Category Archives: Series Review

Stranger Things Season 3 Review

First Half of Review is spoiler-free. Second Half has full spoilers after warning.

Stranger Things is easily Netflix’s most popular Sci-Fi show. Black Mirror may be better, but Stranger Things seems to grow in popularity year on year. This is in large part to its fabulous cast, including the established veterans such as Winona Ryder and David Harbour, but also the incredible young cast (no weak links among them). Millie Bobby Brown has shot to stardom because of this show, and rightly so. The cast are as good as ever here. The show plays around with some of the established pairings and focuses on new ones – seeing Eleven (Brown) and Max (Sadie Sink)’s friendship blossom is one of the most entertaining parts of the early episodes, as well as a key part of Eleven’s character development (first female friend she’s really had). Dustin and Steve’s comedy bromance also returns, and is only enhanced by their adventures with snarky newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke) and Erica, Lucas’ precocious younger sister. While I took to Robin immediately, I wasn’t sure about Erica’s inconclusion till about the halfway point, where I began to warm to her (pairing her and Dustin up as a team really worked). Lucas and Mike get their share of moments too, but Will has the standout ones amongst the boys with Noah Schnapp nailing Will’s PTSD and struggles to adapt to the fact his friends has changed since previous seasons. If any characters are poorly served, its arguably Nancy and Jonathan – their storyline at the Hawkins Post newspaper may have a political point to prove, but it isn’t that entertaining or even interesting. Fortunately, by episode 5 they’re back helping the youngsters and instantly get better material to deal with.

Visually, the show looks as good as ever (has Netflix ever hired a bad director? Yet to see it – BBC take note) and the special effects are great throughout. The new monster is far more imposing and memorable than the Demodogs in Season 2, but is somewhat undermined by the fact it doesn’t kill anywhere near as many as the less-powerful Demogorgon in Season 1 managed. Still, its horrific in its design and inventive in how it gets created, so I won’t criticise it too much. Arguably the season’s human villains are more memorable, particularly the grizzled, Schwarzenegger-esque thug who has several brutal fights with Hopper over the course of the season.

The humour can be hit and miss (Dustin’s group gets the best of it, Mike and Lucas less so) but mostly it works well and establishes a lighter tone. Arguably too light – while the writers were clearly deliberately drawing a line between the light-hearted, hormonal teen dramas and the horrific mind flayer plot, it ends up slightly jarring – seasons 1 and 2 were more consistently dark in tone, but with great lashings of charm and humour to lighten the mood. I have to say I preferred that approach – this season is entertaining, but it lacks the persistent tension of earlier sessions (at least for the first four episodes – the last four were definitely better balanced and to my mind, more effective). Ultimately though, the writers do a good job – the character arcs all make sense and feel realistic and earned, and while there are undoubtedly plot holes and conveniences, they tend to be minor blips rather than irritating missteps.

Overall, its an entertaining, visually splendid instalment of one of Netflix’s best shows. The writers keep the plot grounded for the most part, and showcase the talent of the wonderful actors involved. However, for all that, its probably my least favourite of the three – but given how good the first two were, that doesn’t mean all that much. Just don’t make us wait as long for season 4, okay Duffer Brothers?

For those of you wishing to avoid, spoilers, my season rating is below, so stop there.

Rating: 4 out of 5

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW!!! DON’T READ ON UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN THE FINALE!!

Kudos to Dacre Montgomery – he made Billy someone you could empathise with and even feel a bit sorry for – which isn’t easy when he was so unlikable in season 2 and helped the mind flayer (unwillingly or not) kill a lot of people in S3. Sadie Sink in particular helps us care about Billy’s fate – whatever the issues between them, its clear that Max wants to save her step-brother if she can, which only makes his heroic sacrifice to save Eleven all the more tragic. His death wasn’t exactly a surprise – I’d called well before the season started, but it hit hard nonetheless.

Somewhat surprisingly, so did Alexei’s. Given that he was working for the bad guys and seemed quite a dick in episode 6, the show did well to make us care about him. His banter with Murray and his obvious joy at experiencing an American Fair did much to humanise him – which made his callous execution all the more horrific.

But obviously, the big hit is Hopper. He wasn’t particularly likeable this season, but ultimately, he was there to do the right thing, and this time, his decision to risk all in the final episode cost him. At least, we think it did. The post-credits scene in Russia cast some doubt on his death, but Hopper isn’t the only possibility for the American prisoner. Who knows – maybe the Russians snatched Murray after their base was shut down. Or maybe, just maybe… Eleven’s Father from S1 isn’t dead. Hell, if they know about Eleven, it might even be her Mother they’ve kidnapped or maybe her ‘Sister’ 8 from Season 2. To be honest, any of those options is preferable to Hopper – its too obvious and too easy a way out. Besides – could you imagine the effect on Eleven if she believes its Hopper they’ve got and it turns out to be Father instead? That would really be a great twist for S4.

Next: Reviews of other Netflix titans, such as Jessica Jones, Black Mirror and Orange is the New Black will follow in the next few weeks – along with Spiderman: Far from Home.

