Post-Pandemic Viewing

OK, so it's too soon to start talking about the post-pandemic world, but in one respect it feels as if we're starting to awaken to that reality. The first few months of 2021 were a TV wasteland, with hardly any new shows or even new seasons of returning ones. I spent much of the period trawling the depths of my Netflix queue, catching up on shows that have been there for years (check out some thoughts on twitter about SyFy's 12 Monkeys, and Damon Lindelof's much-lauded The Leftovers). With the spring, however, things seem to be changing, with a raft of new series. Many of these shows are science fiction or fantasy, and as I wrote last year, that feels like just the thing when we're all (still) stuck at home, dealing with an overdose of reality. 

Invincible - Amazon's new superhero series, based on a comic by Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, is interesting, first, because of what it implies about how entertainment is going to look in the post-pandemic reality. With live-action film and TV production still too slow and expensive, we're probably going to be seeing a lot more animated fare in the coming months, including for adults. I don't know if making Invincible live-action was ever on the table, but the decision to keep it animated allows the show to tell stories that would be prohibitively expensive in another format (not to mention, too gory for most audiences), as it casually takes its characters to space, features weekly invasions of Earth by armies of alien soldiers, and stages battles galore between dozens of superpowered characters who fling each other across vast stretches of the planet. The animation itself leaves something to be desired—the obvious point of comparison, HBO Max's Harley Quinn cartoon, similarly features lots of gory violence, but also has a more detailed, interesting-looking world, and more emotive characters. But the very fact of the exercise is intriguing, and opens up a whole new range of possibilities for adult-oriented genre storytelling.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Invincible's actual story. The show centers on Mark (Steven Yeun) the son of the superhero Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons), who is a clear analogue to Superman (the show's setting is modeled on the DC universe, with versions of Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, and even more quirky characters like Hellboy). The season's first episode is a fairly dull affair as Mark goes about his normal teenage life, while wondering whether he's ever going to develop superpowers. Even after those come in, his story feels rote and unexciting—he trains with his father, gets a new supersuit, and tries to hit on a good superhero name. Which makes it all the more jarring when a fourth-act twist suddenly upends all our ideas about the kind of story we were watching, suggesting that the narrative Omni-Man has sold Earth about his origins and purpose is a lie, and that he is enacting a sinister plan for humanity. Mark, however, is kept in the dark about all this, and proceeds with his life as it was before, continuing his training, joining a teen superhero team, going on missions, and trying to juggle all these responsibilities along with a budding relationship with his crush Amber (Zazie Beetz).

What this means is that Invincible is telling two stories, and the one about its title character is by far the less interesting one. We end up watching for the interstitial material, the subplots in which secondary characters—such as Walton Goggins's Cecil Stedman, a government agent who monitors superhero activity—investigate Omni-Man, or carry out their own schemes. It's not that there aren't pleasures to be found in Invincible—Simmons is very good at conveying the facade of a Superman-like character, while slowly revealing that under the surface, this version of the character is indifferent to, if not genuinely contemptuous of, humanity. But the character for whom the show is named remains blissfully unaware of not only this fact about his father, but anything else going on—that the leader of his new superhero team has sinister plans, for example, or that Stedman, who has portrayed himself as a teacherly figure who is easing the younger man into a life of superheroics, is actually testing him in order to find out where he stands with his father. Like the series's opening episode, it's likely that some patience is required here, and that Invincible will once again deliver a twist that opens up its story and world. But what it's asking us to content ourselves with in the meantime is rather thin fare.

Made For Love - Between Palm Springs, the Black Mirror episode "USS Callister", and now this show, Cristin Milioti is carving out a niche for herself as the heroine of sinister, SF-based romances. In this half-hour HBO Max dramedy, she plays Hazel, the wife of tech mogul Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen). Hazel has spent the last ten years ensconced in Byron's compound, surrounded by virtual-reality opulence, overlooked by AIs who schedule her every waking moment, and most importantly, forced to play placid, loving acquiescence to her megalomaniacal husband. To anyone who isn't Byron, it's obvious that Hazel is desperately unhappy, and the season's first episode ends with a suicide attempt that turns, unexpectedly, into an escape. Once that escape is achieved, however, Hazel discovers that Byron has implanted a chip in her brain that allows him to monitor her location and sensory inputs. His ultimate goal, he tells her, is to synchronize her chip with his own, making them a single mind.

