It’s getting close to my annual post ranking the best picture nominees at the Oscars. I just need the Academy to decide what the best picture nominees actually are so I know which ones I haven’t seen yet. Other than A Star is Born, probably.
So while we’re waiting on that… and my Arrowverse Year Three rewatch is ongoing… let’s talk about the year’s superhero movies.
But not a rank ordering. I don’t see the point. There are interesting trends and symmetries this year, but the worst superhero movie I saw was fun, just a little disposable.
(I refer to Ant-Man And The Wasp, but if you thought I meant Aquaman... well, we disagree a little but that’s fine.)
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.
Okay so this is about the actual final climax
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.
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.
Did somebody bet Scott Buck that he couldn’t make a worse show than Iron Fist?
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 still looks more like a failed Law and Order spinoff than a superhero show to me.
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
I swear to Zod this show used to be great.
[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.)
I thought I was out but they pulled me back in.
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.
Maybe the best DC Superhero Prequel Show, but why is that a genre?
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.
Oliver Queen can’t get no respect.
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
For those who like the X-Men but not any of the X-Men in movies.
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.
Some shows on the list manage to EARN teen melodrama.
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.
Seriously, how does this show even exist. I watch it religiously but I still don’t understand.
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
Yep, it DOES still exist.
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
You can’t burn him, blast him, break him, or convince him to learn about pacing.
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
You know… if gun-toting white men are what you look for in a hero, instead of a systemic problem with America.
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
Now, THIS is a teen drama we can ALL enjoy.
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
Who’s the badass private dick who’ll leave your ass kicked by a chick?
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.
The only walking dead anyone needs.
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
[Insert your own pun about electricity]
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.
Girl of Steel, Heart of Gold
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.
FYI, I’m done acting confused as to why this show is so good. I have embraced it.
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
The best band of misfits you could ask for.
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.
Just the BEST kind of weird.
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.
Back in the 90s and early 2000s I never thought I’d see this show. What a time to be alive.
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
The Wild Blue Yonder is your guarantee of good times.
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
Image: Warner Bros.
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
Image: Warner Bros. Also, sorry for cropping you out, Dr. Linda, you’re good too, but I’m already pushing it here.
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.
Okay, nerds, it’s on. One season, 12 months, 22 shows submitted for consideration… well, “watched” is probably a better term… And now, for your reading pleasure and because I seem to enjoy it enough to maintain a massive spreadsheet tracking everything, it’s time for the biggest edition yetof Tales From Parts Unknown’s Annual Best of Comic TV Award Show*!
(*Not a show. It’s a blog. I shouldn’t have started this by lying to you.)
So, without a bunch of ado, here’s a quick list of this year’s competitors, with links to my write-ups where they exist.
Woof. That’s a lot. Welp, let’s get this party started. With what I’m going to assume it everyone’s favourite category, based on absolutely no information.
Best Fight Scene!
Because why wouldn’t this be your favourite? We’re talking about some of the most impressive sequences on television in here. And these three stood out.
Honourable mentions:Lucifer unleashing his wings (which he’d spent the season resenting) to protect Chloe and take down the minions of the Sinnerman might be Lucifer’s most visually stunning scene; Crisis on Earth X managed some epic action beats, but the honourable mention goes to Ray Palmer’s entrance for being the entire television season’s best stand-up-and-cheer moment; Black Lightning’s assault on Lala’s condo showed us what the electric hero was capable of.
Bronze: The Obligatory Hallway Fight, Defenders, “Worst Behaviour”
Ever since Daredevil set the gold standard with its epic single-take hallway fight, every Marvel Netflix show feels the need to have a hallway fight of its own. But this time they impressed, not just interms of choreo, but in use of music (the hip hop beat enters the score seconds before Luke Cage makes his entrance) and in the fact that for a change they made it as well-lit as they could.
Silver: David vs. The Shadow King, Legion, “Chapter 19”
David Haller and Amahl Farouk have technically been acquainted for David’s entire life, since Farouk used to live in the back of David’s mind, but as season two comes to a close, they finally come flesh face to flesh face for the first time. And what follows is a telepathic duel which… describing it would be a disservice. Merciful Zod but it is a thing and a half to see.
Gold: The Billy Joel Fight, Preacher, “Viktor”
Finding out that his one love, Tulip, has been taken by New Orleans gang lord Viktor Kruglov, Jesse Custer goes on a rampage to find her. A rampage that leads him to Viktor’s chief torturer, who accidentally manages immunity to Jesse’s powers by putting on headphones and cranking Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” This scene… this scene is everything that makes Preacher’s fight scenes the best in the business. It doesn’t even need to be set to “Uptown Girl” to work, but the fact that it is brings it to a whole other level.
Sometimes a show makes you laugh. Sometimes it makes you cheer. Sometimes it thrills you with an action sequence. And sometimes it reaches into your chest and rips out your heart.
I mean obviously there are spoilers.
Jesus. How could there not be spoilers. Meet me at “Best Story” if you don’t want to get spoiled on some painful, painful death scenes.
Honourable mentions: Rip Hunter’s farewell to Legends of Tomorrow involved emotional goodbyes to his former ship’s AI, Gideon, and to Sara Lance, ending in “I should very much like to see my wife and son again,” before he sacrificed himself to buy the Legends some time; the damage done to Trish and Jessica’s friendship by her choice in the season finale of Jessica Jones was pretty heartwrenching. But these are the three that hurt the most.
Oh god. Just writing about them is… could whoever is cutting onions in here knock it off, please?
As Lucifer’s third season draws to its climax, Cain is eager to regain the Mark (and accompanying immortality) that he spent so much of the season trying to lose. He’s changed his mind about dying, and thinks the best way to regain the curse of immortality is to kill God’s favourite angel, Amenadiel. But someone else takes the bullet: Charlotte Richards, who’d been seeking redemption ever since she got her body back from the Goddess that had commandeered it last season. Her death cuts the whole cast deeply, but before most of them can react, a miracle happens: Amenadiel regains his wings, absent since early season two. And with a simple statement of “Let’s go home,” he carries Charlotte to her rest.
You’re just going to have to trust me that the waffle iron bracelet is significant, I do not have time to go into that.
Silver: Goodbye to Isobel, iZombie, “Insane in the Germ Brain”
We hadn’t known Isobel long. A teen girl who had had herself smuggled into New Seattle in the hopes of having the zombie virus replace the lethal, incurable disease she was suffering from. Instead, she turned out to be the first case of zombie immunity. Potentially good for mankind, not so good for anyone who wanted Isobel to live to see Infinity War. Ravi and Liv did their best to make her remaining days special, including a date with the star of their favourite show Zombie High, which went better than Ravi approved of… and finally Ravi agreed to teach her to drive. One day too late. After an episode full of Isobel playing dead as a prank, Ravi arrives at Liv’s apartment to find that Isobel isn’t playing this time.
And Rahul Kohli tore our hearts out.
AGH. Why did I rewatch that. Excuse me, I need a minute… it is really dusty in here…
Gold: The Big Death, Crisis on Earth-X
I’m not embedding a video.
I’m not finding a picture.
I can’t. Not this one.
Just know that as one of the original Legends of Tomorrow cast prepared to shuffle off the mortal coil, I was literally screaming “Don’t do this to me” at the screen. In vain. They did that to me.
From mini-arcs to character arcs to seasonal arcs, these are where comic TV did its best storytelling Jax wasn’t ready for him to go I wasn’t ready how could anybody be ready no, no, moving on, “Biggest Heartbreak” is done, I’m okay, we’re all okay…
Honourable mention: Thunder’s origin story, from discovering her powers to donning her proper super suit on Black Lightning; the reluctant resurrection of Lenny on Legion.
Bronze: Ray and Nora, Legends of Tomorrow
He’s the world’s most cheerful and optimistic superhero, she’s the daughter of a mass murderer raised to unleash a time demon on all of history, and somehow they brought delightful screwball comedy to what was already one of the season’s most fun shows.
Ray Palmer developed a nanotech gun to bring down magical assassin Damien Darhk, but ends up shooting his daughter Nora instead. This sends Ray, the Waverider’s most decent soul, into a spiral of guilt. See, a couple of episodes back he’d met Nora as a child, when she was a sweet, innocent kid just hoping to stop being possessed by a demon all the time. And considering one of Ray’s best friends used to be a thief and arsonist, and now fights to protect history, how can he condemn Nora to a slow, painful, nanite death when there’s a chance that sweet kid is still in there somewhere? What seems like a classic Ray Blunder is actually a sweet moment of compassion that begins a whole new relationship for Ray and Nora. To her occasional chagrin.