 

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A Series of Unfortunate Events, Season 3 Review

Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, Presley Smith and Lucy Punch

Warning: Minor Spoilers Follow

I wasn’t all that impressed with the first season of Netflix’s adaptation. Sure, it was entertaining in its way and better than the film, but let’s be honest, that isn’t hard. The second season picked up a bit, but mainly because it was based on some of the better books in the series (and even then, it’s Vile Village adaptation was dire). Fortunately, it’s a case of third time lucky for Netflix. I don’t know whether or not its that the scriptwriters just kicked things up a gear or the fact that these episodes are based off the best books in the series or that because the final season its more focused on wrapping things up in a satisfying way, but this one WORKED!

Neil Patrick Harris, now freed from the need to play a different version of a disguised Olaf every week, is at his best here. Olaf is menacing, OTT, world-weary and maniacal, sometimes all in the same scene, and he generally carries it off with aplomb. Malina and Louis are as perfect as ever as Klaus and Violet, and Patrick Warburton finally feels like a worthwhile addition to the series. The direction and look of the thing is as great as ever, but crucially, the scripting feels a bit tighter, and boy does that make a difference. Notably, the episodes are a bit shorter than previous seasons, which seems to have been a smart decision. There’s noticeably less padding and everything just flows better.

There’s still the odd change from the books which doesn’t really strike you as necessary, but by and large, its a pretty faithful adaptation of events. But there’s one bonus here book readers will love – you finally get answers that the books, crucially, did not give you. Flashbacks in the Penultimate Peril two-parter really help to flesh out the schism, the sugar bowl, Olaf’s turn from Volunteer to Villain and Lemony and Kit Snicket’s characters. Kit Snicket is perfectly cast as well, which is crucial seeing as she’s so important to the last few books. The other bonus is the welcome return of Carmelita Spats, who is perfectly done and is endlessly entertaining when onscreen. Lucy Punch isn’t quite as memorable as Esme as she was last season, but she still gets the odd moment.

It’s not perfect by any means – Phil still seems miscast, the Violet and Quigley subplot seems rushed and the decision to spare the bald man and the henchperson of indeterminate gender last season doesn’t really serve any purpose, but for the most part, this is a big improvement over the last two seasons. But for everything that doesn’t work, there’s plenty that does. Usman Ally nearly steals the show as the hook-handed man, while the Klaus and Fiona subplot works very believably.  The Man with Beard but no hair (played by Richard E. Grant) and the Woman with Hair but no Beard make a great set of villains to throw both Olaf and the Orphans off balance in this series as well.

Overall, Netflix finally manages to strike the right tone and conclude the series in an engaging, satisfying way. The cast give their all and the writing’s stepped up a gear from last season. The flashbacks alone give book readers a reason to check this out – it really answers any questions the books ever left you wondering…

Rating: 4 out of 5

The theme tune really is catchy isn’t it?

House of Cards Season 6 Review

Starring Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Diane Lane, Campbell Scott, Lars Mikkelsen, Boris McGiver, Derek Cecil and Greg Kinnear.

Warning: Major spoilers for Season 5, Minor Spoilers for Season 6.

House of Cards used to be the best show on Netflix. The first two seasons are still as good as anything the service has ever produced. The show made a few missteps in season 3, but recovered in Season 4, which was mostly a return to form. Then, two big curveballs threatened to bring the whole thing crashing down. First, Season 5 was a mess, with a few standout episodes let down by a contrived plot, obvious twists and an inability to live up to the real life drama created by the current White House administration. It was easily the worst of the bunch. Then, far more seriously, the show’s star, Kevin Spacey, spectacularly fell from grace under a deluge of sexual harassment allegations from other actors and crewmembers (which are still not proven as of yet, but Netflix had little choice but to drop him and erase the two episodes he’d already filmed).

Fortunately, Season 5 ended in a way which made it easy for Netflix to continue with the show, as Claire Underwood, Francis’ wife, had become president following her husband’s resignation. However, a lot of fans were concerned about this, as while Robin Wright is a very good actress, she had ultimately been second fiddle to Spacey for most of the run, and the seasons which had focused on Claire more weren’t the best. However, Netflix ploughed ahead, and for completionism’s sake, I decided to give the final season a go.

So… does it still work without Kevin Spacey in the lead?

Surprisingly, yes it does.

Robin Wright is a revelation now she’s been freed from being the support act. As a lead, she’s far more compelling and likeable than she ever was before. Similarly liberated is Michael Kelly, whose Doug Stamper gets far more to do without Francis pulling his strings. While neither has been my favourite character during the 5 previous series, they both come into their own here, and its very hard to decide which of them to root for. The series introduces a new group of villains in the form of Bill and Annette Shepherd (Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane), two influential businesspeople who try to force Claire to support their various agendas, and have vice-president Mark Usher in their pocket. Both prove to be good rivals for Claire, and while not up there with Lars Mikkelsen’s wonderful Russian President Petrov (who steals every scene he’s in once again), they are two of the more memorable adversaries the show has given us so far, and their recruitment of Seth ties them into Francis’ world nicely. The conflict between all these parties, as well as Tom Hammerschmidt and Janine’s continuing desire to bring Claire down and destroy Frank’s legacy, makes for very compelling viewing.