Made For Love is based on a novel by Alissa Nutting (who is also one of the show's writers), but the name in the credits that left me more intrigued was showrunner Patrick Somerville. Somerville's previous show, Maniac, was a gonzo experiment undermined by a disconnect between its story and setting. While watching, I was much more interested in the show's world, an 80s technofuturist fantasia crossed with a hyper-capitalist nightmare, than its fairly by-the-numbers story of damaged people learning to help each other. Made For Love has the opposite problem. Its character-based story, about an emotionally-battered woman escaping a powerful man who claims to love her, is fascinating, but it's hard to see what is gained by the SFnal premise. Is Hazel's story really any scarier for the addition of a chip in her brain? Is it not enough that she's trying to get away from a man who is rich, powerful, connected, and who is therefore granted the automatic presumption of innocence and good will? Especially since Hazel herself is emotionally unstable (and apparently was at least a little bit that way before ten years with Byron wore away at her sanity), and her love story with Byron—they married and retreated to his compound after a single date—can easily be twisted to make her look like a spoiled gold-digger who is complaining over nothing.

Milioti is, unsurprisingly, very good at playing a woman who is wracked with self-loathing, but who discovers, at the very deepest core of herself, a reserve of orneriness that helps her fight back against the insistence that she can't do better. And Magnussen is not only physically perfect for the role of Byron, but a perfect send-up of far too many tech moguls, a man who is convinced that his financial success must make him an ubermensch, whose job it is to redefine what it means to be human. But the strength of their performances made me wish that the show hadn't chosen to mess around with an SFnal complication that ultimately adds nothing to the story (it certainly doesn't help that the first half of the season makes so much of the mind-meld idea, only for later episodes to drop it entirely). 

Once its premise is established, Made for Love ends up flailing, veering off on tangents—Byron emerging into the real world in order to prove to Hazel that he can function outside of his compound; two of his underlings attempting to steal the brain chip technology; Hazel's father (Ray Romano) trying to justify his committed relationship with a sex doll; a militant nun (Kim Whitley) who vows to help Hazel prove Byron's abuse—and increasingly losing sight of its main characters and their relationship. The season's ending is such an abrupt departure that it's impossible to tell whether it was intended as a season or series finale. It's hard, in the end, to avoid the conclusion that Made for Love doesn't really know what it wants to be about. Is it a story about abuse? A quirky, dark comedy about a woman rebuilding her life after a disastrous marriage? An SFnal speculation about the way that technology interacts with romantic love, and gives abusers new tools to stalk and immiserate their victims? Any one of these might have made for a good show, but trying to do them all results in a confusing mess.

Them - Four years after Jordan Peele upended the horror genre with Get Out, black horror—which is to say, horror that draws on the indignities, oppression, and abuse experienced by African Americans—feels almost like its own mode of storytelling. So it was probably only a matter of time before it got an anthology horror series. In its first season, Amazon's Them tells a relatively small-scale story. In 1953, a young black family, the Emorys—parents Henry (Ashley Thomas) and Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), teenager Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and preschooler Gracie (Melody Hurd)—move from North Carolina to a lily-white California neighborhood, to the consternation and horror of the current residents. The first episode is a masterful hour of television, full of pregnant silences and threatening looks, as the Emorys' excitement over their fancy new home is repeatedly punctured by the obvious (though at this point still wordless) hostility of their neighbors. The show looks gorgeous, especially its use of color, from the sun-washed exteriors of the Emorys' street, with its pastel-colored houses and perfect green lawns, to the rich, dark interiors of the house, with its intricate wallpaper patterns, mid-century furnishings, and deep shadows as the Emorys seemingly try to keep the outside world at bay. The end of the episode, in which the neighborhood's hostility boils over into open violence, and the Emorys'—and especially Lucky's—determination to take the high road crumbles under the strain of such relentless, irrational hate, seems to promise a wonderfully tense season of television.

