Television


I finally finished my Luke Cage binge last night, so let the reviewing begin!

I’ve been bouncing back and forth on whether this is the best of the Marvel shows on Netflix, but by the end of the season, I’d have to go with “yes.” Here’s why:

Harlem. They take a real place and they make it the focus of the show. Daredevil tried this in the first season, as well. Hell’s Kitchen, however, is a weird mix of 1980s crack-period Hell’s Kitchen, and the gentrified version of today. This is necessary for the show to keep the Miller/Mazzuccheli flavor they were going for. Luke Cage‘s Harlem is much closer to the real thing, and the importance of the place to black history, culture, and identity is front and center throughout the show.

Blackness. Connected to that, and a defining subtext of the show is blackness. Cottonmouth Stokes, the crime boss who could have been something else; Mariah Dillard, the all-too-realistic politician; Misty Knight, the honest cop who knows everyone in the neighborhood; and Luke Cage, the stoic, hard-working everyman…who just happens to be damned near indestructible all are aspects of the black community, and their conflict mirrors the conflicts of the black professional, the gangster culture, and the middle-class. The music, the location, and the casting all make this a sharply different view of America than Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

The women. There are a lot of important female characters in the show — Mariah Dillard (Alfrie Woodard), Misty Knight (played superbly by Simone Missick), Inspector Pricilla Ridley (Karen Pittman stuck in a stereotypical annoying commanding officer role), and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson, stealing scenes again..) — the women in the show are integral parts of the drama and plot. They’re not weak. They’re not victims. And none of the important players are young. They’re mature women. It’s refreshing.

Mike Colter. Sweet Christmas this guy’s got charisma. He was the best part of Jessica Jones (my opinion) and he does good work here. There are a lot of great performances in the show, Mahershala Ali’s Stokes is especially good, but COlter manages to hold the spotlight whenever he’s onscreen.

The surprises. (Yeah, spoilers. Shut up.) The decision to take Cottonmouth off the board halfway through the show was an excellent move, and made the show seem less contrived. That said, exchanging Ali for Erik LaRay Harvey’s Diamondback took away an excellent, and somewhat sympathetic villain for a less interesting creature. Diamondback, despite their best efforts, never feels like anything more than the crazed murdering baddie. That’s not Harvey’s fault; the writing on his is a bit lazy, and that’s probably the worst aspect of the show.

Mariah Dillard’s rise to crime boss is the exact opposite. She’s a compelling and realistic character, not entirely competent or comfortable in her new role, but Woodard’s steady move from pawn to queen is well executed by both writers and actress. Did I mention the women in this show knock it out of the park? They do.

A side mention for one of the better supporting cast has to go to Frank Whaley. Who? you ask. You’ve seen him in just about every damned TV show in the last ten years, and a few movies. He plays Scarfe. (Oh, that guy!) His performance is subtle and nuanced. He feels like a 20 year vet of the NYPD who does his job, and just that; he knows his job barely matters and it makes his corruption seem natural.

Lastly…Method Man. I’m not a hip-hop or rap fan. I barely know who the guy is. He steals all the scenes he’s in. There’s a great moment between he and Cage where the superhero geeks out at meeting the musician. It’s one of the best moments in the entire show and feels right.

The bad — ’cause there always is some bad.

Diamondback. The character is a leering psycho whose character development shows him to be a whinging teen with daddy issues. It’s unoriginal and uninteresting. The Bible-quotes and half-assed philosophizing never rises to the levels that Cottonmouth and Mariah have.

While the final fight between he and Cage is beautifully done, it’s really only good to show Cage to be no martial arts master, no skilled bad-ass, but a dude that simply is very strong and impervious to most damage…why would he need to be a fighter? (Throughout the show, the guy doesn’t fight, so much as sort of push and slap his way through the mooks.)

The first episode. It’s a slow episode, mostly for the work it’s doing setting up Harlem as a character, as much as introducing the leads. Wade through it.

So is it worth it? Hell, yes. Go quit your job and stream this thing, right now.

