Thursday, November 6, 2014

Nerdfall: Gotham, The Flash, Constantine, Star Wars: Rebels

Gotham, Mondays @ 8 on Fox/CTV
The Flash, Tuesdays @ 8 on CW/CTV
Constantine: Fridays @ 10 on NBC/Global
Star Wars: Rebels: Sundays @ 8 on Disney XD

Nerds may not be ruling the world (the world still belongs to the rich), but we're certainly dominating pop culture as of late.  Cinema and Television are both under the sway of what has traditionally been considered "geekstuffs", like sci-fi, fantasy, superheroes, horror and anachronistic period pieces.  They may not be the most popular shows, but they certainly cater to more than just a niche audience at this point.  I don't want to complain about this, as this is what I've dreamed of for a very long time, but at the same time, it's completely overwhelming the abundance of it.  I've gotten over the hump of feeling obliged to watch it all.  I've long since abandoned The Walking Dead, I have an on-again/off-again relationship with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and light fantasy like Grimm, Supernatural, Sleepy Hollow,and Once Upon A Time (among others) I don't feel compelled to watch, nor do I feel guilty not watching since I know they have found their audiences that are pefectly happy with them.

Perhaps it's a safe bet taking up with primarily known quantities like Flash and Star Wars: Rebels, and it could be limiting my exposure to other, potentially enriching programming because of my lack of available time, but I'm not to concerned.  I will support outright the shows I like, and pick up upon buzzed about or intriguing-in-hindsight shows later on when the interweb sites I trust start convincing me to invest my time.

But that's what the fall is all about, as a TV watcher isn't it?  "What's worth your time?"  The harsh thing is pilot episodes are so rarely indicative of what the series will wind up being.  They're just a hook, but it almost always takes a few episodes, if not the bulk of a season for a show to find its true legs and the actors to find their characters.  One of my current favourite shows, Person of Interest,I skipped over a half dozen episodes in the middle of its first season because it wasn't going anywhere, at least that's what I thought.  Same with Fringe, where I watched only an episode or two of the first season before coming to the opinion it was another X-Files rip-off, only to step in partway through the second season to find it dealing with parallel dimensions and hooking me right in.  Revisiting Fringe's first season revealed a planned roadmap for the rest of the series.

This year's TV crop sees an unprecedented number of comic book-base programming coming to TV. Even after the success of Arrow and Marvel's AoS, it was surprising.  Arrow still feels like a cult hit, but with a stellar second season that abandoned most of the usual hoary CW romantic drama tropes, it was already seeded as a launching pad for the Flash, introducing Grant Gustin's Barry Allen midway through the season with the intention of turning a later episode of Arrow into a backdoor pilot for a Flash TV show (executives were so confident, however they just went to full pilot instead).  But the CW, despite providing some really solid entertainment over the years, still isn't the same as the major networks, so Gotham winding up on Fox and Constantine arriving on NBC are still rather surprising.

Gotham was first out the gate, and of the three DC Comics related shows, easily the one I was least excited about.  The advertising hit hard the "l'il Batman" and "l'il rogues" angle of the show, something I was thoroughly disinterested in.  I don't need to see Catwoman or Riddler or Poison Ivy or any other bat-villain before they are a bat-villain, nor do I really need to watch in painfully slow detail a 12-year-old Bruce Wayne already exhibit defining signs of Batman.

The show does actually center on the corruption-laden Gotham City Police Department and the crime families which run the city, and through them it does manage to build something unique, but unique here doesn't exactly equal good.  Ben McKenzie plays Detective Jim Gordon, the new transfer to the PD who prides himself on being clean as a whistle by-the-book.  His partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) is halfway to hell already and none-to-pleased that his partner isn't willing to play ball with the bad guys.  The crime families are two fold, the Falcones and the Maronis, currently at a stalemate in their turf war, but the flames are getting reignited as Boss Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) wants to climb over Falcone, and her underling, Oswald "Penguin" Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) wants to climb over everyone.

The show has it's intriguing points, particularly the colorful underworld, with Pinkett Smith chewing up scenery with an Ertha Kitt joi de vivre, and Lord Taylor masterfully navigating his unevenly written it's always fun to see Dexter's David Zayas, and he seems to be having tremendous fun with Boss Maroni.  Where the show falters is in its presentation of Gordon and the Gotham City PD. Logue can do no wrong but McKenzie is so self-serious, clenching his jaw thorugh every scene that he comes off as posturing and cliche, less as a future leader.  There's internal affairs drama, and the most useless of characters in Gordon's girlfriend Barbara Kean (made even worse with Erin Richard's soulless performance) but it all feels stuffed in and unnecessary.  More effective is that each episode throws the GCPD into some weirdo murder plot that underlies the strange nature of Gotham City crime, and its oddball criminals.  It's actually one of its better touches.