At 8 episodes long, it’s shorter than the other seasons, but this actually works in its favour, as things feel less padded out than before (though in truth, 10 episodes might have worked better!). The soundtrack and the direction are as good as ever, while the writing is a notable step up from Season 5, if not the best we’ve ever had on the show.

But does Season 6 end the series on a satisfactory note?

No, unfortunately it doesn’t.

Spacey’s absence is dealt with well, as is Doug’s end of season 5 predicament. But while the show ties up most of Season 5’s loose ends well enough, it fails to do the same for itself, mostly because of the finale. Episodes 4-7 of season 6 are brilliant, but episode 8 is not. The conflict between Claire and the shepherds is left sort-of unresolved, Seth, Janine and Mark Usher don’t really get any kind of meaningful resolution to their storylines and the final showdown between Claire and Doug is unsatisfying, and features a twist that doesn’t really work.

Ultimately, were Netflix to change its mind and commission a 7th series, I would now be happy with that. But if this really is the end… it could have been so much better. So, to sum up, Season 6 may leave a bitter aftertaste, but it reminds you of why this show was such a hit. Spacey’s shadow looms large, but the show proves that it was never just him that made it such a success.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (its a fun ride, but the final episode drags the whole thing down)

Coming soon: Expect my review of Detroit: Become Human, one of the year’s most thought provoking video games, and sometime after, my take on the new Fantastic Beasts movie.

Gotham: the Good, the Bad and the Downright Mad

Gotham is the weirdo of the DC TV shows. It isn’t part of the Arrowverse or the films. It shows us a Gotham before Batman and Joker. It’s half a gritty, gruesome and violent detective show and half a zany, insane, comic-book-esque thriller. It’s had some real highs and some big missteps. But not only does it work, it was arguably the best DC show last year.

While Supergirl and Arrow dragged on too long, while Legends of Tomorrow got too silly for words at points, while Flash dragged itself further and further down towards creative oblivion, Gotham soared with a season that was macabre, mad and goofy as hell – sometimes all in the same episode! Sure, not everything worked in Gotham’s 4th season, but what do you expect from a show that perpetually throws everything including the kitchen sink at the wall and has an ensemble cast almost as large as game of thrones?

I haven’t done Gotham reviews since Series 1, mainly because the seasons are so long and spread out over the year its hard to summarise them in one article (and not enough people watch it for episodic reviews to be worth my time). So instead, for long-term fans and newbies wondering if the show is worth a shot while its on Netflix, here’s my breakdown of what’s good, what’s bad and what’s just downright mad in Gotham-land.

Will contain fairly substantial Spoilers for Season 1-4. But they’re pretty much impossible to avoid with an article like this.

The Good:

Penguin and Riddler (Seasons 1-4): While Gotham has included many, many established Batman villains and a few they’ve invented themselves, few people would argue that the shows signature villains are Penguin and Riddler, perfectly played by Robin Lord Taylor and Michael Corey Smith. Their story arcs have been spread over many seasons, rather than a few episodes, and have arguably proved as crucial to the shows success as Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne. They’ve even teamed up, fallen in love (well, Penguin did anyway) and become embroiled in a vicious civil war with each other. While both have had the occasional run in with Bruce, they’ve been far more of a thorn in Gordon’s side, and Jim always seems at his most pressed when facing off with these two.

The Prototype Jokers (Seasons 1-4): Joker casts a long shadow in the Batman mythos, but wisely, the writers didn’t shoehorn him in too early (looking at you DCEU and Suicide Squad). Instead they gave us Jerome (and later Jeremiah) Valeska, who served as the shows early versions of/inspiration for Joker. They have made only limited appearances throughout, but thanks to strong writing and a brilliant performance from Cameron Monaghan, have had a huge impact. Highlights have included Jerome reeking havoc with Theo Galavan’s gang of Maniax, facing off with Bruce in a Circus full of deranged cultists, and Jeremiah teaming up with Ra’s al Ghul. Simply marvellous.

The Ogre, The Mad Hatter and Professor Pyg (Season 1, 3, 4): While Gotham has dealt with most of the more famous Bat villains, it has also taken big risks by including or inventing less-known foes. The Ogre made for a very sinister villain for the final episodes of S1, while the Mad Hatter was an inspired choice of villain for the first half of S3. Best of all was the monstrous Professor Pyg, who tore through both the GCPD and Penguin’s goons during his reign of terror in S4. Given its incredibly unlikely we’d have ever seen villains like this in film or animation, you have to give credit to Gotham for taking risks.

Dirty Cops, Corrupt officials and Gang Wars (Seasons 1-4): Jim’s Gordon’s faced a lot of villains over the course of the show, but his worst enemies have all to often been himself and Gotham’s inherent corruption. Not only has the GCPD endured numerous madmen, massacres and a multitude of corrupt cops but the city’s often been in the grip of corrupt officials, rival mobsters, and disgraced mayors (seriously, all four have been corrupt as hell, and the fact that Penguin wasn’t even the worst of them speaks volumes). Gordon and the other heroes have all too often compromised and corrupted themselves trying to deal with this mess. Apart from Lucius Fox and Alfred, pretty much all of them have crossed lines somewhere, and Gordon, Harvey Bullock and Bruce’s struggles to stay in the light have provided some of the most compelling character arcs.

