Category: TV

Luke Cage

First of all, I am legitimately not, in any way, an expert on the greater contextual and cultural significance of Luke Cage, the series, as it pertains to blackness in America. I am no expert, nor am I even in a position to be an expert. If you’d like to read a take about blackness in Luke Cage and its first four episodes, check out these pieces on Women Write About Comics: They are better informed and better aware than anything I have to say. They do touch on something that I see in the other Marvel series, but we’ll get onto that when we get there.

I’m not only not black, I’m not only not black but in a culture that has dominated and oppressed black people. I’m not only not black and part of a culture that dominated and oppressed black people, I’m not even in the right culture that’s dominated and oppressed the black people that Luke Cage is all about. I am, simply put, nobody on that topic. Go read those posts, they taught me stuff, and crystallised some realisations. I do not think Luke Cage is a work that should be looked to as an example of How To Write Blackness.

As best I can see, Luke Cage is a work of media that wants its blackness to be palatable to whiteness and is willing to simplify things to do that. I don’t hold it against anyone in the show on that front, I just see that as a byproduct of being made by businesses that ultimately don’t want to piss off white people too much. Yet, that’s not a perspective I’d have come to on my own.

Nonetheless, no work is a single expression; while the greater throughline and message of Luke Cage can ring hollow, while it is a show that has as said, forgotten the face of its father there are still things, I’d say smaller things, in this series that I think are good ideas, good things for storytellers to reach out and learn from. Telling stories is hard, telling great stories is incredibly hard – you take whatever tools you can get from whatever source you can get ’em.

However, that stuff is more… fiddly. So let’s put it after a jump.


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Daredevil — Season 2: This Got Silly

Season 1 of Daredevil was a fairly tight, coherent narrative that had a great big mystery to establish, and a story point it wanted to build to. There was the twin arcs together of Wilson Fisk ascending to his status as the Kingpin, and Matt Murdock becoming the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Good work, rounded well, mesh ’em together and you have a solid structure to fill in with incidents and plans and ideas and stuff.

Season 2 did not have any such singular narrative and instead spent all its energy on world-building and narrative construction that was going to matter later. It wanted you to know about Elektra, about Frank Castle, and about yes, finalising the book-keeping of the ascent of Wilson Fisk. There was also some attempt to make the Hand more prominent, to put Madame Gao in position, and to tie up and resolve the question of Nobu, as a character.

What you get as a result is a TV series that has a lot to get done, but almost nothing to say. Instead, the show tries to give you a whirlwind tour of important things while giving you almost nothing to make them hold together?

As with last time, no plot synopsis; no episode by episode rundown. What I’m going to talk about are things the series tried to do, to give you both a potentially interesting insight into the series, maybe a hit of media analysis, or just a way to continue experiencing something you already like. I guess you could also frame this as is there stuff in this that’s enjoyable, if I bother to think about it?

So, content warning about the violence and child death in the series and also spoilers after this cut.
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Daredevil — Season 1: Arcs In Red

With the Defenders arriving, I wanted to take some time to walk back through the Marvel series that made it up and see what I really felt about these things. I really like having access to some binge media I can have running alongside other tedious tasks like data entry or design management.

The arc of these series to me start with Jessica Jones, then Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. I watched one episode of Jessica Jones and immediately checked out. Maybe I’ll go back to it if Defenders gives me a stronger anchor to the character. What that means is that the first Netflix hero I really watched, and thought about was the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, Matt Murdock himself.

You’re not going to see plot synopsese here, or rundowns episode by episode. That’s for other people to do and do better than me. What we’re doing here is a conversation about what the series tried to do, what the story was about, and things about how the story lingered in my memory after it got made.

I’m personally of the opinion that when you talk about ‘themes’ and ‘concepts’ in a work you might be seeing something the work does that wasn’t necessarily put there by the people making it. That’s fine: That’s its own conversation for later, but the basic gist is that whether or not it was put there, if I can find it and justify it, it is still there enough. We all bring our interpretations to the work, and what we find satisfying or interesting matters to us.