It’s never a romantic arc, but it’s a sweet one, since Ray never gives up hope that Nora can be redeemed, and real-life spouses Brandon Routh and Courtney Ford make a hilarious duo throughout “Daddy Darhkest.” I’m looking forward to where they take it from here, now that Nora’s been signed as a full regular for season four.
Silver: Crisis on Earth X
The biggest CW crossover yet was filled with laughter, tears, character combos I’ve been waiting years to see, impressive action sequences, and thrills, all with a central theme of love and connection. It’s gonna be hard to top, although heading to Gotham and introducing Batwoman is a good start. It was everything a superhero crossover should be.
And now we all try to avoid eye contact with Defenders.
Also fun? Watching what each show did to free up filming time for the main crossover characters.
Gold: Hogarth’s Revenge, Jessica Jones
Diagnosed with ALS, Jeri Hogarth is facing an early end… which means this is the exact wrong time to screw her over. Jeri’s spiral into depression and resurgence into revenge is one of the most riveting things about Jessica Jones’ second season, thanks mostly to a stellar performance from Carrie-Anne Moss. So much so that I never once cared how disconnected it was from anything else happening.
Okay… that’s some things shows did well, what did a whole bunch of shows do badly?
You know what’s worse than a bad plot point? A bad plot point you have to watch five variations of over the course of the year.
What the hell is Adam Strange doing in Krypton? He’s not a time travel character, Zeta beams don’t send you through time. No, he’s on this show because somebody up the ladder wouldn’t let them use Booster Gold, and they couldn’t just use Rip Hunter because heaven forbid Krypton share a character with Legends of Tomorrow. (Look, I don’t know that Arthur Darville would have done it, but it does seem to film in England, that would have helped.)
Not so long ago everyone wanted a Marvel-style cinematic universe where all their IPs were connected, but as the cracks between Marvel’s TV and film branches grow wider, suddenly everyone’s going the Fox X-Men route, with no shred of shared continuity. The Gifted and Legion will never cross over, just like how Logan, Deadpool, and New Mutants are completely separate.
DC has the Arrowverse, arguably the most successfully interconnected TV universe, but it doesn’t include everything. Gotham and Krypton are in their own separate worlds, the upcoming Titans and Doom Patrol shows will be in their own world which may or may not include SwampThing, we still don’t know where Black Lightning fits… I know DC’s big on multiverses but this is more continuities than they need.
Meanwhile, over at Marvel, the Netflix shows still won’t say “Hulk” out loud, won’t include Avengers Tower in the skyline, don’t acknowledge that they share a city with Spider-Man, and only begrudgingly and very vaguely refer to anything from the movies; Agents ofSHIELD name drops the movies whenever they can but gets referenced by nobody in return, not even Inhumans, and man could Inhumans have used the shot in the arm a few SHIELD guest stars could have provided; and Runaways is entirely self-contained, without so much as a Stark Industries billboard to be seen.
Trying to connect film and television universes remains a fool’s errand, but the real problem is that every time they do this, every time they build a new silo that’s forbidden to touch the others, it means certain characters are being locked away from appearing on any other show. These characters are just on The Gifted, these characters are reserved for Marvel Netflix, these characters can only be in the movies, and that creates limitations that rob us, the viewers.
Spider-Man can’t fight the Kingpin (we’ll be lucky if Kingpin meets Luke Cage, and at this point he ought to), Supergirl can’t tell Seg-El that his grandson isn’t his only legacy, Green Arrow will not be leading an all-new Suicide Squad, Professor Xavier’s son and Magneto’s daughter can’t meet each other or say their fathers’ names out loud, Adam Strange is doing his best Booster Gold impression on Krypton, and Marvel’s two shows about Inhumans have nothing to do with each other. There’s no need for them to tie their own hands this way, but they just keep doing it.
Silver: “I’m ten moves ahead and you don’t even know the game”
When Prometheus had spent years setting up a master-plan to destroy Oliver Queen, planning every move to counter anything Team Arrow might attempt, it made for a solid season. When Ricardo Diaz somehow did the same thing without Prometheus’ personal connection to Oliver’s past, it was less impressive. Throw in The Thinker on The Flash, a little bit Starr on Preacher, the seemingly unstoppable Hiram Lodge on Riverdale, and to a lesser extent Sofia Falcone and whoever else is out-thinking Jim Gordon this week on Gotham, and I’m getting a little over nigh-unbeatable masterminds.
Cheers to The Tick for subverting this one. The Terror claims to be another inscrutable mastermind, having planned out every part of the season’s events like a master jazz musician, but it turns out that he’s a jazz musician in the sense that he’s been making this all up as he went and claiming it was a master plan. More of that, please.
Gold: Heroes behind bars
I have never, once, not ever, seen the main character of the show I’m watching get sent to jail and thought “Well this is an interesting turn of events, I wonder what story-doors this will open!” Never. Not even on Orange is the New Black, where the lead character going to prison is the first thing that happens and opened up literally every story they told. I am far more likely to think “Damn it, how many episodes of Jake Peralta in prison are you going to make me sit through? I’ll just catch up when you’re done.”
Ten different comic shows put at least one of their protagonists behind bars at some point. Ten. That’s a lot. Eleven had cops/authorities who couldn’t be trusted. Three made “lead character is under arrest” their season finale cliffhanger. Two framed their lead character for murder. Almost three, but the frame attempt on Alfred Pennyworth didn’t stick.
Some of these were better done than others, some of them made corruption in law enforcement a vital part of their story, but when there are this damned many the good ones get a little drowned out.
Cheers to The Tick for avoiding this one by giving superheros in its world an easy out when dealing with the police.
Okay. Back to the positive to wrap Part One up.
Best Musical Interlude!
New category, because so many shows decided to step up to this particular plate.
Honourable mentions: Legends of Tomorrow for choreographing Damien Darhk’s return to life and magical murder to “Return of the Mack;” Riverdale for devoting an episode to Carrie: The Musical, which I’d heard was a legendary bomb. Still, it’s less special when Riverdale does a musical number, because “Let’s do a song” is Veronica and Archie’s answer to everything.
These three, on the other hand, were special.
Bronze: Careless Whisper, Legends of Tomorrow, “The Curse of the Earth Totem”
Rip Hunter, now a fugitive from his own Time Agency, bonds with Kid Flash over Cisco Ramon’s patented speedster-strength alcohol, manages to steal a time portal from the hapless Agent Gary, and he and Kid Flash escape into history.
“He could be anywhere, any time, causing a whole mess of problems,” says Rip’s ex-protege Ava Sharpe. And where/when was he?
Forget the stupid “Snyder Cut,” which probably doesn’t even exist. Give me a full version of that.
Sure it’s short, but Arthur Darville’s commitment to overdramatic drunken karaoke is killer.
How to improve on that? Make it a montage.
Silver: Karaoke night, Supergirl, “Schott Through the Heart”
What really makes this one work is that several of the cast, including legit Broadway stars Melissa Benoist and Jeremy Jordan, are deliberately singing below their ability (or hamming their way through the Beastie Boys) to make this sequence a true “co-workers karaoke night” and not a “musical theatre kids karaoke night,” Observe, and delight.
Gold: “Behind Blue Eyes,” Legion, “Chapter 19”
Yes we covered this one above in “Best Fight Scene” but it is both and it was amazing. And the song choice turns out to be very fitting. David’s love is vengeance, and they may never be free.
(The captions help, since Farouk is doing his verse in Farsi.)
Yes I embedded that same video twice, and I stand by that decision.
Ahhh. That helped. That took the edge off of all those ‘Biggest Heartbreak” clips. Okay. Next time, the best characters!
Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.
This instalment: Let’s catch up on a few longer-running shows that don’t warrant full entries. What did they do well? What could they have done better?
Short version: One show played like tomorrow wasn’t coming, while a few others got too confident about renewal.
Not a returning show, per se, but after a decade of Smallville and four years of Gotham aren’t all of these prequel shows basically… no? Well, anyway.
