Saturday, February 13, 2016

Too Much TV: Now more than ever

During the month of February 2016 I'm watching ten hours of original series programming a week. That's an unprecedented amount for me but it could have been eleven, except that I gave up on the Beowulf show (Esquire) after one episode. Most of what I'm watching are new episodes of series I've already reviewed, but there are a few new ones I've stuck with and plan to review in depth soon. For now I just want to show you just what's on my plate, along with trying to watch movies while keeping up with my old political blog and my new pulp-fiction blog. February and March probably will prove to be a peak viewing time, since several of these shows are cable programs with limited seasons. I'll be glad to have more free time when they wrap, but I have to say that right now is a pretty good moment for genre TV -- and I say that without watching what most people consider the top two genre programs, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. I don't doubt their quality, but I simply lack the time to catch up with them. Anyway, here's what I am watching, in calendar order:

Monday: Supergirl (CBS) - A guilty pleasure I blame on my interest in superheroes, this is Greg Berlanti's incursion into the Tiffany Network and part of his expanding universe based on DC Comics, as will be confirmed by a crossover with The Flash in March. The Berlanti formula is clear enough: "family" is the focus here as Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) nee Kara Zor-El deals with angry remnants of her Kryptonian heritage while working with her adoptive sister for the DEO, a super-secret government agency watching aliens on earth and run, as known only by Kara and her sister, by just such an alien, martian manhunter J'onn J'onzz in the guise of Hank Henshaw. Her informal family works at Catco for media mogul Cat Grant (Callista Flockhart), including refugee from Metropolis James Olsen and son-of-a-supercriminal Winn Schott. What distinguishes Supergirl from the rest of the Berlantiverse is its determination to play the traditional secret-identity game, at least with Cat Grant, Kara's boss in civilian life. After teasing that Cat had figured out Kara's secret one week, the show restored her to ignorance through a ploy involving J'onzz/Henshaw's shapeshifting abilities. As a result, despite "girl power" elements and Berlantian soap opera that annoy many male fans, Supergirl is in many ways the most oldschool comic-book show running right now, to the extent of being considerably cornier than Berlanti's CW shows. Its special effects oddly often seem inferior to those on The Flash, though that may simply be because flying presents more difficult challenges, and the comedy-relief moments at Catco are often hard to bear, but Melissa Benoist is the show's trump card, a near-perfect embodiment of its more upbeat, idealistic attitude.

The Magicians (SyFy) - this adaptation of Lev Grossman's fantasy trilogy is just about the best new show of the 2015-16 season in my book. I'll definitely review it in more depth when the first season finishes, but I won't wait to recommend this grungier, grittier, more mature take on the Potteresque trope of the school for magic. This show has explosive potential and everything it's doing right now seems fresh in the best way.

Tuesday - The Flash (CW) - Season Two sees this Berlanti show still going strong, its multiverse still expanding with the discovery of "Earth-Two," one of presumably many alternate earths on which our regular cast can play variations on their normal themes. The premise allows Harrison Wells to reappear as an abrasive but ultimately benign refugee from Earth-Two who helps our heroes fight "Zoom," the Earth-Two superfast big bad who lives off the Speed Force Barry Allen generates and hopes to leech off him as he did the Earth-Two Flash, Jay Garrick. Flash continues to strike a superior balance between high concepts and soap opera than Arrow has managed lately and as of now there may be no limit to the writers' imagination other than whatever Hollywood imposes to keep the upcoming DC movies special.

Marvel's Agent Carter (ABC) - I enjoyed the first season of this retro prequel to Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (which I don't watch) and I'm liking the second season better as it gives Peggy Carter, the intrepid British agent from Captain America: The First Avenger, a truly super villain in Whitney Frost, a Hedy Lamarr-inspired genius in an actress's shell tapping into the dangerous power of Zero Matter. Moreso than in the first season, Carter aims to be transgressive by the standards of the period it's set in by teasing a romance between Peggy and a black scientist who, unfortunately, is rendered intangible most of the time by Zero Matter. Meanwhile, the whole Zero Matter business is complicated by a questionable FBI man (Kurtwood Smith!) and a mysterious secret society to which Frost's husband belongs. Carter risks overdoing the comedy sometimes, but a bit in the most recent episode where Peggy repeatedly has to shock a randy Ray Wise to knock him unconscious and forgetful of her presence was genuinely hilarious. There's not too much suspense to be had, since Captain America: The Winter Soldier showed that Peggy lived to the present day, so I suppose a lighter tone than typical for comic-book shows is justified. Rumor is that this is Carter's last run; if so, that'll be too bad.