Just as unnecessary is the "young Batman" storyline.  Having an ever-present young Bruce Wayne denies the show its ability to escape beyond the shadow of the bat.  I can understand why they tread so heavily to start, introducing so many young bat-villains but when you realize that Wayne is at least a decade away from putting on a cape and cowl it seems excessive and forced.  Not to mention it hinders the showrunners in developing characters like the Riddler and Catwoman at earlier stages knowing where they must wind up.  Edward Nygma, particularly, is a purposefully annoying character who does little else but exposit and annoy.

Six episodes have aired so far and I've caught at least 30 minutes of most of them.  It's not an altogether unwatchable show, but it hasn't yet justified its existence.  I like it's late-'90's setting, perhaps the show's best and subtlest touch.

As essentially a spin-off of Arrow, I knew The Flash was in good hands.  As I said we'd already met the lead character in season 2 of Arrow and Grant Gustin was absolutely charming...likeable, smart, nerdy, awkward, excitable.  Barry Allen from the comics of yore was kind of stuffy and a bit of a bore, but his sidekick, Wally West, was much more personable and energetic (as viewers of the Justice League Unlimited cartoon could attest), and Gustin sort of merges the two into the perfect TV Flash.  He even starts off each show with a voice over monologue as he races through the streets on patrol or on a mission, something that happened with each issue of Wally West's tenure as The Flash.  It's a delightful touch.

It was predetermined that I would like this show.  I flat out love the 1990 The Flash TV show (even still) and it took pains to try to separate itself from being a "comic book show".  It was direly serious at times, a result of Tim Burton's Batman's negative influence, but just to have a b-level character like the Flash on TV was a treat in itself and I liked the cast.  This iteration of the character, which featured comic book and former Flash writer Geoff Johns as producer and writer, promised to keep more in line with the comic book representation of the character and not shy away from it's more colourful aspects.  And it has succeeded to an utterly charming degree.

While many a comic book show in the past has teased their comic book origins through background easter eggs or tongue-in-cheek dialogue referencing something, The Flash does these things as seeds for the future. It's the first comic-book derived TV show that isn't embarassed by its roots, instead embracing the character and his world whole hog.

The pilot episode introduced the world of the Flash well enough, providing an origin story for his superpowers,  costume, and raison d'etre, as well as his super-powered villain.  The same accident that gave Barry his superpowers have also granted other people theirs, and he's taken it upon himself (and his support team of STAR Lab technicians) to police them.  Along with this general premise, there's the ongoing background thread of Barry's mother's murder from his childhood (by a man inside the lightning) and his father (played by 1990's Flash and Dawson's Creek dad, John Wesley Shipp) taking the fall for it.  Beyond that is Tom Cavanaugh (of the awesome "Mike and Tom Eat Snacks" podcast, among his many television an film credits) as Dr. Harrison Wells, who a) caused the accident that gave him his powers and b) somehow has access to news from 10 years in the future reporting the Flash's death.  Wells seems to be out to protect Barry, but we aren't altogether sure what his motivations.

Less interesting is Barry's crush on Iris Allen (Candice Patton), the daughter of Police Detective Joe Allen (the great Jesse L. Martin from Law and Order).  Barry lived next to Iris as a kid until his mom died and dad went to jail at which point Joe wound up raising him.  So Barry's crush is all kinds of weird considering that Iris is essentially his foster-sister.  On top of that, episode 4 of this season brings Felicity (from Arrow) to Central City and the chemistry between Barry and Felicity (even more than it was in Arrow Season 2) is note perfect.  These two characters are perfect for each other and the only reason the producers don't thrust them together is because Barry and Iris are a couple in the comics.  It seems ironic to say this, but at some point they need to understand that these shows can live their own life an not have to adhere to what their source material.  When you can run 200 miles per second, having a long-distance relationship isn't much of a challenge (but I guess sharing a character between two shows is).

If the first episode of The Flash didn't wow me as I'd hoped, it was because the visualization of the character's powers wasn't really what I was hoping for (see X-Men: Days of Future Past for the perfect super-speedster action sequence), but by the shows 4th episode, they seem to be getting a much better handle on how it can work and be exciting and fresh.  Plus the 4th episode introduces Wentworth Miller (Prison Break) as Captain Cold and he nails the character with absolute delight.  This set up the first real key player in Flash's Rogues Gallery (and the end of the episode teases Heat Wave, who I've learned is played by Miller's Prison Break brother, Dominic Purcell ,..this show knows how to have fun).  It is quite literally the most comic-book-feeling TV show we've ever had, and I love it.  I can't say it's the greatest show ever made, and that it's in any way flawless, but damn if it isn't tremendous amounts of fun.