Bruce and Selina grow into their roles (Seasons 1-4): Getting the casting right is always important, but casting young versions of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle was even more fraught with danger than normal. Fortunately, David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova have nailed their roles and have always been believable versions of their future hero and anti-heroine. Both have arguably grown the most of all the characters on the show, and their burgeoning friendship and on-off romantic interest in each other has been very entertaining to watch. Ultimately, the highest compliment I can give them is that they’ve done just as well as any adults who have played the characters in film. That’s no mean feat.

The Bad:

Fish Mooney (Season 1-3): Jada Pinkett Smith is almost as bad an actor as her son Jaden. Fish was an horrendously OTT villain in Season 1, so the cheers were near universal when Penguin sent her plummeting to a watery grave. However, the showrunners couldn’t leave well enough alone, and had Hugo Strange resurrect her in Season 2. They seem to have realised their mistake pretty quickly, as she barely featured in Season 3, and was put down again in the finale, hopefully for good.

The god-awful Gordon Prison Episode (Season 2): Not only was the episode a virtually direct copy of Roy’s imprisonment in Arrow’s third season, but it was done so poorly that I don’t know why they bothered. Having been framed for Murder, Gordon tries to survive prison as a cop on the inside, with all the usual clichés present (cop inside gets targeted, corrupt guards in league with inmates, fake-death used to escape etc.). It’s dull and predictable, and the only episode of Gotham to get lower than 3/5 from me.

No One Knows What to Do with Poison Ivy (Seasons 1-4): On paper, Ivy should have been a much better used character. She starts off as an ordinary girl who is Selina’s best friend, whose father is killed by Gordon after being framed for the Wayne murders. There’s a lot of character potential there without rushing her into the Poison Ivy from the comics. Unfortunately the writers lost patience in Season 3, and realising that Ivy’s powers of seduction and manipulation aren’t useable without having an adult actress in the role, had her rapidly aged up by one of Hugo Strange’s monsters. While this made sense from a plot perspective, the recast version never felt quite right, as the chemistry with Selina vanished and pairing her up with Penguin’s gang went nowhere. After yet another transformation (and another recasting) in Season 4, Ivy finally went into full villainess mode and remembered her history with Gordon, but vanished when Selina ran her out of town. Such a waste of what was a promising character.

Bruce the Brat (Season 3/4): Bruce being brainwashed by the League of Assassin’s was bad enough but the show took his downward spiral in Season 4 too far by having him fire Alfred during a particularly dark spell of drinking and debauchery. Fortunately this only lasted a couple of episodes, but things definitely went too far here.

Overlong Seasons (Seasons 1-4): Like the Arrowverse and many US shows, Gotham has a lot of episodes (22) per season. Unlike the Arrowverse shows, Gotham tried to circumvent this problem by having multiple main villains in each season (Falcone, Maroni, Penguin and Fish in S1, Galavan and Hugo Strange in S2, Mad Hatter and The Court of Owls in S3 and Professor Pyg, Sofia Falcone and Ra’s al Ghul in S4), which worked to some extent. Unfortunately, this often leads to filler plotlines or a drop in quality after the mid-season break, as things are strung along until the final 5 or so episodes. Season 1 felt disjointed, S2’s Hugo Strange fiasco and S3 and S4’s less successful plotlines were all arguably a result of this. You do feel that if Gotham was only 16-18 episodes long each season, the show would work a lot better.

The Mad:

Fish Mooney Gouges Out Her Own Eye (Season 1): This was just batsh*t crazy. Having been shipped off to an island run as an organ bank by the sinister dollmaker, Fish gouges out her own eye with a spoon before he can take them from her. Like all Fish scenes, this was just plain mental, and did not serve any obvious plot purpose (she gets a replacement eye a mere one episode late). Talk about doing things just for shock value.

Azrael vs. Bazooka (Season 2): Hugo Strange resurrecting Theo Galavan was crazy enough, but brainwashing him into becoming Azrael, a legendary crusader-esque warrior, was completely out of whack. Azrael proceeded to hunt down both Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon due to his messed-up memories, but his exit was the most memorable part. Having been mown down by Bruce in a car and shot by Gordon multiple times, Azrael gets back to his feet only to be blown up by Butch, who was wielding a Bazooka on Penguin’s orders. I wouldn’t blame you for saying this was the point that Gotham ‘jumped the Shark’ and went into full comic book insanity, cause it only gets weirder from here.

Jerome gets a facelift (Season 3): Another villain destined not to stay dead for long, Jerome’s antics with the Maniax Gang inspired a cult following, who tried to resurrect him in season 3. This wasn’t the mad part. Having seeming failed to resuscitate Jerome, the Cult’s leader cut’s off Jerome’s face to wear as a mask, hoping to maintain control over the cult by convincing them that ‘they are all Jerome’. This lunacy went predictably badly, as Jerome was less than impressed about his missing face after he eventually woke up, and blew the cult leader up in short order. But even this wasn’t crazy enough for Gotham, as Jerome not only retrieved his face but proceeded to staple it back onto his head. Without painkillers. Not wonder he only got more insane after that.