There will be content warning about the violence and child abuse in the series, a brief attempt by a person without autism discussing something of autism, and also spoilers after this cut, so here, we, go! Continue reading

Leverage – Eliot

Eliot is introduced to the viewer in one of my favourite kind of moments; an off-screen demonstration. He walks up to some very dangerous people, challenges them directly, then the camera cuts away to show the signs of violence, but not the violence itself. Then it cuts back, and he is unruffled and successful.

This is a good joke and a great bit of a vibe at first, but it also is something you see directors do to save money and effort. You know, using editing tricks to hide that an actor can’t pull off something intense and active. Yeah, looking at you Iron Fist. Anyway. Just to hammer that point, though, later in the episode, you get to see Eliot pull off just that kind of action scene, almost a sort of nyeh-nyeh, yes, I can do this.

This is – as I keep saying about Leverage, a fast way to get us acquainted with the character, gives us an idea of how he solves problems, and it sets a rule that the series uses for the rest of its lifespan: Eliot doesn’t lose fights. He doesn’t necessarily win all of them (there are a few ambiguous ones), but Eliot, any time he starts to fight someone, is not going to lose.

Does that sound boring?

It’s amazingly, not.

Remember how I say that Leverage is built around short, fast exchanges that let them explain a character quickly and therefore, cram a lot of narrative, with multiple twists and points of tension in a short space? Part of what lets them do those exchanges quickly is sharp contrast: a threat for one character might be meaningless for another, so the tension around one character being in a dangerous space or facing an impassable wall is something you’re going to see another character waltz through.

All four of the other cast members have to treat a bigger opponent who is willing to be threatening seriously. Even Parker, who learns to fight some from Eliot, can’t control a scenario that turns violent. On the other hand, if Eliot commits to fighting people, he will win.

The show handles this really deftly, though: Eliot is often presented with problems he can’t punch his way out without wrecking the plan, or without endangering another member of the team. He still leaps to do it – it takes Nate a few times to tell him that while they can use him to extract, it’s not necessary and he has an alternate solution that will preserve the plan.

Eliot is a great contrast point in the series in that he’s the pessimism to Nate’s optimism. Sophie likes people, while Eliot doesn’t trust them. Hardison embraces new things and loves complexity while Eliot prefers simplicity and provability. Parker doesn’t understand why Eliot is sad about the things he struggles with, and he doesn’t know how to explain them to them.

What this means is that Eliot is a great foil for almost anyone, though he does admittedly have the least overlap with Sophie.

Still, in almost any scene you see him, he’s a perpetually grouchy, always slightly prickly, extremely competent force for violence. His wide range of experiences with military forces and security forces mean that he always has a way to provide information about random Generally Dangerous But Not Actually Interesting things you’ll see in periods of militarisation and violence. Also it means that if Eliot mentions a thing, you know it’s from a military source, and also that there’s no reason to ask more, because it’s not usually actually interesting.

The presence of Eliot in a story means you will get to see a pretty cool fight. He will often dress up in a cool outfit or be sexy and smouldering. And usually, he’ll be frustrated with someone in a super funny way.

 

This contrast carries through to the characters too: Eliot is the person in the group who demonstrates, in a way that none of the other characters do, that his actions have affected him. Oh, sure, he’s basically Batman – literally, the showrunners have said they think of him as like Batman – but unlike the other members of the group, whose criminal enterprise is shown regularly to be somewhat external to themselves, or a response to being already different, his experience changed him.

The others are independent and individualistic; Eliot is the one created by the government. The others function by minimising their direct impact on people; Eliot is the most blunt instrument in the group. The others favour mechanisms that they’re best at; Eliot is shown to give up a very useful, very powerful tool because he’d rather not use it.

You can look at Leverage‘s cast in terms of what about them sets them apart from the others, and I think this is the big thing about Eliot: He is the one changed by his experiences, and working with the rest of the crew is not how he becomes who he wants to be, but is how he claws back to something he once was.

There’s a power fantasy to Eliot, and I don’t know if it’s the same as what the rest of you feel. The thing with Eliot is that Eliot is someone deeply scarred by violence, someone who was impacted by it, and who enacted it, and that scarring gave him both powers and capacities to protect others. That’s a very enticing fantasy, a want I know I can understand. It would be nice if hurting was a superpower that let me spare others from hurting.


