I spent the last of my holiday painting the bathroom. That turned out to be a complete waste of time – the color that looked good on a color swatch doesn’t look so good on the wall. Such is life. On the other hand, I did drag the laptop in there and finally finished watching Jessica Jones on NetFlix.
As I mentioned in my review of Luke Cage, the first few episodes of Jessica Jones left me feeling a bit empty. The show has solid production values and generally strong writing. Unfortunately, it also suffered from one major drawback: the main character, Jessica Jones herself.
Jessica Jones simply isn’t a sympathetic character. At one point about midway through the season, Luke Cage (who remains one of the best characters of the show) directly calls her out, telling her she’s a “piece of shit.” At that point in the show, I couldn’t disagree with him. Over the remainder of the season, the show finally did present some sympathetic elements of her character. But up to that episode, it really hadn’t – or, at least, it hadn’t made her sympathetic enough for a scene like that. She simply wasn’t very likable at all. And lest you wonder, she really had done something pretty terrible to Cage. She earned that.
What the show does have, however, is a truly compelling villain. David Tennant’s Kilgrave is truly one of the more interesting villains I’ve seen out of any film or TV Marvel property. His powers are interesting, and he uses them in interesting ways. His history with Jessica is interesting – and just morally gray enough to make you question her interpretation of events. Tennant owns the show whenever he’s before the camera. And his back story gave me true empathy for the character. He is most assuredly not justified in doing what he’s done. But you can understand why “Kevin” became “Kilgrave,” and sympathize with it.
But that only serves to underscore how sympathetic the main character isn’t. In fact, about halfway through the season I made a mental shift in how I watched the show. Instead of thinking of Jessica as the hero, I decided in my own head that I was watching a show about the tragedy of Kilgrave. Rather than focusing on Jessica, I focused on the story of a boy whose parents tried to save him – but who mucked it up horribly. He grew up, alone and aloof from the world – unable to interact honestly with anyone. His isolation slowly pushed him into madness. Then he fell honestly in love with a girl (for good reasons that I can’t give away without spoiling the show). But she rejected him utterly. Grief pushed him into madness, and he tried to pull the world down around him. Then she killed him.
Viewed that way, it’s a far better show. It’s truly Shakespearean in its depth. Unfortunately, that’s not actually quite the show we got. But it illustrates the underlying problem, and provides a strong rule of thumb for aspiring authors. Never make your villain more sympathetic than your hero.
In the end, I have to settle on three and a half stars out of five. Jessica is so unsympathetic that I might have given it two stars. But Tennant’s amazing turn as Kilgrave and strong supporting roles throughout the show bring it back up. In fact, they bring it up enough that if someone mildly edited the show and repackaged it as The Tragedy of Kilgrave, it could pretty easily become a five star show. Instead, we get a show that doesn’t quite suck… yet isn’t quite amazing, either. This is definitely the weakest of Marvel’s NetFlix offerings.
I know, I’m a bit behind the times. But earlier this week I finally finished watching Season 1 of Luke Cage.
I entered the show with high expectations. I was never a regular reader of the comics, but I’d read enough of them to know that the character was actually interesting. Marvel and NetFlix had so far done a good job with the characters they’d brought to the small screen. I had faith that they could continue their winning streak. Also, I’d seen a preview of their version in the half season of Jessica Jones that I’d watched previously, and I liked what I saw.
Now… here’s where I need to admit that my expectations were somewhat tempered. I liked Luke Cage. I liked David Tenant’s villain. The writing quality on Jessica Jones was high. The production quality continued to be top notch. But I have yet to finish the show (I’ve seen about half of the first season). Why?
Because I can’t stand the main character. I’ve mentioned this to friends who like the show. Some of them informed me that her decision to “not be a hero” at the beginning was a strong part of the character arc. Fine, I can buy that. I’ve done similar things with my own characters. That’s not the problem. The problem is that Jessica herself is a despicable human being with almost no redeemable traits. It’s been in vogue for the last few decades for critics and writers to insist that characters with no flaws are boring and two dimensional. And they are correct. But so are characters with no virtues, and that’s how I felt about Jessica.
With all that said… I did rather like their portrayal of Cage. So I skipped the last half of Jessica Jones and went straight into Luke Cage.