Professor Pyg makes people into Pies (Season 4): After the Mad Hatter, Ed’s Riddler Persona, Scarecrow and Jerome, you’d have thought Gotham had scraped the bottom of the barrel for crazy Bat-villains. You. Were. Wrong. Pyg is arguably the most insane, gruesomely macabre villain in the whole of DC comics, and the show’s version was equal to the task. Not content with murdering policemen and covering their heads with masks made from dead pigs, the Professor proceeding to murder a group of homeless people and serve them up to Gotham’s 1%  (including Penguin and Sofia Falcone) in pies. The irony was probably not lost on Penguin, who had done something similar to his evil step-family in Season 2, but this went to a whole other level. No wonder Pyg exited the show a mere two episodes later – where else could you go after that? 

Barbara takes over the League of Shadows (Season 4): This could of easily fallen in the ‘bad’ section of this article, but it was such a crazy, stupid move on the part of the showrunners that it just comes across as completely insane. The whole Ra’s and Barbara partnership was actually quite compelling early season, but after Bruce put an end to Ra’s scheming the show made arguably the craziest mis-step in its history by having Barbara succeed Ra’s as the Demon’s Head late season. Not only did she do such a poor job that she started an entire gender-based civil war within the League of Assassins, but the League got so fed up with her that they resurrected Ra’s in short order to put her in her place. This smacks of giving the character something to do rather than following a logical character arc, and also leaves several major issues in Ra’s plan unsolved (unless he wanted to destroy the league, which later episodes show is not the case, or hideously misjudged Barbara’s ability, which seems unlikely for someone as old and wise as Ra’s, Barbara makes no sense as a choice of successor – especially when Bruce was who Ra’s was so obsessed with!).

So there you go. Gotham, the best, worst (not really – Flash and Agents of SHIELD are still out there) and maddest superhero show TV will probably ever see. If you like your TV dark and crazy, by all means, give it a go.

 

 

Orange is the New Black Season 6 Review

Starring Taylor Schilling, Natasha Lyonne, Danielle Brooks, Selenis Leyva, Nick Sandow and Kate Mulgrew.

Warning: Minor Plot Spoilers follow for Season 6. Major Spoilers for Season 5.

Season 5 got mixed reviews. I personally loved it, but I can see why some thought it got too fan-service-y in places. Even it detractors have to admit the riot made for compelling viewing. But there were always going to be consequences. The first half of S6 is all about those consequences, and the two key themes of the season are betrayal and redemption.

The opening episodes see the feds out to pin the blame for both the riot and Humphrey and Piscatella’s deaths on at least 5 of the inmates, which leads to a lot of backstabbing and mud-slinging as the various inmates try to save themselves or settle old scores. Some betrayals you really won’t see coming, others are what season 5 was all building up to. The remaining episodes deal with the consequences, as the inmates in question seek revenge, struggle with guilt or fear retribution.

While most of the regulars are back this season, a lot of familiar faces are missing (because they were put in a different prison, while we follow the ones sent to Litchfield Max). Characters like Big Boo and Helen get mere cameos, while ones like Watson, Norma and Chang are entirely absent. A third of the guards from last season are gone too, though Dixon, Luschek, Donuts and McCullough are all back to some extent.

There are various new characters too, both prisoners and guards, some of whom are more memorable than others. The main plot of the season sees the inmates caught up in the tension between C-block and D-block in Maximum Security, driven by a long-standing feud between sisters Carol and Barbara, who are the two major players in Max. Other newbies include their enforcers, Badison (who might just be the nastiest piece of work OITNB has given us) and Daddy (who strikes up a surprisingly sweet relationship with one of the series regulars). The new guards are similarly hit-and-miss, but chief Hopper, Luschek and McCullough’s arcs make up for the less interesting ones.

Things feel a lot more tense this season – the very nature of Max has you constantly worried that someone is about to get shivved or beaten up (both of which happen) while some of the guards are beyond brutal in how they treat Daya and the riot leaders. Orange is the New Black has always been good at mixing humour and drama with the darker side of prison life, and that balance remains as compelling as ever here. If had to criticise, the central conflict between the blocks peters out a bit too much, and there’s no shocks here up there with Poussey or Piscatella’s deaths, but the season as a whole is still pretty great viewing regardless.

The humour is still on point, with highlights including Flaca and Black Cindy teaming up as the new prison radio hosts and Suzanne and Freida becoming cellmates. While most of the romance focus is on Piper and Alex, there are several other compelling pairings throughout the season (including a somewhat unlikely love triangle involving Luschek and two of the prisoners, as well as the conclusion of the Doggett/Donuts arc). Surprisingly the best pairing of the season is Caputo and Fig, who’s relationship plays a much bigger part in the story than you might expect.

Meanwhile it’s Red, Taystee, Daya and Ruiz who get the lion’s share of the drama side of things. The flashbacks remain mostly interesting – Freida’s is arguably the most important, though its Nicky and Cindy’s snapshots that will probably leave a lasting impression. The majority of flashbacks tend to focus on the new characters rather than existing ones, but this was pretty inevitable given the number of cast changes this season.

