Sunday, February 11, 2018

Winter Crop, 2018 Edition

I don't always do reviews of the new TV series of the winter, which seems like a shame when you think about it.  As I've noted for several years in my fall reviews of new network shows, there's hardly anything worth looking for in that arena (always excepting The Good Place), and winter seems to be when the stranger, more interesting material gets released.  This year has been no exception, offering up a new superhero series with an intriguing twist on the concept, a strange science fictional spy story, and a well-made social drama.  I don't know if I'm going to stay in love with all of these shows (three episodes in, I'm starting to lose patience with Counterpart, for example), but they have a hook that the fall's carefully samey procedurals don't even try for.
  • Black Lightning - There's a scene about halfway through the premiere episode of the CW's latest DC superhero show that really made me sit up, and think that maybe we were about to get a genuinely revolutionary take on this increasingly problematic concept.  Retired superhero turned school principal Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) has just rescued his daughter from the clutches of a gang boss, in the process causing panic at a nightclub.  Wandering outside the club in a daze, he's discovered by some cops, who immediately train their guns on him and order him to "get [his] black ass on the ground".  Jefferson could comply--as he did earlier in the day when he was pulled over for "fitting the description" of a liquor store robber--and his powers mean that he isn't in any immediate danger.  Nevertheless, a long litany of frustration, including from the earlier run-in with the police, takes its toll, and he clenches his fists and lets fly with his electric powers, leaving the cops alive but on the ground as he power-walks away.

    It's a scene that feels important for two reasons.  First, because of how rarely black heroes--and black superheroes in particular--are allowed to express anger, much less allow themselves to be overcome by it.  Think, for example, of the MCU's black heroes--Falcon, War Machine, Luke Cage, and Black Panther--and how often they're positioned as the level-headed, or cheerful, counterpoint to a hotheaded or angsty white hero.  Even as heroes of their own stories, these characters are expected to proceed with calm deliberation, and are rarely allowed to express rage or frustration--in Civil War, T'challa is seeking justice for the recent murder of his father, and yet he spends the film acting cool and collected, while Captain America and Iron Man's every temper tantrum is indulged and excused.  For Black Lightning to allow its titular hero to feel rage--to make that expression of rage our introduction to him as a person with powers--feels like a thesis statement, as well as a deliberate rebuke to the stereotype of the angry black man.

    Second, this scene feels important because it introduces, very early on, the idea that the police are not Jefferson's allies, in either of his guises.  As we learn in the same episode, the police department of Freeland, where the show takes place, has had a warrant for Black Lightning's arrest for a decade, even though other, white superheroes in the show's world have been allowed to proceed with relative impunity.  Despite centering around vigilantes, superhero stories tend to be deeply suspicious of characters who reject or act against the existing social order, and especially if they're reacting to prejudice or oppression.  But as I've written in the past, a story about an African-American superhero offers more opportunities to debate the necessity of extra-legal violence than shows like Daredevil or The Punisher.  It's an ambivalence embodied by Jefferson himself.  In his civilian life, he tries to teach his students to reject violence and pursue their dreams by excelling at school and giving back to their community, and he makes a compelling argument that he's done more good in this role than he ever did as Black Lightning.  But at the same time, Jefferson is drawn to violence, frustrated not just by police brutality (actually a secondary element in the show thus far, which generally depicts the police as well-meaning but overmatched) but by the gangs running roughshod over Freeland.  He makes an equally compelling argument that Black Lightning represents the community fighting back against the indifference, impotence, and malice that have blighted it.  In only a few episodes, the show repeatedly complicates the question of what role violence should play in its characters' lives, as when a gang boss informs a young boy that the system Jefferson is teaching him to participate in is irreparably biased against black people, and then tells our hero "you teach them your way; I'll teach them mine".

    Beyond all this heavy material, Black Lightning is also a CW superhero show.  Jefferson has an ex-wife, Lynn (Christine Adams), who believes that his vigilantism constituted an addiction, and is heartbroken when the possibility of a reconciliation between them is scotched by his choice to once again don his supersuit.  His daugthers, Jennifer and Anissa (China Anne McClain and Nafessa Williams), are respectively a teenager struggling with the burden of her father and community's expectations, and a young woman just discovering that she has superpowers herself (Anissa is also gay and in a relationship with a woman, which is not even that unusual for the CW's DC shows except that in this case both partners are women of color).  The opening episodes introduce a seasonal villain, Tobias (Marvin "Krondon" Jones III), with connections to Jefferson's family.  And the action scenes are vivid, thrilling, and most of all set themselves apart by positing a hero who is experienced and sure of himself.  The stage is set, therefore, for a superhero story that is satisfying and pushes just a tiny but necessary bit against this genre's blindspots when it comes to race and social justice.  I'm very interested to see what comes next.

  • Counterpart - Starz's new spy-fi show is one of those series that holds its cards close to its chest, trusting that weirdness and suggestion will carry a curious audience along despite the opacity of its storytelling.  In the era of Peak TV, this can be a frustrating approach.  There's far too much excellent material vying for our time and attention to justify any single show taking too long to stake its claim, at least at the level of making it clear what kind of story it's trying to tell.  But sometimes, the combination of an intriguing premise, a good cast, and high-quality execution will give a show the benefit of the doubt.  Counterpart has all three.  Set in a German city (and making much of its European location and the availability of actors of various backgrounds) it centers on Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons) a low-level worker at a mysterious, secretive intelligence agency.  Howard's job consists of reading and receiving codewords from another operative separated from him by a glass divider, and Counterpart makes much of the bureaucratized weirdness of this setup, at once sinister and tedious.  Spurred by a recent accident experienced by his wife Emily (Olivia Williams), who lingers in a coma, a restless Howard tries to advance in his organization's hierarchy, at the the same time as a development in the upper levels of that organization suddenly makes him integral to their plans.  Called to a mysterious meeting, Howard meets another version of himself, and is informed that the purpose of his organization is to conceal the existence of, and maintain diplomatic relations with, a parallel universe.  The alternate Howard--who turns out to be high-ranking spy--reveals that a faction within his organization is pushing for a violent incursion into our universe, and he's crossed over to prevent this.  For some reason, and despite realizing that he is merely an office drone, he wants our Howard along for the ride.

