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Monday, March 20, 2017

Does IRON FIST Punch Land?

Article first published as MARVEL'S IRON FIST Review on Seat42F.


MARVEL’S IRON FIST released today. The fourth in a series of Netflix shows from the comic creator, it is designed to set up the final piece of the quartet for The Defenders team, a crossover series coming soon. In an effort to get you a review in as timely a manner as possible, this only covers the first hour of IRON FIST (mainly spoiler-free), although all thirteen have been released.

We open with our hero, Danny Rand (Finn Jones, Game of Thrones), returning to New York City for the first time in fifteen years. Barefoot, dirty, and scraggly, Danny fits in better with the homeless denizens of the park than he does in the upscale home and office building of his youth. Reintegrating back into the life he has been missing from is, predictably, not an easy task. Especially when his childhood friends, siblings Joy (Jessica Stroup, The Following) and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey, Banshee), think Danny died in a plane wreck with his parents and don’t trust his sudden reappearance.

There’s no suspense for viewers as to whether Danny is who he says he is. He is the title character of the show (Rand is famously Iron Fist in the comic pages), so Marvel wouldn’t tease us by focusing a series on an imposter. His martial arts skills and seemingly superhuman moves confirm that for any who might still wonder, though we don’t get the First itself right away.

What there is suspense about is what the motive of the central villain is. It takes quite awhile for IRON FIST to even get around to showing us the presumed bad guy, though he is there before the end of the hour, and even after the reveal, little is known about him. While other Netflix Marvel shows have taken their time in their reveals, we usually get a bit more than this in the early stages.

Instead, we’re focused on Danny’s core problem: no one knows, or believes, who he is. This makes it impossible for him to start over, and fans will probably be unsure as to why he even wants to now. Why has he come home and what does he want? That isn’t stated. Instead, the focus just seems to be on how Danny will eventually convince the Meachums that he is legit, a frustrating and anticlimactic question.

There are some twists in the pilot, and while some are obvious ones, some are not. This means it is entertaining and moves along. The pacing is in line with the other Marvel shows, and the lack of information given to the audience does entice me to want to watch more right away. This isn’t a show meant to be served in single-hour portions.

But what works against IRON FIST is that it doesn’t have as strong an identity as Jessica Jones or Luke Cage. Both of these quickly came out of the gate with an obvious style and mission that made them unique. IRON FIST seems much more a typical superhero show, with Danny’s own abilities making him look more like Spiderman without the sass, and his upper crust upbringing not feeling especially unique.

Will IRON FIST overcome these drawbacks, its lack of immediate hook and more typical tone? Or will this be the weak link of the Marvel franchise, the one Netflix series from the studio that doesn’t earn itself a second season? I like Jones and Stroup, as well as Jessica Henwick (Game of Thrones), who plays likely love interest and Danny’s tie back to Asia Colleen Wing, so I hope there’s something here. One hour is just not long enough for me to make that determination.

MARVEL’S IRON FIST complete first season is available now on Netflix.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Back UNDERGROUND

Article first published UNDERGROUND Season 2 Premiere Review on Seat42F.