There’s one final note, and not one I want to ignore but also don’t put much stock in: According to Christian Kane, he, the actor, is of Cherokee descent, but he cannot prove that beyond family information, and does not seem to be actively involved in his Native community.

On the other hand, if you like, you could interpret the character of Eliot as someone with Native ancestry who has some experience with diaspora.

Leverage – Sophie

We’re first introduced to Sophie, as a character, as a fifth-ranger character, someone who’s introduced because the other characters are known factors. That’s when we’re given her generally defining characteristic: Sophie is someone who wants to be a legitimate actor, but who is terrible at it. Her skill as an actor is only brought out in cons, where she can somehow slip into character – a range of characters, even – excellently. This is a trait that’s only really emphasised in the first season – the recurrent theme of her being dreadful as an actress, despite regular and repeated efforts to be one. It’s usually used as a joke or a continuity nod.

One of my favourite examples is when Sophie is soliciting feedback from the crew, you get to see how they all handle being confronted with a friend they want to lie to: Nate attempts to bluff his way over the line, Hardison and Elliot are both extremely uncomfortable, and Parker, being Parkery, indicates she loved it, in no small part because she had no boundaries for what constituted normal.

That’s our basic tension of Sophie: She’s really, really good at something, and she’s not good at it in the way she wants to be. As the story progresses, it gets worse for her: Her skill at keeping people at a distance has holes in it to start with, and she gets worse and worse at it, with events that shake her feeling of safety and inviolability. By the time someone attempts on her life, she literally runs away from the group in an effort to re-establish some sense of control over her life.

A sense that doesn’t return until she’s back with them, and that was perfectly timed to the actress’ pregnancy, but anyway.

Sophie is typically presented as a mother character in the found-family structure; she’s the one who sides with Nate in public to allow for some comforting structure, then restructures the complaint to him so he has to address it. The suite of tools she brings to the table are also some of those that have – in a broad, general sense – appeal to people like, well, my mum.

Sophie doesn’t punch people, doesn’t force people, she doesn’t even acquire secrets or slide around back doors. Sophie walks up to the front door and uses confidence in its purest form to manipulate the people she’s dealing with. When the time comes to convince people of things, she does it by showing them things that fit the world that they expect to see, and relies on them to make a natural mistake. It’s very compelling, it’s artful; she constructs a fantastic vision of the world and makes people around her feel it is true for long enough.

At the same time, the character of Sophie is one who more than any of the other characters, connects to real things. She’s not nursing some deep trauma, she isn’t dealing with reconciling visions of herself or enormous guilt. She isn’t addicted to power or success, Sophie is a person who most primarily is interested in what money lets her do, and once it becomes possible, who that lets her help. Even in the earliest part of the series, she leaps to using the tools she has to make people’s lives better, taking over from Nate when he’s too black-out-drunk to get involved.

Sophie is, in this way, an everyperson character to connect with. And as an actress, in a piece of media that requires actors and actresses to make, it serves as a meta reminder that she is letting us step into that work and fantasise for a time about being very good at making people believe us and using that power for good. Maybe that’s all Leverage needs to do. It’s a series that teaches us about things – real things – that are bad, and cruel, in our world, and frames them as things that we should want to oppose, things that we should want to deal with.

It’s a small thing, but it means that when things like Wage Theft come up in the news, our response isn’t just ‘oh well,’ but are instead deeply angered because we recognise what those problems are.

And Sophie, for all her sophistication and her fantastic personality, her ridiculous realities that she creates, she is the person we can see like ourselves, helping to push against them.

Or maybe not. Maybe you’re like me. Maybe Sophie doesn’t ring for you like that. But I’m absolutely certain, that for everyone who wants, in a story like this, for there to be someone as The Adult In The Room, feel gratified and relieved every time they hear Sophie step up and assert exactly that.

Leverage – Hardison

One of the lines of Leverage is that there are no new tricks under the sun; the idea that there aren’t really extra cons going around, not new tricks being invented, just different methods for the same four or five basic conventions. This is an old art, an art that’s been in practice now for centuries.

It can be very hard to believe this when you come at the world from Alec Hardison’s perspective, the life of someone who grew up online. Where everyone else in the crew is schooled in old-world practical confidence tricks, what Hardison knows is mostly self-taught rediscovery of these plans: About exploiting information that others don’t necessarily have, or even know that you have.