iZombie (CW) - Not much to add to last year's review except that, if anything, this best-plotted of all genre shows is getting more richly complicated than ever. The writers' ability to deliver an interesting mystery just about every week while juggling the major storylines involving Blaine's new business as a drug dealer/undertaker, his imminent showdown with Seattle crime boss Stacey Boss, Major's conflicted work as the Chao$ Killer, a hitman hired by the Max Rager people to wipe out zombies, the police evidence that circumstantially points to Blaine as the Chao$ Killer, the tension between the cops who want to arrest Blaine and the prosecutors who need him as a witness against Boss, and the fact that Ravi's zombie-cure can fail at any moment, turning Blaine and Major back to zombies, is almost uncanny. I wrote that whole sentence without mentioning our protagonist Liv Moore, but as the center and anchor of this maelstrom she remains one of the most appealing, sympathetic characters on TV despite all the obnoxious variations her brain-eating inflicts on her. In a less-blinkered world Rose McIver would get Emmy nominations.

The Shannara Chronicles (MTV) - Hard to believe this adaptation of Terry Brooks's popular fantasy novels comes from the same producers who gave us Into the Badlands, but Gough and Millar clearly tailor their product to their market. For MTV that means pretty young people with anachronistic attitudes and a lot more overt sexuality than Badlands or, I presume, the original Shannara books. Movie buffs may be startled to discover that the young star of Pan's Labyrinth has grown up into this show's Eritrea, an allegedly amoral bandit who grows a kind of conscience as if to spite her exploitative father/gang leader. She's part of a pretty trio, along with an elf princess and a halfbreed hunk, destined to save the elf kingdom's sacred tree from corruption and thus save the Four Lands from demonic invasion, with the help of the mighty druid Alanon (Manu "Slade Wilson" Bennett). Readers of the novels tell me that the show is more blatantly postapocalyptic than the books, perhaps because vestiges of our world -- Eritrea and the princess recently traipsed through the ruins of an American high school -- give the MTV audience something to identify with. Bennett and the venerable John Rhys-Davies appear to be the only people in the cast who can act, but I can overlook the youngsters' limitations -- the girls are pretty -- as long as the show satisfies my modest appetite for high fantasy. Still, the thought that this show might survive while Badlands' future remains in doubt is a sad one, especially if it teaches Gough and Millar the wrong lessons.

Wednesday - Arrow (CW) - At least I can say that Season Four is a slight improvement on Season Three, since Neal McDonough's Damian Darrk is a more charismatic supervillain than last year's Ra's al Ghul. This season also has a compelling framing device, opening with a flash-forward showing Oliver Queen mourning at an as-yet unidentified grave and vowing to kill the person responsible for the as-yet unidentified death. The problem with Arrow is that I doubt whether the writers actually had made up their minds, when they wrote that first episode, about who was in the grave. The show continues to have an often-infuriating quality of evolving by the seat of its pants, with the writers making it up under deadline pressure from week to week without an adequate overall plan for the season. No genre show out there is a better argument for making the shorter, more "serialized" season the standard for all TV shows, since no show has more episodes that simply seem like filler, irrelevant to the main plot and insignificant on their own terms, than Arrow. While this show often tries my patience, I'm vested enough in the characters that I still want to know what happens to them. And despite everything, it's still better than Gotham, which wasted what good will it earned with some strong episodes at the start of its second season by lapsing into moments of unmatchable stupidity that finally drove me away for good.

Thursday - DC's Legends of Tomorrow (CW) - The newest Berlantiverse show unites supporting players from Flash and Arrow into a misfit time-traveling team tasked with stopping immortal big bad Vandal Savage from conquering Earth in the 22nd century. The idea is to find periods in the past when Savage is relatively weak and undermine his power. The problem with this approach is that it leaves poor Savage, and poor us, without an overarching plot to hold our attention. Much like Arrow, and unlike Flash, Legends has a desperately improvised feel to it. It may be, however, that Vandal Savage is just a human MacGuffin to justify what the writers really want to do, which is to watch its nine main characters bounce off each other and see what happens. It's really too many characters for any writer to handle while doing justice to all of them, which is why we rarely see all of them working together in any coordinated fashion. Instead, some do field work while others are assigned character development and the bluntly sardonic Mick "Heatwave" Rory (Dominic Purcell) steals almost every scene he's in. That's no surprise, since it was recently shown that Purcell could be intensely compelling while eating yogurt. He's not enough, however, to keep this from being Berlanti's weakest superhero show so far.

