Comic Book TV: The Season So Far

Work commitments stopped my plan of doing mini-reviews of every episode of all the comic book properties this television season, but I was still watching and taking some notes. Before the second half of these shows’ runs start up again, and a few others jump in, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on how things have been going so far.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, in terms of its overall quality, is one of the great comeback stories of television. As some will I remember, I found the first half of its first season to be pedestrian at best and woeful at worst, with the show gradually improving as it embraced a more serialised format and tied in to the events depicted in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Starting with its second season, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D has staked its claim firmly to be not only the best comic book TV show of the moment, but one of the best shows currently airing period. Of the ten aired episodes of season two, not one has been a letdown, or even close to average really. And it has achieved this through several ways.

The most important is the full embrace of serialisation. Yes, there are still plots of the week type stories, but they all blend into a larger narrative, with multiple antagonist factions and a definite sense of grand confrontation between the forces or order and chaos. S.H.I.E.L.D has found itself with a rich world to inhabit after The Winter Soldier tore a lot of walls down, and the Whedon/Tanchareon team has done some great story-telling in that world. The very simple fact that the stakes are high and getting higher, is oh so important to making a comic book adaptation into something good.

But it’s much more than that. Most characters have been given arcs and roles that are well in excess of what they were handed last season. Coulson’s increasing mania, Skye’s evolution into an actual agent, Ward’s twisted obsession with Skye and his obscene past, Fitz’ dealing with his brain damage, Simmons’ undercover work and her relationship with Fitz, Nick Blood as the new guy and Adrianne Palicki as the new girl, they were all given the right amount of material to showcase something that was severely lacking before. The ensemble has come together, and is backed up by some great supporting characters. The villains are threatening and memorable, from Whitehall to Raina, and their interactions with each other reached a culminating point that was both satisfying and tantalising for what was to come.

It’s also just the little things. The direction has improved markedly, the fight chorography is some of the best since Buffy, even the lackadaisical score is a bit better than it once was. If there are problems, it’s with the lack of things to do for the more ethnic members of S.H.I.E.L.D’s primary cast: the Trip and Mack characters were very marginalised in the first half of this season, and May hasn’t been up to a great deal on her own either. Hopefully that will change, but I would say it isn’t the worst flaw for the show to have.

Gotham is a really divisive one it seems. For me, I find myself able to enjoy a lot of the show, while recognising that its inherent flaws aren’t ever going to go away at this point. Gotham wants to have its cake and eat it too: it wants to be dark, grim and serious, like Nolan’s universe. But it also wants to camp it up and get a bit silly like Arrow on occasion. The result is this hodge podge where the tone changes drastically minute to minute, scene to scene, and that can be very distracting.

It doesn’t help that the show is weighed down heavily with so many sub-plots. Gordon and Bullock’s case of the week stuff remains the shows strongest aspect, with the Gotham gang intrigue, Penguin’s rise and Bruce Wayne’s slow evolution into the man who will be bat there or thereabouts. But then there is also a recurring focus on  a poorly acted Selina Kyle (how awkward was that stuff with her and Bruce late on?) and anything with Barbara Gordon, whose character is paper thin and the worst sign of the shows problem with its female members, nearly all of whom are portrayed in very negative terms.

I’m criticising a lot here, and it should be said that Gotham has plenty of redeeming elements. I think they’re doing something neat with a well worn universe, Donal Logue’s Bullock is great (if underused), the Bruce Wayne plot line is the most interesting approach to that story in a long time and a lot of the procedural plots have been quite decent. If you’re into the old school silver age-ish Batman world, Gotham can be immensely entertaining, taking place in a world caught between modern and gothic. But the show still has those rough edges I mentioned in my first review, with no sign that they will be properly repaired yet. I have hope that this show can come good still, but it needs to hurry the hell up.

The Flash has been very topsy turvy for me. I thought its pilot episode was absolutely immense, the kind of thing they should show to budding scriptwriters and TV showrunners as a lesson in what to do. The next few episodes were strong too. And then, regrettably, it became alarmingly clear that The Flash had its formula, and was going to stick to it as rigidly as it could.

I’m not kidding. So many of The Flash’s episode follow the same troops, the same beat sheets, that you basically just have to sub in a new bad guy to differentiate them. Barry is unable to beat said bad guy initially, finds a way through science/believing in himself/running faster, beats him, and has a few meaningful/meaningless conversations with Iris and Joe along the way, mostly about whether he is any good at that Flash. It generally turns out that he is.

This meant serious diminishing returns for The Flash as time went on, culminating in “The Flash Is Born”, easily its worst episode, full of formulaic story-telling, terrible dialogue and a total lack of care for what was being presented. It improved before the break, but only because the creators knew they had to go back to the over-arching narrative concerning Barry’s murdered mother and “the man in the yellow suit”. That, and a strong crossover with the progenitor show. Plot progression and character growth are good, the same old thing every week is not.

It’s a shame that I’ve fallen so out of love with The Flash because there are so many strong elements to it. The cast is great, Grant Gustin especially. The direction is bright, cheerful and optimistic, something usually lacking in this genre. And, when it gets past the formula, it can be a seriously fun show to watch to. But it needs serious improvement, in its bad guys, in the commitment to the larger narrative and in the amount of risks it is willing to make.

Arrow on the other hand, has somehow just gotten better. I used to describe the show as a “guilty pleasure” in so far as its barely hidden campiness and logic holes made it equal parts stupid and entertaining. But starting this year, Arrow has gotten much more serious, with the vibe taken from Dark Knight Rises and character peril/death abounding. Between Sara’s murder, the involvement of the ruthless Raas Al Gul, the genuinely heartbreaking nature of the Olly/Felicity relationship or the way the Queen family is continually torn apart, Arrow is treading a darker path. There is still time for plenty of fun to be had along the way of course, and there is still lots of ridiculousness.

And that’s what makes Arrow so great. Like no other comic book TV show going right now, watching Arrow feels like you are watching a comic book, with all of the craziness and melodrama wrapped into one satisfying serving.  Part of that is the really clear way that the ensemble has become so comfortable with each other, with everyone playing off the others wonderfully, even when the lines or material are so extreme as to be almost laughable. Stephen Amell is doing great in the lead role, people like David Ramsey and Willa Holland are being given more to do and the show has continued to offer a welcomed greater spotlight on Emily Bett Rickards, whose Felicity is one of the shows real treasures.

Throw in the stuff we’ve come to expect: addictive, trashy soap opera style story-telling, excellent fight set-pieces, great direction, solid Flash crossovers and a really enthralling mid-season finale, and Arrow can rightfully claim to be the most consistently good comic book TV show going right now.

And that leaves Constantine. A poor pilot didn’t help with my already ingrained apathy towards the source material, and things didn’t ever really improve that much in my eyes. Matt Ryan is decent in the title role, and moving in Angelica Celaya as the main back-up character was actually a wise move. But the show itself is procedural as hell, every bit a Supernatural clone, minus one brother. The supporting cast is poor, the direction is basic, the score is forgettable and the actual plots of the week frequently fail to really engage your interest.

The lack of any move ahead on the grander plot-line, aside from oft repeated references of darkness coming, really hammers home the shows failings. I just get bored watching Constantine stumble towards solving the latest otherworldly menace he finds in America, while dropping working class English slang as a substitute for actual characterisation. Just dull. Dull, dull, dull. And, as of now, dropped.

Comic book TV restarts, with Gotham, on January 5th.

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