The Tick: The Optimism We All Need

The first six episodes of Amazon’s new version of THE TICK hail from the character’s original creator Ben Edlund, and they are amazing.

Tick and Arthur

Voice of Darth Maul (and essential player on Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s SPACED), Peter Serafinowicz plays the titular tick. And the co-host of Blank Check With Griffin And David, one of the greatest podcasts of ALL TIME, Griffin Newman plays Tick’s sidekick, Arthur. In an outstanding, statement-of-intent performance, Newman laces his character with beautiful layers of vulnerability and fragility, as he battles mental illness and grief, and struggles with the notion that he might actually be a superhero. His twitchy sensitivity plays perfectly against Serafinowicz’s boomingly cheerful hilarity and positivity. They’re a double act for our times, representing the strobelike oscillation many of us have suffered throughout this year, bouncing between the emotional likes of Taylor Swift’s “I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time,” and Newman’s tremulous, heartbreaking, not-at-all-convincing, “I’m a really together person.” Let’s face it: We’re all Arthur right now, and we all need a Tick to show us the way.

The show is a goddamn delight, full of hundreds of throwaway zingers, some slicing observations, and some excellently named villains (The Terror, Overkill… Lint…). It’s bright, bold, beautiful, warm, compassionate, heartbreaking and sensitive in its handling of mental illness… and still really funny. It’s a tonal masterpiece, bouncing merrily along its high wire and never missing a step. The show opens with Newman’s Arthur struggling hard to just function at all, and ends (this half of its season) with a jaw-droppingly brilliant joke that leaves you cracking up as the credits roll. In between, The Tick rolls deep through genuine emotions while slinging jokes like ninja stars.

Tick Dot and Arthur

It’s not just Newman and Serafinowicz who excel. Valorie Curry is quite frankly extraordinary as Arthur’s paramedic sister Dot. She combines razor-sharp Friends-era Jennifer Aniston comedic chops with Mulholland Drive-era Naomi Watts emotionality, in a fresh, utterly present performance that’s feisty and magnetic. Jackie Earle Haley is in monstrously villainous form as Arthur’s nemesis The Terror, and Yara Martinez brings an unexpectedly empathetic streak to the super-evil electro-fingered Lint.

For such a quirky show, it’s directed as though it’s the Dark Knight, in full 2.40:1 ultra-widscreen, and with genuinely amazing cinematography. This is not a surprise, since Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy DP Wally Pfister directs the opening episodes, and sets the tone: super-sharp visuals that simultaneously elevate and ground the material. Spending time and money on making the show look so good pays off tremendously, and gives the cast a powerful environment to play against. Also, the sentient A.I. Danger Boat (it makes sense when you see it) looks and sounds like something out of a Marvel movie.

Tick skyline

THE TICK is essential viewing. Get yourself some Amazon Prime, and watch these first six episodes. It’s unlike anything else on TV, and Newman is the hero we didn’t know we needed… but who we really f**king needed. As an actor he’s achieving his dream, and in this role he shows us that maybe we can all achieve ours.

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The GLOW of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK: Why Jenji Kohan just had her best TV month ever

***THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR OITNB AND GLOW***

June, 2017.

The month kicked off with the long-awaited, cliffhanger-resolving fifth season of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, and concluded with the debut of the fantastic new show about 80s women’s wrestling in L.A., GLOW. What did two of the greatest seasons of TV this year so far have in common, apart from absolutely kick-ass female ensemble casts? Executive producer/showrunner Jenji Kohan.

Jenji Kohan

Kohan, courtesy of THR

OITNB ended on a mother of a cliffhanger last year, with a frantic, uncertain Daya aiming Humphrey’s gun at his head.

OITNB Daya

Kohan and her writers made a bold and brilliant choice for this new season: the show picked up at that exact moment, and the entire season took place over three days. This gave the show a freshness and immediacy that kept adrenaline and interest levels skyrocketing as we followed the evolution of the riot. It allowed for some seriously deep dives into all of the characters. We also got whole new levels to relationships, some unlikely bonds, and even a marriage proposal. The danger and threat level remained absolute throughout, although the show still managed to weave in its signature laughs and sadness. Taystee in particular got some insanely powerful moments, proving that Danielle Brooks is the MVP not just of this show, but also TV, acting, and life. No doubt.

OITNB Taystee

The end result was that the writing was tighter, more precise; the characters more nuanced; the actors had more freedom and opportunity to truly go there with their performances. It was a thrilling and emotionally exhausting ride, the best season of the show yet, which closed with the best episode (with the best use of music in the show to date), and, yes, an even bigger cliffhanger than last year.

OITNB S5 ending

What a start to the month for Kohan.

But she wasn’t done. Nope. Not even close, baby! Because one awesome and extraordinary cast of magnificent women per month just isn’t enough. Enter, GLOW.

GLOW cast

Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch (playwrights who between them have worked on Nurse Jackie, Homeland and OITNB), this is a modern take on the 80s cult classic show of the same name (Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling), albeit one still beautifully grounded in its gritty 80s setting. It’s still colorful, but it’s the dirty underside of the day-glo. The sets are grimy and unglamorous, the performances are grounded and nuanced, and the song choices for the soundtrack are always a zig where you expect a zag—no one could have foreseen that one of the best moments of the series would be set to a song from the original Transformers cartoon movie, “Dare” by Stan Bush (and Rocky IV training montage composer Vince DiCola for maximum 80s!).