The other thing is this means that Hardison’s type of manipulative confidence trickstery is always of the same, simple, consistant method of character. When the time comes that he’s on the spot, and needs to come up with a character, or an idea, or some way to keep people from asking too many questions, he has one, extremely rudimentary genre of character traits. Hardison defaults to being a facile, insincere, extremely rude and volatile, and often socially gross character in an attempt to convince people that whatever is going on, they absolutely want him to go away quickly.

Simply put: Alec Hardison is a troll.

It’s not really a nice element of his character. It means that of the two most awkward, homophobic and transphobic moments in a show that almost always strays from actually being hateful or racist, are laid square at the feet of Hardison. This is especially rough when you remember that otherwise, he’s one of the nicest, most human characters in the series. He’s fun! He’s funny!

Shame he’s gotta be the one who goes and does the two Not A Good Look moments.

I guess it wouldn’t be a complete discussion of Leverage without my personal take on this particular problem and a framing that if not excuses it, at least renders it somewhat forgiveable.

Hardison is a character who speaks about his history, his childhood. The foster home that raised him featured a heavily religious mother figure, and her values were the values imprinted on him as the world at large. It’s clear that Hardison never became centrally religious, never really took on values like ‘thou shalt not steal,’ but he still was very shaped by her in the forms of lessons about what he figured most other people considered to be a normal, proper way to live.

Basically, Hardison goes to a gay stereotype for one con, pretends to be a trans man for another, because he’s a troll, and he’s trying to make other people uncomfortable, and he knows those topics do it.

I’m not saying it’s forgiveable; it’d be nice if those moments weren’t in the show. It’d be nicer still if those moments didn’t come from characters who were themselves presented as normally, conventionally, the heroes. At the same time though, Hardison’s tricks are not presented as things he really believes, but rather things he believes would make other people uncomfortable.

Hardison is a character who loves someone neuroatypical; a character who wields indignation about marginalisation and abuse as a weapon in social situations; a character who values learning and information and loves technology and devices, and, when put down to it, wants to make things right and make things okay with his friends.

Hardison is a character with a lot to love. There’s wits, there’s cunning, there’s also a playfulness, a love of nerd culture, an appreciation of indulgence. When asked about his abilities, he is cocky, almost arrogant, but he never writes cheques he can’t cash. And crucially, when the time comes for the group, at large, to express its anger, its sadness, Hardison is the one who expresses that.

When the family is invaded, when they are directly under attack, the moment that sings in the memory, isn’t Elliot’s physical rage, it isn’t Nate’s low-key threats of massive destruction. It’s Hardison, the one who shouts Get Out Of My House.

Leverage – Parker

When you’re introduced to Parker in Leverage it’s with the unfortunate offhanded phrase that she’s ten pounds of crazy in a five pound bag. To be fair she’s also throwing herself off a building.

Parker is a thief, and our introductory shot of her is, in sequence, being shown in an abusive household, having her toys taken away from her, a crying mother, and being told, as a challenge, that she needs to be ‘a better thief.’ Then it ends with her walking out of her foster home, with the toy, blowing up the home.

This is one tiny problem with the earlier parts of Leverage, though really, the first episode. They hadn’t found their stride yet, they hadn’t quite perfectly nailed down the dynamic. The early entries came with a lot more shouting tension between the characters, but the start of Parker’s character was there. She was awkward, she had outbursts at people when they confused her, and crucially, the line, “I don’t like things, I like money.”

Parker liked money, because money made sense. More money was better than less money, and that meant that money was, literally, a way to keep score. She cared about the experiences of theft, but not the value of the things money could do for her. That crucial core of the character, that she doesn’t think the same way the rest of us, was there, and was fleshed out as the series went.

Parker is a character we learn a lot about, mostly because the assumptions about how she is don’t work. You needed to explain why she became, which means there’s rich fodder in showing her stories as connected to greater events, to the inevitable connection to her father figure, to how she learns to care about greater groups of people than just herself, or her family, building relationships within the group.

