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.