GLOW Ep 7 Transformers

The amazing “Transformers” sequence in the amazing episode 7 of the amazing GLOW

The show foregrounds the desperation, neediness, hurt, and all the other messy emotions of its protagonists. It’s real, in other words. Painfully so, sometimes, and that’s one of the keys to why it works so damn well. The writers on this show—including Rachel Shukart, Nick Jones and Sascha Rothchild—do an expert job of contrasting the moments of emotional sweetness and uplift with the exposed wiring of the human heart (not literally, this isn’t GAME OF THRONES).

One of the main reasons for GLOW’s awesomeness, though, is its glorious cast of incredible actresses. This is a show that is not afraid to foreground its women and take ferocious aim at the gender discrepancy in Hollywood (and, like, the world). The show focuses on struggling actress Ruth, who is played to revelatory perfection by the always great but never better Alison Brie in what is, inexplicably, her first real leading role. Hopefully this pushes her into the acting stratosphere she deserves—incredibly, she had to audition multiple times for what should’ve been the easiest casting decision of all time (yes yes, I know casting is a truly complicated puzzle in many dimensions that needs to be completed *exactly* right or the whole thing falls apart… I absolutely know this… but c’mon… it’s Ali Brie!)…

GLOW Brie

GLOW opens with Brie’s Ruth giving her all in an audition for a female role that is nothing compared to the male role. This sets the tone perfectly: These women have a struggle on their hands. They have to fight, and fight hard, for something that is only in the vicinity of what they really want. Ruth is a great character to drive a show like this. Her neediness and desperation and unflinching desire to transcend her circumstances are powerful engines that keep the story rolling.

GLOW Ruth car

This is one of Ruth’s more glamorous moments in the show

Brie’s performance is fearless and unflinching. But this isn’t a one-woman show. There are fourteen amazing women on screen, and any one of them could be the lead, because the writers have made each of them so fully grounded and realized, and because the performances are all so vulnerable and magnetic and empathetic and funny and raw. I could write an essay on each of them, but suffice it to say, they all get arcs and standout moments, and every single actress here KILLS IT AT ALL TIMES.

The combination of breathtaking performances and killer writing forms a shield against conventional wisdom and stereotypes. Very early on, we find out that Ruth has slept with her best friend’s husband. Most shows would label her the villain and give her the one dimensionality of a selfish ‘slut’. And she wouldn’t be a leading character in those shows. Instead, GLOW artfully reveals the emotional complexity at play, and keeps Ruth highly relatable. In short, they do what seems to be so hard for many shows (and movies): they make her a complex person. They also give her an equally complex nemesis in the form of her former best friend, Debbie, AKA Liberty Belle. Betty Gilpin gives an affecting and powerhouse performance that provides a searing counterpart to Brie’s drifting Ruth.

GLOW Debbie

Gilpin, owning it as Debbie

There are men of course, most primary of which are WTF podcaster Marc Maron, and former Veronica Mars star (Team Piz!) Chris Lowell. Maron excels as the seedy yet principled, abrasive yet vulnerable director of the show within the show, and Lowell delivers comedy gold as the moneyed producer of the whole thing. Both stand out, which is impressive considering they are surrounded by fourteen of the finest actresses on TV right now.

GLOW robot

Maron, Lowell, and a robot. It’s the 80s.

In short, GLOW is perfect, we need season 2, and we must bow down to Kohan and her writing teams for bringing forth two such complex and mighty female ensemble shows, in the same month, no less.

Let’s be honest: The world needs more powerhouse female ensembles, both in TV shows & movies, and in front of & behind the camera. They’re good for everyone: Great actresses want to work with other great actresses, we all want to watch amazing performances and extraordinary characters and relationships, and TV outlets need the immense ratings that ensue. Everyone wins.

We need more. Let’s make it happen, Hollywood.

 

 

 

5 reasons to watch CLASS, Patrick Ness’s DOCTOR WHO spinoff

In truth, there are so many more than just five reasons to watch CLASS.

Class logo

It’s beyond awesome. It’s extraordinary TV. It’s not just in the highest echelon of DOCTOR WHO storytelling, it’s in the highest echelon of TV storytelling… of ANY storytelling of any kind. The show is thrilling, exhilarating, hilarious, emotional, terrifying and utterly, utterly grounded in the authentic lives of five teenagers at the newly remodeled Coal Hill Academy… which just happens to have a rip in space-time that lets through all kinds of horrors.

Here are the five most pressing reasons for you to watch.

THE CAST

Class - Ep6

The cast of CLASS is a truly bad-ass collection of excellent actors. They all play wounded characters with complex lives and pasts, and they do it brilliantly, with everyone bringing just the right balance of humor and ALL THE EMOTIONS and copious amounts of badassery. That’s a tricky and delicate balance, but they all do it: Sophie Hopkins as April, the nice girl who’s anything but meek, Fady Elsayed as Ram, the tormented, anguished soccer star (football in the UK btw), Greg Austin as the uptight Charlie who’s carrying cosmic levels of baggage, Vivian Oprah as Tanya, grieving for the loss of her father and struggling with being a 14 year-old in a class of 17 year-olds, and Jordan Renzo as Matteusz, Charlie’s Polish boyfriend, and in some ways the moral center of the show. That’s the gang. But we can’t forget the sinister, spiky Miss Quill, played with delicious malevolence by the fantastic Katherine Kelly, who brings rage, nonchalance, and pathos to a powerhouse of a role. Quite possibly the best line-readings you’ll find anywhere on TV in 2017. In fact, without a doubt the best. An iconic performance that rivals any in the DOCTOR WHO universe.