What are the basics? In the city of Kandor on the planet of Krypton, a young man named Seg-El, years after his house was discredited leaving him simply known as “Seg,” is approached by a human from the future named Adam Strange claiming that Seg’s grandson is destined to be the galaxy’s greatest hero Superman, but one of his enemies has travelled back in time to ensure that doesn’t happen. Seg and Adam Strange find what allies they can in order to save Kandor from the approaching Brainiac, Collector of Worlds. At least they’re pretty sure that’s the plan…
What went wrong? Four episodes in I was really willing to give up on this show. It sold itself but claiming that there was much more to Krypton than how the planet died, and then opened by taking us to what must assuredly be the shittiest city in the worst part of Krypton. It is murder-cold outside the city’s dome all of the time, outside of the rich section at the top of the city it seems to always be night, and that’s just the aesthetics. Get past that, and Kandor is living under a theological dictatorship, where someone calling himself the Voice of Rao is enforcing an aggressively mean-spirited caste system. If you’re not in a Guild, you live down in the perpetual poverty and twilight with the Unguilded, fit only to be savagely oppressed by the city military the Sagitari, led by House Zod. It’s four episodes in a nightmare society that seem almost tailored to make us agree that the best thing that could happen to Krypton is dying on schedule. Oh, and they’re absolutely unprepared to handle Brainiac, because the Voice of Rao declared belief in aliens to be punishable by death for you and shame for your entire family, and Kandor’s ruling class said “Sure, that’s fine, be the Mayor, why not.”
Kandor is the city that the other Kryptonian cities would avoid eye-contact with at a party. The best of the Sagitari, Seg’s star-crossed lover Lyta-Zod, has to have a duel to the death with a fellow officer in order to change the official anti-terror policy to something other than “Kill all the poor people.” They created a world barely worth spending time in and then crafted a story about it that will apparently take multiple seasons to tell.
And no, it’s pretty definitively not connected to Man of Steel, Supergirl, or any other current property, because Warner Bros. seems determined to take Fox’s X-Men route as far away from “shared universe” as you can get.
What went right? Spoilers ahoy.
Halfway through the season, they pulled one hell of a plot twist, and it was enough to reinvest me in the whole enterprise. The terrorist leader who Seg had been grabbed by, played by British actor of note Colin Salmon, turned out to be Superman’s nemesis General Zod (Dru-Zod to his friends), son of Seg’s would-be girlfriend. Adam Strange was wrong, Brainiac hadn’t travelled in time at all. It was Zod who’d come to the past to stop Brainiac from stealing Kandor and setting the destruction of Krypton in motion.
“Wait, what was that last part?” asks Seg, before turning to glare at Adam. Turns out Adam had forgotten to mention a major part of Seg’s grandson’s destiny, the whole “last son of Krypton” thing, and Seg and friends were not exactly on board with his plan anymore.
With this, the show turned a major corner, and everything became more interesting. Brainiac took control of the Voice of Rao giving us a better villain and some spectacular CG shots of his ship; Seg’s nemesis, the obligatory scheming asshole Daron-Vex, became less essential; all the women in Seg’s life became even more interesting, as their loyalties and trustworthiness became… flexible; and we learned a few things about how Adam came to be here.
Seg’s one true love, Lyta-Zod, her stern mother Jayna, and Seg’s ordained spouse Nyssa-Vex make for decently fascinating characters, especially once their allegiances begin shifting in the back half. Adam Strange works as a character better than I expected, with my only issue being that he bears little resemblance to the Adam Strange of the comics, but so very much resemblance to Booster Gold. His role in the story is textbook Booster Gold, but for whatever damn fool reason the DC Entertainment bigwigs said “No, use Adam Strange.” Shenanigans.
What should they havedone? Well, even though they won me over in the back half, I didn’t love them ending on a cliffhanger. Maybe because the first half was so grating that signing on for another ten episodes still feels like a chore. Now I’m forced to assume they have a multi-season arc planned. Which… ugh. So if they were going to set up this Zod-knows-how-long story, maybe they should have forgotten the rival house/rich vs poor malarky they wasted five episodes on, and gotten to the big question of “Is it worth sacrificing our entire planet?” a little sooner. Or at least showed us a Krypton worth saving. Oh… and bringing in Doomsday? Come on. You managed some excellent shots of Brainiac’s ship descending on Kandor but you do not have the budget for Zod vs Doomsday.
What are the basics? Barry Allen’s friends and allies manage to spring him from the Speed Force prison he entered at the end of season three, but in the process unleash a wave of dark energy that creates 12 new metahumans, including Barry’s new partner-in-training Ralph Dibney: the Elongated Man. This was all orchestrated by a hyper-intelligent metahuman named Clifford DeVoe, nicknamed the Thinker, who intends to harvest the powers of the new metas to facilitate a larger plan called the Enlightening. It’s not a great plan. It’s an evil plan.
What went right? The comic relief bits of the season were often pretty funny. Ralph Dibney… shows promise, but I’ll come back to that. Tom Cavanaugh plays no fewer than six variations on Harrison Wells this year, and they’re pretty amusing. Primarily he’s back to the stern Harry Wells of Earth-2, who’s still my favourite of the Wellses (sorry and RIP to HR Wells from last year). Cisco and Caitlin have good arcs, and they finally found a way to make Iris an important part of the team/show.
Which the so-called “fans” on reddit found utterly unacceptable. I didn’t want to think that r/flashtv was as nakedly misogynist as other parts of the site, but give a woman a major role on their superhero show and they lose their goddamn minds. Ugh. I hate fandoms so much. They make liking things feel so dirty.
So good arcs, no marginalizing their female characters, and plenty of humour. The Flash must be as good as its heydey, right? Right?
What went wrong? Okay. Okay. Someone out there in the Flashiverse please hear this. After the dark and brooding Flashpoint/Savitar arc last year, you promised a return to the fun of season one. But what we got was the grimmest season arc yet, only with whoopie cushion jokes sprinkled in, and that is not the same thing. Yes, we had comic relief, yes, Tom Cavanaugh and Carlos Valdes (Cisco) were reliably funny, and so was Hartley Sawyer as Ralph when I wasn’t distracted by how he was written (see below). But all of that was background to an oppressively and punishingly dark A-plot, in which DeVoe cannot be stopped by anything for 22 out of 23 episodes. He kills who he wants to, he beats the Flash at nearly every turn, he successfully frames Barry for murder, it gets wearying.
This is becoming a systemic problem on The Flash. If Barry fights his season-nemesis 100 times, he’ll lose 99 of them, and that kind of perpetual loss is a bit much for a full 23-episode season. It was worse here, because at least Reverse-Flash, Zoom, and Savitar didn’t show up to screw with the team on a weekly basis.
So that’s the big problem. Other quibbles now.
Ralph’s arc from drunk PI to legit hero was 90% well done, but I do have one note on that character. This is the Elongated Man.
Image: DC Comics
He’s a skilled detective who has the ability to stretch his body, and roams the world solving mysteries with the love of his life, Sue. Elongated Man on The Flash is, at first, a sleazy PI and womanizer who has the ability to stretch and sculpt his body into different shapes, and sometimes lacks the stomach for heroism. That’s not Ralph Dibney. That’s Eel O’Brian. This guy.
Image: DC Comics
Otherwise known as Plastic Man. I know they’re similar, they have very similar power sets (stretching is less versatile), and both tend to crack wise most of the time. But like Krypton very clearly featured Booster Gold shoved into a crude approximation of Adam Strange, the Flash writers have very clearly written Plastic Man but called him Elongated Man. Yes, Ralph and Barry go way back in the comics so using Ralph makes more canonic sense, but come on. If you wanted to write Plastic Man, just do that. Here’s hoping future seasons sort this out, now that we’re through Ralph’s training season.
Quibble the second… starting with “Crisis on Earth-X,” Team Flash is repeatedly visited by an odd woman seemingly out to have meet-cutes with all of them individually, who writes in the bizarre language Barry was writing in when he emerged from the Speed Force, before his brain sorted itself out. Most notably, he wrote what they translate to “This house is bitchin'” in giant letters. And it’s a language Harry Wells starts writing in when his brain’s on the fritz. I was waiting all season for the payoff, to find out what house was bitchin’, to be told the obvious truth that this was Barry and Iris’ daughter from the future. They finally did all of this… in the closing minutes of the season finale.
Are you kidding me. You spent that much time, over the entire year, setting up a character for next season. I spent months waiting for Future Daughter to race to the rescue against the Thinker, and she just hangs out until the finale cliffhanger? This is what I meant by “too confident about renewal.” Stuff like this.
Also I do not know who told Katee Sackhoff that her British accent was working but hoo-di-lolly it was not.
What should they have done? No fewer than five times they implied that DeVoe, or the Thinker, might not be as unbeatable as he thought. Absorbing all the meta powers was throwing off his intellect, the smarter he got the less he could process or account for emotions, his wife and partner in crime was turning on him, two bus metas had abilities that seemed to be the keys to beating him. Almost none of that went anywhere. He made it all the way to episode 23 with his only losses being Barry eventually clearing his name after the murder-frame, and DeVoe’s wife running out on him.
