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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bunnies, jumpsuits and clones: TV’s ongoing golden age, 2013 edition

It’s interesting that three of of the greatest seasons of TV in 2013 were all debut shows, two of which came from non-traditional sources.

While Masters Of Sex, a richly nuanced telling of William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s pioneering 1950s sex study, is as burnished and high-quality as you would expect from Showtime, the other two shows came from a DVD rental shop and a cable network not known for original programming. Orange Is The New Black (privileged white girl gets sent to prison for transgressions in her younger life) was a breakout hit for Netflix, while Orphan Black (a twenty-something mother trying to get her child back discovers she has multiple clones) was a phenomenal success for BBC America. They tell very varied stories, but they all share a key quality: an immersive, kinetic, almost urgent sense of emotional turmoil and evolution.

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan

Masters Of Sex, from showrunner Michelle Ashford, has a beautiful, gleaming quality reminiscent of Robert Redford’s Quiz Show. It’s shot and directed in a gloriously low-key yet detailed manner that still finds time to be transcendently visual. Even though it focuses on a groundbreaking study about people having sex, it’s really about the journeys that Masters and Johnson go on, which requires many conversations about methodology, belief systems and statistics. Ashford’s genius is making this an incredibly dynamic and fascinating show, scene after scene, episode after episode. It dives deep into its characters, and elevates their struggles to a mythic level, even as it grounds them in the most fundamental of human needs and desires. Lest that sound too weighty, it’s a very funny show, shot through with a dry, sly wit that emerges not just in dialogue, but also visually (the greatest visual moment of television in 2013 may well have been the sight of a post-coital male rabbit collapsing into sleep the second it, uh, “finishes”).

Coitus not pictured

Coitus not pictured

The writing is always smart, the acting is revelatory across the board, and it all looks amazing.

Taylor Schilling

Taylor Schilling

Orange Is The New Black is a deliberately scrappier affair, as befits the chaotic nature of its subject matter. Piper is a WASP-y character who ran wild during her early twenties, carrying out all kinds of illicit and illegal activities at the behest of her girlfriend and lover, Alex. Eventually, Piper gave it all up, and got engaged to NPR-worshipping, brunch-loving Larry. Years later, Piper’s name is given to the authorities, and she is arrested for her crimes, and sent to prison. What follows is Piper’s fraught, emotionally charged journey through prison life. It’s upsetting, terrifying, moving, hilarious and horrifying in equal parts, and never less than utterly gripping. Showrunner Jenji Kohan nails the tone of the show, keeping every episode flying with emotional energy, humor and conflict. It’s a natural fit for Netflix, as it is literally impossible to resist binge-watching this show. The prison is full of vastly different women, all of whom have their own pasts and arcs; it’s a rich and diverse source of stories, all fueled by human beings on the edge, desperate to survive, to make it through, to make it out.

Tatiana Maslany

Tatiana Maslany

Masters Of Sex and Orange Is The New Black deal in realism. Orphan Black, developed by Graeme Manson, has different DNA; it’s a sci-fi thriller with a bleakly beautiful contemporary feel. Very quickly, lead character Sarah Manning discovers that she is not alone; there are young women out there just like her. Not just demographically, but literally: there are identical clones running around and bringing the ruckus (including, notably, a terrifyingly feral assassin clone, although even she is somehow overshadowed by the antics of the soccer mom). The show unfolds its techno-thriller plot with the verve and emotion of Fringe, and the relentless grip of Homeland. The conspiracy widens and the truth evolves. These fantastical elements are grounded in some jaw-dropping performances. The two leads, Felix (played by Dylan Bruce) and Sarah (played by Tatiana Maslany) are originally from Brixton, in the south of London. This is one of the most specific British accents there is; Bruce and Maslany are both Canadian, but both deliver flawlessly authentic and thrillingly naturalistic performances. But it doesn’t stop there, because Maslany also plays the clones, all of whom are wildly different, in character and mannerisms. It’s an acting showcase and masterclass that weaves breathlessly around the ferociously unfolding plot. It’s highly engaging, and never lets up for a second.

Three brilliant seasons, three brilliant shows.

There were many other great seasons of TV in 2013 too: Almost Human, The Walking Dead, Person Of Interest, Arrow, Nashville, The Tomorrow People, The Blacklist, Shameless, Game Of Thrones (which delivered the year’s most talked about episode of TV, the Rains of Castamere), Homeland (which seemed to nosedive for three episodes before revealing that it was in fact its most ruthlessly brilliant season yet),  as well as the UK hit The Wrong Mans, a brilliantly off-kilter and kinetic “action sitcom” about being an ordinary man caught up in a Bourne-style conspiracy.

Special shout out: the fifth and final season of SouthLAnd, one of the greatest TV dramas of all time, which inexplicably received the worst DVD handling of any TV show in history (barely getting a release, appearing as “DVD on demand”, then bundling odd groups of seasons of the show together, never once releasing a prestige blu ray set, even getting its theme music replaced on some DVDs and digital downloads). The lack of options undoubtedly held back its ratings (binge-watching catch-ups are a key part of keeping shows alive in later seasons), and although the show ended on a typically intense and emotional high, it’s a shame it isn’t easier for fans or newbies to own it in a quality format.