Class Quill

THE STORYTELLING

It’s hard to talk about the storytelling on this show without (a) destroying my thesaurus in search of enough superlatives and (b) giving anything away. Suffice it to say, the level of storytelling in this show is amongst the best we’ve ever seen from DOCTOR WHO.

Class Ram

Awesome storytelling very much pictured.

There are individual episodes of CLASS that are top 5 of any in the Whoniverse. The overall arc shifts and evolves powerfully, driving all 8 episodes (each of which works so brilliantly alone but still form part of a stunning whole) to a jaw-dropping, head-spinning, gut-punching finale that BEGS FOR ANOTHER SEASON DO YOU HEAR ME BBC AND BBC AMERICA???? As writer and showrunner Patrick Ness himself put it on Twitter…

Speaking of Mr. Ness…

PATRICK NESS

The rhinoceros-loving, permanently blue polo-beshirted YA megastar author who brought us the stunning CHAOS WALKING trilogy—as well as the frankly traumatic A MONSTER CALLS (novel and screenplay), brilliant sci-fi/contemporary masterpieces MORE THAN THIS and THE REST OF US JUST LIVE HERE, and the forthcoming RELEASE—is the only writer who could have made CLASS what it is.

Ness

Not pictured: blue polo. Or rhinos.

His ability to weave thrilling tales about genuinely grounded and authentic teens, stories that are shot through with savagely cutting humor and heart-hurting sadness, is unparalleled (I mean, except maybe by J.K. Rowling and Joss Whedon… they all sit on a single throne of awesomeness. It’s a tight fit). His writing in CLASS is on a whole new level. His characters are compelling, complex, beautifully diverse in a way that just reflects the world, funny, fierce, and brave. As they deal with tests, detentions, and, yes, terrifying monsters from throughout the universe, they keep everything painfully grounded and real. The writing here is just a joy to behold. The jokes hit hard, the emotions even harder, and it’s genuinely horrifying and scary when it needs to be. It brings a thrilling edge to the Whoniverse that we’ve never seen before.

THE DIRECTING / CINEMATOGRAPHY / EDITING / EFFECTS / MUSIC

I snuck a few extras in there. Of course, the show couldn’t be great without Ness writing some seriously intense scripts and a series of wonderful performances to really bring them to life, but it could have gone horribly wrong elsewhere. Simple things like putting the camera in the wrong place, lighting shots too brightly, editing too loosely or clumsily, adding music that doesn’t feel quite right… You know when you’re watching a show, and something just feels off? Yeah… you won’t have that feeling here. Because this show never puts a foot wrong. It’s kind of incredible.

Class Quill Charlie

Ed Bazalgette directs 3 of the 8 episodes, while the rest are beautifully shot by Phillipa Langdale, Wayne Yip, and Julian Holmes. They do a phenomenal job. This is fantastic-looking sci-fi that’s slick, has depth, looks gritty and ferocious, and really foregrounds the performances. One episode takes place pretty much entirely in one classroom—and it’s one of the most visually fascinating and kinetic episodes of all of them. The special effects are amazing, easily on a par with the flagship show, and in some cases, far more convincing. Every element of this show comes together to form one hilarious, emotionally devastating joyride through space and time.

THE FUTURE OF THE SHOW DEPENDS ON IT

At the time of writing, the show hasn’t been picked up for a second season… but it hasn’t been canceled either. It aired in the UK last year on an online-only channel, and reading between the lines, it seems like the powers that be are waiting to see how it performs on BBC America. So, my geeks, my nerds, my Doctor Who fans, my fans of sci-fi, of great TV, of great storytelling: Deploy! PLEASE WATCH THIS SHOW. We need joyously great TV shows like this. It’s genuinely up there with monster hits like STRANGER THINGS and GAME OF THRONES, it hits you in the feels like THIS IS US (OK, maybe it doesn’t reduce you to a quivering pile of sadness every single week, but it’s not far off), it’s at least as witty as BUFFY ever was, and sometimes more so, it introduces some truly scary and iconic new monsters and threats, and it’s got a visceral edge that you won’t be expecting.

So watch this damn thing. You’ll be glad you did.

For more info on the show, head on over to the BBC America CLASS site.

CLASS starts its 8 episode run on BBC America at 10.10pm Saturday April 15, following the premiere episode of Peter Capaldi’s final season as DOCTOR WHO.

Luke Cage: Long Live the Chief

Back in the day (well, 2011), I wrote about an emerging TV writer called Cheo Hodari Coker, who was working on the greatest cop show of all time (SouthLAnd, fool), in a blog with the title Coker Plays The Blues. Coker went on to write some of SouthLAnd‘s greatest episodes, as well as work on Almost Human, NCIS: LA and Ray Donovan.