Villains can be menacing and fallible. To recapture the fun of first season and their sister shows, they have to let Team Flash win a few rounds before the final showdown. Legends of Tomorrow knows this. Supergirl knows this. Black Lightning knows this. Even Arrow gets it from time to time. The Flash needs to figure it out as well, and… excuse the wording… fast.
What are the basics? Oliver Queen finds himself under assault as both mayor of Star City and as the Green Arrow when cyber-anarchist Cayden James (the superb Michael Emerson) forms a cabal of high profile criminals in an attempt to bring down the city and its protector. But it turns out one of Cayden’s team, Ricardo Diaz (Kirk Acevedo), has his own plans. Plans to strip everything away from the Green Arrow and turn Star City into a criminal hub under his own control. Oliver must find a way to win back his team and some sort of law enforcement support if he’s going to have any chance of taking back his city.
What went right? Michael Emerson was predictably great as Cayden James, and the swap from James to Diaz kept the season from getting mired down in one repetitive plot the way certain others I just mentioned did. Say what you will about Felicity Smoak hijacking Barry and Iris’ quickie, slapdash, “someone just let us say ‘I do’ already” do-over wedding ceremony and turning it into a double wedding, but getting Oliver and Felicity low-key married ended the “Olicity” drama that soured season four and scraped the annoying off of Felicity’s character. Not that the anti-Felicity crowd will be happy, but nothing but the death or irrelevance of all dem dere wimmin folks on their super-hero shows will do that, so screw ’em all. And Cayden’s cabal was a strong gathering of Arrow persons of interest: Laurel “Black Canary” Lance’s evil Earth-2 doppelganger, Black Siren; Oliver’s former pal from the Bratva, Anatoly; Vigilante, given more to do this season than “distract us from figuring out who Prometheus is.” And, of course, Ricardo Diaz.
What went wrong? …There’s a reason everybody else (except the grossly incompetent) only does “Are they a hero without their powers” for one or two episodes, not half a season. In specific, two things…
The second act, where Oliver’s allies and support systems leave him piece by piece, stretched on too long. There were two, possibly three episodes where Original Team Arrow, as they were called, and the new allies from last season who’d split off reluctantly worked together, only to end the episode still at odds with each other, with Wild Dog saying “This doesn’t change anything, Hoss.” He said that a lot. Definitely too much. By the time they well and truly turned on each other, I was just ready for something to change, Hoss.
Second… after Prometheus, and with the Thinker over on Flash, I wish they hadn’t gone back to the All-Knowing Mastermind. From episode one, Ricardo Diaz knew all of Oliver’s secrets and how to dismantle him as mayor and hero. We just did that last year.
Other issues… the finale cliffhanger was a choice that I always respond to with “Ugh, how long are they going to stretch this nonsense out.”
And Diaz gets away? Sure he loses, Team Arrow reclaims Star City, if not the office of the mayor, but he’s still out there. I mean… it’s not a terrible choice? Kirk Acevedo is good at this role, so I don’t hate the idea of him still plaguing the city a little, but given that four out of five previous Big Bads at least seemed to die in the end (one was faking, one got resurrected in one of the season’s better musical numbers), it was an unexpected choice. Made the season finale feel more like a fall finale. It doesn’t seem like the story actually ended, save for Oliver seeing the problems with his crusade and taking a kind of extreme path to correcting them.
An FBI agent more concerned with bringing in the Green Arrow than stopping a criminal enterprise from taking over an entire police force and city council does not seem like an FBI agent good at her job.
And I’m not convinced bringing in Oliver’s son William, who is either a little autistic or just woodenly acted, was a big value add. Although I guess getting Oliver and Felicity married avoided any “how do I be a superhero and a good single father” nonsense.
What should they have done? Instead of being the secret mastermind pulling Cayden James’ strings and scheming against Oliver for the first half, they could have had Diaz just be an opportunistic gangster who sees an opportunity. His line upon killing James and taking over was perfect: “Why destroy a city when you can own it?” That was good. Might have also helped to move his backstory episode up a little, give us a view of who Diaz was earlier.
Also at least two fewer “This doesn’t change anything Hosses.”
Agents of SHIELD
And then there was the one who left nothing on the field.
What are the basics? “We’re in space,” Coulson told Mack.
“Makes sense,” Mack replied. “Only thing we haven’t done.”
Agents of SHIELD returned to the mini-arc structure that worked so well for them last season, albiet with larger arcs. For the first almost-half of the season, the agents of what was SHIELD find themselves a) in space, and b) a little under a century in the future… a time when Earth has been little more than a debris field for generations, and what’s left of humanity lives on an old SHIELD facility under the harsh rule of the Kree… primarily Kasius and his mostly silent henchwoman Sinara. Coulson and his team must bring down Kasius and find a way back to the past, where they struggle to prevent Earth’s grim fate… except they appear to be in a time loop. As another sci-fi show put it, all of this has happened before and will happen again.
While they’re in the future, a lot of dangling threads get put on hold… Coulson’s deal with the Ghost Rider, the fact that a day or two ago everyone was in a computer simulated world called the Framework where a couple of them were the bad guys, that sort of thing. Once they’re back in the present, however? Every dangling thread gets tied in a neat little bow.
The writers knew that only a mandate from Disney spared them from cancellation last season, and now that they’ve crossed that syndication-happy 100 episode mark, that might not come again. And also their season started later than it ever had, as ABC experimented with The Inhumans. To all of our chagrin. Daisy Johnson, Earth’s most infamous Inhuman as far as Agents is concerned, might never meet the Inhuman royal family that moved to Hawaii while she was in the future, and that’s just fine. Eventually we’ll all forget that Inhumans happened.
But not forgive.
Back to Agents… dangling threads from season one are back, such as the sinister substance gravitonium, which plays a huge role. The Absorbing Man’s back, Hydra still exists, the Centipede program that kinda-sorta filled the episodes before Winter Soldier plays a key role, there is a small parade of past recurring characters… except Ward. Kinda odd that Grant Ward, the only main cast member from season one not still on the show, didn’t even get a guest appearance in episode 100. He can’t have been too busy, he made time for the season premiere of Elementary.
He was the most recognizable guest star, of course he was the killer.
It made for a thrilling back half, especially as they cycled through main villains as everyone jockeyed for position in a fight to control or save what was, for the moment, a still-intact Earth.
Deke, an ally (of sorts) they make in the future who unexpectadly follows them to the past, was a fun addition. Does Deke still exist? Did changing the future erase him from existence? They never really said. He just wandered off and waited to never have existed.
What went wrong? Two things.
First, while back half villains like General Hale and her Hydra assassin daughter (played by Dove Cameron, who the internet feels is notable, but I’d never heard of) lasted just long enough to be interesting then pass the baton, Kasius and Sinara overstayed their welcome. By the end, I was actually shouting “Somebody kill her” at the screen whenever Sinara resumed stalking Daisy. I mean seriously, she was not presenting them with other options.
The main issue is that they spent a lot of time arguing whether their future can still be changed, or since the only way they made it back to the past is that their future selves did all the legwork, the future is fixed, time is a flat circle and nothing they do to save Earth is going to work. What they didn’t do was give any reason why this particular time through the loop is special. Like Flash and Elongated Man finally beating the Thinker, there was no reason why this time it worked when it never had before.
What should they have done? Taken a page from a particularly good Doctor Who episode. Two weeks before the finale, blow up the Earth. In the stinger, cut to Future Simmons recording one extra detail in the plans she and Fitz leave for their past selves. Next week, show us the final days of Fitz and Simmons… but Simmons adds one more detail. Then run the loop faster and faster, the world always exploding, but each time they figure out just a little more of how to stop it. Then in the finale, they’ve finally run the loop enough times that they save the Earth.
Maybe you would have had room for all of that if you’d wrapped Kasius and Sinara a little faster. Just saying.
It would have been just a slightly more satisfying end.
Also… I get why you felt you had to reference Infinity War. I get it. I do. Y’all are thirsty to be part of the MCU even though the film branch will never love you back. But name dropping Thanos twice and referring to “all the craziness in New York,” and only New York, just kinda proved that nobody in your writers’ room saw the Infinity War script. Because only two of Thanos’ minions went to New York, they were there for maybe seven minutes, and they didn’t cause that much havoc. The film spent as much time in Scotland as New York.
Anyway, season six has been delayed so long that all the Infinity War fallout will have been cleaned up in Avengers: In It to Win It by the time we see this bunch again.
Probably shouldn’t have called this a speed round if I was going to talk for 3800 words.
Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.
