that go away? Because he’s the N’Awlins drug kingpin they’re keeping in place because hey, at least they know where all the drugs are coming from? Impossible to say. Both of those concepts are hinted at but never explored because Zod Almighty forbid that any actually interesting story points get explored in the first season. No, just put a pin in everything but Connors’ crime spree and Tandy’s daddy issues.
Gotham, on the other hand, leaves nothing on the table. Any plotline could get thrown out in five episodes if the showrunner thinks up something he likes more, so they get right to the meat of it as quickly as they can. Sure the plot is possibly, even probably very stupid, but at least you’re not shouting “Get there!” Well, maybe Party Boy Dick Bruce. That overstayed its welcome fast, but in general my point stands.
But the real problem with painting the entire NOPD as this corrupt is that it saps Tyrone’s plotline of that realism that people are likely to use to defend it.Connors doesn’t get away with killing Tyrone’s brother because of the blue code of silence. He doesn’t get acquitted by a grand jury because the defense stacked it with white jurors. No, the entire NOPD twists itself into a pretzel to cover up his every wrongdoing, even when fellow cops are dying. An entire precinct watches him openly plot to murder Tyrone and fellow cop O’Reilly while they’re in handcuffs and just says “Sure.”
That’s not realism, that’s HR from Person of Interest, the organised crime syndicate operating within the NYPD. Except it’s worse than that because HR hadn’t taken over the entire force, and was taken down twice in three seasons. It’s the cartoonishly corrupt police department of Gotham, the police department that agreed to let Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot take over law enforcement through the issuing of crime licenses. But Jeebas, when that happened, Jim Gordon was able to redeem the entire GCPD in only nine episodes, despite being so terrible at everything he does. Seriously, there isn’t a trap he hasn’t walked gleefully into, a villain he hasn’t tried to fight single-handedly even though it never worked. But even he could redeem a police district by setting a good example.
And the fact that the NOPD is so hopelessly corrupted brings us to problem number three… Connors doesn’t go to jail. He gets swallowed by Tyrone’s powers. Consumed by the “cloak” that his powers manifest. So the moral of Tyrone’s arc is “The system is so broken that the only way to get justice is murder.”
That’s… are we there? Has it gotten that bad? That a show aimed at teens is advocating that murder is the only justice?
I don’t love that**. I don’t know what the real path to justice is, or if there even is one, but superheroes are supposed to leave a little hope that it exists.
*Luke Cage‘s Misty Knight and O’Reilly are established as buds on both shows. Between that and the head of Roxxon saying he has to compete with the Starks and the Rands, there’s more Marvel-universe-connecting than we ever saw on Runaways. But let’s not get excited about crossovers. We all know there won’t be any.
**To specify, I am 100% fine with Detective Connors taking the express train to the Bad Place, I just would have rathered O’Reilly killed him.
And then there’s Tandy
Tandy’s arc is a little less straight-forward, and more tied to Roxxon’s rage zombies. It’s just a little… all over the place. She’s all about grifting, then she’s all about proving that her father wasn’t responsible for the explosion and bringing down Roxxon, then she learns one bad thing that breaks her image of her perfect father… in fairness it was a pretty damn bad thing… and immediately forgets about her dad’s good name (fair, maybe?), the Roxxon assassin who killed her mother’s boyfriend to stop his lawsuit against them (way less fair), and the fact that Roxxon is drilling for magic ooze and being cheap and careless about it which is the entire reason her father is dead. That’s not particularly fair at all. Especially since she forgets all of that in order to become an even worse person than she was before, moving from stealing people’s stuff to stealing their hopes.
It’s not all shoddy writing, though. Not entirely. There is a consistent characterization happening here. Not as rigidly, maddeningly consistent as Gotham’s Jim Gordon, whose character is so consistent he never once learns a lesson about running off to confront a villain without bringing backup, but also not so wildly inconsistent as… everyone else on Gotham. It’s just a bit a slog to get through.
And they know it’s a slog. That’s why the penultimate episode has a framing device in which they keep cutting to one of Tyrone’s teachers explaining the “regression” stage of Joseph’s Campbell’s Hero’s Journey monomyth theory, and how it’s frustrating for the reader/viewer but an important stage in the hero’s story, so we just have to buckle down and get through it.
I) “Regression” is not a stage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. It’s merely one of the various tropes writers have employed in the “Ordeal” stage. So becoming a worse person than when we met her is not, strictly speaking, a necessary stage of the hero’s journey, it’s just the one they chose, and…
II) Having a character basically step outside of the narrative and explain to the audience that this is going to be frustrating but we promise it’s important demonstrates a deep lack of faith in their own plot point. From the second scene (the first is Tyrone’s new girlfriend Evita’s voodoo-priestess mother doing a rum-based ritual to figure out what, specifically, is dooming New Orleans… I don’t have time to explain that sentence, just read it again and try to keep up), they are apologizing for this entire episode. If that’s something you feel a need to do… then write something else, because your own script is trying to tell you something.
So Tandy is unpleasant. She’s not a natural born hero, she’s an addict given power and it takes her a while to choose to use it wisely. It’s not inherently a bad arc, it’s just really slow, and has an 11th-hour regression that even the show’s writers don’t care for, or at least don’t believe in. She resists being a hero with every fibre of her being for nine and a half episodes. Which is Marvel YA, and kind of Marvel Netflix, all over. They take a story that would normally fit comfortably into a two hour movie and pad and stretch it out into 10-13 episodes. Maybe that’s your thing. Personally, I prefer to have the character decide to be a hero within two episodes and spend the first season learning how exactly to do that through episodic adventures, and that’s something the CW is more than happy to provide me with, but if you’d rather spend ten hours watching Tandy learn to care about something other than herself then hey here that is.
Cloak and Dagger does have a few moments of inspiration. Episode three ends with Tyrone and Tandy experiencing a vision representing each other’s pasts and possible futures, bringing each to the conclusion that the other needs to change their approach. It’s a bravura sequence in a season that has, maybe, three of those. But the issue I’m bringing up is that a big chunk of the vision, certainly most of Tyrone’s vision about Tandy, takes place in this one chunk of forest. A lot of visions take place in that one chunk of forest. Don’t know why.
It’s an attempt at vision. It just… doesn’t quite get there. Not compared to the poison-induced fever dream that convinces Bruce Wayne to stop being a jackass and get back to Batmanning in season four of Gotham.