And then, unfortunately, it goes to pieces. There isn't really enough story in Them's premise to support a ten-episode season (though creator Little Marvin and his writers admirably take advantage of the streaming format and suit their episode length to their material, with running times ranging from thirty minutes to an hour). Though the show tries to beef up secondary storylines, the very smallness of its core story means that these often feel like distractions from the point. A lot of time is spent with Alison Pill's perfectly-coiffed-but-wild-eyed homemaker Betty, the ringleader in the attempts to dislodge the Emorys, and though Pill is predictably excellent, her type—uptight, house-proud, deeply prejudiced but couching it all in terms like "safety" and "property values"—is so predictable that a little goes a long way (a late-season attempt to give Betty a more layered backstory and her own storyline falls flat because she's been so thoroughly established as despicable that it's impossible to care). And, of course, the mundane horror of the premise is supplemented by the supernatural kind, as not just the house but the entire neighborhood turn out to be haunted. Each of the Emorys gets their own ghost to torment them, which seem to run the gamut of horror tropes—a scary clown, a sinister governess—but these stories end up feeling rather samey and repetitive. 

That repetitive quality only exacerbates what has already turned out to be Them's most controversial aspect, its enthusiastic and repeated depiction of black suffering. Whether it's horribly mundane—the white neighbors scrawling slurs on the Emorys' house; Ruby's classmates mocking her ruthlessly, only for her teachers to punish her for "distracting" the class—or outlandishly supernatural, Them seems to relish in piling suffering on its heroes' backs. And while each individual indignity (and the psychological toll they take on the Emorys) is clearly rooted in historical fact, taken together the whole thing starts to feel almost fetishizing. A mid-season episode that reveals the horrific reasons for the family's departure from North Carolina is particularly hard to watch. There's clearly a complicated question here: how you depict real suffering without seeming to revel in it, and how much can you turn away from that ugliness before you end up whitewashing the past? It's obviously not up to white critics like me to answer that question (though check out Brandon Taylor's extremely interesting thoughts on the subject, and the show in general). But my own reaction was that it felt as if the real suffering of people like the Emorys wasn't enough for Them, and needed to be intensified and dressed up—most obviously, by piling supernatural menaces on a situation that was already sufficiently menacing in real history. Halfway through the season, for example, we discover that moving black families into the neighborhood is part of a plot tied to redlining and the consequent schemes that arose to exploit black families trying to get on the property ladder. But this everyday horror pales beside the outsized abuses the Emorys suffer, from their neighbors and from the ghosts, and is forgotten by the season's climax, even though it's likely to blight the heroes' lives long after the supernatural menace is defeated.

This not to say that there's nothing to watch for in Them. The show remains gorgeous throughout (though eventually that beauty clashes quite horribly with the ugly events onscreen), and the Emorys feel like likable, interesting people, even when the pressures of their neighbors' abuse and the ghosts' haunting start to take their toll. And several of the show's horror flourishes are extremely effective. The ghost who haunts Henry, a blackface-wearing minstrel show clown (Jeremiah Birkett), feels like a classic Stephen King villain with a racially conscious twist, slipping effortlessly between cringe-inducing antics and genuine fright, all while picking at Henry's frustrations, the need to put on a polite, endlessly forbearing face to his bosses and neighbors, while deep down he is simmering with rage. A late season episode reveals the haunting's origin in a 19th century "intentional community" who take in a pair of black travelers and begin debating whether they should enslave them, expertly unpicking the way that these characters' supposed enlightenment crumbles when they are asked to overcome their prejudices. Most importantly, there is Lucky, who functions as the heart of the series, and whose mental collapse is horrifying to behold while also revealing her underlying strength. It's a shame that Them wasn't able to give these strong elements a more coherent structure to hold them up. At a shorter episode length, or even as a feature, it could have brought its point across without eventually seeming like a catalogue of misery.