But now he’s stepped up to create and run a show that’s been dominating social media for most of the summer, without even being released. So when Netflix dropped the most buzzed about show in its history at the end of September, expectations were sky high.

luke-cage-hoodie

2016 is an especially charged year for a show about a bulletproof black man, a fact not lost on Coker. So he did the only right thing, the thing he’d been intending to do all along: he leaned into that, hard. Luke Cage dives deep into the African American experience: it’s the show’s beating heart, the blood in its veins, its soul, and its purpose. And in that respect, the show couldn’t be any better.

The show’s foregrounding of what it means to be black in America is so long overdue in TV (or on any size screen) it’s ridiculous: how has it taken this long? (Yes, I know why: institutional bias, AKA, racism). Luke Cage is what TV (and America, and the world) needs now more than ever. Coker cast people of color in every level of role (which, shamefully for society and pop culture, was a revolutionary act in itself) and hit hard with his signature dropping of references in the scripts, which means the show is stacked deep with truly excellent actors and performances, namechecks everything from Chester Hines to A$AP Rocky… and then there’s that soundtrack… damn, that soundtrack is sweet. Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad bring the funk with a gritty, slinky, soulful Wu-Tang meets Shaft vibe that gives the show a whole extra dimension of cool.

It has been called the Wu-Tangification of Marvel (by Coker), but on watching the show, you realize that that’s not strictly true… it’s more classic and less agitated than that. It’s more like the 70s Isaac Hayes-ification of Marvel, which is still intensely, deeply cool, but not quite as savage and frenetic as the Staten Island collective. The reason for that is the pace of the show. When Jessica Jones (which gave us our first look at Cage) dropped, some people complained about its novelistic pacing, and how not every episode stood alone in terms of stuff happening specific to each episode. Personally, I dug the hell out of it, but here’s the thing: Luke Cage is paced much more slowly than JJ.

It’s beautifully made, but it’s also an extremely deliberate, measured, slow burn, which is why it’s more Motown than RZA. It’s personal preference as to what you make of that. For this reviewer, it did feel early on as though all the bandwidth was being taken up with some very long conversations. The conversations were, of course, important texturally, and in themselves, they’re joyously great (that opening scene was beautifully played out); but you can’t help wondering if there could have been a way to combine the texture with the action, instead of separating them out. The show makes texture, subtext, theme and action all one thing later on to brilliant effect (e.g. the dashcam video, Misty explaining why an innocent black man would be on the run from cops who think he’s guilty and are armed with special bullets), which makes you long for some of that at the start.

Those early conversations are about books, meditations on the nature of power and society, and what it means to be a man. Those are all powerful things to fill a show with, but this is a genre show that’s part of the Marvel universe. For the first half of the season, it didn’t necessarily feel that way: it lacked fire and, literally, punch.

lc-mike-colter

OK, there’s some punching…

Luke Cage is, especially early on, a somewhat passive and reactive character. The premise for the show is that he’s hiding out in Harlem, trying to be invisible (I’m not sure we needed the lingering shot of Cage staring at the cover of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but…). That’s a low key place to start, but necessary for Cage’s arc from hideaway to hero. Thirteen hours is a long time for that type of arc to play out, though. That means the show takes some serious time working through those beats. The pattern for the first few episodes is a lot of talking, and maybe a minute or less of action at the end. You need to get on board with the slowed down rhythm. The lack of fire and tension is compounded too by some head-on framing (perfectly composed and very still wide master shots are a trademark of Sherlock director Paul McGuigan, who directed the first two episodes and set the tone), scenes that are very, very cool but run long (e.g. Cottonmouth walking very slowly towards his picture window to get the perfect framing of the Biggie picture’s crown on his head), and editing that lingers slightly too long on some moments, all of which contribute to letting the air out of a lot of scenes.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s a certain glee to moments in the first three eps. Luke beating down Cottonmouth’s thugs at the end of the first, Luke’s iconic attack on the Crispus Attucks building to the sounds of Bring Da Ruckus in three (which, although it lacks some visual clarity, is still damn cool), to the closing seconds of that episode, when Cottonmouth shoots a f**cking rocket at Luke—it’s undeniably a kickass moment—which kicks us into ep 4, which is full of flashbacks. That ep takes its time, but lets us know exactly what happened to Luke to make him bulletproof, which justifies the speed of the revelation.

The transitional episode is probably the fifth, “Just To Get A Rep.” This features some of the most clumsy and purely functional dialogue to date in the show, and it has scenes thrown together that don’t really flow, creating a jarring effect. But it’s the ep’s epic non-dialogue scenes that tilt the show towards its remaining (and generally much more successful) episodes. Firstly, Jidenna singing Long Live The Chief in the club is f**king HUGE. It hits HARD. Goddamn, I loved that. Suddenly, the club and its music IGNITE in terms of storytelling. Chills, baby. Secondly, and, sorry, even more awesomely, is the reappearance of Claire Temple, played by the legendary, extraordinary, miraculous Rosario Dawson. While everyone on the show is phenomenal (more on that later, but gotta shoutout Simone Missick right here), it’s Dawson that brings the fire to Luke Cage. She’s walking through Harlem, some punk steals her bag… so she runs him down and beats the shit out of him. Perfect. Welcome back, Claire.

photo

And just to point out, those two were actually ONE SEQUENCE. Hats off. Jidenna in the club interweaves with Claire beating down her attacker. It’s how the ep starts and it’s JUST. SO. GOOD. You’re on your feet yelling at the TV because this is exactly what TV should be.