One of the devices about Parker that I really love, and which reminds me of of all things the Tales of Earthsea books is that because of her neuroatypicality and lack of social context, Parker can be both an eye-level character, who needs things explained to her on a very rudimentary level, and a high-level character who is the one doing the explaining.

Good storytelling in a short amount of time is hard, and Leverage makes it work by doing that storytelling fast. The story doesn’t take breaks to explain to you the large, elaborate history of con artistry that they definitely researched, but instead gives you a short, quick exchange that sounds like characters know what they’re doing (‘Cherry Pie, but with Life Cards’). Parker is responsible for a handful of these – she rattles off details about security systems, about heights and tensile strength and physical athletic limitations of human bodies, and she does so very comfortably.

The other thing Parker does, excellently, is show an emotional vulnerability and obviousness that the other characters resist. Elliot is not going to call the rest of the crew his family: He’s too damaged, too hurt to do that. Hardison can’t bring himself to do it, hepped up on all his personal social values and his ideas of what he can afford to show about himself. And then there’s Sophie and Nate, who are for lack of a better term, the parents of the group, and they don’t show their emotional state so readily.

But Parker: Parker can. Parker doesn’t ‘understand her emotions’ the way the others do, she doesn’t consider that she shouldn’t be so obvious about it.

Parker is a wonderful character, and despite her being neuroatypical, despite the characters early reference to her as being ‘crazy,’ by the story’s development it becomes clear that they trust Parker, and nobody thinks Parker needs to be fixed or solved. Parker’s behaviour is Parkery, and it’s not a sign of the flaw or wrongness in her.

Leverage: The Mastermind

The first character you’re introduced to, the first one who’s fleshed out to any extent in Leverage is Nate Ford. We learn in the opening few minutes of the scene with him that Nate is probably an alcoholic, very good at a particularly obscure kind of job that you may have heard of but also haven’t really got a good handle on, lost his kid to an insurance agency’s decisions and is also a bit of a dick.

This is part of how the series works, of course; it’s very good at dense characterisation, something it can mainly achieve by making characters very broad, tropey archetypes. Good people in Leverage are often glowingly good, bad people are often cartoonishly bad; it’s rarely handled in a way that makes things subtle after either an introduction or a twist. You’ll see a few seconds of a character in which the series very cleanly tells you whether or not you’re dealing with an asshole.

Nate is not an asshole, but Nate is a Troubled Sad Dad. I’ve grown a lot on this archetype in recent years, particularly because I realise how well this speaks to the people to whom it matters: Not the waxing, mawkish perspective of the people who fantasise about it, but the burden of struggling underneath that weight, of the general, permeating sadness – or worse, the fear of ever invoking that sadness. Nate is a guy who has been through a lot, and his work is not the refuge from it he wanted it to be.

I didn’t know Tim Hutton before Leverage, which is funny, really. I’m told he’s one of those enduring character actors, and that’s something you need to get used to when you’re talking about Leverage – it’s a series full of characters who are being played by people normally used to taking second or third string in a series, someone who gets wheeled on, play a stock part, and then exit. In Tim Hutton’s case, the main role he plays when he plays Nate is, in-series, a colossal asshole.

I’m not joking!

Nate, in-universe, is a con artist who needs to be in the middle of a con to keep track of all the parts that are moving. He needs information and access, he needs some form of control, befitting his position in the role of the Mastermind. This means he normally plays a character in the cons the crew run that translates best to… well, the person you want to backstab. The person who offers you opportunity but not affection. The person who, in some way or another, you want out of your life.

He plays a dick.

Look back on the history of Leverage sometime. Literally the only time Nate isn’t being a total asshole in a character is when he’s being oily and unctuous. And then he’s also kind of being an asshole!

The story of Leverage tends to follow a series of beats, where each season is defined by the character of Nate’s personal arc; first his refusal to get close to the team, then the recognition he has, accepting his self-destruction, repairing himself. This means the moments Nate really shines tend to be the episodes that pull some part of his past into focus, and those tend to be at the start and end of each season.

Despite that, my favourite Nate moment is in The Studio Job, episode 34. Nate is isolated from the group, left with two guards who are there to work him over – and when we come back to him, he’s sitting there, in his chair with two unconscious guards. The only explanation we’re left is from Nate –

“These two guys got in a fight.”