The Framing Devices
Three times over the course of the season, there’s a framing device for an episode. Three times they cut between the main narrative and Evita having something explained to her, usually by her voodoo priestess mother (honestly, I don’t know what else I have to explain there, I said it perfectly clearly all three times), and once by the possibly alcoholic priest (another story given almost no attention so we can focus on trying to prove Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans might be a bad cop) who teaches English at her and Tyrone’s school. Each one of these framing devices has a serious problem to it.
In the first, Evita’s mother does a tarot card reading on Tyrone and Tandy. Over the course of the entire episode. The problem here is that it’s episode six and we’ve never had a framing device untethered to the main narrative before. Tyrone and Tandy’s plots take multiple days to play out, and throughout all of it, Evita’s mother is just slowly dealing out cards. We don’t know that this isn’t supposed to match the timeline of the main stories, we just think she’s taking forever to do a simple card reading. “I’ve been dealing the cards for years,” she says. “This specific reading?” I ask.
The second we talked about. A side character comes a step away from literally apologizing for the ninth episode. Not even Inhumans did that.
And in the third, Evita’s mother walks us through her belief in the Divine Pairings: pairs of people throughout history who came together to save New Orleans from some major crisis, always through one of them dying. This has been what she’s been spending half of the season telling us, that Tyrone and Tandy are a Divine Pairing, a crisis is coming, and one of them will have to die stopping it. Before I tell you the problem with this framing device, let me give it props for setting each story to a cover of “Come Sail Away” that matches the time period. That was neat.
The issue is not the fact that of course neither Tandy nor Tyrone are going to die, they wanted and received a second season. The issue is that a lot of her examples call her whole theory into question. In order…
Two native siblings, one of which drowns herself to stop a famine, the other of which doesn’t really do anything. That’s not a story about a Divine Pairing, that’s a story about one girl who died to appease a mean, mean god or whatever.
Two brothers have a duel over a woman, one of them throws it, and a storm that maybe would have gotten around to menacing New Orleans coincidentally ends as he dies. Honestly I’m a little surprised anyone, even the voodoo community, bothered to write this one down. It was raining and then it wasn’t and also a rich asshole got shot by his brother. Lumping it in with the others smacks of confirmation bias if’n you ask me.
A messenger in the War of 1812 who was carrying word that the war was over and the Battle of New Orleans could call it a day, and the woman who delivered his message after he’s shot in front of her. That’s… there were a lot of other people in that story, lady.
A doctor that’s trying to cure a plague, and injects his own blood into his lover in an attempt to cure him. And when the final, lethal withdrawal of blood cures the doctor’s lover, the plague in general goes away. Again, that’s one person who did a thing and one person who was pretty enough to motivate him, “Divine Pairing” might be stretching things.
So really it’s no surprise Tandy and Tyrone defy their supposed destiny. The Divine Pairing theory has some holes in it. What we really have, at most, is a dark force that agrees to stop screwing with the New Orleans area if someone good offs themself, and also a possibly apocryphal anecdote about the War of 1812.
You never have to worry about Gotham having a larger meaning it fails to live up to. Mostly from lack of effort on their part to have a larger meaning. Basically they just keep coming up with excuses to say “It’s a new day in Gotham,” and the only way they can fail to pay that off is if the last shot of the finale isn’t Bruce putting on his Batman costume for the first time while Jim Gordon repeats the line.
Random Cloak and Dagger thoughts
To reiterate, Tandy sees a Roxxon assassin kill her would-be step-dad to silence the lawsuit he was helping her mother with, and she just… forgets about it. Moves on. Makes a deal with Roxxon like they don’t have an assassin who cleans up their messes, and won’t risk catastrophe to save less money than she was demanding. That’s beyond Jim Gordon-level foolish, that is season one Iron Fist Danny Rand-level dumb.
Oliver Queen and Barry Allen have made some questionable decisions these past six seasons but they’ve never freebased stolen hopes. That was an extreme regression for the penultimate episode.
While explaining that this regression that sorry, we know you hate, was going to forge Tandy and Tyrone into stronger heroes (well Tandy had nowhere to go but up, really), it also hints that we’re witnessing Detective O’Reilly’s origin as a villain. Guess we’ll see where that’s heading next season. I’m okay with it. The actress was pretty good.
The commentary on US race relations is pretty spot-on. It was just done better on Black Lightning. Which again managed to show that cops can be bad and/or racist without turning the entire police force into Cobra from GI Joe.
It’s early days yet but I can basically guarantee you’re not going to be seeing Tyrone’s name under “Best Male Lead” next June. He’s trying his best but he’s got a ways to go.
Random Gotham thoughts
This is the worst thing Gotham has ever done, and it involves Ivy Pepper, who we’re made to believe from episode one will later be Poison Ivy, despite the fact that even Joel Schumacher knew that Poison Ivy’s name is Pamela Isely. Anyway, in season one and two, she’s a young girl, but twice over the course of the show she’s magically aged-up into older bodies that emerge wearing her old clothes, now small and clingy to show off the new body’s… matured shape. It is also made clear, at least the first time, that her mind didn’t age up with her. Starting in season three Ivy Pepper has the mind of a 12 year old but a body the producers are legally free to sexualize, and that’s gross, that’s a gross thing they did, it’s gross.
I never knew how much I wanted Mr. Freeze to fight Firefly until it happened in season two and it was gorgeous.
Speaking of Mr. Freeze, I appreciate how they dispensed with an old tradition, as Harvey Bullock insists Victor Fries’ name isn’t pronounced “Freeze.” He says “No, I’m good with last names. It’s not ‘freeze,’ it’s ‘frice.'” Turns out he’s right.
Also clever, if sadly short-lived… Ra’s Al Ghul dispatches colourful assassins to reclaim a special dagger from Bruce Wayne. When they fail, and the GCPD becomes involved, he tries a new tactic… he shows up at the GCPD in glasses and a sweater-vest saying “Hello, I’m Ra’s Al Ghul from the Nanda Parbat consulate, may we have our cultural artifact back please?” If the GCPD hadn’t been answering to Penguin at the time it would have worked. And it’s something Arrowverse Ra’s Al Ghul would never have thought up. That’s three times Gotham has done a villainbetter than you, Arrow, get it together.
And finally, my conclusion
Am I saying Gotham is a better show than Cloak and Dagger? No. That’s a not a statement I or anyone could stand behind. Better than Inhumans, sure, better than Iron Fist, yes, but better than Cloak and Dagger,not so much.
It is, however, so much more watchable. Gotham’s good episodes may be vastly outnumbered by the bad ones, but I keep tuning back in because for every plotline that has me screaming in complaint, there’s another where I have to see where it’s going.
Cloak and Dagger… I knew within two episodes where the bulk of this was going, and was very swiftly impatient for it to hurry up and get there. It didn’t help that they leaned into the previous season’s most overplayed and annoying trope.