This instalment: C-list X-Men characters gather for a tale of family, bigotry, and what it might be like if America’s law enforcement agencies were openly and dangerously racist.
Short version: Fox’s Island of Misfit Toys is a lot less fun than the Arrowverse’s, I tell you what.
Theoretically set in the same, or at least a similar, world as the X-Men movies, things have taken a turn for the worse for America’s mutant population. A few years back, on July 15th, a mutant rights protest went bad, resulting in riots and violence. And where violence meets a whole bunch of mutant powers, collateral damage happens, resulting in new anti-mutant legislation. Worse still, both the heroic X-Men and the more violent Brotherhood have vanished, so there’s no one left to fight for the mutants in any context. All that’s left is the Mutant Underground, just trying to keep their people alive and out of the hands of the mutant-hunting agency Sentinel Services.
Years of government-mandated prejudice later, the Strucker family finds themselves in the middle of the fight in ways they didn’t expect. Kate Strucker (the delightful Amy Acker) is a nurse, while Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer, from some obscure vampire show called True Blood) is a prosecutor specializing in mutant crimes. When their son, Andy, is pushed too far by bullies, the Struckers find out that both he and his sister Lauren are mutants. And the incident causes enough damage that the Struckers find themselves targeted by Sentinel Services, especially the dedicated mutant-hunter Agent Jace Turner.
They fall in with the Mutant Underground: John Proudfoot/Thunderbird, whose powers involve tracking, superstrength, and tough skin; Marcos Diaz/Eclipse, capable a firing intense bursts of heat and light; Lorna Dane/Polaris, with suspiciously Magneto-like control of metal, and who’s pregnant with Eclipse’s child; newest recruit Clarice Fong/Blink, who can open portals from one place to another; and several more support mutants. Together they must avoid Agent Turner, break various team members out of various prisons, and figure out how to deal with Dr. Roderick Campbell (Garret Dillahunt) and Trask Industries’ evil experiments on and against mutantkind.
Race Wars: There’s a lot of diversity in the Mutant Underground. Hispanic, Asian, Native American… sure, the Strucker family are as white as it gets, but that’s actually better for the story. Only a middle-class white family could be that shocked by systemic racism in the US. Any POC family would see over-aggressive police, or doctors calling 911 on a guy in the emergency room because the woman he’s with is sporting a bruise, or neighbours forming a lynch mob on a dime, and say “Yep, sure, that’s white America for you.”
Which is to say, the first half of the season is an effective examination of systemic racism in law enforcement, corruption in prisons, and hate groups and hate crimes. And the fact that it’s all happening to pretty white people might make a certain mindset take it more seriously.
World Without Heroes: I wasn’t sold at first on the idea of an X-Men show with no X-Men in it. I wasn’t certain about Fox’s apparent lack of interest in a cinematic universe, with Deadpool and Logan and Legion and now The Gifted and soon New Mutants all existing in X-Men-related worlds with no connection to each other or the main X-Men movies whatsoever. And I have concerns that between this, Logan, and the fact that every main X-Men movie since 2006 has taken place in the past, Fox’s endgame seems to be killing off the X-Men at some point in the late 2000s, early 2010s. With the Disney buy-out in motion, one could wonder if Dark Phoenix is their “kill all of the X-Men before Kevin Feige reboots them” movie. But in the case of this show, a lack of X-Men works.
The entire premise, of mutants in desperate straights, hiding or on the run from Sentinel Services, works so much better when there’s no one to call for help. No super team giving mutants a good name by taking down Magneto and fighting villains while wearing colourful costumes. The real-world issues that The Gifted touches on are all complicated, and none have a solution as easy as “Just call the big-name Good Guys for help,” so it works that the Mutant Underground don’t have that option either.
Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Polaris and Eclipse are an engaging couple. It might have been nice if they hadn’t spent so many of the first few episodes apart, as Eclipse made a deal with the free Struckers and Polaris showed us how screwed up American prisons are. It took many episodes for the show to make a case for why the Struckers should be the leads and not Polaris and Eclipse, and it was not 100% convincing.
Blink and Thunderbird work well, too. Together, the mutant underground just about makes a team worth watching, save for the nonsense they tend to get bogged down in, which we’ll get to shortly.
Variety is the Spice: There are an impressive variety of mutant powers in play, and they’re all well-done visually. It’s still network TV-budget special effects, but they’ve got more money behind them than Legends of Tomorrow.
Skyler Samuels acquits herself quite well as the Frost triplets, telepaths with untrustworthy agendas.
If you need an actor to play a modern-day Joseph Mengele with no visible human emotions, you could do a lot worse than Garret Dillahunt.
The mutant riot that caused all of these draconian anti-mutant laws to be passed is rightly referred to as “7/15,” a term Americans would use. It is not called “the occurrence” or “the unpleasantness” or “the whoopsie-doodle” or, for those who don’t see where I’m going with this, “the incident.” Everyone gets this but you, Marvel Netflix.
Also they have yet to do a “forced to fight as underground gladiators” episode, and this show is a high risk for that, because historically rich people love to make minorities fight for their amusement, so every season they resist it is a triumph. Wouldn’t make a wager they avoid it for all of season two, though.
No Plan: The Underground’s whole deal is that they’re trying to live up to the X-Men, to find a way to peacefully co-exist with humanity… but they never really seem to have a plan to make that happen. They spend the entire season either breaking people out of prisons/secret laboratories or trying to shut down said secret laboratory before it can do any more damage. There is zero plan for improving human/mutant relations, for undoing any of the anti-mutant laws. There is no hint that they might have a plan later. And this is a problem.
Without some indication that they have a plan to improve mutants’ lot in American life, what we have is a bunch of people hemming and hawing about using violence against the fascists, violent bigots, and mad scientists trying to commit a genocide against them, and that is… look, preaching non-violence is fine and all, but we are also back in a stage of history where people need to know that fascism must be fought. Not tolerated while you cross your fingers and hope that maybe eventually they’ll begin to see you as an actual person. As to those bigots…
Agent Turner is the Literal Worst: Agent Jace Turner is an asshole. He exemplifies what’s wrong with the American police. He is actually worse than the racist cops from Black Lightning because at least they’re honest enough to take bribes and be corrupt instead of pretending they’re the heroes. But I’m not convinced the writers know that’s the character they’ve created. Jace’s daughter died during the 7/15 violence, which should make him sympathetic, but it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. In the wake of 7/15, he decides that he doesn’t care which are the good mutants and which are the bad mutants, he just wants to round them all up and lock them away.
Which… this is their only major black character*. It’s not great having the one black guy in the main cast be the huge racist, saying he doesn’t see a difference between the “good ones” and the “bad ones.”
They sometimes seem like they’re trying to turn Jace into a good man unwittingly doing bad things, but he just isn’t. He sometimes furrows his brow in mild concern over the sinister and clearly immoral deeds of Dr. Campbell, but almost never raises a finger to stop them, and certainly enjoys the benefits of Campbell’s evil research. One time, after being shamed by his wife for letting his grief make him a monster and accessory to monstrous deeds, he agrees to trade down from cartoonish supervillainy to mere fascism, but that’s the episode that the Hellfire Club pulls some shenanigans and a whole bunch of his fellow agents end up dead, so it doesn’t take.
He’s a bad man who does exclusively bad things and pretends he’s somehow noble for doing it. Every time something bad happens to him and his, instead of seeing his side of things, I think “You had that coming, you jackbooted asshat.” And it is possible, it is utterly possible to take a character like this and make them sympathetic. I know this because Legion did it last year. In one cold-open montage, they took a clearly villainous character from the pilot and made us see his side of things, showed us how he’s the hero in his own story, to the point where he’s a regular this year and I’m thrilled about it. Sure, not every show can be Legion, but no show has an excuse notto try. Quality-wise, I mean. Not aesthetically. Probably shouldn’t try that.
*Some of the mutants have pretty heavy makeup, and one of them is black underneath it, but he’s not exactly a major character.
Pacing Problems, Always Pacing Problems: Every single plot point on this show takes longer than it needs to because we need to wade through a stream of “This is wrong” and “This is too dangerous, but what choice do we have” and “This is/isn’t what the X-Men would have wanted” and the ever-popular “I don’t want my kids mixed up in this.” There are 13 episodes in season one, and between them they have maybe eight episodes’ worth of plot. The rest is just constant hand-wringing.
Also the Struckers are not the show’s best characters, which is a problem, because they are the main characters. And it pains me to say that, because one of the Struckers is Amy Acker, and to reiterate Amy Acker is delightful. But the generic, cliche dialogue they feed her, and others… oy.
Actually, let’s add that to the list. There is some bland, clunky dialogue all over this show.