Warning to anyone else who might follow my lead: I am still slightly confused about where Cage fits into the timeline. It feels like it must take place after Jones. If so, then I clearly missed the part where Luke is sent to prison and loses his bar. Or maybe it’s supposed to be a prequel? I honestly can’t really tell. This isn’t the fault of the show. It’s my fault for not watching the entirety of the previous series.
So I spent a bit of the first episode or two confused before I decided to just forget what I’d seen in Jones and follow Luke Cage as its own separate entity. That proved to be the right choice. It’s a strong show. The main character is quite interesting. He’s flawed enough to have a real arc, but also has strength (of character, not merely of body) and virtue. The setup of the show really drew me in. The supporting characters are interesting, especially the dichotomy between the dual antagonists: the sleazy druglord Cottonmouth and his Councilwoman cousin Mariah.
But those aren’t even the best parts of the show. Indeed, what really sets the show apart and makes it special is the way it absolutely nails race in America. And I don’t mean in an SJW way, or in a conservative way. This show is one of the most brutally honest takes on race – from all sides – that I’ve seen in a long time.
Luke Cage features police who are scared to go into black neighborhoods, and black neighborhoods who are scared of police. We see way the culture binds together against injustice (both real and perceived) – and the way that corrupt politicians stoke the flames in order to exploit those injustices for personal gain. It shows the very real ways in which living in that world holds someone down, but it’s not afraid to show the very real ways in which residents of that world contribute to their own prisons.
Yet at the same time each character has something crucial that Jessica Jones lacked: dignity. The show treats its characters with respect. Even the villains have clear motivations that – while despicable – are also understandable. Characters make mistakes, but they’re very human mistakes that you identify with. None of these characters – good or bad – has an easy life. And all of them – good and bad – have moments of honor, dignity, and even redemption. All the while, it tells a compelling and interesting story.
The show does exhibit one flaw, however, and it’s a doozy. The pacing is sloooooooooooooooow. Way too slow. As good as the show is, it probably should have been told in about 10 episodes instead of the 13 we got. Maybe it should even have had fewer. The first few episodes are the worst offenders, and the show does pick up a bit after that. Even so, it’s never what you’d call a particularly fast pace.
Worse, there’s no good reason for this. NetFlix continues to insist on the HBO/Showtime/BBC model of about 13 episodes per season. But it’s unconventional distribution model should free it from that constraint entirely. How many episodes should a NetFlix season have? As many as it takes to tell a good story – no more and no less. They are under no pressure to fill advertising time, no true “seasonal” constrains like network and cable TV traditionally has. They already release the shows whenever they feel they’re ready, without adhering to traditional release schedules.
The pacing issues of the show are a completely unforced error on NetFlix’s part. But at least for me, it was also the only real drawback of an otherwise most excellent show. Still, it’s enough to drop an entire star off the rating, taking this from a five star show down to the final four stars that I give it. If Marvel’s NetFlix shows are your kind of thing, you will probably enjoy Luke Cage. But you may have to push yourself through the slow bits.
I first watched Father (now Bishop) Robert Barron’s epic television series Catholicism in 2011, right around the time of my conversion to the Catholic faith. Father Barron took viewers to locations around the world in a high budget masterpiece explaining both the history and the tenants of the Catholic faith. The series was not responsible at all for my conversion – but it did help cement it and nourish it. I have no doubt that this series did convert at least some viewers, however. It’s powerful. And unlike many religious films, the production quality is extremely high. I’ve begun rewatching the series lately, and decided to share my thoughts. Today my focus is on Episode 1, Amazed and Afraid.
The quote I opened with at once displays the profundity of the series and nails the coffin shut on the most popular contemporary view of Jesus. This idea that he was a “good man” and a “great moral teacher” – but nothing beyond that – falls apart completely under examination. In Episode 1 Father Barron thoroughly eviscerates this idea. He reveals Jesus to be a deeply subversive figure – both in the first century and the twenty-first century.
One idea I had in my head in my youth is that Christ himself never claimed divinity. It’s a common modern idea. I didn’t invent it, although I can no longer recall how I acquired this ridiculous notion. It’s also patently false. Father Barron shows us in this episode that Christ claimed his divinity outright on more than one occasion. More than that, however, Christ used his very language to continue this claim. We miss much of this in the modern world because we are deeply ignorant of the Old Testament scriptures. But for the Jews of his day, to whom Jesus taught directly, scripture permeated every aspect of life.