Cloak and Dagger has very solid fundamentals. But they need to think bigger. They need to commit to a central narrative, and make it one that’s fun to watch now and then.
They need vision.
Until then… No Man’s Land for the final season of Gotham? Where are they going with that?
Okay. So let’s get down to it. Twenty-two comic book series. How do they stack up? And perhaps some hints about why we didn’t hear from some of them during the awards portion. Worst to best, let’s get this party started.
A cheap-looking blend of boring and annoying, determined to find the least interesting version of some of Marvel’s strangest characters, weirdly reluctant to connect to even the other Marvel show about Inhumans on the same network.
To paraphrase the late, great Achewood, Inhumans failed with a focus and intensity normally seen only in successes.
#21. The Defenders
This one has fallen the furthest in my esteem since my initial review. In August, I was digging the show’s strengths… primarily the interplay between Matt Murdock & Jessica Jones and Luke Cage & Danny Rand… enough that I was willing to forgive some of its many flaws (aggravatingly slow start, misuse of supporting cast, poor pacing despite being only eight episodes, focusing the plot on the worst parts of the franchise and no they haven’t improved). But as the TV season progressed, I began to turn on the show more and more, because this overly talky, stripped-down, “grounded” miniseries is what Marvel Netflix thinks prestige comic TV looks like, and it isn’t, it just isn’t.
Although the overall franchise bounced back a little since then, and is no longer getting its ass kicked quite so thoroughly by the CW.
#20. The Flash
[Deep sigh] Come on, guys, you are better than this.
They tried to bring back the fun after the Refrigerating-Iris Savitar arc from last year, and for six episodes it was working and working well… then the Thinker arc kicked into gear, and every single thing the show did well from that point on was drowned out by the oppressively and remorselessly grim A-plot. I love so much of this show, but their refusal to cut Team Flash a break made tuning in a chore.
Pull it together, Flash.
(But any dudebros saying that the real problem was too much Iris can go straight to Hell. Why are fandoms so toxic lately.)
The season’s most improved player didn’t creep up too far, because the greatest problem about Gotham is that it is maddeningly inconsistent, with extreme highs and lows. When it’s good, it’s actually pretty damn good, but when it’s bad it is so very bad, and you never know which Gotham you’re going to get from episode to episode, or even scene to scene. It has some of the best cinematography and art direction of any show on this list but frequently pairs it with shoddy storytelling.
The show cycles through multiple storylines per year, which means never getting mired in something as bad as the Thinker on Flashfor 22 episodes, but also means a plot you enjoy might get tossed out or devolve into some Barbara Kean or Jerome the Proto-Joker nonsense. Actors are made full-cast regulars but might get dropped at any point… like Ra’s Al Ghul, who only turned up for half the season, or Harvey Dent, who was a series regular for nearly all of season two but was only in three episodes. Put these two things together, and it gives the appearance that the writers have no plan. They’re just making things up as they go along.
This year the good parts (most of Penguin, the Riddler, Solomon Grundy, early Ra’s Al Ghul, and even about half of Jim Gordon, who had classicly been stuck in the worst plots) were as good as the show has ever been, and even Jerome the Proto-Joker, a concept I never overly cared for, was surprisingly entertaining. But the bad parts (90% of Barbara Kean, at least half of Bruce Wayne, late Ra’s Al Ghul, anyone trying to show Jim Gordon who he really is– which has not gotten more fun since the last five times it happened) were everything that’s bad about Gotham in its purest form.
Ugh. This Zod damned show. I can’t believe I’m going to watch every single episode of it.
The mid-point plot twist was a game-changer that made the second half of Krypton surprisingly compelling and sets up a potentially improved season two. This does not, to my mind, make up for the fact that the first half of Krypton was mostly drab nonsense. Until the Zod reveal, it was Smallville that thought it was Game of Thrones, and no show has a right to only be good in its back half.
Two great… or at least really well cast… villains and a much, much improved Felicity Smoak helped, but a sluggish second act and a season arc that hinged on two of the year’s most annoying and overplayed tropes (all-knowing mastermind and heroes-behind-bars) mean that Arrow has lost ground since its top-four placing last year.
#16. The Gifted
The Gifted shows a lot of promise, especially in the Mutant Underground vs. Hellfire Club plot they’ve kicked off. Certainly more promise than an X-Men show in a world without X-Men seemed to suggest. But that potential isn’t quite paying off yet. Improved pacing and making the Struckers more interesting (or less central, either way) could bring this show from “okay” to “quite good.” But man I do not care for Agent Jace, even if Emma Dumont thinks his motives are perfectly understandable.
Is it me? Have I been spoiled by so many shows that favour seasonal arcs over full-series arcs? Is that why I ended up less fond of Runaways?
You know what, no. It’s an insanely crowded TV landscape this year. There’s so much TV on that I somehow still haven’t finished the second season of Santa Clarita Diet and it is so freaking funny this year, you have no idea. So while Runaways was doing well, save for some really clunky dialogue here and there, the fact remains that the first season is essentially a ten-hour pilot.
If you have room in your viewing schedule for a ten-hour pilot, you could do a lot worse. If you don’t, then hey, I get that.
Detractors of Riverdale will point out how ridiculous and overwrought everything that happens is on this noir crime thiller that for some reason stars the Archie Comics characters. Fans of the show will point to the exact same things. Yes, this show is… it is melodramatic to the point of self-parody. By way of a for instance, Betty Cooper had her previously unknown half-brother Chic teach her to be a dominatrix cam girl and they just, and they just, they just moved on like that wasn’t even a thing. “Betty becomes a cam girl! Anyhoo, let’s check back in on Archie joining the mafia.”
It works because it knows what a ridiculous melodrama it is, and they lean into it so hard. From the direction to the cinematography to the set decoration to the acting, everyone knows exactly what this show is and they commit to it. That’s why I don’t ding Riverdale for clunky, awkward dialogue like I did Runaways. Because Archie’s pals and gals sell it. And that’s what makes it so hard to stop watching.
I mean… if you can get past the fact that it is, at its core, this ridiculous. Which I can.
#13. Agents of SHIELD
And so ends their reign as Marvel’s best TV show. Turns out it’s a hard title to hold when Marvel Netflix actually shows up to work.
Despite that fact that no other Marvel property (save for the comics) will even look Agents of SHIELD in the eye, it does remain an entertaining watch with some delightfully charming (most of the time) characters. That said… of the two halves to the season, “SHIELD in Space” and “Fix the Future” (my titles not theirs), the first one overstayed its welcome by a few weeks, and the second did nothing with one of its central premises. Which is to say, the fact that the Agents of SHIELD might have been stuck in a time loop ultimately had little impact. They broke the time loop with little effort, just because they decided to. Not the strongest choice.