From here on, the fire set in episode five begins to burn more steadily. There are some bumps along the way—the pacing is still uneven, the dialogue can be stilted in places, and the reveal of Diamondback lacked clarity, which detracted from the impact of his appearance (the very low-key, very low-impact handling of shooting Luke with the second Judas bullet didn’t help)—and there’s another significant dip in episode 10, “Take It Personal”, which has much less effective dialogue than ep 5, and in terms of outline and execution, is often confusing and bemusing (so much is made earlier of how catastrophic it would be for Luke to get shot with a second Judas bullet, but ep 10 forgets that second bullet is even there — Claire only takes out one set of fragments. That’s severely jarring, and takes you out of the story.).

But, on the heels of that, we get “Now You’re Mine,” the eleventh and absolutely the best episode by far. Shout out to the writer, Christian Taylor, and the director, George Tillman Jr. It’s amazing. It’s like the show needed to follow Diamondback’s advice in the early moments of the ep: “Later for that pre-written shit… sometimes you gotta freestyle.” Hell to the yes. The dialogue sings sweetly, characters spit wisdom and fire, the storytelling is tense, fraught, suspenseful, the directing is ferocious, and the whole thing is just fantastically and gleefully dark and intense. It also features one of Claire and Misty’s finest moments as they beat down Shades and help each other try to escape the club. Magnificent, towering performances from Dawson and Missick make this some of the best TV of 2016. This is what the show needed to be. Not in the sense that it had to come out of the gate at an 11, but there needed to be signs that this was coming; that this could happen in this world.

lc-misty-and-claire

Episode 12, “Soliloquy Of Chaos” (we have to give Coker kudos for naming every episode after a Gang Starr track, because it works perfectly), continues to bring the fire. Which EXPLODES in the finest final moments of any ep in the show: the always brilliant Ron Cephas Jones finally—FINALLY—gets a bunch of lines worth a damn and absolutely kills with them (“What the hell what type of Jean-Paul Gaultier shit is this? What are you, a pimp stormtrooper?” GREATEST LINES ON TV IN 2016), and the show plunges head-on into full genre insanity, when Misty speaks for all of us and says, “kick his ass, Luke.” Diamondback, tricked out in his pimp stormtrooper high-tech-as-shit outfit, and Luke finally rush each other… and we cut to black. Genius. Everything about this episode works so perfectly it hurts.

lc-diamondback

The final episode drops us right into the fight we’ve been waiting for, and it’s refreshing, and appropriate, that it’s more of a drag-out, knock-down Rocky style brawl in the street. It does kind of just, end, though — and the hints of sci-fi that have been given during it (lingering shots of the power unit on Diamondback’s… back… powering up and down) are not really capitalized upon. And, the fight is at the opening of the episode, which doesn’t leave the rest of the hour with too many places to go. The sudden end to the fight, and the story’s subsequent adrenaline crash, take us back to a slower pace, which foregrounds the key concern of the show: Luke’s lack of agency. Although there are a few key moments when he takes control, for the majority of the thirteen episodes, things happen to him, and he reacts. Which could have worked, except the finale to the show is Luke, in one sense, giving up, reacting one last time and allowing circumstances to dictate his path in life. You can, clearly, read his final decision as noble, and can see some justification for it in his general world-weariness. But it’s an oddly low-key, anticlimactic end. That said, the very final shot, applause over the New York skyline, is pretty goddamned amazing and thrilling.

But Luke isn’t in that shot, and that reminds us that in this show, some of the things that are the most awesome don’t involve Luke at all.

lc-shades

Including, and especially, the other characters. Theo Rossi threatens to steal the show as Shades. Simone Missick gives Misty such a wonderful, wounded intensity. Erik LaRay Harvey tears up Diamondback’s dialogue and spits it in finely deranged fashion. Alfre Woodard truly delivers Mariah’s tipping between powerful and powerless. Mahershala Ali is positively and ferociously Shakespearean as Cottonmouth. Ron Cephas Jones needed more lines because he could say anything and make it sound kick-ass. Rosario Dawson… shit, why doesn’t she have her own Netflix Marvel show at this point? Expose Claire to some experimental rays or serums or some shit and give her powers and let her tear it up! (One of the show’s coolest moments is Claire’s final shot, where she tears off the number for the self defense classes… she’s so gonna own Iron Fist).

But we can’t forget the main man, the power man. Mike Colter. He really brings the brooding, haunted, conflicted Cage to vivid life. Despite the fact the Luke has a habit of being pushed to the back of the action, Colter mesmerizes in every shot, and makes it his own. One of the best cast Marvel heroes of all, no doubt.

So this is where we end up: there is so much to love with Luke Cage. It’s an important show, an essential show, frequently beautiful to look at and experience, and it does many, many things really f**king well. But in the interest of brutal truth: it is uneven (you can clearly feel the different writers on the show), there are pacing and dialogue issues, and its hero often seems detached from the action (in some cases literally off-screen for major stretches of time). Coker is absolutely one of the finest TV writers we have, and has curated a supremely bad-ass and massively, poignantly relevant piece of iconic pop culture with Luke Cage. For what it’s worth, I hope he uses those final few episodes as the template for season 2. This show is too good, and too important, for anything less.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STRANGER THINGS: Turning TV upside down

From the perfectly 80s genre opening title card, through the eerie opening scenes, into that glorious, magnificent, hitting-every-pleasure-center title sequence, STRANGER THINGS started its journey flawlessly, and only got better from there.