Father Barron shows us how every aspect of the Gospels proclaims Christ as God himself. And then he points what should be obvious. Either Jesus is God himself, among us, as he claims or he’s not a very good man at all. If he’s not God, he’s a blasphemer. If he’s not God, then he’s subverting both temporal and spiritual law. If he’s not God, he’s up to some very serious shenanigans.
What Father Barron doesn’t say, but what also follows, is that if he’s not God, some of the Christian morality that runs through our culture doesn’t make any sense at all. If he’s not God, Jesus is not a good moral teacher. Turn the other cheek? Sure, it works well… in modern, civilized society where people will stop the beatings. It works terribly in first century Roman society where nobody cares about cruelty. It works terribly in parts of the world today that don’t share our morality at all. It works terribly… well, honestly in most of the world for most of history. If Jesus is not God, then his teachings aren’t actually all that good.
The same modern thought that labels Jesus as merely a great teacher loves to sweep the resurrection under the rug. Clearly this was just a metaphor. No, wait – it’s just those pesky, superstitious first century rubes. They’ll believe anything!
But the resurrection is clearly more than a metaphor. As the series notes, nobody would have listened to Saint Peter if he’d run into the forum of Rome shouting, “I want to proclaim a dead man who’s very inspiring!” They listened to Peter because he ran into the forum shouting, “I want to proclaim the good news of Christ Resurrected!”
In one of the less theological parts of the series, yet one I found more interesting, Father Barron goes on to describe the use of Christian imagery to specifically subvert the Roman empire. The cross – the symbol, literally, of Roman terror and dominance – becomes the symbol of its own subversion. But it’s more than that, it’s also in the language. Iesus Kyrios, “Jesus the Lord,” directly co-opts Roman coinage, where the phrase Caesar Kyrios can be found. Evangelion, the Greek word for Gospel, is a direct rip-off of the term used to announce Imperial victories. These are but a few examples. The subversion runs deep.
Finally, Father Barron discusses the longevity of the Church itself. Jesus wasn’t just some cult figurehead. There were plenty of great rabbis, plenty of great moral teachers, even plenty of faith healers wandering around the holy land in the first century. Yet nobody remembers them two thousand years later. Yet something about Christ still inspires people today. I found this part particularly compelling because had been a huge part of my own journey to the faith.
Father Barron gives us a great anecdote about the late Cardinal Francis George, and it seems a fitting place to end my thoughts on Episode 1.
Saint Peter, like ten of the other eleven apostles, was martyred for his faith. Specifically, he was crucified upside down in Rome. Cardinal George had the fortune to stand at the side of Benedict XVI as he was anointed pope in 2005. He is rumored to have thought at that moment, as he looked out over Rome at the ancient palaces of Caeser, “Where is the successor of Caeser?” He answered himself, “Who cares? But the successor of Saint Peter is right there.“
Damn you, Declan Finn. Your incessant tweets and Facebook posts on your re-watch of Babylon 5 have left me with the urge to re-watch the show. It may, in fact, have to go in my queue as the next binge watch.
The problem is that this is a show I’ve already seen all the way through 2.8 times. Yes, 2.8 times. I watched the first four seasons live as they aired. Then they switched networks – from the doomed-from-the-start PTEN network (aired on Fox in my local viewing area) to TBS. As a poor college student who couldn’t afford cable, I spent years desperately longing to see how my favorite television show of all time (a title it still holds to this day) ended.
When I finally graduated, my aunt gave me the best gift ever: a giant box of VHS tapes, containing the complete run of the entire series. DVDs existed, of course, but television on DVD was not yet a thing. I had a job on offer, but it hadn’t started yet… and I didn’t actually have an official start date yet. I had moved back in with my parents for my last year of college. So what was I to do? I binge watched the entire series, of course.
[Aside: This is one more area where modern television lovers can thank Babylon 5. Its fans (“we”) petitioned Warner Brothers to release the entire series on DVD. We spent years pushing for it. Then, slowly, they trickled it out. One disc (2-4 episodes) at a time. Myself and many other fans painfully shelled out for each of those discs. Finally somebody hit on the plan of releasing the entire season in a set. It sold like wildfire, and eventually every other show followed suit.