The Nevers - What was meant to be Joss Whedon's triumphant return to television after more than a decade instead turned into an entertainment industry trainwreck months before its first episode even aired. First, because Whedon left the series due to unspecified "creative differences" halfway into the first season's production (by no means the first time he's abandoned a project in the years since the abysmal Avengers: Age of Ultron). And second, because the persistent rumors about his abusive on-set behavior were finally concretized in statements by Justice League star Ray Fisher and Buffy and Angel stalwart Charisma Carpenter. But for me, the biggest hurdle going into The Nevers was not its backstage shenanigans but the very fact of its premise: in 19th century England, a group of women develop superpowers and form a team, which fights both opprobrium and persecution from on high, and those of their kind who try to do harm to others. It's steampunk X-Women, in other words, a bunch of overused concepts that don't sound any more exciting mashed together, and do nothing to dispel the long-formed impression that, on top of his interpersonal issues, Whedon hasn't had any new ideas since the early 00s.

And yet to my surprise, the first few episodes of The Nevers are zippy and entertaining, overcoming their shopworn premise through effective—if by no means innovative or thought-provoking—execution. Chief among these are the characters. Laura Donnelly plays Amalia True, the no-nonsense leader of the "Touched", who operates out of a London compound where she and her sidekick, the bubbly inventor Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), seek out women with powers and protect them against their families and neighbors' hostility, as well as shadowy groups who wants to study, enslave, or exploit them. Both characters are familiar types, but the writing and acting help to elevate them and breathe life into them, and the two women's bond is almost instantly winning (so much so that it's almost strange that both have been furnished with male love interests). Surrounding them are a troupe of superpowered characters, none of whom have really snapped into focus yet, but who all get a few scenes to shine—a teenage girl whose awkwardness is exacerbated by being ten feet tall; a doctor who has developed healing powers; a prostitute who compels people to reveal their innermost secrets. Together they create the impression of a lively, slightly anarchic community, peopled mostly by the forgotten and overlooked.

Another smart thing that The Nevers does is to pile a simply massive number of subplots on its basic scaffolding of story, each of which is advancing at a breakneck pace. It's something that more TV writers would do well to keep in mind—if your story is unexciting, simply have a lot of it, and the audience will be too pulled along to care. So in The Nevers, we have the Touched's benefactor (Olivia Williams), who is quickly revealed to have sinister plans for them; a group of upper class movers and shakers who see the Touched (and especially the fact that they consist mostly of women, plus a few underprivileged men) as a threat to the "natural" order of things; a dissipated aristocrat (James Norton) who is recruiting the Touched to his exclusive sex club; an opera singer (Eleanor Tomlinson) whose song can only be heard by the Touched, galvanizing them to solidarity and action; and perhaps most interestingly, a twist at the end of the first episode that implies that the appearance of the Touched may be the result of otherworldly intervention, with ends that remain unknown but still reverberate with themes of colonialism and cultural imperialism. In almost every subplot, the show is quick to cut through the dross and get to the meat of the story (something that Whedon was always good at, even in his least successful creative forays), elevating material that could easily have come off as trite through the simple means of respecting the audience's intelligence and attention span.

The one misstep in the series's first episodes is the Touched villain Maladie (Amy Manson), who is also the show's most blatantly Whedon-ian trope, the mad, murderous waif. It's easy enough to imagine why the show thought it needed a character like this—in a series about women fighting back against systemic oppression in Victorian England, of course you've got to have a woman who was locked up in an asylum and is now fighting back. But every scene with Maladie sucks the energy out of the show, and she never emerges from under her bird's-nest hairdo, sooty facepaint, and massive pile of "crazy" tics to feel like an actual person. Even this storyline, however, has its upside, as it brings Amalia in contact with sad-sack Scotland Yard detective Frank Mundi (Ben Chaplin), with whom she has a pleasant rapport. Still, one hopes that the coming episodes of the show, made without Whedon's influence, will bring the Maladie plotline to a swift and merciful end, while still holding on to the things that make The Nevers fun and entertaining despite the staleness of its premise. This is probably never going to be a great series (it feels, to be honest, more like a disposable Netflix fantasy series, the kind you happily binge on a weekend, than something with the HBO imprimatur, though of course the latter is apparent in the series's budget and top-notch casting), but it's got enough going for it to feel worth following and getting invested in.