Yes — there are spoilers. SCR

The second season of Daredevil dropped right when I was laid up with the flu and conjunctivitis, so lucky me — I was able to binge the series with a good reason. In some ways, the second season really improves on the first, and in others is a bit of a let down. Overall, I’d say the sophomore season doesn’t quite live up to the first for several reason that we’ll get into in a moment.

The season revolves around two main plotlines — the Punisher arc, in which an unstoppable killing-machine vigilante, Frank Castle, takes out scads of competing villains, is captured, and put on trial. The other is the surprise reemergence of Elektra Natchios, Matt Murdoch’s college-period girlfriend — who turns out to be a protege of Stick, part of the “war” he teased with a group called the Hand, and…well, she makes the Punisher look restrained and considerate.

First the best parts of the season — the focus and pacing is very tight. The characters are well developed and strongly written with the possible exception of Murdoch. Berenthal is fantastic in the role of Castle, with the nuance there, but dialed way down. He’s obnoxious, reactionary, and almost mad-dog violent, but he is also highly intelligent and there is still moments of humanity in him. Contrasting this, Yung is solidly convincing as the unhinged Elektra, and the weaknesses of the character are not hers, but the writing — she is simply unlikable. Beyond the snarky, violent exterior, there’s very little to be redeemed in her. Castle keeps giving you peeks of the decent man he was; there’s none of that in Elektra.

But the real standout, as with last season, is Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson. Where Murdoch becomes increasingly distracted by Elektra and the Hand, increasingly combative with Nelson over the latter genuine concern for Murdoch’s well-being, and less responsible by the episode, Nelson keeps their law firm afloat, shows up for work, battles a corrupt district attorney, and damned near wins a victory over their open-and-shut case until the Punisher purposefully torpedoes his own defense. He’s there for his friends, his clients, and he shows a faith in the system that — for all his protestations — Murdoch never does. More to the point, he’s smart, brave, and much more heroic than the rest of the characters for his firm convictions, his willingness to take the hits to his reputation and ego, and even some physical bravery.

He’s the real hero of Season 2. All the best bits of the season revolve around his legal machinations and pissing contests with the odious DA Reyes (you remember her from Jessica Jones.)

The main point of exploration is justice and the law, and the shades of vigilanteism. The Punisher is put up as an opposing view to Daredevil. Punisher isn’t looking for justice, so much as retribution for the death of his family by three gangs in a drug bust gone bad; Daredevil uses murder as his line — the point he won’t cross — and his vigilante nights are a response to the seeming weakness of the law. He’s filling in the holes where the system can’t tread. Murdoch slowly moves from viewing Castle as a villain toward seeing him as an extreme form of his own works, partly because Murdoch realizes that Daredevil’s tactics are less effective than ever, and partly because of the corrupting influence of Elektra. While occasionally battering the viewer with this dilemma, it doesn’t drag the show down.

Which leads to the weak points of the season. The Elektra plot line was set up in season one, with references to her in conversation, but mostly through Stick and his War, and the Black Sky (which becomes a very important point near the end of the season.) We find out that Elektra is one of his warriors, raised to the fight, and that Stick had pointed her at Matt in college to torpedo his career plans and lure him back. In some ways, this was probably the point where the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen really gets his start…I suspect, while it’s not explicitly rendered, that Elektra’s influence is what set him on his path. Yet, for all that set up, the pay-off is pretty weak.

Season 1 was a standout for the attempts to maintain verisimilitude in a superhero world. Daredevil’s foes were occasionally larger than life — Wilson Fisk, Nobu, Madam Gao…but they were believably portrayed. Season 2 suffers from a late 1980s problem in Marvel comics: f#$%ing ninjas. There is an army of these Hand ninjas running around — not dozens, but it seems hundreds of the bastards, and they are capable of “masking their heartbeats” but not their breathing…which super-hearing Daredevil doesn’t realize? Crying bullshit. Lazy writing to create more dangerous foes than they were. There’s a subplot about the Hand trying to find immortality, and about the Black Sky — apparently people of such sublime talent for violence as to be practically unstoppable. The secret ninja society trying to create the perfect weapon plot is slow burn until the last few episodes, then goes into high gear, and in doing so steps very quickly away from the sense of realism that the first season tried to create, and maintained well with the Punisher arc.