B-5 may not have been the absolute first show to be released in season packs. Even so, I remain convinced that we never would have seen the phenomenon develop if the fans of B-5 hadn’t pushed – and paid – for it.]
A few years later I rewatched the series with my wife Morgon, who had not yet seen it. There’s your 2.8.
A week or so ago I watched as Declan let out tweet after tweet, quoting a line here, referencing a scene there. Every single time I knew exactly what scene he was referring to. I’d read the tweets and think, “Dang, that show was so awesome!” Then I’d see a few more tweets and think it again – shortly thereafter followed by, “And he’s only on season one!“
However, this particular tweet came through my feed over the weekend and I had to take a slight issue with it.
War Without end, 2, premiered during holy week.
The one who was, who is, and who will be. … they are THE one.
No. JMS is pure atheist.
— DeclanFinn (@APiusManNovel) August 13, 2016
One of the greatest things about the show is that its creator, J. Michael Straczynski (known to fans as JMS because his name has, in his own words, “ten thousand consonants and no vowels”) was one of the first show creators to heavily interact with the fans via this newfangled thing called “the internet.” There are huge archives out there of all of his postings on Usenet and other forums related to the show. Like many, I read them in real-time.
And if you read them in real time, one thing that’s painfully obvious (though he never quite said it), is that the concept of the one radically changed during the course of the show. Given everything else he said, it had to have.
In the original 5 year Babylon 5 arc, Sinclair was clearly planned as the commander for all five seasons. It shocked everyone when they replaced him in season two. Then the official explanation came down: the studio wanted someone with “more charisma” in the lead. We all bought it. It sure sounded like something the studio would do. Lord knows they’ve done it before. It wasn’t until many years later that we found out the real truth: Michal O’Hare had a horrible degenerative brain disease that would eventually kill him. He couldn’t continue with the show.
JMS talked all the time in the forums about his “escape hatches.” Episodic television is a massive logistics nightmare, you see. Actors may not return. People can die… or get horrible degenerative brain diseases. So he’d written in a “way out” for each character. If something happened to the actor, they could switch the plot into a different direction. One of the best known is the example of the telepaths. Lyta Alexander was replaced by the telepath Talia Winters because the actress became unavailable in the dead space between the pilot episode and the filming of season one. But the actress who played Talia, it turns out, couldn’t get along with anybody on set. She was eventually fired… and the actress who played Lyta was available again, and magically worked back into the story. Genius, right?
I’m willing to bet that he used a lot more of these than we, the audience, ever knew. Babylon 5 was a massive project, on a scale never undertaken by anyone else – before or since. But the concept, storyline, and execution of “The One” was, by far, the clunkiest use of these trap doors.
Read between the lines and it’s pretty clear what the original intention was. Sinclair would command the station all the way through all five seasons. Almost all of Sheridan’s arc (perhaps slightly tweaked in some cases) would have happened to him, instead. Then, at the end, he would have vanished into space – just as Sinclair did. But instead of merely being taken away, he would’ve been taken back in time to become Valen.
Oh, wait, you say. Isn’t that last bit what actually happened? Yup. But it happened nearly three years early due to O’Hare’s declining health. And they had to split the character – he could no longer be the same character who had fulfilled every aspect of the original intent. At the same time, Sinclair had to be the character who went back to become Valen. Sheridan’s temperament simply didn’t fit the role. But more importantly, Sinclair had already been the one shown in possession of a Minbari soul.
And yet dialogue already recorded and aired – in one of Babylon 5’s best known episodes, no less – had well defined that there was a character of, “The One.” What to do?
JMS turned to religion, in a quite clever move, and created the “Trinity” of Sinclair/Delenn/Sheridan. It works. But honestly, it only ever barely worked. It sounded cheesy and clunky the moment it aired, and it still sounds cheesy and clunky twenty years later. I give him mad props for making this work. It had to have kept him up at night until he worked out the solution. If you want to talk about JMS and religion, stick to episodes like “Passing Through Gethsemane,” which is so deep and profound that it actually played a role in my conversion to Catholocism. For an atheist, he certainly gets and understands the best that religion has to offer.