WGN America’s UNDERGROUND begins its second season this week. Starting about five months after the freshman run’s finale, we quickly pick up the stories of most of our characters, more or less where we left them. Time has passed, but it’s been relatively uneventful. Something tells me, after watching the first episode, that that won’t be the case for very much longer.
UNDERGROUND is interesting to me because it’s not obvious at first who the leads are in the first year. There is a large ensemble full of talented performers, and while many of them are removed as the story progresses, there are still more important roles than the five who are listed as the primary cast, which includes only Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Noah (Aldis Hodge), Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw), Cato (Alano Miller), and August (Christopher Meloni).
Thankfully, the show has been successful enough to expand that ensemble in season two. The most important of the four new leads is Ernestine (Amirah Vann), Rosalee’s mother, who always had her own plot arc, but now is officially among the principal players. UNDERGROUND season two has also added characters named Georgia (Jasika Nicole, Fringe), Clara (DeWanda Wise, Shots Fired), and Harriet (Aisha Hinds, Under the Dome, If I Stay).
Harriet, as in Harriet Tubman. Clearly a recast from the brief shot of the legendary figure from last year’s finale, it’s kind of cool that she is now part of the group. Previously, I’d worried that adding someone with such name recognition might distract from the core narrative. However, after checking out the start of season two, I don’t think that will be the case.
UNDERGROUND remains focused on the stories of the characters from year one. While Rosalee, Noah, and Elizabeth were just dipping their toe into the secret movement to free the slaves, they’re now larger players in the game, so it makes sense they’d come across Harriet. Harriet doesn’t get any more precedence than the others, less than the returning main players, so she’s an interesting element that signals our players have gotten deeper into the action, rather than a shift to a new direction.
We’ve also got some new locations. Most notably, Ernestine has left Macon Plantation and is (sort of) settling into a very different type of community. Between that and the scenes in Ohio and Canada, we begin to get a fuller picture of different parts of the United States, all of which were affected by the slave industry and those who opposed it.
There are some terrific surprises, too. As with the first year, audiences may think they know where things are heading, only to have the rug yanked out from under them by the unexpected. This is a sign of good storytelling, and an example of how UNDERGROUND roots itself in reality. While there are some fantastical coincidences and run-ins, for the most part the series keeps viewers on their toes in an authentic manner, and there’s at least one big twist in the initial return that leaves me wanting to jump right into the next episode.
Not everyone you expect to see is in the second year’s premiere. There is a lot going on in UNDERGROUND, so it doesn’t feel empty that some faces may have to wait a week for us to catch up with them. Instead, it’s a busy, satisfying hour, and I’d rather a few people take this installment off than force hokey subplots to include them.
In all, I’d rate the premiere pretty high, accomplishing what it needs to accomplish, building the established world larger, and still maintain the things that makes this show compelling. UNDERGROUND returns Wednesday at 10/9c on WGN America.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

No FEUD Over This One

Article first published as FEUD Review on Seat42F.


Ryan Murphy, who has had great success with the anthology series format on FX in American Horror Story and American Crime Story, brings his next show to television tonight in FEUD. The first season is subtitled BETTE AND JOAN, and covers the film the two legendary actresses made together, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? As you might expect, FEUD is excellent.

Jessica Lange (Big Fish, Horace and Pete) has been Murphy’s muse before, and as a grand lady herself, it makes sense for her to play Joan Crawford, the catalyst that gets the plot moving. Once a big Hollywood star, now a widow who hasn’t worked in awhile, Joan is disappointed by the dearth of strong roles for women of a certain age and sets out to force her own picture through. Latching onto the book What Ever Happened To Baby Jane, she recruits director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina, The Normal Heart, Spider-Man 2) and her long-time rival, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon, Thelma & Louise, The Lovely Bones), to help with her comeback. That’s where this story begins.

I cannot emphasize enough the quality of acting in FEUD. Alongside Molina, we get Judy Davis (Maria Antoinette), Jackie Hoffman (Birdman), Stanley Tucci (Spotlight), Alison Wright (The Americans), Kathy Bates (American Horror Story), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago), Reed Diamond (Underground), Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men), and more. Each delivers a quality, layered performance that greatly enhances the world of the series and puts the audience right into this time and place, both familiar and interesting.

None of these actors compare, though, to our two leads. Sarandon and Lange are masterful here, as they have been so often in the past. These are two ladies who can capture a moment like few others. There’s a bit in the pilot in which Lange, as Crawford, has to act in a scene for the movie, and she is brilliant, highlighting the actress as much as the character.

There’s a certain parallel that cannot be avoided that Sarandon and Lange are women of a certain age, just as Bette and Joan were. The difference here is that they can get good work, as evidenced by both FEUD and all of the other projects they continue to do. The very existence of this show proves how far things have come.

