Saturday, March 26, 2016

5 Shows We've Been Watching

What a crappy week.  
As I  mentioned yesterday, I almost ran this list for yesterday’s “5 Things on a Friday”, but then I saw the article about New Zealand’s flag and the new Voltron promo art, and that was enough to build an article using the usual format, albeit in a limited way.  Regardless, this list is a smattering of what I’ve been watching on television.  If I’ve missed your favorite show, please leave a note and/or recommendation in the comments.

1. The Magicians (Syfy)
I didn’t think that I was going to like The Magicians, but my classmate Paul recommended it, and I have to admit that it’s quickly become my favorite show.  It’s not the most promising premise.  It’s basically Harry Potterset at the Yale Graduate School of Natural Science & Philosophy, but Ron is the badass in this version, and he starts fucking Luna Lovegood in their first week of school.  Also, this version’s Hermione is smoking hot!
But, y’know, saying it that way gives Harry Potter a little too much credit.  Yes, this is a Hero’s Journey set at a magical school, and as is a staple of the genre, our hero has nothing obviously special about him save his inability to fit in prior to landing at the school itself.  And yet, there’s a lot of really out-of-the-box stuff here.  For one thing, the entire series is itself a literary allusion to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, with the C.S. Lewis character taking a decided turn for evil late in the season.
Harry Potter never shows us magic in the real world, but we see it quite a bit in The Magicians.  We also see people struggle with adult problems in decidedly adult ways.  As an adult, that appeals to me.  I also like that the series has its own Feywild, and that they’ve started to develop divine magic alongside the arcane.  I’ve not read any of the books on which this show was based, but I love the show and can’t wait to watch it every week.  It’s been really terrific.
2. Daredevil (Netflix)
I’m six episodes in as of this writing, and I love the new season.  I’ve seen some complaints online alongside some negative reviews, but honestly, I have no idea what those people thought they were going to get.  It’sDaredevil.  It’s exactly like every Daredevil comic I’ve ever read.
One complaint I saw claimed that this second season had fallen into the typical trap of superhero sequels--too many villains.  This arose as a negative trope from the Tim Burton Batman franchise.  The problem was that Burton cast Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Batman, and then had Batman kill him off at the end of the movie.  How can you top that in a sequel?  
You can’t.
The sequel therefore cast two villains, the Penguin and Catwoman, by way of raising the stakes.  I personally loved Batman Returns, it is my favorite Batman movie of all time, but if Burton juggled his dueling villains successfully, the third film in that series enjoyed less success using the Riddler and Two-Face, and the series itself went dramatically downhill after that.  When Christopher Nolan rebooted the franchise with Batman Begins, he used a very different look, but the one thing he kept was the dueling villains concept.  It’s not until The Dark Knight that we again see a single villain dominate the story, and yeah, that movie is the best in this second series by a mile.
The second season of Daredevil draws a Hell of a lot of inspiration from Batman (especially Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One), but there are also important differences.  Daredevil is an ensemble piece by design where Batman is a solo act.  Daredevil’s first season was an ensemble, and this second season is even more so.  Foggy Nelson is a fascinating character.  That should not be a complaint.  Second, it’s TV, so there are thirteen hours of content.  This a non-trivial consideration.  The knock on all those Batman movies was that they didn’t have enough screentime to develop multi-villain characterizations.  With thirteen hours, that’s no longer an issue.  They’ve built this season as a set of story-arcs.  That’s totally in keeping with the comics.
In fact, the one issue that I had with the first season of Daredevil was that it was all about the Kingpin, that we spent eleven episodes beating up useless goons, with one episode where Daredevil fought a ninja and one where he fought the Kingpin himself.  The only guy who actually gave Murdock any trouble was the ninja, and I’m convinced this was because the ninja was wearing a supervillain outfit.  By the final episode, Wilson Fisk was transparently outgunned exactly because he was trying to fight a superhero with mundane bad guys, and that never works.  This is why the first season’s final episode is its weakest.  I kept waiting for Bullseye to show up, just so the Kingpin would have a fighting chance.
Classic 80s Daredevil, featuring Matt, Elektra, and Melvin Potter, aka the Gladiator.
Season Two eliminates this issue immediately.  We don’t even see Daredevil beating up mundane bad guys; we take for granted that he can do that because he’s Daredevil.  Instead, Matt goes one-on-one with the Punisher--and he gets his ass kicked.  That’s actually a good thing.  So is the fact that Foggy Nelson is himself a hero, that he has some interesting things to do in those first few episodes.
Not sure what else to say.  I mean, the knock here seems to be that the supporting characters are all really interesting.  That’s not actually a knock.  Also: the action sequences remain terrific, and they’ve made interesting use of Matt’s powers all season long.