For all the Punisher is a caricature of the ’80s action hero — the superbly trained killing machine who can’t be stopped — he is vulnerable, emotionally and physically. He is a walking poster board for Fight Club through most of the season — battered and bruised to being almost unrecognizable. The explanation of how his gunshot wound to the head during the drug bust gone bad has caused him to live in a “heightened state of fight or flight; reliving the moment of his family’s death over and over” sounds plausible and makes him sympathetic. But he still can be put down. He still gets caught and jailed. He’s suprahuman, but not superhuman.

Another point where the season both succeeds well, but also makes the mistake of holding itself up for scrutiny to the first run, is the reintroduction of Wilson Fisk (who becomes Kingpin in the course of his appearance.) He is still pulling strings, still dangerous, even behind bars, and seeing him in action (including a fight scene where he easily batters the Punisher) serves to remind us of how grounded that story is in comparison to the half-assed ninja sorcery on the other side of the season.

Don’t get me wrong — Season 2 is highly enjoyable, and punches along at a great clip for the first two-thirds of the show, before the Elektra story moves to the forefront. It’s certainly worth a look, but in the end, it just didn’t quite tie it all together as well as they did the first try, mostly because they started to move too far from the tenor they set. I suspect, had the Elektra arc been saved for season three, with a bit more lead in to establish the “woo-woo” factor of the Hand, the arc would have been more effective.

You’re welcome, world.

From The Horror Channel:

dalek-doctor

Snagged from wishforagiraffe on Reddit.

guardfox

I finally got around to Netflix bingeing on the first season Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — which I had been less than interested in seeing when it premiered 1) because i don’t have cable and making time for a show isn’t my speed, anymore, and 2) I thought the premise a bit lackluster, and 3) I wasn’t hearing great things from the fanbase. So, what did I see?

The allegedly weak first half of the season wasn’t. I’m a big fan of spy-fi, and this was a generally good example of the genre for TV. I think the fans were expected the superhero/supervillain of the week sort of thing, so this would be an understandable let down. The supposed better back half wasn’t that much better, but finally pulled all the disparate elements together, at a better pace (until the last episode or two, where it bogged down, in my opinion…but that’s the hazards of the 22 episode seasons that US broadcast television seems unable to break out of.)

The acting is good. It’s obviously Clark Gregg’s show — Agent Coulson is the glue to the piece and they managed to make it work. They don’t run to long on the “secret” of his survival, but give you just enough by episode eight or so to be satisfied, then build on it a bit toward the end of the season. The characters around him are a big cliched — the geeky, combat weak scientists (Probably the strongest performers of the cast, and at least they got a real Scot for the Scotsman.); the girl hacker fighting the system with a dark secret; the tough chick that supports the captain Coulson; and the bad ass turned traitor. It’s a pretty standard Joss Whedon set of characters so better than about 75% of broadcast TV.) We get some great guest players, as well — Saffron Burroughs as a quasi-foil senior SHIELD officer, Bill Paxton (playing Bill Paxton…but here it works) as the hard-charging leader of another team, Samuel L Jackson (with nary a “motherfucker” for the ear but he does get to shoot guns), Cobie Smulders (in a less likable version of the Hill character), and Jaimie Alexander (not great) reprising their roles, and the always good Patton Oswalt. (Whom you need to see in Justified‘s fourth season — seriously!)

The plots are generally good, but the Whedon-y slow burn through the season gets a bit long in the tooth by the end of the 22 episodes. We learn Coulson’s secret, we deal with the collapse of SHIELD following the events of Captain America 2, but are left until second season to explain the hacker, Skye’s, big reveal. The season’s bad guy, the Clairvoyant, is revealed well, and actually was a surprise to me. Character development is solid, and the characters remain consistent, and some of the half-develop stereotypes — May, for instance — finally get some decent fleshing out. The hacker, though, still the weakest of the bunch. The release of the supervillain prisoners from “the Fridge” gives us the chance to expand the show from a spy show with some superscience into a spy show with super-powered bad guys.

Overall, I think the quality of the show was more consistent than others have opined, and that it’s a good counterpoint to the movies, which are increasingly more superheroic as they go on. I’m looking forward to seeing season 2.

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