But let’s not give him props here for more than he actually deserves. Babylon 5‘s “trinity” was a cheesy hack. A really good cheesy hack, but still a cheesy hack.
This weekend I finally finished
Punisher Season Zero Daredevil Season Two. It’s a strong follow up to season one, which I’ve previously counted as one of the best comicbook adaptations of all time. I’ve never been a particularly big Daredevil fan, but this incarnation continues to really deliver the goods.
The strongest feature of season two is also the strongest feature of season one. Once again the casting is top notch. Season one brought us Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, two of the best casting choices of this decade. Season two brings us the next amazing casting choice: Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle.
As you might have figured out from my introduction, The Punisher plays such a huge role in this season that it could almost be viewed as the first season of his own show. This is a wonderful thing. In fact, it’s one of the strongest parts of this season. Unlike Daredevil, I was a massive Punisher fan in my high school years. For the first time, a live action really does the character justice.
Unfortunately the season also has some weaknesses. The two major plot threads – the Punisher thread and the Elektra thread – don’t weave together very well. It’s almost like the show is just telling two completely separate stories this season – except that they kind of sort of meet at the very end when the Punisher shows up to just barely help out Daredevil in the final showdown.
Furthermore, the show sets Matt Murdock into relationship turmoil, showcasing his relationship with Elektra while also trying to showcase a relationship with Karen Page. Both stories are strong. But the show kind of jumps from one relationship to another without much coherency. First he’s with Page. Then Elektra shows up, and Page kind of disappears off his radar sense – but he doesn’t actually want a relationship with her (for good reason: she’s damaged goods). Then, almost inexplicably, he seems to forget all about how he left things with Page and he wants to run away with Elektra. Then when that doesn’t work out, he turns around on a dime and wants to be with Page again.
This does not make Matt Murdoch very sympathetic.
In fact, that’s probably the single biggest weakness of the series. Daredevil himself simply doesn’t feel like the main character here. Most of the season involves stuff happening around him or stuff happening to him, but not much of him actually doing things.
The other unfortunate weakness: seeing the Punisher realized this well makes me wonder if I’d actually like a true, straight-up Punisher show. His stuff is intense, and pretty dark. I’m not sure I would have actually liked it very much, though, without the trappings of a lighter character to wrap it in. And given that Daredevil isn’t particularly light, that says something.
All in all, though, it was a strong season. I’d give it four out of five stars and I could easily sit through it again.
My wife and I recently finished watching the final season of Babylon 5. This is a minor miracle in our house for two reasons. First, although we watch quite a bit of television-on-DVD (or, more often these days, on streaming services such as Amazon Prime or NetFlix) it’s actually fairly rare for us to finish an entire show together. Eventually one or the other of us will become generally bored (her much more frequently) or decide that the show has jumped the shark and is no longer worth watching (probably a tie between us). Second, we started watching this show nearly a decade ago.
Now, to maintain my SF cred I must point out that I had watched the entire show end-to-end before – nearly twice. In fact, I began watching the show only two or three episodes in to the first seasons (thankfully, I got to watch those few episodes I missed very early on in reruns thanks to the show’s unconventional airing schedule). From that point on I never missed an episode – until season five when Babylon 5 jumped to TNT. We didn’t get cable at the time, so I had to wait to catch season 5. And wait. And wait.
For my college graduation, my aunt made me a collection of VHS tapes of the entire series that she’d recorded off the air. I had nearly a month between finishing classes and starting my job, so I sat down and binge watched the whole series again, finally getting to see season 5 (as I said, I had previously watched the series nearly twice). This, of course, was in the days before binge watching was really a thing.
Fast forward a few years and my wife and I began watching the show (which at that point she had not seen) together. We watched through season four… and then she had a burst of ADD and got interested in something else. A month or so ago I finally convinced her to pull out season five again and finish off the series.
Watching season five in isolation was an interesting experience. I should preface the discussion with the note that Babylon 5 is my favorite television series of all time. It was also unprecedented. Today, it is common for television shows to have a season long story arc. Each episode is watchable individually, but when you watch an entire season together a larger storyline unfolds. And most shows have this planned out about a season or so at a time. Back in the mid 90s when B5 aired, nobody did that. Most major television basically returned everything to status quo at the end of every episode.