Overall, I wouldn’t say this is OITNB’s best season, but its a damn good one, even if the finale lacks the punch of recent seasons. Focusing in on a smaller section of the cast seemed to work well, but the quality of the newcomers varied. The show still remains the best Netflix has to offer though.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

 

Luke Cage: Season 2 Review

Starring Mike Colter, Rosario Dawson, Mustafa Shakir, Theo Rossi, Alfre Woodard, Reg. E. Cathey, Simone Missick and Finn Jones.

Spoilers for Season 1. Minor Spoilers only for Season 2.

I really wasn’t a fan of Luke Cage after season one. By which I mean the show, not Mike Colter’s character. Colter has always convinced in the role ever since he first appeared on Jessica Jones’ first season. But aside from several good acting performances (by Colter, Mahershala Ali etc.) Season 1 was very, very disappointing, and in my opinion, was one of the most critically overrated TV series (I’d give it a 2.5/5). Sure, it was a landmark event in that it was the first Superhero TV show centred around a Black Superhero and a majority Black Cast. But this doesn’t automatically make it good television, no matter how powerful its message is. It had a unique feel, sure, with a soulful soundtrack that worked wonderfully, but I wouldn’t have recommended it to anyone.

Luke Cage had three major issues in S1: its pacing, its villains and a failure to use its hero in an interesting way. Luke was often too sidelined in favour of the supporting characters throughout the first season, and his whole ‘reluctant hero’ schtick really wasn’t that interesting a character arc – it just made him seem selfish and jaded and didn’t let Colter’s natural charisma show the way it did in Jessica Jones and the Defenders. Worse, the nature of Luke’s powers meant he was completely invulnerable for the first 6 episodes, but then once a weapon that hurt him was introduced in episode 7, he kept going down far too easily (i.e. the familiar Superman/Supergirl problem). The shows pacing was all out of whack, as is usual with Marvel’s Netflix shows, and was definitely 3 episodes too long. The biggest problem, however, was the villains. S1 had 4: Cottonmouth, Diamondback, Shades and Mariah. Although the actors did their best with each of them, we never got any reason to care about Shades or Mariah, who were really bland throughout, Diamondback was very OTT and had a really hackneyed origin story (Luke’s resentful brother, I mean seriously??! talk about cliched) and Cottonmouth (the only decent one) was killed off halfway through.

I gave S2 another chance because, as I said, I like Colter’s performance and figured the show could do a lot better. Has it?

Yes it has. Thank God!

Luke is a much, much more interesting lead this season. He grapples with more compelling themes, struggling with anger issues, his newfound celebrity status, and his desire to do what’s right even when he knows he could solve Harlem’s problems more quickly by just killing Mariah or working outside the law. While he still feels a bit too sidelined at times, the screentime Luke does get is put to much better use. Colter clearly relishes the role he’s playing this time, whether its sparring with Claire and Misty over his methods or trying to reconnect with his estranged father (marvellously played by the terrific late Reg. E. Cathey, who the series is dedicated to).

The writing has also improved a lot, mainly because it focuses a lot more on character work, so that even when the plot slows up we still get some compelling scenes. The racial politics and progressive messages are still there, but are included with far more nuance, and aren’t so jarringly on the nose as they were in season one. As Black Lightning proved, these things work far better when they are simply shown, rather than being patronisingly spelt out for the audience. In other good news, the supporting characters this season (Sugar, D.W. Piranha, Comanche, Tilda, Anansi) are all much more interesting than Misty, Scarfe or Shades were last season. Thankfully, Misty is a much easier character to like this time round, simply because she’s clued in and on Luke’s side from the start. Even more surprisingly, Shades becomes one of the shows most intriguing characters this season, as Theo Rossi gets much better material to work with and gets the chance to really show his talent as an actor. Alfre Woodard gets a better storyline as Mariah as well, as the show does a better job of transforming her into a main villain, though arguably it gets too focused on her in the latter episodes of the season.

The show’s biggest strength, however, has to be new villain Bushmaster. Not only is this villain capable of going hand-to-hand with Cage (something which Mariah, Shades and Cottomouth were handicapped by their inability to do), but he’s also played with great charisma by Mustafa Shakir, who turns Bushmaster into one of the most memorable villains in Marvel TV (he’s virtually Tennant as Kilgrave good, and that’s the highest praise I can give). His fights with Luke are highlights of the season, and the fight choreography in general seems to have taken a massive step up this year – you’ll never get bored of Luke smacking down thugs or going toe-to-toe with Bushmaster, who is the first character to ever pose a genuine physical threat to Luke. It’s just a pity that Bushmaster gets sidelined in favour of Mariah in the last few episodes of the series, as he was definitely the stronger adversary of the two.

The series still isn’t perfect however. While it feels like you could get 13 episodes of story from the plot, each episode weighs in at 50-65 minutes, so the episodes do feel stretched out in places, normally because police incompetence or Luke’s reluctance to kill keeps some villains in play longer than they need to be. If you fancy a drinking game, have one everytime there’s an interlude mid-episode for a musical performance at Harlem’s paradise – it happens like every bloody episode and probably adds at least a good half-hour of runtime over the season. There’s also an Iron Fist crossover episode, which has its moments, but feels more like fan-service than actually adding anything to the plot (though I’m happy to say Finn Jones is much more likeable as Danny Rand now).