But it was fun watching them write a season like it was going to be their last.
#12. Luke Cage
So, showrunner, you see your season as a Zeppelin album, something to be experienced in its entirety, rather than a collection of singles. Cool. So that means you don’t care so much about making each episode its own thing. Sure. But you still, honestly I’m also getting tired of saying it, you still need to work on pacing. As much as Alfre Woodard is acting the Hell out of Mariah, the fact remains that her arc runs out of momentum in episode ten. Of thirteen. And episodes ten and eleven reeked of filler, and that was too late in the season for filler.
They improved on a lot of fronts. They have two good villains (three including Shades) and stick to them instead of pulling in a Diamondback for the third act. (It was amusing watching the showrunner try to walk back an admission that he didn’t use Diamondback this season because nobody liked him). Misty Knight was finally well used. It only took them three episodes to get the plot going, not five. Maybe this show was the season’s most improved player, not Gotham… but I continue to live in hope of a Marvel Netflix show that actually knows how to fill 13 episodes.
Also once again Luke Cage manages to be one of the least interesting or necessary characters on his own show. I think about the A-plot and it’s all about Mariah and Bushmaster but also Luke is there. He’d lift right out. Not ideal.
Still, more worked than didn’t. We’re at that point of the list.
#11. The Punisher
Okay. So. Gun-toting mass murderers are a kind of problematic as far as leading characters go, in this time where the United States has mass shootings once a week. And knowing this, they included the bad kind of disgruntled while male turned domestic terrorist… well that was rough to type… in the form of rat-faced Lewis, the ex-soldier who despite all the support in the world becomes a mad bomber because he meets one bigoted gun-nut who radicalizes him against liberal society. Which, fine, okay, but they sure did waste a lot of time on Lewis when the beginning and end of his arc were the only necessary moments. And hey, maybe implying that every soldier can become a remorseless killing machine once back in society isn’t awesome? Maybe show that there are ways to get past battlefield trauma other than mass murder?
Also, and I cannot stress this enough, making this a second origin story was a bad, bad choice. Frank knew his old commanding officers were involved in his family’s death, he should not have needed Micro to walk him through it in order to care about it again. When your franchise is known for pacing problems the way Marvel Netflix is, don’t waste your first episode dragging your lead back to square one.
I am looking at you, Daredevil season three. Don’t screw this up, Daredevil season three.
Still, pacing issues and too much Lewis aside… Jon Bernthal was great as Frank Castle, Ben Barnes was great as Frank’s frienemesis Billy Russo, and Amber Rose Revah was the best “Marvel Netflix Badass Female Co-Lead” since Trish Walker, so if you aren’t instantly turned off by the nature of the protagonist, there’s stuff to enjoy here.
#10. The End of the F***ing World
It’s a little bleak, and gets bleaker, especially as the odds of an “And they get away with it” ending fade the closer they get to James’ 18th try-me-as-an-adult birthday. But it’s still a fun and quick paced watch with two solid leads, who have great emotional journeys, and good supporting cast.
Come on, you’ve wasted four hours on worse, give it a go.
#9. Jessica Jones
Jessica’s still a treat to watch in action, and the main plot gave her whole new demons to grapple with. Jessica’s great, the villain is great, Jeri Hogarth is super great, solid supporting cast with the exception of Pryce Cheng…
But just because you put all of the pointless wheel-spinning in the first half of the season doesn’t mean there isn’t any pointless wheel spinning. So it’s top ten, but it still takes a tumble from its first season.
Man this show is fun. Just fun. And such a great central cast… Liv, Major, Ravi, Clive, Payton, Liv and Ravi a second time for emphasis, I am going to miss these guys like crazy when the show ends next year. Even the villains are fun to watch. It’s why I’m glad that four seasons in, Blaine DeBeers has never truly paid for his sins. I need him lurking around launching schemes.
That said… they kind of had the opposite problem as anything ever from Marvel Netflix. The Marvel Netflix offerings struggled to fill 13 episodes (or even eight… Jesus Christ, Defenders…), while this year iZombie could have used an extra nine to flesh out a couple of their central themes more. Bother Love’s zombie supremacist church, Fillmore Graves’ struggle to maintain order, the growing movement to just nuke New Seattle and be done with it, all of these could have used a bit more time.
…Except that might have led to it taking even longer to bring down the corrupt, brain-skimming Fillmore Graves soldier that Liv identified in the season premiere. Not ideal.
#7. Black Lightning
Now, this is how you do a 13 episode season, Marvel Netflix. Black Lightning is nearly all thriller with very little filler. The lead works, his family mostly works like gangbusters (his ex-wife is a bit of a drag early on, because saying “don’t be a hero, [main character]” is never a strong choice), Tobias Whale is a villain I’m glad to have stick around for multiple seasons… plus few if any pacing problems, and unlike, say, Luke Cage*, when Black Lightning takes on systemic oppression of African-Americans, they make the systemic oppressors the bad guys.
Look, this close to the top five, I’m going to start running out of bad things to say about shows. Let’s just be okay with that.
*Obviously Luke Cage and Black Lightning don’t need to be in direct competition. There are… [checks spreadsheet] 15 shows on this list with white male leads and they don’t have to battle each other for the right to exist, we do not need to pit the two black leads against each other any more than we needed to pit Supergirl and Jessica Jones against each other two years back. I’m just saying, they each attempted this one thing, but Black Lightning did it better.
The CW’s most unapologetically liberal and wonderfully hopeful show. Even getting punched into a coma in the fall finale can’t rob Kara Zor-El/Danvers of her compassion for all, even her enemies. Plus the second best A-plot of any CW show. The central cast is all delightful, Mon-El was much improved (and he was pretty fun in season two), Brainiac Five was great, Saturn Girl was decent (so she’s telekinetic now? You are just determined to write out Cosmic Boy)… there are probably ways that Supergirl could push from good to great, but it’s most of the way there most days.
Okay. Top five. We’re into the photo finishes here, people.
Man this show is good.
What started as “Castle but instead of a mystery writer it’s the literal devil” has become a brilliant ensemble show that, yes, at its heart, still involves the ex-King of Hell helping the LAPD solve murders, but is also television’s sharpest theological deconstruction. From sympathy for the Devil to the introduction of God’s ex-wife to pointing out the part of Cain and Abel nobody considers (Abel was a dick), now that Lucifer has started playing with the divine, it’s addictive television. And the cast doesn’t have a weak link. Not even the kid.