The 100 (CW) - What do my two favorite TV shows have in common? As of this winter, the answer is Zach McGowan. The great thing about short-season series is that actors can do two shows (or possibly more) at once, depending on their schedules. So just as Fear the Walking Dead's Alycia Debnam-Cary returns to this show as Lexa, the grounder Commander in a love-hate relationship with Eliza Taylor's Clarke, now McGowan, Black Sails's Charles Vane, joins up as Roan, an effortlessly badass renegade prince of the much-dreaded Ice Nation, the real mischief-makers among the twelve tribes of grounders. Roan first appears as a bounty hunter pursuing Clarke, who has gone on a great walkabout after earning the epithet "Commander of Death" for exterminating Mount Weather and is first seen this season killing a sabre-toothed panther. More mayhem ensues when Roan tries to drag Clarke back to Lexa, whom Clarke would love to kill for betraying her at Mount Weather. Just as the Ice Nation and its malevolent queen start making more trouble, a newly-discovered band of Sky People with no patience for negotiation with grounders makes life still more complicated. Now that this band's leader, Charles Pike, has gotten himself elected Chancellor of the Sky People on a violent anti-grounder platform, things seem set to go to hell in that 100 fashion we all love. And I haven't mentioned the looming threat, if we must call it that, of the City of Light, which Theolonious Jaha has found to be some kind of virtual reality into which humans have uploaded their consciousnesses to achieve a kind of immortality and an itch to convert others to their way of life. Leave it to Jaha, the show's most erratic character, to become a missionary for this dubious utopia, with the charmingly despicable Murphy as his ever-skeptical foil. True to form, Murphy is too mean-spirited (and apparently self-loathing) to find that sort of utopia desirable, and that will probably make him one of our heroes this season. In an interesting and slightly worrisome change, Bellamy Blake (Bob Morley) is now narrating the intro instead of Clarke. Variety is nice but this is the sort of change that makes you wonder whether Clarke is going to survive the season. But if I trust any show to whack its main character and keep going strong, it's this one.

Saturday - Black Sails (Starz) - In the first episode of the first season a character was promised an encounter with Blackbeard, and was shown a prostitute with very thick pubic hair. This season Edward Teach himself has arrived in the person of Ray (Volstagg) Stevenson, who cleverly underplays a character we might expect to be a manic monster. While Stevenson's size makes Blackbeard a credible threat on every level, it's cool to see him portrayed as a clever strategist, as opposed to John Malkovich's crackpot on that godforsaken Black Sails ripoff NBC did some time ago. Teach wants Charles Vane to give up his quixotic idea of defending Nassau against the great powers of the Caribbean and become the son Blackbeard never had. It's a tempting premise now that the pirates' real-life nemesis, Woodes Rogers, is on his way across the Atlantic with Eleanor Guthrie and Captain Hornigold in tow, but Vane has never seemed like the cut-and-run type. Meanwhile, the Treasure Island gang have evaded pusuit, survived weeks in the Doldrums, and are on their way home, where friends and enemies alike think them all dead. The interjection of the fictional characters means all bets are off as far as history's concerned, and it's worth remembering that according to Treasure Island Blackbeard was but a child in ferocity and viciousness compared to Captain Flint, who has become a seagoing nihilist interested only in avenging the death of his beloved last season on everyone. Now that John Silver has lost part of a leg he looks more like himself and is becoming more assertive and challenging toward Flint; one can begin to see the relationships evolve toward what they are in the novel, though those events are as much open to change as history's events in this alternate reality. From week to week, this, iZombie or The 100 is the best show I watch. The distance between these three and all the others is vast, though The Magicians is moving up very fast and Into the Badlands could move quickly to the top tier if it gets renewed. Stay tuned for more detailed reviews of Magicians and Supergirl and, hopefully, a reconsideration of Legends of Tomorrow, as well as comments on the classic-era western shows I've just discovered on Throw those in and I really, really watch too much TV.


hobbyfan said...

1. Arrow's main villain spells his last name "Dahrk", from what I understand.
2. You're forgetting Heat Wave's partner-in-crime, Capt. Cold (Wentworth Miller), who is just killing it. I had "It Takes a Thief" flashbacks in his scenes with Vostok.

3. The office vibe I get in Supergirl might have something to do with an earlier Calista Flockhart series. "Ally McBeal", except now she's the boss. Mrs. Harrison Ford worked with Berlanti previously on "Brothers & Sisters".

W.B. Kelso said...

Legends of Tomorrow would have been better served, I think, if Rip just plucked a smaller amount of heroes, or even just one, for each (weekly) shot at Vandal Savage. The episode that focused on him and Sarah was pretty great, but was bogged down by the Fantastic Voyage side-plots. As is, the best word to describe is flailing.