All these shows featured compelling characters, gripping emotional journeys, killer banter, and dynamic pacing. TV is going through a continuing golden age that only seems to deepen as shows start emerging from unexpected venues. There are more channels greenlighting more shows year-round, instead of the usual handful during the more typical pilot season. Now fantastic shows are constantly springing up and demanding great acting and writing talent. It’s an astonishingly fertile, lively, beautiful time for television drama. It’s hell on my DVR and my writing schedule.

Long may it continue.

Almost Human: under the Skin

It can be tough for a new show to maintain momentum in its second outing. Fortunately for Almost Human, episode two (“Skin”) featured a Cheo Coker script about sexbots. This was basically the exact opposite of a Kobayashi Maru scenario.

Coker has perfected the art of yielding deep character revelations from the smallest of moments (on SouthLAnd), and the skill of wielding heavy exposition on the fly (on NCIS:LA). These abilities are essential in the future world of Almost Human, which has a network procedural chassis powered by a cable-style character-based engine. The words were the supple human skin on this artificial life form: the hour was full of emotional, wry, hard-hitting and rhythmic dialogue. With a steady stream of killer details (cats, balls), Kennex and Dorian bantered like pros. Karl Urban and Michael Ealy played their scenes to perfection, continuing an endearing chemistry that makes us want to spend the entire hour listening to them ragging on each other.

Almost Human Skin

Both actors can convey emotional nuance with the smallest of actions, which fits the style of this show perfectly; it’s a gritty, flinty, fast-moving world, composed of shards of light and emotion amongst the steel and glass. Cityscapes glitter and shine brightly with future-light, androids behave as though they have souls, and no one is quite what they seem. The hard-bitten noir quality runs through every aspect of Almost Human, as does the connection with Blade Runner, which is not just there in the concept and visuals, but also in the dialogue, with a character at one point talking about a blush response. Of course, the key debate of that movie was whether Deckard was a replicant. It’s a rich seam to mine, and J.H. Wyman’s show is doing it thoughtfully.

At the same time, it’s distinguishing itself from its sci-fi forefathers and brethren, establishing its own unique identity through a new language of crime: flash masks, DNA bombs, tag scramblers. Wyman is delivering on his promise to only feature crimes that are entirely dependent on futuristic technology. This is a sci-fi geek’s dream in the best kind of way. The concepts are clever, but the emotions are always real: Dorian’s pain at the destruction of another synthetic was palpable and moving.

And yet, in a sign that this show has a great line-up in the writers room, possibly the most moving moment of the episode was the tiny robotic giraffe that Kennex hands to the small child of a kidnapping victim. That emotional moments can be handled so quietly and simply amidst the chaos of the day bodes extremely well for the sophisticated nature of future episodes.

All of the show’s emotions are enhanced by The Crystal Method’s beautiful, futuristic and ambient score, which flows through every scene artfully; it’s up there with the best sci-fi scores, in TV and in film. If machines did dream, this is what it would sound like.

Almost Human has started with an astonishingly assured one-two punch. It’s thrilling TV; exhilarating concepts driven by emotional truths. As long as it can give more time and complexity to Captain Maldonado and Agent Stahl, both of whom currently exist in a “popping in and out of scenes with information” status, there’s nothing to stop this show cementing its status as best new drama of the season.

Random uploads:

  • “You scanned my balls.”
  • Gareth from The Office (the UK original) as a specialist in robots. Brilliant.
  • Kennex stabbing his leg and scaring the kids.
  • That giraffe, man. Beautiful.

Almost Human: Pilot Episode

That Fringe-shaped hole in your TV world is about to be more than filled with ALMOST HUMAN, a show that might just be the purest display of high-octane sci-fi ever to hit the small screen.

The pilot episode, penned by former FRINGE showrunner J.H. Wyman and produced by sci-fi uber-titan J.J. Abrams (FRINGE, PERSON OF INTEREST, REVOLUTION, SUPER 8, STAR TREK, STAR WARS), is a fiercely gritty introduction to the police procedural world in 2048. Cops are partnered with androids, and programmable DNA is the target of choice for the future-tech criminals they chase down.

Almost Human

The pilot accomplishes more than most first seasons. Wyman’s world-building is precise, deep and always on the fly. It’s a world of constant motion. This is kinetic sci-fi of the highest order. And it’s all driven by character and emotion, memory and loss; every piece of tech, every cool idea, is serving the story. Wyman’s great skill is to introduce us to multiple strata of the world, as well as our two lead characters: Kennex, the embittered cop struggling with the continued fallout of a mission gone wrong, and his partner Dorian, a “synthetic” who is programmed to feel. They both have something to prove, and almost certainly something to hide.

Their relationship is the cornerstone of the show; it all depends on their arcs, their dialogue, their chemistry. Wyman’s script does a stellar job making all this completely naturalistic, and the two actors, a fantastically grizzled Karl Urban and a smoothly assertive Michael Ealy, trade hard-bitten noir-ish lines with ease.

That combination of sci-fi noir and androids programmed to seem human unavoidably calls to mind the ur-text of this genre: BLADE RUNNER. To its extreme credit, ALMOST HUMAN is never derivative, but doesn’t shy away from the resonances either. Indeed, it richly plays with our expectations by giving us just enough to wonder if Kennex is as human as he seems (read EW’s excellent breakdown of this theory).

The sci-fi in the show serves the story entirely; and simultaneously the story couldn’t exist without the tech that drives it. That’s why this is pure sci-fi, the very best kind: emotion, action, concept, heart and character are all the same here.

It’s an outstanding pilot episode, one that holds a tremendous amount of promise for the rest of the season.