Sure they forgot about the whole Sinnerman thing for half the season but man this show is good. I am so glad I get at least ten more episodes. (#LuciferSaved! We did it, Lucifam!)
#4. Legends of Tomorrow
Few shows capture pure fun like the last two seasons of Legends of Tomorrow. I’m not saying it’s pure good times, they emotionally crushed me at least twice this season (I asked you to stop writing out Arthur Darville, Zod damn you), but every episode delivers at least some high-octane time travel shenanigans. Time Agents Ava Sharpe (the badass who hooks up with Sara Lance and it’s adorable) and Gary (the comic relief one) were good additions, and bringing Matt Ryan’s John Constantine into the show almost but not quite makes up for writing out two of my very favourites this year you bastards. That’s three of my very favourites gone, with only… what’s the count now… five absolute favourites left! (They’ve managed to add three.)
It might, if anything, be a little too glib, but rumours circulate that next season might correct that. Oh, please don’t let this show hit a fourth season slump like Flash and Arrow did, I live for these kooky time travellers.
Legion is visually and narratively daring and inventive like nothing else on television. A longer runtime for their second outing didn’t create padding so much as gave key moments room to breathe, spending entire episodes on emotional beats that might have gotten condensed to a single scene or montage with only eight episodes. A phenomenal cast, brilliant cinematography, few shows command full and undivided attention like this one, where every frame feels significant.
I just wish they hadn’t done that thing they did in the finale. But they did. So regardless of how it may lead to an interesting and different third season, it’s down to third place for you, Legion.
…I kinda want to rewatch the whole thing. Good thing I’ve never deleted an episode from my PVR.
The one show on this list giving Legion a run for its money in terms of visuals is Preacher. Gotham is trying its best but it’s not there yet. Preacher has addictive scripts, brilliant visuals, and an excellent cast. I need this show to run for ten seasons, each bigger and bolder than the last. If they’d come up with character arcs for Tulip and Cassidy as good as Jesse’s, this would be the uncontested champion. As it is… that title falls elsewhere…
#1. The Tick
It’s not just that The Tick is almost aggressively fun, or that the whole cast is superb (down to the voice of Alan Tudyk as Danger Boat, Overkill’s sentient boat/lair) and wonderfully well written. It’s that The Tick, above all others, is constantly the best version of itself. There are no filler episodes, no pacing issues, no underwritten Tulips or brutally unsettling finales or unnecessary villain swaps or villains too obnoxiously good at predicting the heroes’ every move. There is virtually nothing I did or could roll my eyes at. It’s just 12 episodes of exceptionally good, exceptionally fun, perfectly crafted television, and by the time it was done I loved it to death. I cannot recommend The Tick enough.
And we made it. Twelve awards given out, twenty-two shows ranked. Remember when this started, and there were only seven? And ranking them was so fast I did a bonus section on Elementary and Doctor Who and whatnot just to keep it going? Man. Simpler times. Well, it probably can’t get more crowded than–
The DC Universe streaming service launches soon, doesn’t it. Damn it.
Well… if there’s no legal way to watch Titans and Doom Patrol in Canada, I probably don’t have to write about them, right? Right?
Round two, in which we tackle the season’s best characters over many categories. We’ve got new faces, returning champions, upsets, and two of the hardest-fought categories there are.
Lots to get through, let’s get to it.
(A kind of significant spoiler for Jessica Jones season two lies ahead)
Best Male Lead!
Good lord but this category was a slugfest. Stellar work from some notable names, any one of whom would have taken gold in past years. But only three(ish) can make the podium.
I guess nothing is technically stopping me from just handing out six titles, “Gold, Also Gold, Still Gold, This One’s Gold Too,” but once you havea format you should really stick to it, you know?
Honourable mentions: I honestly can’t honourably mention these guys enough. What we have this year is seven stellar performances in a race that came down to inches. Cress Williams makes an impressive debut as the titular hero in Black Lightning; Jon Bernthal continues to do great work as Frank Castle in The Punisher; and Dominic Cooper’s Jesse Custer from Preacher was a lock for the podium until our gold medalist pulled some serious moves late in the year.
Bronze: Tom Ellis as Lucifer Morningstar, Lucifer
This season Lucifer dealt with an identity crisis, made a rival into a friend and had a friend become an enemy, and finally confronted his feelings for his crime-solving partner Chloe Decker, and throughout it all Tom Ellis crushed it. The charm, the rage, the way he slays a one-liner, he’s phenomenal in this role. No wonder he fought so hard to keep it.
Silver: Peter Serafinowicz & Griffin Newman as The Tick & Arthur, The Tick
So, yeah, three-ish. Because one of the year’s better entries hinges not on one hero, but a double-act between an invincible but easily confused hero and his anxiety-ridden but clearheaded partner.
Peter Serafinowicz is note-perfect as the Tick, who makes up with strength and unbending confidence in destiny what he lacks in clarity about who, what, and why he is. And Griffin Newman gives a star-turn as the show’s real central character, Arthur, terrified of what might be his heroic destiny, but driven by a need to see the Terror brought down. The Tick is the heart, Arthur is the soul, and they’re perfect together.
Gold: Dan Stevens as David Haller, Legion
Now… if I were calling this “Best Male Hero,” this might have gone a little different, because David Haller has a few flaws in the “hero” department, strictly speaking. But as the male lead, Dan Stevens brought his performance to a new level. Even putting aside his confusion and hope and rage and grief as the season plays out, even putting aside the subtle but growing hints that David might not be all we think he is, even putting aside “Behind Blue Eyes…” and damn but that’s all some impressive stuff to put aside… I likely would have had to give this one to him based on “Chapter 14” alone, in which David imagines all the other ways his life could have gone. David the remorseless billionaire (who might be more Farouk and than David); David the heavily medicated schizophrenic just trying to get by; David the homeless man screaming at nothing, and all of them are just attempts to distract himself from the powerful grief he’s feeling in the wake of the previous episode’s revelation. And if that weren’t enough, by the finale he’s having entire arguments with buried aspects of himself, meaning there are whole scenes that are just three distinct Davids.
Dan Stevens gave us one of the great virtuoso performances of the season, comic TV or otherwise. I’m a little apprehensive about where the show’s going next season, but I’m confident that Stevens will be worth watching when it happens.
Best Female Lead!
In a perfect world, this category would be every bit as competitive as its male counterpart, but sadly we are not in that world yet. But it’s getting closer. Much closer than year one of this series, to be sure, and if there’s a lack of female leading parts in this genre, it sure ain’t from lack of talent.