Overall, the shows character-driven scripts and cool fight scenes, in addition to a more subtle and nuanced approach to its political message, make this a huge improvement over season 1. However, it still feels stretched out and arguably focuses on the wrong villain in the final few episodes. Despite this, its probably up there with Jessica Jones’ second season in terms of quality, so I’ll give it the same rating.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Final Thought: Make sure you watch S1 of the Defenders before you watch this, because there’s a lot of references to the events of that crossover series here, particularly regarding Misty and Danny Rand’s role in events.

Article: Why the Flash has become the worst of the DC TV shows.

From Hero to Zero

Warning: Contains Spoilers for seasons 1-3 of The Flash and Seasons 4/6 of Arrow

It’s generally been a good year for the DC TV shows. Legends of Tomorrow, Gotham and Black Lightning have all had great seasons. Supergirl’s third season has so far been by far the strongest in the shows history. Even Arrow managed to have a strong end to an otherwise bland and uninspired run. But while reviewers have hit arrow hard, its arguably the Flash that deserves the most scorn.

The flash’s first season back in 2014/15 was one of the strongest the Arrowverse had ever delivered. The first half of season two kept that momentum going, but then things started to go downhill after the mid-season break. Zoom didn’t work as a lead villain once he took his mask off, and the Earth-2 dopplegangers were so thinly drawn and one-note I don’t know why they bothered with them. Still, while not a triumph, season 2 still had plenty of good to balance out one or two issues. Then season three happened. Flashpoint remains the moment the Flash lost something it could never recover: quality and fanbase goodwill. It was done TERRIBLY and made Barry far, FAR too unlikable. But that was only the tip of the iceberg.

Season 3 had a multitude of problems. H.R. was the least interesting Wells incarnation and took a long time to come into his own. Too many filler episodes were bland and were merely used to drag out the season’s main plot far longer than it deserved. The whole ‘Gorilla City’ two-parter ended on a whimper rather than an adrenaline rush. Jessie was completely wasted in a thankless role that mainly revolved around being Wally’s love interest, despite looking far more capable as a speedster than either Wally or Barry at times. The Killer Frost plotline was predictable, lacked nuance and was resolved far too easily in the season finale. And then we have Savitar. The reveal of his identity took far too long, which backfired as, by the time it happened, we’d all worked out who he was anyway. Not to mention he was the third speedster villain in a row, which led to a whole feeling of ‘really, again?’ about proceedings. Not to mention his grand plan made even less sense than Zoom’s, which is saying something. Don’t get me wrong, season 3 had some great episodes (The Present, Dead or Alive, The Wrath of Savitar, Duet and Infantino Street) but it also had a finale that sucked so badly, that I gave up on the show.

I kept an eye on reviews of season 4 to see if was worth giving the show another shot. The reviews seemed unanimous – no it wasn’t. Even though there were clearly some good episodes, clips I’ve seen and the plot summaries clearly show the key issues I have with the show are either still there or have got worse, and even Den of Geek, who defended Season 3, seem to have lost patience. Hence why for the first time, the Flash must be considered the worst DC show on TV. And this can be blamed on 5 separate issues:

1. The Quality of the Villains dropped. 

The Flash did such a good job on its villains in Season 1 and 2 that it was always going to be hard to maintain that standard (Arrow has sometimes struggled with this as well but not to the same extent). Just think of S1 and S2’s villains: Reverse-Flash, Captain Cold, Weather Wizard, The Trickster, Gorilla Grodd. They were all great beyond measure. Sure, Zoom stopped being threatening the instant his mask came off, but he was an exception. Name one villain of the same quality in S3 or S4? Struggling? While Savitar and Devoe have clearly both had their moments, there wasn’t a single stand-out showing from the one-off or support villains. Mirror Master and Abracadabra disappointed, and the show seems to have run out of good villains from the comics to introduce. It’s not the showrunners fault that some of its best villains are no longer available (Snart’s become an anti-hero, the Reverse-Flash has been used too much for any major further appearances, Mark Hamill has been too busy with Star Wars to play the Trickster etc.) but its clear both that the Flash’s original villains have a tendency to run out of steam (Grodd’s S3 story was rubbish and he was beaten far too easily by Solivar) and that these villains work better on Legends of Tomorrow. I honestly don’t know how the Flash can fix this problem, but I’d have two main suggestions: 1. cut the episode number from 23 to 16/17 so there’s less weak filler episodes with throwaway villains. 2. Have more than one main villain per season. Then their plot won’t get stretched out so much.

2. Killer Frost has been severely mishandled

I wasn’t a fan of Earth-2 killer frost. She was a pretty one-note character who seemed to just be evil for the sake of it. So when Caitlin’s KF persona started manifesting on Earth-1, I hoped they might do it in a more nuanced way. While the first few episodes looked promising, once Killer Frost fully emerged she was exactly the same as her Earth-2 counterpart. This could still have worked if the show had shown the battle between the two personas in a more interesting way that just flicking between them when the plot called for it (for example, how Ed Nygma has struggled with his Riddler persona on Gotham). If Gotham has done a more convincing character arc than you, you know you’ve really f*cked this plotline up. Add in the predictable and all too easy change of heart Killer Frost had in the S3 finale, which was entirely unjustified (Arrow did a far better job of this in S6 with Black Siren, whose shifts in allegiance played out over several episodes and wasn’t always predictable). Again, if Arrow season 6 did something better than you… Season 4 hasn’t fixed the shows Killer Frost problem, and at this point I’m not sure they can – they made her too much of a pantomime/cartoon villain at the start for her to work effectively as a character now.