Shadow and Bone - It's been nearly two years since Game of Thrones's ignominious conclusion, and The Witcher is on hiatus until at least the end of the year, so there's an opening in our lives for a new epic fantasy series. Unfortunately, Netflix's Shadow and Bone, based on the novels by Leigh Bardugo, is not that show, choosing, at every turn, the least original and engaging take on its already quite familiar material. The setting is Ravka, a fantasized, 19th century cod-Russia which has been pursuing a lengthy and costly war against its neighbors Shu-Han (cod-China) and Fjerda (cod-Finland?). Complicating matters is, first, the existence of "grishas", elemental magicians who can produce and control fire, water, wind, and other more complicated magic, and second, The Fold, a region of darkness, populated by mutated monsters, that bisects Ravka, and whose crossing is dangerous and uncertain. The Fold was allegedly created hundreds of years ago by a grisha with the power to summon darkness, and the Ravkan religion foretells the coming of a "sun summoner" with the opposite powers who will one day dispel it. That person is, of course, our heroine, the orphaned, half-Shu Alina (Jessie Mei Li), a military cartographer. When Alina's best friend and foster brother Mal (Archie Renaux) is ordered on a mission into the Fold, she arranges to be sent along, which leads to the revelation of her powers when their ship is attacked. She's immediately whisked off to the Little Palace, the grisha fortress-slash-reskinned-Hogwarts, where she becomes the special project of General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), the grisha leader whose interest in the war is secondary to securing the safety of his people.

Bardugo's novels are more on the YA end of the epic fantasy spectrum, and this is evident in the way that Shadow and Bone prioritizes interpersonal relationships and conflict over worldbuidling. There are occasional interesting geopolitical details in the series—the idea that the region beyond the Fold, known as West Ravka, has become disillusioned with the war and with the Ravkan royal court, and that its leaders see Alina as a threat to their plan for secession—but for the most part the show only gestures at these ideas without putting much force behind them. Early in the season, for example, Alina experiences various instances of anti-Shu racism, but eventually these start to feel like window-dressing, not really connected to the crux of her story: her ambivalent relationship with her powers, her attraction to Kirigan, and her guilt and sorrow at leaving Mal behind. Which might be OK, except that the execution of all of these character beats—and indeed of Alina as a character—feels entirely rote. Alina's choices—to destroy military documents in order to create a pretext for going along on Mal's mission; to embark on a romantic relationship with Kirigan; to immediately believe it when she's told that Kirigan has been lying to her and manipulating her; to refuse the offer of help from the people who tell her this and set out on her own—never feel like they emerge from a fully-formed character so much as they're dictated by the demands of the plot. The same is true for Kirigan, who despite Barnes's charisma comes off as a generic sexy-but-dark antagonist (complete with a hackneyed backstory in which he turns evil because his wife was murdered).

There's a great deal more life in a secondary storyline, in which a troupe of criminals—ringleader Kaz (Freddy Carter), second-storey woman Inej (Amita Suman), and sharpshooter Jesper (Kit Young)—cross the Fold and infiltrate the Little Palace on a mission to kidnap Alina on behalf of a crimelord. All three are fun to spend time with, both for how they reveal the seedy underbelly of the show's world, and for their relationships. Kaz is cold and manipulative, but sufficiently self-aware to know that he needs Inej—who is a woman of faith, and quickly becomes convinced that she should be helping Alina rather than kidnapping her—and the push-pull between these two impulses is fun to watch. Inej herself has a boatload of over-familiar backstory—she's a former child slave who is desperate to find her family—which she somehow manages to make her own, creating an impression of a woman who is riven with self-doubt, but who ultimately adheres to her own code. (Jesper, meanwhile, is a fey, promiscuous gay man, a cliché that the show never rises above but which is at least made entertaining through Young's performance.) On the other hand, the storyline ends up going nowhere (apparently it's based on the novel Six of Crows, where the target is someone else, and has been woven into the plot of Shadow and Bone where its characters did not appear), which only serves to illustrate the comparative lack of energy and complex characterization in the main plot.