But Babylon 5 did something even bigger than what we do today: the entire five year story arc was planned out in advance, from beginning to end. My wife knew this going in. Still, when watching the final few episodes this weekend, she commented on how striking it was to see a television show that actually resolved its story and actually ended – as opposed to just being canceled.
Also, every time I rewatch the series I’m stricken again by how good the show actually is. The best parts of the series, by a good margin, are seasons two and three and the first half of season four. But when Morgon and I first started the series together all those years ago, I was hit by how good the show even started. Straight out of the gate with season one it was a solid show – and only got better after the usual first few episodes of “finding their footing.” And although I recall season five as being the “weak” season (which I still believe), it, too, was really good.
The pre-planning of the storyline really shows through, and it really ups the quality level – even when you have to watch it fifteen years later with some seriously dated CGI and some clear signs of low-budget production and a couple of mediocre actors. The writing on the show is phenomenal, and together with some really standout actors who step above the pack it really carries the day.
You can’t say “they don’t make shows like that anymore” because they never really did make shows like Babylon 5. But it’s a shame, and they really should.
In contrast to the new CBS show Supergirl, about which I expressed my reservations earlier, I am ALL IN on the CW’s new Legends of Tomorrow show. First, the preview:
What’s not to love?
First, there’s Arthur Darvill (aka Rory Williams, aka the man who punched The Doctor in the face and was thanked for it, aka the man who entered a haunted hotel with a room containing everyone’s greatest fear and it showed him the way out, aka the biggest badass in all of Dr. Whodom). Yeah, that’s a pretty good start right there.
On top of that, they’re bringing in several characters I’ve been quite fond of from the Arrowverse: Brandon Routh’s Atom (this season’s best addition to Arrow, and whom I’m very glad to see continuing to get good work instead of seeing his career tank after turning in a really terrific performance as the man of steel in a really terrible movie that many people unfairly blamed him for) and Caity Lotz’s
Black White Canary (who was quite fun when she wasn’t constantly pouting. I’m in for that.
They’re fully embracing the weirder side of the DC Universe: time travel, shrinking machines, Hawkgirl… and the show promises to be jumping throughout history every week. And perhaps most of all, the trailer promises us a show with a great sense of fun.
Legends of Tomorrow: I’m all in.
After knocking it out of the park twice in a row with Arrow and The Flash, Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg are at it again with a third superhero show from the DC universe. This time they’re bringing Supergirl to life. A pretty substantial introduction/trailer has been released, and I’ve embedded it below so you can watch for yourself to get a preview.
Of course, the question remains: will the show actually be any good? The trailer, of course, doesn’t definitively answer the question. They never do.
The good: Berlanti and Kreisberg seem to have the DC universe down in a way that Zach Snyder simply doesn’t. Arrow and The Flash are two of the best shows currently on television in any genre, and pretty much the only TV that I try to watch the same day as it airs (I still DVR it, so I can watch without commercials).
I also like that they seem to be going with the “adorkable” approach with Kara/Supergirl. It works well for the character and certainly beats the uber-bitchy model that so often seems to be the only way that Hollywood knows how to write a “strong” female character.
The best: Over three seasons of Arrow, Berlanti and Kreisberg have been saying in interviews that DC has told them that the “big three” (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) are a no-no. Yet even in just the trailer for Supergirl, those were some pretty strong references to Superman. Clearly DC has come to their senses – at least somewhat – and realized that these are the guys to let have this. Could there be more TV references to the big three coming? Dare we hope that we might even someday get a Batman show that actually, you know, has Batman in it? Yes, Gotham, I’m talking to you.
The not so good: It’s only a trailer, so we’ll see how the actual show goes… but this trailer has a lot more CW-style teenage girl soap-operatic drama going on than either Arrow or The Flash have ever shown. Ironic, given that those shows are actually on the CW and this one is coming to CBS. Not good if that’s the way the show plays out. Hopefully that’s not the direction they’re going with Supergirl.
Update: The esteemed John C. Wright has a more optimistic take than I do. He makes some great points, but I still worry a bit about it coming off as a CW-style teen soap opera.