ST titles

It was the breakout hit of the summer — the show we never knew we needed, but that we couldn’t get enough of. The showrunners — The Duffer brothers, identical twins — served up a beautiful mix of all the Spielberg movies and all the King novels that we loved from the 80s, along with a massive helping of other 80s movie references, but all done in an aggressively fresh and original way. It tapped those memories of long, hazy summers reading IT and seeing Stand By Me and E.T. And yet it felt so new, so modern, even as it hit those nostalgia buttons, and kept hitting them. Too much was never enough.

What made it perfect?

It all starts with the writing. This was storytelling at its finest. Swift characterization, distinct and authentic dialogue, and the careful unfolding of the mystery. The deeper we got into the story, the more the characters evolved. Over 8 episodes, each titled as a chapter, there were numerous arcs, surprises, reversals, shocks, and SO MANY EMOTIONS.

Without the great writing, we wouldn’t all be obsessed with the show. But without perfect casting, the show would be a shadow of itself. And the casting on this show was some of the best casting we’ve ever seen. The kids — Gaten Matarazzo as fan fave Dustin, Caleb McLaughlin as the conflicted Lucas, Noah Schnapps as the vanishing Will Byers, the epically named Finn Wolfhard as Dungeon Master Mike, and British newcomer Millie Bobby Brown as the mysterious Eleven — all looked like 80s-style Spielberg kids, which was a feat in itself.

ST kids

Even better, they were all fantastic actors who invested their roles with heart, humor and conviction. But it didn’t stop there: David Harbour, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton and Joe Keery all delivered grounding, haunting performances, as did Shannon Purser, brilliant in her first ever role, playing Barb, who ended up being one of the most beloved TV characters of the year. And of course, Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine brought veteran class and skill to their respective roles, Ryder’s highly strung Joyce, and Modine’s cool, sinister Dr. Brenner.

Assembling a legendary cast like that elevated the show to rare heights.

But those performances still need to be part of a bigger picture, a richer tapestry, and the Duffer Brothers more than delivered. They directed seven of the episodes, with exec producer Shawn Levy taking the eighth. This was such a visually rich show, with incredible cinematography from Tim Ives. Whether it was the wood-paneled suburban feel of Hawkins, Indiana, or the futuristic labs, or the horror-spookiness of the Upside Down, each world felt lived-in and authentic.

They played with the iconography of their favorite movies (E.T., Aliens, Stand By Me, Poltergeist, The Thing, and many others), but did it in a naturalistic way. All this, coupled with the hypnotic, immersive, none-more-80s, instantly iconic synth soundtrack from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the band S U R V I V E (and that soundtrack is available in suitably epic form, 75 tracks across 2 albums, utterly essential listening), brought us a mesmerizingly atmospheric world, rich in detail and emotion.

ST soundtrack

It’s no wonder the show took off and generated instant and sustained buzz and excitement. This show is exactly what TV needed. It turned expectations upside down, and showed us a new way forward.

To be fair, it has had some criticisms, mainly for its supposedly negative treatment of women. But such criticism seems to almost willfully ignore the facts.

The show’s most powerful character, in all senses, including agency, was Eleven. No one and nothing on the show had more literal power than her. If it wasn’t for her, the boys, who, let’s face it, are often hapless idiots, would be dead. Also, probably everyone in the town would be dead. As she goes on her own journey, she helps the boys go on theirs. That kiss with Mike wasn’t just for his emotional development — they both needed that moment. Character and story were one in Eleven.

ST 11

The character with the biggest arc, the one who travels the furthest, was also female: Nancy, who, as played to perfection with always believable emotion and heart by Natalia Dyer, journeys from neat-sweater-wearing-girl-next-door-in-an-80s-teen-movie to Sarah Connor in T2 style badass.

ST Nancy

 

The show’s most beloved, legendary character was a woman. Let’s take a moment of silence and pour one out for Barb.

ST barb

Much criticism has been leveled for the fact that she goes out like a punk pretty early on. We should refocus that: she’s brilliantly written, and perfectly played, and that’s why we all so desperately wanted her to be saved. (And btw, she’s not 100%, absolutely, conclusively dead, you guys — sure, things didn’t look good at the end there, but she was just cocooned, and as fans of Newt from Aliens know, being cocooned ain’t necessarily the end)(apparently switching directors is the end, so let’s be grateful the Duffer Brothers are still on board).

The character who first figured that weird shit was going down was a woman — Winona Ryder’s heartbreaking Joyce.

stranger things joyce

It’s Chriiiiiistmaasssssss (that’s one for fans of UK Xmas music)

Of course, did any of the men in her life believe her? They did not. Kind of like how the boys don’t trust Eleven entirely until late in the game. Let’s face it, if the men did believe the women right off the bat, that would actually be less believable that the Upside Down and the monster.

Far from having a “female problem,” as some articles and commenters have suggested, it’s pretty much operating at Jim Cameron levels of female badassery.

It was, basically, a glorious love song to 80s Stevens (and Stephens), but one that couldn’t have been more now in its execution. Netflix sure made us sweat it out, but they finally announced that season 2 will be coming, set one year after the first season. Which means that the masterclass in how to make truly great TV will continue.