Yet, at the same time, the sexism highlighted in FEUD is still an issue, timely in its expression. While Hollywood may be getting better, there is still a long way to go, and with the current political climate, some of the small-mindedness is currently front and center.

Those themes aside, though, FEUD would stand on its own in any time simply because it involves terrific performers doing impressive things in a highly-stylized, yet crumbling, world. The glamor that everyone wants to pretend is there stands in stark contrast to the reality of pretend that reigns in Los Angeles. FEUD shows us both sides, the charade and what’s behind it, in delightful ways. Far from being fake, the actress’ (and others’) attempts to present their best selves is calculated and says a lot about the authentic personalities behind it, which each shot seemingly carefully constructed for maximum dynamic impact.

I’ve only watched one episode so far, but I can already tell that Ryan Murphy has done it again. Far from complaining about all his varied works on the network, I appreciate that he keeps churning out such good stuff with such a strong cast month after month. We’re in the golden age of television, and FEUD is a worthy example of that era. Expect to see it garner a lot of nominations, and hopefully even wins, come award season.

FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN premieres tonight at 10/9c on FX.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Not TAKEN With This One

Article first published as TAKEN Review on Seat42F.


Tired of the trend of movies turned into television shows yet? Me, too, but that doesn’t mean the networks are going to stop trying any time soon. Tonight, NBC jumps in with TAKEN, a prequel to the movies bearing the same title. Well, sort of a prequel because the technology used by the characters is from our present day, not set in the past. But character-wise, this is the back story for the lead guy.

TAKEN the series begins with Bryan Mills (Vikings’ Clive Standen taking over for Liam Neeson) out of the special forces, but not yet working for the CIA. He has done things that have made some people mad, terrorists mostly, and they want revenge. So the people that Bryan cares about are put in danger as his past catches up with him in violent ways. Yep, consistent with the big screen Mills.

This violence is the core of TAKEN, as far as I can tell. In the first hour alone, I’d estimate almost half of it involves sneaking around, fighting, and shooting. From the adrenaline-pumping, tragic opening, to the climactic showdown, this is, by and large, a popcorn adventure, with much more focus on action than on character development.

In fact, while there are some character moments in this pilot, I would argue that there really isn’t any notable character development in the first episode, nor will I expect to see any in future episodes. Bryan seems more or less the same person at the beginning as he is at the end, and will remain roughly the same individual in the films. There is a very stagnant consistency that is disappointing. It would be far more interesting to see Bryan grow into a badass than to have him ready-made this way. Though, given his established background, I guess TAKEN would have to start much earlier in his story to do that kind of arc.

While everything is happening to Bryan and he’s running around, the perspective does frequently switch back to Christina Hart (Jennifer Beals, The L Word, Flashdance) and her CIA team. They are watching Bryan, trying to decide when and if they should recruit him. Given that Beals and several of the others are listed as main players, it should be no surprise that they make a decision in the affirmative pretty quickly; Bryan has to join them before things can really start. But the inclusion of the various team members that make up the core ensemble indicate that TAKEN will be a series of procedural missions, the obvious way to go with this series, and a format TV definitely does not need any more of.

I will say, given that TAKEN is on NBC, rather than CBS or FOX, it does feel a little less formulaic than it otherwise might. NBC doesn’t typically box in their series so stringently, and that does come across in episode one. There are also some shades of the network’s Hannibal (a beautiful, brilliant show that is the exception to the bad adaptation rule) in the tone and style, though that comparison only hurts TAKEN, as it doesn’t live up to that other work by any measure. But what I’m saying is, while TAKEN isn’t good, it could be worse if airing elsewhere.

The best thing that could happen to TAKEN is a quick death. It doesn’t appear it’ll be one of the greats, and the last thing we need is another mediocre series. A fair number of people like the movies (not myself, but I know a few), so why not let those stand on their own for what they are instead of tainting them with a lackluster pseudo-prequel? It would be a mercy to the fans and viewers in general for this to get yanked quickly.

TAKEN premieres tonight at 10/9c on NBC.