Honourable mentions: Simone Missick’s material finally started to rise to her level on Luke Cage; Rose McIvor remains a delight as iZombie’s Liv Moore; Nafessa Williams made Anissa “Thunder” Pierce as compelling a hero as her lightning-tossing father on Black Lightning; Ruth Negga will be a shoo-in for her work on Preacher the second she gets a proper story; and last year’s champion, Caity Lotz, is still killing it on Legends of Tomorrow. There are just a few ladies inching ahead of the pack.
Bronze: Jessica Barden as Alyssa, The End of the F***ing World
Somehow we’re in a place where male protagonists can be serial womanizers and alcoholics like Don Draper or mass murderers like Frank Castle, and that’s all fine, but if a female protagonist is less than perfect then out come the judgements. Other people, women specifically, have made this argument better than me… say, right here, or here… but the unlikable female protagonists of the world deserve as much love as the Don Drapers and Zack Morrises. Because seriously, as a YouTube series I’ve begun following accurately puts it, Zack Morris is trash.
This brings me to Alyssa.
Alyssa is making no effort to be “likeable.” In order to deal with a lack of attention from her mother and the exact wrong sort of attention from her step-father*, Alyssa has built a shell of unpleasantness and hostility, a suit of emotional armour whose physical counterpart is her baggy coat that once was her father’s. In lesser hands, and with lesser material, we might be rooting for James to follow through on his plans to kill her.
But Jessica Barden shows us the pain and fear hidden underneath her angry exterior, the young woman just trying to find a way to exist in a world that doesn’t seem to want her. She makes an incredibly sympathetic character out of someone trying her best to be unloved… well, except by James.
She had me rooting for these messed-up crime-spreeing kids right up until the cut-to-black end. Okay, fine, her co-star Alex Lawther helped with that, but this ain’t his category.
(*If I had a category of “characters I want to see fed into a wheat thresher,” that step-father would be right at the top, under the Thinker.)
Silver: Melissa Benoist as Kara Danvers/Zor-El, Supergirl
Silver medalist three years running. Well, there’s a reason for that. She’s great at her character and her character is great. Her struggles at dealing with the return of her now-married lost love Mon-El; her determination to find a non-lethal solution to Reign, choosing love over hate; her silent and painful shock over events in the finale; “Is this what exercising is like? Why does anyone exercise?”; and of course that hella cute rendition of “Intergalactic Planetary” we discussed last time, all made Kara the DCW-verse’s best lead. Looks like she’s set to play double duty again next season. Well, based on Crisis on Earth-X, she is up for it.
There is just, once again, one person who edged her out.
Gold: Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones, Jessica Jones
(And to a lesser extent, The Defenders)
Krysten Ritter’s performance as the hard-drinking, anti-social, haunted-by-trauma PI Jessica Jones was excellent in her first season, and one of the best parts of The Defenders, despite her being stuck in some Iron Fist nonsense. This season, she hit new levels as The Killer (goddamn but that villain needed a better nickname) showed Jessica a bleak and horrifying possible future, a frightening look at what she herself might become if she keeps down the path she’s on. Jessica’s emotional breaking point, “AKA Three Lives and Counting,” is a riveting hour of television thanks a combination of Ritter’s performance and someone else we’ll be discussing in a minute.
She is, simply put, phenomenal. Why don’t she and Dan Stevens have Emmy nominations, exactly? All award shows are nonsense.
Except this one.
(Which, again, is not a show.)
Best Male Supporting Character!
They’re comic relief, emotional support, love interests, and minor villains, or some combination thereof. They’re the supporting cast, the fine line between a strong show and some vigilante ranking to themselves on a rooftop.
Honourable mentions: Shaun Sipos nailed Krypton’s best one-liner as Adam Strange, that being “Mr. Strange was my father. Call me Doctor… actually, better stick to ‘Adam.'” Preacher’s Joseph Gilgun deserves a shout-out just for Cassidy’s hotel drug-binge with the angel Fiore (sadly his plotlines were kind of static or reactionary last season); James Marsters put his back into the most interesting character arc on Runaways.
Bronze: Hamish Linklater as Clark, Legion
When we first met Clark in the pilot, he was just an unnamed interrogator for the sinister mutant-hunting organization Division 3. Then in the finale, they walked us through everything he’d been doing since the Summerland Group’s explosive and violent rescue of David in said pilot. Suddenly instead of a nameless bigoted bureaucrat, he was a dedicated soldier, trying to keep the trauma of his… significant injuries from harming his relationship with his husband and adopted son, who loved him and whose hearts broke to see him hurt so bad. Clark refused desk duty when he returned to work. His country was still at risk, the mutants who slaughtered his men were still at large, so if they wanted him behind the desk, it would have to be, as he put it, “a field desk,” because he was going to be out in the field until this matter was resolved.
And when the Shadow King was exposed, he had the strength of character to say “You’re right, that’s a worse threat, I’m on board.”
In one montage, lasting a small fraction of one episode, Hamish Linklater turned a fairly generic small-V villain into a truly sympathetic character, one worth rooting for. Something Agent Jace couldn’t manage in an entire season of The Gifted despite essentially losing his young daughter twice.
This season, as the former Summerland Group has joined forces with Division 3, Clark’s an important part of the team. And he’s a loyal teammate, too… but he never fully takes his eyes off of David. He sees the threat David’s power level presents, and he’s not going to turn his back on it.
Linklater’s performance might not be as big as Aubrey Plaza’s or as theatrical as Jemaine Clement’s can be, but he is consistently solid, always interesting, and it was great having him upgraded to regular. Especially since he may be even more important next season.
David may be our protagonist, but Clark might be the hero we need. Well, Clark and Syd. But this isn’t Syd’s category.
Silver: Brandon Routh as Ray Palmer, Legends of Tomorrow
It’s weird calling Brandon Routh a “supporting character,” since he’s currently top-billed. But the politics of credit order is what it is.
Legends found a new approach to Ray Palmer this season: the eternal optimist. No matter what’s happening, Ray’s got a smile and a can-do attitude, even when they’re visiting his own childhood and learning that it wasn’t as nice as he thought. Only Ray would care about saving a baby Dominator (the alien invaders from last season’s crossover), only Ray would save Nora Darhk’s life in the hopes that she’s not beyond redemption, only Ray could cling to that belief post-torture by Nora and her father Damien, only Ray and his love of musicals (I feel that was new, but sure) could break through Zari’s wall of cynicism.
And they managed all of that without Ray’s relationship with Nora or Zari becoming romantic.