Stranger Things 2

We can only hope they call it this

Time to go fireball a demogorgon.

Rating: Five out of five Eggos.

Star Wars Rebels: Shroud Of Darkness

Star Wars Rebels is one of those rare shows that blasted out of the gate knowing exactly what it was, and what it wanted to be. In the hands of Dave Filoni, Simon “all the franchises” Kinberg, Henry Gilroy, Kiri Hart and Carrie Beck (and the rest of the amazing writers room), Rebels has outdone itself time and time again, tapping into that sweet, sweet Original Trilogy vibe for sure, but also doing a perfect job of integrating everything that was great about the prequels and the Clone Wars too.

Okay, yes, fine Obi-Wan, many of the truths we cling to may well depend on our points of view… but even subjectively, Rebels started magnificently, and has only gotten better from there. Season one was fantastic, but especially so in the second season, the show has powerfully accessed the dark, mystical and  beautiful currents that have always flowed through the Star Wars universe.

Ahsoka

Shroud Of Darkness somehow managed to eclipse last week’s The Honorable Ones, which was itself a powerful series highlight. Both episodes accessed what is greatest about this world: the conflict between light and dark, complex moral situations, humor in the face of challenges, entertaining droid action, and really, seriously awesome sound effects. Shroud Of Darkness takes all that much further.

The episode opens with a ferocious four-way lightsaber battle (which isn’t even the craziest lightsaber battle in the episode), and brings back many old friends as the story progresses. It’s full of thrills, fear, danger, and a great Freddie Prinze Jr / Sarah Michelle Gellar moment. It also clearly reveals the threat to Ezra’s future that has been hinted at before, while also making things a whole lot more difficult for the Ghost and its crew, and further setting up that truly epic showdown that we’re all waiting for. You know the one.

No spoilers here: it’s just a really, really great episode. It’s everything this show is aiming for, and it’s a rare show that almost always exceeds its target: Rebels does it consistently.

Rating: five out of five cool lightsaber sounds

2015 in review

2015 was a great year for pop culture — even aside from the multi-platform global pop culture-consuming behemoth that was Star Wars, this year was inspiringly full of rich, exciting and immersive books, TV shows, music and movies. And awesome droids.

So let’s get to it.

MOVIES:

Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens. Could the movie of the year have been anything else? Spoiler: no. It was beautiful, full of wonderful old and new characters, and so many emotions. And no, Rey wasn’t a Mary Sue — she was a complex, capable woman whose entire life had prepared her to be ready when the call to action came (if you don’t believe me, read Greg Rucka’s excellent Before The Awakening, which gives you backstories for Finn, Rey and Poe. Rey’s is particularly engrossing — she really is one of the great characters of the Star Wars universe. (Here’s my full spoiler-free Star Wars review)

Kingsman: The Secret Service. This was fresh, inventive, stylish, witty, engaging, with rich characters and a propulsive story, and a genuinely and gloriously bonkers sense of fun and glee. It also showed us how devastatingly great a Matthew Vaughn-directed Bond movie would be… but if he had made one of those (he came close to making Casino Royale), we wouldn’t have this. And we needed this. Colin Firth kicked ass entirely convincingly, and newcomer Taron Egerton delivered a swaggering, young Han Solo-like breakout performance. Genius all round.

The Martian. Yes. Yes yes yes! Ridley Scott scienced the shit out of this, giving us one of the great space movies of all time, taking Drew Goddard’s sharply funny script and giving it the bad-ass disco soundtrack we never knew it needed. Expertly shot, brilliantly acted by Matt Damon (the majority of whose scenes were alone and direct to camera), and the best Lord of the Rings reference you’ll ever see.

Inside Out. This was Pixar to the power of infinity. This was heart-achingly emotional, which you’d expect since it’s a movie about emotions, from the company who brought you the most emotionally devastating opening to a movie EVER (Up). What you might not expect was how heartfelt, humorous and bitter-sweet it all was, plus how the mesmerizing story managed to be utterly profound as well as relentless entertaining. Warning: contains achingly funny moments, and some that are utterly gut-wrenching. You will cry.

Straight Outta Compton. Director  F. Gary Gray delivered a breathlessly gritty and fiercely kinetic look at the birth, rise and fall of Compton’s NWA, from their loose beginnings to the evolution of their personal empires (Dre’s Beats, Cube’s movie career). The heart of the movie was Jason Mitchell’s cherubic, charismatic and ultimately heartbreaking performance as Eric “Easy E” Wright; his story is the true center of the movie, with the others woven tightly around it. It gives you the thrill and danger of the music, the harsh realities that made it necessary, and the often uncontrollable dynamics within the band. A great script kept tight control over the sprawl of events, and excellent performances from the actors playing the band (including Ice Cube’s son playing Cube) made this utterly gripping.