For the most part, the impression formed by Shadow and Bone is of a story ruled by its tropes, unable or perhaps even uninterested in finding anything human or lively within them. You see this, in particular, in a tertiary storyline in which Matthias (Calahan Skogman), a Fjerdan witchfinder who believes that grisha are evil and soulless, is forced to rely for survival on the grisha spy Nina (Danielle Galligan), after the ship on which he'd been transporting her to "stand trial" (where she was bound to be found guilty and executed) is wrecked in the far north. It's not a surprise when this premise ends up leading to romance (and the reliance on classic fanfic tropes like "huddling together naked to preserve body heat" is almost charming). But the fact that the show never confronts Matthias with the evil he's done, never expects him to come to a moral awakening, and never allows Nina to feel anger or contempt towards him suggests that it doesn't anticipate viewers who will engage with this storyline on a moral level, merely a romantic one. It's a sharp contrast with The Witcher, a show whose characters were always aware of the type of story they were in, and pushing against it in ways that revealed their humanity and foibles. Nothing of that sort happens in Shadow and Bone, and the show is significantly poorer for it.

Comments

Justin Howe said…
Have you heard any talk about Raised By Wolves?

I find it weird that there can be a SF show with Ridley Scott attached that seems to have had a season without commentary. Especially when people claim to want stories set in original IPs. Of course, it's possible I'm late to the party and people talked about it immensely and I entirely missed the conversation.
Arkhivist said…
"The Nevers...pile[s] a simply massive number of subplots on its basic scaffolding of story...if your story is unexciting, simply have a lot of it, and the audience will be too pulled along to care."

I know this was just a comment in passing, but this defines so much modern TV for me. I've watched so many shows where I feel like plot lines that would have been a full- or even multi-season arc on, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer are introduced, played out (i.e. milked for some quick drama), and resolved in a few scenes over maybe two or three episodes, then completely forgotten and never referred to again afterwards. Or there is just so MUCH going on that the emotional impact of incidents becomes strangely distorted, because they simply don't have time to portray or deal with it. A few examples would be Riverdale, True Blood, American Horror Story, iZombie (e.g. when the third season works itself up to a suicide bombing by an anti-zombie survivalist, which has virtually no effect on the story and which most of the characters seem not to even notice)...even Veronica Mars, which I mostly loved (and enjoyed your posts on way back when). Maybe it is not necessarily a bad thing, but with most of these shows I feel like it all just starts to cancel itself out eventually, especially when interesting secondary characters get less and less screen time, or when potentially meaningful or emotional scenes get rushed through and not given the weight they could have.
Justin:

Raised by Wolves is an interesting case. After watching the first few episodes, I was convinced that it was going to be the most talked-about SF show of the year, and was already planning out an essay about it. Then it got progressively dumber and more tedious over the course of the season, and I honestly haven't given it a minute's thought since it ended. I imagine that being on a relatively niche streaming platform didn't help its cause, but the core issue with it is that it started out looking like "what if Prometheus, but not incredibly stupid" and ended up as "what if Prometheus".

Arkhivist:

I see what you're saying, but I think it's worthwhile to distinguish between shows that actually have meaty material to work with, and those - like The Nevers - that are trading in shopworn tropes. Another recent series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, was absolutely felled by trying to cram too many weighty ideas into a six-episode season without giving any of them the space and consideration they needed. But for a premise as hokey as The Nevers, barreling through plot is absolutely the way to go, as the contrast with Shadow and Bone - whose core concept is not less familiar, but whose execution is plodding - demonstrates.
Unknown said…
The Nevers barrels through the plot but, because it's trading in the tropes, I think it needs a certain amount of runway to work and I don't know that a 12 episode season works for that. Early season Arrow had the similar "full speed ahead" approach to plot and largely worked because the 22 episode order meant that the setting had time to breathe, there were episodes centered around minor characters interacting with each other and developing chemistry. Netflix's The Order seemed to be a perfectly passable CW-type show, down to the impossible attractive Canadian actors in Vancouver, but the 10 episode seasons meant you never got time to hang out with the characters for long enough to really love the setting or get invested in any of the relationships.
I actually think this season of The Nevers is only six episodes long, I assume because of COVID restrictions. Which might explain why they're racing so much, and personally I think it's only to the show's benefit.

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