And wow but Brandon Routh is just killing it. The goofy grins, the hope and cheer, the moral quandary over Nora’s fate, the occasional musical number, trying to conceal an alliance with Damien from his teammate, using a Tickle-Me-Elmo-esque doll called Beebo to teach Vikings that climate change is real (ya heardme), escaping captivity and torture and being excited that his team left him a sink of dirty dishes to clean, he nails every bit of it. Brandon Routh as always been good at this character, but this is his best season yet.
Gold: Rahul Kohli as Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti, iZombie
Rahul Kohli’s always been great as Liv’s boss and confidant, Ravi Chakrabarti. He’s got a lot of wit and charm, and brings a great deal of heart to the show. Ravi’s long been one of the best parts of iZombie.
Then this season came along, and Ravi’s attempt at zombie vaccine came with a side effect: once a month, for a few days, Ravi goes full zombie, brain cravings and everything. Which means this season Ravi got to have his personality shifted by some brains. We had nudist Ravi, heroin addict Ravi, and best of all, vain Instagram starlet Ravi, which was hilarious. And aside from that, working with Isobel gave us Ravi the reluctant parent… and opened the door for Rahul Kohli to deliver the most heartbreaking scene in the show’s history. Which is saying something, since three out of five of Liv’s love interests have been killed right in front of her.
This man is a treasure. Can he be Doctor Who when Jodie Whittaker’s ready to move on in 2022?
Best Female Supporting Character!
There may not be as many female leads as we might like, but damn if they aren’t cleaning up in supporting roles.
Honourable mentions: Gemma Whelan as the police detective realizing that maybe her partner’s not worth being infatuated with and that the teens they’re chasing might not be so bad on The End of the F***ing World; Tala Ashe’s dry cynicism as Zari was fun on Legends of Tomorrow; the divine Aubrey Plaza as Lenny in Legion; Wallis Day brought Nyssa-Vex from kind of generic femme fatale to a highlight of Krypton, to the point where I’d actually be fine with her being Superman’s grandmother; Madelaine Petch embraced being a full-blown over-the-top gothic heroine as Cheryl Blossom on Riverdale, and it is awesome; and over on Supergirl, Katie McGrath is still excellent as Lena Luthor, and Chyler Leigh’s ugly-crying superpowers remain as Alex Danvers. She just got nudged off the podium for the first time by some other amazing supporing ladies.
Bronze: Aimee Garcia & Tricia Helfer as Ella Lopez & Charlotte Richards, Lucifer
Charlotte and Ella– Well why don’t you come over here and MAKE me choose between them.
That’s what I thought.
Charlotte and Ella were both introduced in season two, and are two of the main reasons Lucifer went from guilty pleasure to appointment viewing that year. Aimee Garcia plays Ella Lopez, eternally positive CSI, while Tricia Helfer played the Goddess, Lucifer’s mother and angry ex-wife to God, who occupied the recently murdered body of sleazy defence attorney Charlotte Richards. Ella was simply a ray of sunshine, brightening every scene she appeared in, but “Charlotte” brought the show to a whole new level.
Well, things have shifted since season two. With Goddess now departed from the world as we know it, Charlotte’s soul is back in her un-murdered body, but there are some complications. She has no memory of the year in which Goddess was joyriding in her body, but what she does have is a dim but terrifyingly haunting recollection of spending a year in Hell. Amoral lawyers tend not to make it to the Good Place. Charlotte’s now desperate to avoid returning to Hell, and thus is trying to reform in any way she can… but are good deeds truly good if you’re only doing them for selfish reasons? If your redemption is motivated by self-preservation, is it really redemption? It gives Tricia Helfer a whole new and meaty character to dig into, and she once again excels at it.
Ella, meanwhile, remains an eternal delight. They’ve leaned into how delightful the character is to the point where she got her own spotlight episode, “Boo Normal,” which paid off a few hints about Ella talking to ghosts in an unexpected but much appreciated fashion. Aimee Garcia carried the episode so effortlessly we barely even noticed how little Lucifer was in it.
I’m not saying Tom Ellis isn’t a generous actor, in fact I suspect that he is, but regardless it is not easy to steal a scene from Lucifer. These two, however, manage it regularly. Highly talented ladies playing great characters.
Silver: Emma Dumont as Polaris, The Gifted
(Full disclosure… I did meet Ms. Dumont in person back in April, and found her to be an absolute class act, clever and funny and much friendlier than she needed to be, but I already had all of these opinions by then, so they’re still valid.)
The focus of The Gifted might be the Strucker family, but the show’s beating heart is Polaris. Her relationship with Eclipse, her struggles in prison early in the season, the stakes of her fight for mutantkind’s future being drastically raised by her unborn child, and being one half of the debate over which path is better, Professor X’s or Magneto’s. Given her parentage and mistreatment at the hands of the mutant-hating authorities, she leans a little to Magneto, even if the producers won’t let her say his name. And all of this without the endless hand-wringing we get from Eclipse and the Struckers.
It became clear within a couple of episodes that The Gifted was at its best when it focused on Polaris, and Emma Dumont’s performance has a lot to do with that. She’s stellar. Looking forward to what she gets up to from here.
Gold: Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeryn Hogarth, Jessica Jones
Hey, remember last time, when I said that Jeryn Hogarth’s story on Jessica Jones was the best of the year, how it didn’t even matter how unconnected it was from the main plot, and how that was mostly due to Carrie-Anne Moss’ riveting performance?
So with that in mind, how else was this going to go? Of course Gold goes to Carrie-Anne Moss.
Damn she was good.
The names that came out to plays villains this season. Michael Emerson, Kirk Acevedo, Alexander Siddig, John Noble, Jackie Earle Haley, Signourney goddamned Weaver. An immense amount of talent menacing the season’s various heroes. But who had the menace? Who had the gravitas? Who made evil fun to watch? In short, whose evil scheme reigned supreme?
Honourable mentions: Odette Annable did double duty quite well as Samantha Arias and the worldkiller Reign on Supergirl; Jackie Earle Haley just missed the podium with his spooky and funny turn as the Terror on The Tick; Billy Russo was exactly the force of violent nature needed to be a nemesis of The Punisher; and this is the first time since he started playing the role that Neal McDonough hasn’t made the podium for his endlessly entertaining performance as Damien Darhk, and that kills me a little, because damn but he and Courtney Ford (as Nora Darhk) were a blast.
But given these great villains, what choice did I have? Very little.
Bronze: Janet McTeer as the Killer, Jessica Jones
That spoiler is coming up after the photo, by the way, in case you want to skip to Silver or anything.