Honorable mentions:

Avengers Age Of Ultron / Ant-Man. Marvel’s two movies this year both came with some serious baggage. Ultron had to follow up the massive success juggernaut that was Avengers, but do it even bigger this time, while Ant-Man had a hugely troubled production with the removal of Edgar Wright weeks before filming was due to start. Both films were mandated by the studio to fit the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe: oddly, Ant-Man fared better with this, given extra resonance and benefiting from being bolted into the MCU, while Ultron seemed to suffer from one extra layer too many in a movie that was jam-packed with too much greatness — it’s a long movie that actually would have been better with an even longer four hour extended cut. There’s just so much Joss Whedon genius-level awesomeness to love and not enough time to truly love it. Ant-Man, on the other hand, was short, sweet, quick on its feet, and full of Edgar Wright DNA (no one handles exposition like him. No one!). Both movies were fun; Ant-Man was just a little more so. But Ultron was still a wonderful Whedon-fest, and a towering achievement of screenwriting and direction.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The best of the MI bunch. Written and directed by Chris McQuarrie, this was tight, entertaining, and it barreled along through plot points and set pieces without ever releasing its grip on us. A huge amount of fun, with crowd-pleasing performances, hair-raising stunts, and the type of twisty-turny plotting you’d expect from the man behind The Usual Suspects.

BOOKS:

Book of the year: Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. This was one of those books that make you realize all the many beautiful possibilities of what books can be. Composed of emails, security logs, and many other things that I won’t spoil, this was an utterly engrossing sci-fi story, rich with complex characters you immediately care about, viscerally thrilling space stuff, and fiendish plotting. Totally unputdownable. Full review here.

Close competition: Patrick Ness’s The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, and Robert Galbraith’s Career Of Evil (Galbraith is actually J.K. Rowling). Two perfect five star novels here. Ness delivered his usual blend of thrills and compassion, while Rowling gave us her most exciting Cormoran Strike novel yet, with an absolute kicker of a throw-the-book-across-the-room ending. *shakes fist at J.K. Rowling!!*

Honorable mentions:

Lost Stars, by Claudia Gray; The Weapon Of A Jedi, by Jason Fry; Smuggler’s Run, by Greg Rucka; Moving Target, by Cecil Castellucci and Jason Fry; Before The Awakening, by Greg Rucka. AKA, the Star Wars novels. Lost Stars (reviewed here) was stellar, Jedi, Run and Target were beautifully written standalone adventures featuring Han, Luke and Leia during the Original Trilogy, and Before The Awakening focused on key Finn, Rey and Poe backstories. Fascinating, entertaining stuff.

MUSIC:

Two artists dominated: Adele with her insanely anticipated beautiful powerhouse of an album, 25, and Carly Rae Jepsen with her EMOTION album, which was light years ahead of her previous effort. While Adele did exactly what you’d expect her to (albeit brilliantly, beautifully and flawlessly, of course — with I Miss You and The River Lea as particular standouts ), it was Jepsen who delivered the year’s biggest surprise: an extraordinary, gorgeously 80s, mesmerizingly hook-y set that didn’t have one filler — full of massive choruses drenched with bittersweet melancholy and honesty, all delivered with gloriously soaring vocals. Why this wasn’t on more year-end best-of lists is a mystery. It’s brilliant.

TV:

Special mention for Downton Abbey‘s magnificent final season and majestic final ever episode, which was this year’s Christmas special (for those who have seen it… it airs in the US in January). The perfect send-off, full of warmth, wit, and, yes, feels.

Supergirl. This show is bright, beautiful, full of verve, grit and hope — all about finding your truest self and being it. Melissa Benoist embodies all of that in a vulnerable, complex, utterly engaging performance. She brings Supergirl to life in a way that makes perfect sense.

Jessica Jones. Epically gritty, dark and messed up, but sweetened with some killer sarcastic putdowns, a damaged and soulful performance from Krysten Ritter, and a horrifyingly charming villain in David Tennant’s brilliantly played Kilgrave. Thrilling TV throughout, perfectly paced, full of heart and rage and loss and becoming the person you’re meant to be.

Supernatural. 11 seasons in, it’s still slaying. Here’s my breakdown of why this show STILL kicks ass.

Honorable mentions:

The Walking Dead. This half of the current season delivered three monster, high octane, real-time  episodes that were likely the greatest consecutive episodes in the show’s run… then pulled out of that very suddenly and slowed things way down for the standalone Morgan flashback episode, before reconnecting with the current storyline again. Although Here Is Not Here contained great writing, beautiful character work, and killer acting, it really did stop the momentum in its tracks at a particularly tense moment, and consequently the show took a while to pick up speed again. But by the mid-season finale, it was BACK. It’s the best it’s ever been, and that’s saying something.

Quantico. One of the greatest new network shows in a long time, this is gripping, unstoppable, incredibly tense, and twist and turns and twists and turns, and then does that some more. The cast gives deeply accessible and charismatic performances, and the story just does not quit. Very, very addictive, very tightly written (the show has two ongoing strands, past and present, which interweave and comment on each other and keep the story flowing), and very addictive.

But, if I had to pick the ultimate “things of the year”….

  • Star Wars
  • Illuminae
  • Jessica Jones
  • Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION

And, if I could only pick one thing overall… It’s pretty clear… this little guy won 2015!

BB-8

The breakout star of Star Wars (with fierce competition from the fresh and energetically  great performances of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver), BB-8 owned 2015. The little droid was the heart and soul of Episode VII, and we loved him. Let’s be honest, we would all happily sit there and watch a  two hour movie that was JUST BB-8 AND NOTHING ELSE. Search your feelings… you know it to be true.

So, hope you enjoyed 2015… Have an awesome 2016!!!