[Deep sigh] Let me think… “threat of eXtinction,” in which Reed discovers some dark family secrets, and some things about his kids’ powers, and he is not happy learning any of it. The Strucker family finally became as interesting as everyone else.
I’ll say “eXtreme measures.” Eclipse has to repay a favour to the cartel he used to work for, while Reed and Kate Strucker [gasp] don’t approve of Lauren’s new boyfriend! Honestly, this episode could have been cut and nobody would have missed it. The only lasting thing it accomplishes is making Sentinel Services even more purely evil than they had already been, which just was not necessary.
Emma Dumont as Lorna Dane/Polaris. This show could have a great deal of potential if they shaved off a bunch of the side plots (I’m counting the main characters as a “side plot”) and focussed on Lorna, Eclipse, their unborn child, and their growing philosophical divide. They might never be Stewart/McKellan Xavier and Magneto, not even MacAvoy/Fassbender Xavier and Magneto, but they could be as close as network TV is likely to get.
Tips For Next Season
Ugh. That asshole evil scientist is going to become an evil cyborg, isn’t he. Damn it.
Okay. So. We have a schism in the Mutant Underground. Some want to follow in the X-Men’s “co-exist” footsteps, some want to join up with the Hellfire Club, go the Magneto route, and start punching back. That’s cool. That’s sensible. That’s a logical direction for the show to go. Classic X-Men stuff right there.
Their opponents were all way too willing to hunt down, lock up, and wipe out mutantkind. So the whole “don’t kill, try to not fight, just pursue peace” thing is already looking like the wrong call. When the Frosts killed a whole bunch of Sentinel Services officers, it was really hard to see why this was a bad idea. I felt about as bad for them as I did any Earth-X Nazis Green Arrow put down back in December. When you’re fighting Joseph Mengele and the SS, damn it, you hit back.
The whole X-Men vs. Brotherhood thing only really works if co-existence is somehow on the table, if humans are willing to accept mutants in their midst. In the wake of 7/15, that seems to be a pipe dream. There’s talk of pro-mutant movements, mutant-rights-friendly congressmen, and that Sentinel Services is on thin ice with the Department of Justice, but… kind of seems like Polaris’ choice in the finale has put an end to all of that. Seems like all the Hellfire Club has accomplished is cranking up the heat on the war between mutants and humans. So for the Underground, well, to quote a certain King of Men… “Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not.”
In short, you’re going to have to work much harder to make the Underground’s anti-violence stance make sense. If you don’t want us to side with the Hellfire club, then the Underground needs a plan.
Also, you’ve dropped a lot of hints about Polaris’ birth father. Say his name. Say “Magneto.” Say it, or drop it.
Overall Grade: C-
You’ve got the ingredients of a good show here. But a pile of sugar, flour, yeast, eggs, and vanilla dumped on the counter ain’t a cake just yet.
Next time in this feature: the CW breaks some habits with Black Lightning.
Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.
This installment: you know how teens begin to suspect their parents aren’t all that great after all? Well, what if your teen suspicions that your parents are jerks were way, way more correct than you ever thought? Based on the first Marvel comic to be written in the same seasonal model as TV shows, surely Runaways should be an easy fit for TV, right?
Short version: If you think the CW superhero shows don’t have enough teenage melodrama, does Hulu ever have a show for you. Well… half a show.
Alex Wilder, Gertrude York, Nico Minoru, Karolina Dean, Chase Stein, and Molly Hernadez used to be the best of friends, hanging out during meetings of their parents, a group of wealthy philanthropists called the Pride: tech dynamos, scientists, construction moguls, and the leader of the Scientology-esque religion Gibborim. High school and the apparent suicide of Nico’s older sister divided the gang, but Alex attempts to get everyone back together during the latest Pride meeting… only for everyone to witness their parents ritually sacrificing a teenage runaway Gibborim had plucked from the streets for “help.”
Turns out Pride is up to something far more sinister than building a new school, and are working at the behest of a mysterious and extremely jerky man named Jonah, with an unknown past that– he’s an alien. Total alien. If they don’t want to spell that out for you in ten episodes, I’ll just go ahead and rip the band-aid off myself. Now the teens are the only ones who can uncover Pride’s real goals and try to stop them… if they can put their personal issues aside long enough to make it happen.
Along the way, they pick up gifts to help with the fight. Nico’s mother has a magic staff called the Staff of One. Chase, with help from his inventor father, builds a set of powered gauntlets. Gertrude learns that her parents have a dinosaur that responds to her thoughts, no you read that right. Molly has super-strength, though using it tires her out. Karolina can glow, fly, and fire energy blasts when she takes off the bracelet her parents have made her wear her whole life. And Alex… well, Alex has to rely on his wits. There’s always one who just has to make a superpower out of being clever.
And eventually, they may have to run away. As the title suggests.
If anyone still cares somehow, no, there are no references to the larger Marvel universe. None. Not even the half-assed references you get from the Defenders shows. Runaways flies under the Marvel banner, because they’re not stupid, but narratively they stand alone. And good for ’em, says I.
There were a lot of complaints about the story in early episodes, specifically the fact that the titular Runaways had yet to run away at all. Sure, in the comics, that happened immediately. In the first issue, they were learning about their parents’ villainy, and by issue two they were on the run. On TV, they take a bit longer to get there. Essentially, they’re doing the same thing as Preacher: they’re taking the first story arc and making a season out of it. They’re taking their time to explore where the story begins instead of rushing past it.
There are good and bad points to this approach, but the header suggests which one we’re going to talk about first.
Not jumping to the running away part of Runaways allows a much more complicated dynamic between the teens and their various parents, and in the Pride itself. It’s been many years since I read the first volume of Runaways, but I don’t recall there being much definition to the Pride beyond what exact brand of supervillain they were: gangster, magician, alien, mad scientist, etc. Here, there are far more levels. There are shades of grey: some of the Pride are more evil than others. Some take to the human sacrifice thing pretty easily. Some are mostly good people stuck in a bad situation. And also having their benefactor around in person changes things up as well. In the comics, the Gibborim were a race of goat-like aliens that had bestowed gifts on the Pride, which we didn’t even meet until the end of the first volume. Here, it’s Jonah. Instead of mysterious goat-beasts, it’s Nip/Tuck’s Julian McMahon, which allows for more complicated relationships between the various Pride members and their extremely dickish benefactor. Not everyone is a true believer, and that is definitely something new.
Also, we dig more into the parent-child relationships, as each child is forced to see their parents in a new light. Instead of instantly becoming mortal adversaries (save for one Runaway who was secretly on the Pride’s side, a storyline the show might or might not pursue), they try to hide their new knowledge and grapple with what it means. Some kids start feuding with their parents. Some actually get closer to theirs. It’s a complex tapestry and a more realistic approach than “Cheese it! We live on the run now!” being their opening gambit. Not to mention it lets more and darker secrets slip out as the season continues.
Other strengths. The bulk of the parents are well cast, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s James Marsters as the brilliant but abusive Victor Stein; Ever Carradine as his long-suffering wife; 24‘s Annie Wersching as Karolina’s cult-leader mother; Alias’ Kevin Weisman (love that dude, he’s great, his character on Alias was the best… well, the best non-Bristow) and Brigid Brannagh as Gertrude’s dorky, cheese-loving parents (and foster parents to Molly); and Angel Parker and Ryan Sands as the cold, unflinching Wilder parents, a gangster and a lawyer who got their piece of the pie through the Pride and will yield it to no one, possibly even Jonah.
The teen cast, though not always on the adults’ level, are spot-on for each of their roles. Well, except maybe Molly, who is written as several years younger, but doesn’t really look it. (Making her latina works well, and reduces the whiteness of the group from two-thirds to only half–still really white, sure, but progress?)
Combining the Gibborim and whatever species comics-Karolina was into one singular alien, Jonah, was probably a good idea. Really, how many types of aliens does this story need?
That’s a pretty great dinosaur Gertrude has.
And props for breaking from the canon, comic-book relationships and saying “You know what, the gay girl gets a win, too.”
Multiple times in this first season, Jonah or a Pride member would get caught doing something Hell of shady, and they would stare down the person who caught them, saying (often with murder in their eyes) “You have to trust me,” while providing no real reason why that should happen. That is the show speaking to us, the audience. To explain, let’s look at the flip side of their use of the Preacher model.
Stretching the first Preacherstory from four issues to ten episodes worked, mostly because of everything they layered into it, which made the first season feel like more of a complete story. Jesse had an arc whose natural end was leaving Annville in search of God. Not so much with Runaways. In a way, this plays out like the average season of Game of Thrones. The various plot points build to a big event in episode nine, then the season finale is all about dealing with the fallout while setting the stage for the next season.