    There is, quite obviously, a lot that remains unclear about this premise, down to very practical questions such as how there could be competing spy networks in the two universes if the only access point between them is so closely guarded on both sides that the alternate Howard can only come over for a set number of hours.  It still remains to be seen whether this is all part of a carefully thought-out design that the show hasn't yet revealed, or just the writers relying on the tropes of Cold War spy stories to create the impression of depth and sophistication where none exist.  What keeps me interested in Counterpart, therefore, is less the show itself and more all the other works it reminds me of.  Several reviewers have mentioned the combination of Fringe and Le Carré, but the idea of two worlds existing side by side is executed in a way that also reminds me of Miéville's The City & The City, and the premise of a small cog in gigantic and seemingly irrational spy machine is reminiscent of Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe books.  Like these books and shows, Counterpart has been very good at capturing small moments of weirdness that make its world feel real and lived in, such as the two Howards remarking on their choice to wear the same shirt, a woman seeing her alternate and responding with hysterical laughter, or our world's chief diplomat (Richard Schiff) trading for things like the locations of oil fields that the other side has surveyed.

    In its interactions between the Howards, too, Counterpart suggests a greater complexity than it has thus far shown.  Despite the obvious zero/hero contrast between the two men, the show very quickly makes the point that the real difference between them is that our Howard is kind.  He gives flowers to the nurses visiting his wife, and goes out of his way to make the other Howard feel welcome in his home.  The other Howard initially reacts with exasperation, but you can see him responding to this softer, better version of himself--which has its payoff when we realize that in the alternate world, Howard and Emily are divorced and at odds professionally.  Basically, all I have right now to keep me going with Counterpart are moments, and the suggestion that it might know where it's going.  But it's a sufficiently out-there idea, and sufficiently well-executed, that for now this is enough.

  • The Chi - Lena Waithe came off the second season of Master of None a newly-minted superstar, having penned the touching, autobiographical "Thanksgiving", about her character's gradual coming out over successive Thanksgivings, and her family's slow acceptance of her sexuality and partner.  Giving Waithe her own TV show was an obvious next step, but the result--though impressive--isn't what "Thanksgiving" might lead you to expect.  Set in a poor, black neighborhood in Chicago's South Side, The Chi kicks off with a murder, and follows a wide cast of characters along multiple storylines.  Aging hustler Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is stunned by the murder of his step-son, who the police assume was involved in drugs despite his parents' conviction that there is more to the story.  Upwardly mobile chef Brandon (Jason Mitchell) is equally shaken by the murder of his younger brother soon afterwards, and begins an investigation into it despite his girlfriend's demands that he leave it to the police.  Grade schooler Kevin (Alex R. Hibbert) witnesses the second murder, and finds himself caught between Ronnie and Brandon and fearing for his life.  And immature teenager Emmett (Jacob Latimore) is forced to take responsibility for the first time in his life when an ex leaves their toddler son in his care, and may be drifting into illegal ways of getting the money he now needs.

    The show that The Chi most strongly reminds me of in its first few episodes is Treme, not just because they both have a large cast of characters and take place in a small, poor, and predominantly black neighborhoods, but because both are characterized by a profound kindness and generosity towards their characters.  In the opening episode, Ronnie does something stupid and unforgivable, but despite our anger at him, it's impossible not to still see him as a human being, struggling with terrible pain even as he inflicts it on others.  In the same way, it's impossible not to root for Emmett as he takes tiny steps towards maturity, even though on the whole he remains a selfish man who expects his mother and girlfriends to pick up his slack.  Waithe has spoken about her desire to depict black men as fully human and worthy of sympathy, and this is obvious in the way that she refuses to condemn any of her characters, even when they do deeply unsympathetic things.  (A less encouraging outcome of this focus is that women on the show seem to be relegated to the roles of mothers, girlfriends, and baby-mamas, and rarely given the space or the opportunity to develop their inner lives as the men are.)

    It's interesting to compare The Chi's approach to its setting and premise to Black Lightning.  The CW show draws very broad lines between heroes and villains, depicting its setting as one in which law-abiding people are preyed on by gangs and drug dealers.  On The Chi, the lines are significantly more blurred, repeatedly making the point that all its characters exist at some intersection between legal and illegal, respectable and degraded--and that it is very easy to slip back and forth between these states.  Brandon, for example, may be from the neighborhood and attuned to its ideas of extra-legal justice, but he's not very street-smart, botching an attempt to buy a gun, and failing to read obvious signs of danger from the people around him.  This, too, feels like part of Waithe's project with the show, insisting that characters who commit crimes are not necessarily hardened criminals, and that in other walks of their lives they can be thoughtful, respectful, and vulnerable.  This can sometimes lean a little too far in the direction of excusing violent, anti-social behavior--again, especially as regards the treatment of women--but on the whole, I'm glad that The Chi is making its statement.  It's not so much that I think this is a better approach than Black Lightning's as that I find it terribly exciting that both shows can exist at the same time, exploring different attitudes to similar issues.

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