In the early parts of the season, Jessica is tracking a killer, one as strong as she is but far more ruthless. After a long and winding road, she and the Killer (god damn she needed a better nickname…) finally come face to face, just in time for Jessica to learn the truth… the Killer is Jessica’s mother, Alisa Jones, who also survived the car wreck Jessica thought killed her whole family, and also ended up with powers after some well-intentioned but ethically questionable experiments by Dr. Karl Malus. But where Jessica is a surly alcoholic with some anger issues, Alisa’s mood swings are far more dangerous. Alisa’s rage turns homicidal with alarming little provocation.
Janet McTeer takes Alisa from a calm and loving mother to a savage, rage-filled monster on a dime, but stays believable in whichever mode she’s in. She sells the rage that makes Alisa a threat, and the love that makes Jessica willing to risk everything to help her, and the sadness at knowing that she’ll always be a weight around her daughter’s neck.
Silver: Navid Negahban as Amahl Farouk/the Shadow King, Legion
Short version… Navid Negahban was so good at this role I instantly stopped minding that Wonder Woman’sSaïd Taghmaoui quit the role for some damn fool reason.
After a season of hiding behind the masks of the World’s Angriest Boy in the World (their phrasing), the Yellow-Eyed Demon, and Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny, the Shadow King finally stepped into the light, appearing to David via their mental channel as his old self, Amahl Farouk. Farouk is a charmer, a sophisticate, and a master of mind games even beyond telepathy and mind control. He knows exactly how to manipulate the players, exactly how to twist David’s allies into enemies… and the cruellest ways to hurt his enemy. Negahban plays him as a perfect blend of gentleman and monster, and this is important… if you truly want to explore the notion that fighting a villain doesn’t automatically make you a hero, make sure it’s a properly villainous villain.
Gold: Pip Torrens & Graham McTavish as Herr Starr & The Saint of Killers, Preacher
Preacher basically split into two halves in season two, and each had a perfectly cast, perfectly menacing villain coming after Jesse Custer and friends.
In the first half, after being teased throughout season one, the unstoppable cowboy terminator known as the Saint of Killers stalks Jesse from Texas to New Orleans, and Graham McTavish makes him absolutely terrifying.
And in the back half, Pip Torrens was perfect as Herr Starr: utterly humourless, utterly without empathy, shrewd, cunning, manipulative, and completely fascinating. Just witness his tryouts to gain his position in the Grail.
They’re both perfect, and I can only hope they’ll be making Jesse and company’s life difficult for years to come.
The Tricia Helfer Award for Rookie of the Year!
Named for the incredible impact Tricia Helfer had on the second season of Lucifer, this is an award for new characters on an established show who really added something to the program. And this year…
Well, this is slightly awkward. It’s Janet McTeer, Navid Negahban, and Pip Torrens again. Same order, even.
I suppose I could hand this out to Tala Ashe (Legends of Tomorrow) or Tom Welling (Lucifer), they were both good, but that wouldn’t be accurate. Fun as they were, they didn’t have the same effect on their shows as our medallist villains. Alisa Jones’ murderous rampage was key to Jessica’s post-Kilgrave character arc; Amahl Farouk gave David’s parasite-turned-nemesis a new and highly engaging face, allowing for real showdowns between them; and the arrival of Herr Starr kicks Preacher into high gear, just like it did in the comics.
So, see above, I guess? Moving on.
The Wentworth Miller Award for Best Guest Star!
For four years of the Arrowverse, seeing Wentworth Miller’s name in the credits meant we were in for a treat. Whether he was a recurring foil for the Flash, a crewman of the Waverider, a member of the Legion of Doom, or a benevolt doppelganger from Earth-X, Miller’s take on Leonard “Captain Cold” Snart was one of the most consistently great things in the franchise. Looks like he’s done now. They left a door open for a return, but he sure seemed to be doing a farewell tour.
So in honour of Captain Cold, a category for those who aren’t major regular or recurring characters*, but drop in for a handful of memorable episodes.
*At the moment. Snart was a regular on Legends for a season.
Honourable mentions: Jon Hamm as the narrator of Legion’s lecture sequences on madness and delusion; Matt Ryan brought his stellar take on John Constantine to a few episodes of Legends of Tomorrow, and it worked so well he’s a regular next season (YAY).
Bronze: Michael Emerson as Cayden James, Arrow
Nobody’s said “Mr. Queen” with quite this much menace since Slade Wilson.
Arrow once again went with a warm-up villain, while the real big bad got everything into place, and it couldn’t have asked for better than Michael Emerson. Cayden James is a crypto-terrorist who blames the Green Arrow for the death of his son, and takes his grief out on the entire city. This is a role Emerson could play in his sleep, after his fantastic roles on Lost and Person of Interest, but he showed up to work every episode he was in. There’s a reason Stephen Amell was excited to have him on the show.
Silver: Adrian Pasdar as Morgan Edge/General Glenn Talbot, Supergirl/Agents of SHIELD
I’ve been a fan of Adrian Pasdar since the short-lived 90s series Profit, which ran for a few weeks when it debuted but would have run for five seasons and a reunion movie in today’s premium cable/streaming market. I’ve been a fan that long because he’s pretty consistently amazing.
This season he stopped by Supergirl for the season’s first act, providing an entertainingly sleazy adversary for Supergirl and Lena Luthor while Reign was blossoming. Then once National City didn’t need him anymore, he returned to Agents of SHIELD for their final act, and here’s where he soared.
Pasdar took General Talbot, both adversary and ally for the past four seasons, and brought him from stern general with brain damage-spawned anger issues to traumatized POW to a good man out for redemption to a formerly good man on a rapid slide into utter madness thanks to exposure to the world-bending element gravitonium. He went from broken ally to all-powerful madman at risk of cracking the Earth like an egg, and Pasdar made it a hell of a ride.
Gold: David Tennant as Kilgrave, Jessica Jones
For one episode, David Tennant returned to Jessica Jones, as Jessica hallucinated her old abuser as a personification of her fears that she’s crossed too many lines to ever come back. After a violent incident, Jessica unravels, torn apart by guilt over her actions and fear that she’s nothing but a killer like her mother (after all, as Kilgrave points out in the line that gave the episode its name, she’s taken three lives and counting). And the more she spirals, the more imaginary Kilgrave pushes her towards the edge. In one episode we’re reminded of everything David Tennant brought to season one. While for Jessica’s sake it’s good he’s dead, it’s hard not to miss that purple bastard a little.
Also his rendition of Trish’s pop hit “I Want Your Cray-Cray” was pretty fun.
Whoof. Long one. Next time the rankings, which should go faster than last year.