3. The show doesn’t use its supporting characters well

There’s a reason Wally buggered off to Legends of Tomorrow (where Keiynan Lonsdale has seemed far happier). He had so little to do since becoming a speedster other than back-up Barry, get beaten by Savitar and hang out with Jessie. The character was being wasted on the Flash, because the writers couldn’t figure out what to do with him. Jessie has had similarly short shift, appearing only in a few guest appearances that haven’t done her justice – her abilities as a speedster are clearly strong, so why they don’t bring her in more often (or at least let her be part of the crossovers) is beyond me. Again, the writers clearly don’t know what they’re doing with her character. It’s also becoming noticeable that the writers flat out refuse to ever kill one of the main cast (Barry, Iris, Joe, Cisco or Caitlin) so its always the supporting characters that get chopped, because the show clearly regards them as expendable (see Eddie, Ronnie, Henry Allen and H.R.). This leads to the supporting characters being chopped and changed too often for any of them to have a lasting impact or stronger character development. Even if they aren’t killed off, promising supporting characters are often written out despite being more interesting than the main cast (i.e. Patty and Julian, both of whom brought some fun and tension to the show that it badly needed but no longer possesses). I mean, I know Tom Felton probably has other things to do, but he was the best thing in season 3, so to lose him so quickly and without a proper send-off was downright annoying.

4. Barry has caused too much suffering to be a likeable lead anymore

The list of people who’ve died either for Barry or because of him is too long: – Eddie, his parents, Ronnie, H.R., Cisco’s brother. Not to mention all of the lives he impacted adversely with Flashpoint. Barry has never really paid the price for all that suffering, which is why season 3’s ending was so misguided. Had Barry lost Iris, it would have been the perfect reminder that Barry’s actions have consequences. It might have allowed the show to shake up the character in a big way. Instead, H.R. took the fall and Barry carried on as normal (his visible relief that it was H.R. not Iris REALLY pissed me off – that’s at least the 3rd person to sacrifice themselves to save you Barry, which is at least 2 too many). Barry doesn’t deserve a happy ending when so many others have lost theirs because of him. If Iris had died and he’d changed his ways (and then eventually gotten over it, perhaps ending up with Patty instead, it would have been far more interesting).

5. Iris.

I deliberately left Iris till last so this article doesn’t just get dismissed as another Iris hate forum. But even hardcore fans of the show have to realise, Iris has driven away a LOT of the fanbase. Even Laurel and Felicity on Arrow aren’t this annoying. But at least Laurel and Felicity’s roles on Arrow have always made sense. Laurel was a kick-ass lawyer and eventually trained herself into becoming a somewhat capable vigilante, but not one who ever magically became anywhere near as capable as Roy, Diggle or Thea, who’d all had much better training. Felicity has always been the super-hacker the team needs to get sh*t done, as well as trying to be the (irritating but necessary) voice of reason who keeps the team together. Both characters become more annoying over time, but both had character arcs that made sense.

Iris’ character arc has never made sense. Her initial role as a journalist/Eddie’s girlfriend worked well enough, but the whole journalist thing was never embraced in a convincing way after S2 (say as Kara’s is on Supergirl, where her human job has played a significant role at times). Worse, while Iris had plenty of chemistry with Eddie, she has rarely had as much with Barry, which undermines their whole relationship (I’m not blaming the actors – Grant Gustin and Candice Patton do what they can, but it rarely convinces). Her becoming the leader of Team Flash was the nail in the coffin. It smacks of being a girl-power statement rather than making any narrative sense (and I’m all for girl-power – Legends and Supergirl both have it in spades, but the difference that Sara, Amaya, Kara and Alex have all earned their roles as Captain/Superheroes/Secret Agent. They own those roles and make sense in them. Iris doesn’t and has never justified her elevation to such a role). It also smacks of just giving the character something to do rather than just be Barry’s fiancé/wife, which is fine, but she really should have just focused on the journalism, which would have made a lot more sense.

Finally, the big problem with Iris stems from the fact that Barry literally has more chemistry with virtually every other female cast member on the Flash. Him and Patty were perfect, him and Caitlin had a spark in S1, him and Kara were adorable in the crossovers and even Felicity would have worked better as a love interest. You can’t credibly pair up Barry and Iris in this scenario – the writers have only done it to be in line with the comics, not because its what’s best for the series.

Ultimately, I doubt I’ll ever go back to the Flash at this point except for crossover episodes. Unless they bring Julian back or kill Iris off, neither of which I can see happening, I don’t see the show improving enough to be worth the effort. Arrow may be on thin ice at the moment, but the Flash has already sunk into the depths, which is a crying shame.