 

In Defense of Glee

I quite liked Glee, Season 1.

I understand there’s a certain cultural cringe that comes from it. There’s a lot to dislike, certainly in its place in a greater whole. After all, most everything you’d complain about for any given mass-media capitalist entity still exists here, with slightly more representation and effort put into a few characters but we can also dismiss those as not good enough or sincere enough or whatever.

Still, when you sweep aside the purity tests and also dismiss the cruft of what Glee became, complete with a sad tombstone for one honestly, fairly unremarkable actor who struggled with everything that those former structural problems exacerbated, and just look at Glee season 1 as a complete story, I like it. Specifically, I like how it ended.

There’s a lot going on in Glee, and the framing device is pretty simple: It’s a universe where ridiculous people take unimportant things way too seriously. It’s a high school story that paints high school in terms of melodrama, not in terms of gritty, grungy reality like many other high school stories aim for. This is something I really like, because any high school experience you can imagine was definitely different to mine, so these huge buildings full of hundreds of people, some of whom may never meet, where structural violence is a matter of difficulty of enforcement rather than actively encouraged social punishments, they might as well be Viking Longboats for all they feel real to me.

This creates this scenario full of characters with very minor but very real-seeming problems whose solutions to them are in some way over the top and lacking in communication – you get a sort of Greek Tragedy in the way very simple, structural plot points are put under pressure by people taking silly things way too far. The infidelity and distrust angles in the one ‘adult’ relationship that exists are – well, they’re silly, extremely so, and that silliness propogates outwards in how it gets solved.

The world of Glee is a world in which the character of the adults is melodramatic, nonsensical, and extremely childish, which is sort of how adults look when you’re a high schooler? It makes more sense to imagine them as fussy crybabies or outlandish caricatures than deal with them being people pulled by lots of conflicting, small forces that make everyday emotional labour harder.

And then there’s the ending – spoilers for a seven year old TV show episode follow, so sure, have a fold Continue reading

Leverage – An Introduction

A friend once said Leverage was ‘that show with all the competence porn.’

I have always been a fan of thieves in media. I don’t know why, perhaps it was a childhood love of Robin Hood (and trust me, when you live on Christian Replacement media, there’s a lot of takes on Robin Hood), but thieves, theives have always been cool. They’re a great way to do Cool Bad Things and be impressively skillful, without actually ‘hurting anyone.’ Beating people up was bad, but beating people up who were doing something wrong, that was okay.

Basically, I’ve always loved thief stories, and Leverage is one of the best thief stories. It’s one of the best thief stories over 77 episodes, each an hour long, and almost all of them as tight, self-contained stories told in the ‘dramedy’ vein. Here’s the short pitch so you can decide if you want to watch this show:

Leverage is a story about a group of disparate thieves pulled together by one honest man to try and use their abilities to go after people the system has failed. They start out unfocused, they become a family, and in the end you’re watching cool competent people pulling off sweet heists against people who deserve it.

With me still?

Great!

TV is a complicated business and you sort of have to decide where you’re going to spend your time and money and talent. Shows like Game of Thrones get to stretch their grotesque breadth because of an enormous budget, with sloppy dangling bit of stories which you need to follow up on or infer around or whatever, and soap operas have a smaller budget they stretch by reusing actors and scenes and setpieces. In Leverage’s case, the cast is basically made up of Hey It’s That Person actors from series you’ve seen before, never really given the chance to show themselves off.

The nature of Leverage is a compressed story. Characters have to present themselves quickly and get out to convey the much larger story – usually because most episodes want to show you three or four plot beats of a major story and give you time to move pieces around. So what Leverage spends its time and effort on is making those exchanges fun, personable and punchy. It’s a real treat – there’s very little wasted time, very little one-scene-meaning moments.

As for the things the stories tend to be about? It’s pretty simple. There’s a lot of very real things in the world that suck, legally, and Leverage is about the fantasy, the desperate romantic need, that someone out there is looking out for it. That anyone is there to catch the bad people, and maybe the bad people can suffer in the way they’re supposed to.

I’m gunna talk more about Leverage, and, because the series is fundamentally a series about the interplay between characters, in a dynamic you can enjoy, we’re going to do it character-by-character.