Saturday, May 13, 2017

Definitely too much TV.

As regular readers may have noticed, they haven't had so much to read here lately. Part of that is that I haven't seen too many movies worth writing about lately, and another part is that other projects have demanded my attention. But the main reason is that a lot of the time I might have been here writing about movies has been spent watching TV as the long 2016-17 season winds down. Of course, it's only winding down in the sense that the long-form shows that began their seasons back in the fall are approaching their season finales. In fact, new shows continue to appear while other short-season shows have only recently reappeared. In short, there's been a lot on my plate, so I may as well describe some of it.

For me, the milestone event of the 2016-17 season was the end of Starz' Black Sails after four seasons. The pirate show might have been, for a brief moment, the jewel in Starz' crown, but was soon eclipsed utterly by the premium channel's first true blockbuster series, Outlander. I don't watch Outlander, so I can't help wondering what it has that Black Sails didn't -- apart from time travel, that is. For what it's worth, for the past two years I though Black Sails was the best show on television. All that was left was to stick the landing, and I'm not sure that it did. Season four gave me the impression that the producers actually had a five-year plan, as events often seemed rushed. It ended on an unexpected, and thus odd note of optimism for a show that often seemed to set the standard for fatalism. Everyone's expectation, I think, was that the show would end with the stage effectively set for Treasure Island and Robert Louis Stevenson's characters set in the relationships readers of his novel would recognize, and with the historical pirates all dead or, in the case of Anne Bonny, given a more definite fate than history relates. Instead, the writers chose to stop at a moment of victory for many of the characters -- the defeated include historical pirate-hunter Woodes Rogers and the treacherous Billy Bones, the latter now stuck on the famous island -- and with a sort of happy ending for the main character, Captain Flint, who's forced to end his war against the world but receives consolation from a reunion with a long-lost lover from the second-season flashbacks. This resolution seemed to go against the grain of the grim destinies spun out on many of the more acclaimed shows of our time, and I'm not sure if the change of pace was intentional or whether the story wasn't truly finished when Starz said it was done. Still, if the landing is a little wobbly for its intentions being unclear, Black Sails was its usual brilliant self much of the time, unafraid to turn Billy, initially one of its most likable characters, into one of its most hateful villains, or to subject one of the leading female characters to a brutal, protracted (and for some misogynist fans, much desired) death scene. As things now stand, Black Sails is one of the most underrated series of this, the "platinum" age of television. One can only hope it gets the recognition it deserves some day.

With Black Sails gone, I need a new "best show on television." Based on recent performances, let me give you a top three:

1. The Magicians (SyFy)
2. iZombie (The CW)
3. The 100 (The CW)

With its second season complete, The Magicians continues to amaze with its originality in approaching traditional fantasy material and the convincing complexity of its main ensemble of student sorcerers. In its third season iZombie remains the best-plotted show I watch and the best at maintaining the tricky balancing act of advancing the seasonal metaplot every hour while offering an entertaining mystery of the week and a new personality for Liv Moore to exhibit. While The 100 was my number two show after Black Sails in the recent past, it has slipped slightly in its fourth season and arguably nearly jumped the shark with the introduction of a new character, another disgruntled grounder with a grudge against technology after last season's City of Light fiasco, who put the survival of the human race, grounders and sky people alike, in jeopardy by destroying one of the few certain shelters from a coming "death wave" of radiation in a fit of pique. It was bad enough that this character wasn't killed on the spot, but it was even worse when Octavia, established this season as the sky people's ruthless assassin, fell for this primitive screwhead, slept with him and followed him home to his benighted tribe. Apparently much can be forgiven when you're a pretty boy as he was, and once he developed a sensitivity commensurate with his looks. Fortunately, as that "was" probably gave away, this wretch finally killed got what was coming to him in one of the season's best episodes, a bloodbath battle royale to determine which tribe would have access to the super-bunker that had been under the grounder capital all along. Apart from the brainfart that was this loser's character arc, The 100 has been its reliable, exhiliratingly miserable self most of the time as our protagonists debate how to select a necessarily limited number of survivors before the radiation arrives, or whether to just give up and actually enjoy their last days on earth. It's had the guts to give us a mass suicide in the most recent episode, but as far as I can tell The 100 flies low enough under the mainstream radar that this has not been controversial -- or it may be that no critic would dare question the legitimacy in story terms of what took place.

The most improved show of 2016-17 is Arrow. If the third season for the founding show of the still-expanding "Berlantiverse" (watch for Black Lightning in 2018) saw a major decline from the epic second season, last year's fourth season was an almost complete disaster. Star and showrunners apparently recognized it for what it was and have tried to return to basics this year. They have a strong new villain in Prometheus, the strongest series of flashbacks in some time as Oliver Queen solidifies his ties with the Bratva in Russia, and -- most surprisingly, a fresh crop of supporting characters including yet another Black Canary and a live-action version of a failed Punisher ripoff, Wild Dog, who's become a major asset with his ballbusting comedy relief. I mean this just about literally, since a running gag has him referring to Curtis Holt's versatile T-spheres as his "balls." I have a feeling that's never going to grow old. Conversely, however, the show that's lost the most ground  this year is The Flash. Apparently the Berlantiverse writers will hit a creative wall in each show's third season (which means it's Supergirl's turn this fall). In this case, they couldn't solve the conundrum of how to challenge a super-speedster with anything but another super-speedster, and so they gave us Savitar, the so-called god of speed, who goes around in a suit of armor that looks as if running was the last thing it was designed for. Flash is motivated to fight this preposterous being because he ran himself into the future one day and saw Savitar gutting his beloved Iris. Psych! Turns out Savitar is a "time remnant" version of Barry "Flash" Allen himself, according to a revelation that probably drove many people to drink. I know a lot of comic book writers are more interested in having heroes fight heroes than in heroes fighting villains, but this is a new extreme. Everything about Savitar is uninspiring, from his feeble origin to his ugly suit (Evil burnt-face Barry has to go to all fours before he can climb out of it) to the cheesy Omen-style chanting whenever he appears. Fortunately, the Flash writers have learned their lesson and are promising a non-speedster big bad for the fourth season. If it takes them only one year to right the ship, compared to Arrow's two years, that will be progress.

Along with the shows I've mentioned, I still have the current seasons of Supergirl and Into the Badlands to finish, the former an improvement on its first year and the latter just as good as before. You can expect separate reviews dedicated to the newest shows I'm watching: Iron Fist, The White Princess and American Gods. Finally, schedule changes and recent channel pickups by the local cable company are giving me more vintage westerns to watch, most notably Tales of Wells Fargo on Starz Encore Westerns. Once most of my shows wrap up later this month I should finally be able to write more of the western reviews I've promised -- and for the hell of it, I might actually watch some more movies, too.

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