The problem here, though, is that the first story arc of Runaways doesn’t translate as well to a full season. The first volume of Runaways was meant to read as the first season, not the first arc. As a result, what we have here is a first season that offers zero closure on almost any storyline. We don’t know what Jonah’s really after, or what he even is, Geoffrey Wilder’s frenemy rival is still an ongoing thing, I think they only barely dealt with “Who secretly killed who.” And that’s not even covering the fact that when the season wraps up, the main plot has only just made it out of first gear. The gradual pace of the first episodes was forgivable when I thought they were building to a satisfying climax, but then the finale rolled around and it turned out we’d spent ten episodes only introducing the premise.
And if you’re going to go the Game of Thrones route, with each season only being one part of a bigger, more complicated story, man, you gotta be Games of Thrones level good. Because when everyone else is doing season arcs with beginnings, middles, and ends and you’re opening with one chapter of a multi-year arc? That is a risky move, and in this case, it felt like Runaways was writing a cheque we don’t know that they can cash. They’re Jonah, staring us down and saying “You need to trust me,” when the last two episodes did not make it clear whether I can.
So the ending had some flaws. What else?
The dialogue is often not naturalistic, and instead really awkward. There might be a way to make “The circumstances of my sister’s suicide are not something you can keep secret from me” sound natural but goddamn they did not find it. Someone at the first table read needed to be flagging awkward dialogue, and it just wasn’t happening.
The younger actors are not always on the level of their adult counterparts. Well, mostly Molly. Molly struggles the most. Nico and Alex… they just can’t always deliver the really weirdly awkward lines convincingly. And that’s understandable, it is, but… Veronica on Riverdale doesn’t always have dialogue you believe a human teenager would say, but damn it Camilla Mendes still sells it.
They must have blown their effects budget on the dinosaur, ’cause those are some 80s-direct-to-video effects they’re using when Karolina lights up.
Either “Kingdom,” when the kids suit up for the first time, trying out their new toys (minus the dinosaur) to protect Alex and discover what they can all do, or “Doomsday,” in which the kids suit up to try and stop the Pride’s big plan, and confront their parents for the first… time… actually that confrontation ultimately fell pretty flat. Yup, it’s “Kingdom.”
“Hostile.” For whatever strengths the season finale had, I came into it thinking “So how to you top ‘Doomsday,'” and the answer turned out to be “Well we don’t.” “Hostile” is an episode you break for Christmas with, not for the season.
James Marsters gives Victor Stein the most dynamic character arc of any Pride parent, and I’m most afraid for the safety of the Yorkes, so that’s bonus points to Kevin Weisman and Brigid Brannagh.
Ideally, the MVP would have been Alex, the unnamed leader of the team, but that just didn’t happen. Love his hair, though.
Tips For Next Season
We’ve had ten episodes of setting the stage. Now tell a story. (Also, don’t even think about writing out that dinosaur.)
Overall Grade: B-
Was almost a B+ but then they forgot to write an ending and here we are. Still too much potential in the show to slip into C territory, though.
Next time… ugh. Fine. Time to finish The Gifted. Also some non-TV blogs to even things out?
Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.
This instalment: Jessica’s back! Two and a half years after Jessica Jones’ first season arguably set the high bar for the Marvel Netflix franchise (only Daredevil’s first season can compete), was the best comic book show of the season according to highly credible sources, and after being one of the highlights of last year’s slightly disappointing team-up, Jessica Jones finally gets her follow-up season.
Man. It’s good that Netflix has started cranking these things out faster, because that was too long a wait.
So how’d it turn out? Marvel Netflix hasn’t been doingthatwellsince. Is Jessica Jones season two a return to form, or another Iron Fist?
Short version: It’s okay. Not as good as it was, not as bad as it could have been.
We rejoin Jessica and pals… ex-child star-turned-radio-host Trish Walker; Jessica’s assistant, ex-junkie Malcolm; and high-powered attorney Jeri Hogarth… a year after season one, and some unspecified and unknowable amount of time since The Defenders. This is the first show starring a Defenders lead to drop post-crossover, but if you’re hoping to see how the big team-up has changed life at Alias Investigations, you’re gonna be disappointed. The events of The Defenders and her temporary super-powered cohorts are never mentioned, even in passing. Other than cameo appearances by Foggy Nelson (mostly to acknowledge that he still works with Hogarth and would care about her plotline) and Manhattan’s most persistent black market gun salesman Turk Barrett, the other Defenders shows are utterly ignored. There’s not even a visit from Marvel Netflix’s number one utility player, Claire Temple.
And you know what, that’s basically okay. First off, Jessica was so annoyed to be involved in Hand-based shenanigans that I utterly believe her not even wanting to mention them now. I can picture a few annoyed “I don’t even want to talk about its” getting thrown at Malcolm and Trish the week after it all happened, and then everyone moving on. Second, there’s not much call for guest appearances. Daredevil’s still off the board until his third season (maybe later this year?); this show has enough hand-wringing over the ethics of killing as is that an appearance by Claire would have just been redundant; and no circumstance exists where Jessica would even consider calling Danny Rand for help. Or conversation. So really, it’s just Luke Cage that’s conspicuous in his absence, given what a key part of season one he was, but it’s still fine. There was only one point, in episode 12, when I thought “You know what Jess, maybe this is the moment you call your super-strong, bulletproof pal in Harlem,” but given everything that had just happened in episode 11, Jessica was in no headspace to trust other people or ask for help. So I’ll allow it.
Weirdly this is the most that any Marvel Netflix show to date has referenced the Marvel movies. Captain America gets referred to by name, not simply as “the flag-waver,” and a threat hanging over the season is the Raft, the superhuman prison introduced in Captain America: Civil War. This isn’t enough to get me to rethink my position on whether the films and TV shows actually co-exist. There are still far too many ways they don’t, and accepting that they’re separate just makes things easier. But hey, kudos for the effort.
That was a bigger diversion than I expected. Where was I. Right.
Premise (For Reals)
One year after season one (two and half years ago for us, Marvel timelines are messy), Jessica is still haunted by having killed Kilgrave with her bare hands–hand. That people consider her a “vigilante superhero” potentially willing to kill people for money isn’t helping. She’s as lost in booze and anger as ever, causing a rival to exclaim “Super? You’re the weakest person I’ve ever seen.” Malcolm, her ex-junkie neighbour, is now working as her assistant/apprentice. Jeri Hogarth comes back into Jessica’s orbit when some bad health news requires some drastic actions. And most notably, Trish, Jessica’s adoptive sister/best friend, feels that the solution to Jessica’s rage issues is to look into how she got her powers in the first place.
It turns out some people don’t like Trish asking questions about the company behind Jess’ powers. When bodies begin piling up, Jessica starts chasing her own past, confronting the death of her family… and digs up some things she hadn’t expected.
I could criticize this season for ensuring that their sophomore outing has all of the tired tropes of a first season, those being origin stories and reluctant heroes, but… the fact is, Jessica’s origin hasn’t fully happened yet. It might never fully happen. She’s a reluctant hero because she hasn’t decided to be one yet. Maybe she never will. That’s Jessica, folks. Love her or watch Legends of Tomorrow. Or both. Yes, both. That one.
The Killer, as they’re referred to… damn. “The Killer.” That is seriously the only codename they think up. Marvel Television needs a Cisco Ramon to think up better villain names in just the worst way. The Killer becomes Jessica’s dark reflection: not only created by the same company, The Killer is also possessed of incredible strength, also isolated from society, and also driven by rage they can’t always control, only more so in all cases. The Killer is what Jessica is afraid she herself might become, especially with Kilgrave’s death on her hands.
How does it work? Well… there are good points and bad points.
Ripping off the bandaid, “They’ve finally fixed their habitual pacing problems” is not on the list of strengths. It took the film branch nearly a decade to finally start writing decent villains, who knows how long it will take the Netflix branch to learn about pacing or episodic television?
That said, there is one improvement. In the back half, where Daredevil‘s second season and Luke Cagefell apart, Jessica Jones season two actually picks up speed. Instead of collapsing into Hand or Diamondback related nonsense in episode nine, they actually find their footing in episode seven. Sure it’s not all smooth sailing from there, but we’ll cover that below. This right here is the good stuff. And the first and most obvious strength of the show should go without saying, but here it is anyway…
Krysten Ritter is goddamn phenomenal.