3. Fuller House (Netflix)
The kids and I watch Fuller House on nights when Sally has to teach fitness classes.  It’s not great TV or anything, but it is consistently entertaining, and I don’t worry that something completely inappropriate is going to sneak onto the screen when I’m not paying attention.  We’ve also watched Men in Black and the first Transformers movie recently, and in both cases, inadvertent adult content was a serious concern.
My favorite thing about Fuller House is that it cares very little about reality.  It’s a family-style screwball comedy, kind of like Porky’s or Meatballs, but without all the boob- and dick-jokes.  It’s a little amazing the way they’ve pulled that off, and if the first episode is at best mediocre, the season gets better as it progresses.  The further it diverts from the real world, the better it becomes.
My kids love Flash, and I generally enjoy Arrow, but these days DC’s Legends of Tomorrow is my favorite CW/Berlanti comic book show.  I’ve been amazed by how much I’ve enjoyed it.
Some of these people are already dead.
Legends has a giant cast of completely replaceable mid-tier super-people, and this is--astonishingly--exactly what makes it work.  Anything can happen because the show has no clear cut star.  We started with a cast of nine, and so far we’ve seen two deaths from amongst the core group.  Moreover, it seems entirely likely that the show itself will develop a rotating cast concept, meaning that no one is safe.  And yes, there are some actors who’re more famous than others, and those tend to get a bit more screentime, but those are also the ones who’re most likely to land a different TV deal.  In which case, their characters will die.  Which means thatanything can happen.
I also like Legends because it’s the only show I’ve ever seen that fully embraces the Law of Unintended Consequences.  Our heroes are led by disgraced former Time Master Rip Hunter, who’s (illicit) wife and child were murdered by Vandal Savage, an immortal supervillain.  Legends is thus the story of Hunter’s quest for revenge, but being a Time Master, he’s trying to take his vengeance before Savage has a chance to come to power and murder Hunter’s family.  The Legends therefore chase their quarry by traveling through time, which means that every time they screw up--which is to say, every time they do anything--they alter history, creating weird dystopian nightmare futures.  So far we’ve seen the Soviet Union win the Cold War by developing an army of Firestorms, and we’ve seen a variant of The Dark Knight Returns, starring Stephen Amell’s Green Arrow in a fallen, gang-ruled Star City.
Oh by the way, this show is also a recurring sci-fi period piece.  We’ve seen the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 2040s, along with an episode about space pirates who exist outside of time itself.  Man, that stuff is cool!
5. The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime)
The Man in the High Castle is the only show I’ve watched from Amazon’s new TV studio, and if the reviews are to be believed, it’s the only thing Amazon’s ever put out that’s worth watching. Like Legends of Tomorrow,Castle is also a sci fi period piece, but this one is set in a dystopian version of the 1960s where the Axis powers won the Second World War.  Castle is based on a story by Philip K. Dick, and its script has hinted that the difference between its world and ours is a single, monumentally important event, but as a European History Major, it’s hard for me to imagine exactly what that event might have been.  I’ve seen all of the first season, and so far, they haven’t so much as hinted at what caused the change.
The change, however, is obvious.  The Nazis assassinated FDR, dropped an A-Bomb on Washington DC, and invaded the East Coast, conquering all the way to the Rocky Mountains.  The Japanese control everything west of the Rockies, and as the series begins, we slowly realize that this has led to a variant of the Cold War where the Demilitarized Zone of the Rocky Mountains is the primary fault line.  Both sides fear another war, but Nazi Germany has so far kept a monopoly on nuclear weapons, leaving the Japanese almost completely at their mercy.  This situation is exacerbated by the fact that Hitler has become an old man, and he is personally the only thing holding the fragile Axis alliance together.  As soon as he dies, most everyone expects the Nazi’s to start dropping nukes all over America in an attempt to force the Japanese off the continent.
Bottom line, things are bad.

The international angle is interesting, but it’s the smallest of the show’s plotlines.  We spend a lot more time learning what it’s like to live in an America without basic freedoms, and folks, this is a lesson that most Americans could stand to re-learn.  In an election year in which one of the candidates has openly mocked freedom of the press, racial equality, and basic human dignity, 
The Man in the High Castle reminds us what life looks like when we take those things away.  It’s not pretty.  Life become capricious and arbitrary, and common citizens have little or no recourse when they’re wronged by their “betters”.  Hell, even the so-called “betters” spend most of their time fighting for position and influence since they know damned well that without those things, life is shit.
That’s all I’ve got.  Have a good weekend and a happy Easter!

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