She was always good with the anger and the one-liners, but she gets some heart-wrenching material this season and she absolutely crushes it. Even when her material was weak or inconsistent, her performance never was. Someone give her an Oscar movie while we’re waiting for season three, because she is an incredible talent.
Also on that level this year? Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth. The early episodes drop some heavy stuff on her, and damned if she doesn’t rise to the occasion. And a good thing, too, because if not, her entire story would be under “weaknesses,” on account of it being only slightly connected to anything else that happens. Jessica is off dealing with mad science and the monsters it creates (and whether she might be one of said monsters), Jeri is confronting mortality and deciding who, exactly, gets to take anything else away from her (spoiler: it ain’t a long list), and sure the two stories share some common characters but they’re basically in their own worlds. Fortunately, thanks to Moss, Hogarth’s story is consistently one of the best parts of the show, connected to the main story or not.
Other strengths… Trish Walker isn’t her best self this season, but Rachael Taylor is still nailing it playing her. Jessica’s new love interest ultimately works as an arc, even if it starts with that old chestnut of “They dislike each other immediately, and we all know where that goes in the long run.” (Paraphrased quote courtesy of the late, legendary Terry Pratchett)
Good news: This is the first Marvel Netflix show to have Asian characters who aren’t part of or connected to a ninja death cult! Bad news: they are both still assholes. So… not a huge win for Asian representation.
I won’t tell you much about The Killer here, ’cause you should let the show tell you if that’s something you care about, but… they made some really interesting choices, and they pay off in Jessica’s arc. Also the “mad scientist” is an interesting ethical grey area. He’s not exactly doing ethical science, but he’s not a bad person. He’s authentically trying to do good, there are just a few shortcuts he really shouldn’t be taking but is anyway.
And seriously, I can’t remember the last time I ended episode nine of a Marvel Netflix show and didn’t think “Jesus, four more hours?” So good job putting all the bad pacing up front.
On that note.
There is so much goddamn padding on this show. I want to say “If you can’t fill 13 episodes, don’t write 13 episodes,” but Defenders was only eight episodes and it was still badly paced, so honestly I don’t know what it would take at this point. Let’s take a quick tour of pointless subplots they stuffed this season full of in order to fill 13 hour-long episodes.
Trish’s storyline is about a recovering addict’s desperate need to feel as powerful as her adopted sister, and how it drove a relapse into addiction. So why did we spend so much of the first five episodes with her boyfriend, the impossibly noble journalist Griffin, only for him to be wished away to the fucking cornfield just as her story is hitting its stride? Did they think we needed to see her lose a boyfriend to understand her life was spiralling out of control due to addiction? Because we didn’t. Trish’s life had plenty going on to lose to addiction without creating and almost immediately tossing out a love interest. He was such a big deal and then he was just gone in an instant with no payoff whatsoever. Waste of time.
Also introduced this year is Pryce Cheng, a rival PI trying to push Jessica out of business. He eventually creates two inconveniences, one of which convinces Jessica she should work with the police, and the other of which is the third of at least four times that Jessica thinks “You know what, I take it back, The Killer does belong in jail,” and that is it. That’s not enough plot to require four episodes of building up a character and his go-nowhere conflict. He’s a main-credits regular, by the way, while the scientist who gave Jessica her powers is a “Special Guest Star,” despite being in exactly as many episodes and being far more important to the story. Which might be mostly about Callum Keith Rennie’s agent figuring “Special Guest Star” gives more status than being, at best, fourth-billed as a regular, but it suggests they plan to bring Pryce back next season, which… BOO. Pryce Cheng would lift right out of this season and nobody would miss him. He is dead air. Only worse.
There is a major reveal just before the halfway point but in order to ensure that it was at the halfway point… of a 13 episode season… they make getting there so convoluted. They reveal that Trish was sexually abused by a director so that they could threaten him into pressuring a hospital he donates to into giving them some information (what?) that points them towards a homeless ex-nurse that directs them to a mentally handicapped convict who gives them a name that leads to an encounter which points them to a university which sends them to a lawyer that can be pressured into sending Jessica to a house that finally leads to the reveal… what the hell. That journey takes six episodes. That is the very definition of padding. And every single thing that happens along the way (save for the homeless ex-nurse being tossed into Jeri’s arc) is basically meaningless to the back half of the show. I’m not saying that giving Trish a “Me too” story about an abusive director from her child star days was a bad idea, if they’d stuck with it then maybe it could have informed her need to feel powerful, but only including him to be one rung in a convoluted ladder then dropping it immediately is a weird choice.
A flashback episode at the midway point introduces an old boyfriend of Jessica’s who was apparently a pivotal figure in her early 20s, yet was never mentioned before that episode. And only once since. Kind of tacked on, there. (I will give the flashback episode this… for a spot-on satire of empty, insipid, top 40 pop music, Trish’s big hit “I Want Your Cray-Cray” is kind of a jam.)
Now, besides all of that, there are a few things beyond the padding that just don’t really work. To wit:
There’s a whole thing about prejudice against powered people. It doesn’t really work. Do you know why it doesn’t work, Marvel Television? Because you’re not the X-Men. Do not try to be the X-Men. The Gifted is kind of cornering the market on being hated and feared by the common people, don’t try to steal their bit. The Inhumans aren’t replacement X-Men and neither is Jessica.
Also, every person who’s prejudiced against the powered is a POC. Every single one of them. I don’t love that. There aren’t a ton of major POC characters on this show as it is, do they need to be the only bigots? Does the only black woman on the show for more than one scene need to use the phrase “you people?”
Jessica flip-flops back and forth over what’s to be done with The Killer (what I would not give for a better codename) constantly. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing if they’d handled it well, because she should be conflicted over this person, she should be torn as to what they deserve, but it doesn’t play out as being conflicted. It plays out as swapping back and forth as to which side she over-commits to. I should turn you in, I should help you escape, you need prison, you need help, you’re going to the Raft and that’s good, you’re going to the Raft and I’ll help you escape, nothing can redeem you, only I can redeem you… never grey area. Either she’s willing to do whatever it takes to bring The Killer to justice or she’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect The Killer from the police, and the change happens on a dime. One noble act changes Jessica’s mind instantly and utterly, even though last season Kilgrave proved that one noble act doesn’t change who a person is. It doesn’t play as Jessica being conflicted, it plays as Jessica being inconsistently written.
How is it that addiction and substance abuse are such a key element for two characters on this show, yet Jessica’s obvious alcoholism never comes up. Save for one moment where she admits she’s not the best person to be around when you’re an addict who’s fallen off the wagon.
So in short (too late, I know…), while there is a lot of good stuff in there, the first half is mostly filler and the second half forces Jessica’s arc to go in circles in order to fill enough time.
Stop doing 13 episode seasons. You don’t know how to fill 13 episodes.
AKA Three Lives and Counting. Jessica begins to unravel as her friends screw up, the line between her and The Killer begins to dissolve, and a familiar face is all too willing to push her over the edge. Absolutely their best hour.
AKA Pork Chop. “So we need Jessica to cross a line on behalf of The Killer. Let’s introduce someone unambiguously evil so that her crossing the line isn’t so bad.”
“But we’re playing it as being super bad–”
“Yeah, sure, fine, but the audience should think he had it coming. We have all this cake, we just need to eat it, too.”
Krysten Ritter. She even makes Jessica’s third trip through the “You’re irredeemable, no wait maybe not” loop-de-loop mostly work.
Though props to Carrie-Anne Moss for selling Jeri’s arc so hard that it didn’t end up on the list of filler arcs that served nothing. That it was the most consistent and well-written arc of the season helped, but a lot of it washer.
Tips For Next Season
Look… are you married to this whole skeevy, power-hating-rival Pryce Cheng thing? ‘Cause I’m not loving it. Could he just shuffle off to whatever island for discarded supporting characters you sent Trish’s boyfriend to? Please? And maybe, in general, avoid having characters and plotlines with no payoffs. Write as many episodes as you need, but use them wisely.
Aside from that… I think Jessica hit rock bottom where “pushing away the people in her life” is concerned, only to end the season by reaching out and trying not to be isolated anymore. You need to build on that next season, not just regress. I wouldn’t normally think that was an issue, but you just did a second origin story for Punisher, so who knows.
And maybe in addition to repairing her relationships with her core cast, she could also try being willing to consult with Luke Cage or Matt Murdock or… nope, can’t think of a third person for that list.
Overall Grade: B
I thought it would be higher, but the season just takes so long to get out of first gear, and Jessica’s flip-flopping bugs me enough that it kind of blew the ending.
Next time: I’m probably finishing at least one of The Gifted, The Tick, and Runaways this week.