John Constantine was created about 30 years ago for DC Comics and has had his own series for almost that entire time (first Hellblazer, and more recently, Constantine).  If he's widely known it's primarily from the 2005 supernatural thriller feature film wherein the character -- whose four main traits are being blond, British, a chain smoker and being quite an asshole -- was turned into Keanu Reeves.  It was a decent film, despite the miscasting, but it would have be exception were it, say, Guy Pierce (I know, he's Australian) or Daniel Craig or  Jason Statham, or, well, anyone who could fake an accent and look the part.

The new Constantine TV show has cast an actor that indeed looks the part with relative unknown Matt Ryan donning the tan trenchcoat, unkempt red tie, and rocking the scruffy blond hair and stubble.  Ryan's not a natural blond though, and because of the general attitude towards smoking in America, he doesn't smoke on screen, but his cigarettes and lighter are quite present.  He's also a bit of a prat, knowingly keeping people at a distance, and rousing others to punch him.  In the case of the former, he's seen far too many of his associates die because of him, and the latter, probably accepting it as some form of penance... if you want to read into these things.  Even though, I'm not well versed on Constantine, in my opinion showrunners Daniel Cerone and David S. Goyer have nailed the character quite well.

The pilot was an exceptionally well directed mini-movie that looked utterly expensive and fantastic.  It got mired in a lot of nonsensical magic mumbo-jumbo a few times, but overall was an enjoyable experience, with at least one hella creepy moment (when that dead body that had crashed through the SUV's windshield, neck at 150 degree angle, comes back to life and starts nasty). The second episode really gathers the tone for the series to follow.  Constantine has a map of America with blood drops showing where evil may erupt.  Whenever a droplet turns wet, John must jump into action.  There's an X-Files meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe, which in every sense is a positive thing.  It allows there to be these weird of-the-week mysteries that are entertaining on their own, while seeding in a larger seed of evil that will span the season.

Constantine has a supporting cast -- Chas Kramer (Charles Halford) who can't seem to be killed, Zed (Angelica Celaya) who has second sight abilities, and Manny (Harold Perrineau) an angel warning Constantine of dire things to come -- but one gets the sense they're incidental and disposable, which is not a bad thing.  Creating a varied roster of associates, as well as having the ability to kill of cast members almost expectedly (but in unexpected ways) gives Constantine a bit of a Doctor Who-gone-horror vibe, which we know can work.

I like the show.  It's fun and easy to get into, with the potential for some really interesting things to happen (being Fridays at 10pm, and given what NBC has permitted Hannibal to show on network TV, they could really amp up the gruesome and terror factor on the show).  The potential for DC Comics guest stars is high, but almost  unnecessary given the show's template.  Even after two episodes I've lost my craving for easter eggs (like Dr. Fate's helmet in the pilot).  All we really need is for enough people to buy into an asshole-as-hero to make it last.

And finally this Nerdfall, we have Star Wars: Rebels.  This takes place about 15 years after Revenge of the Sith, and is set to showcase the rise of the rebellion against the galactic empire.  They kicked off the series with a 1-hour (well, 40-something minutes) mini-movie introducing the cast, and bringing street-rat Ezra into the Rebel fold.  It was a choppy, oversimplified story, with obvious set-ups for future plot lines, and it has so many faltering points it could be easily dismissed.

But then, I thought the same of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and it's taken me 7 years to discover that it actually turned into a great show worth watching.  Rebels has a few saving graces.  To start, the characters are actually quite likeable.  They may not be given the right things to do episode to episode, but they're nonetheless charismatic in a way the prequels never quit got.  Secondly, the show is starting to transition from the designs of Episode 3 into the designs of Episode 4 (aka Star Wars), and easter egg in visual teases of things that we know are coming up.  This could get too cutesy if it persists too long, but as an early hook it helps.  Thirdly, the show utilizes a lot of Ralph McQuarrie's early production designs for the original film.  The old stormtrooper helmets, some of the wardrobes, Zeb (one of the last surviving Lasat, and the original template for Chewbacca...the show makes a crack about this when they go on a Wookee rescue mission).  It`s a fun touch for the die hards.

It's far from hitting its stride already, and in advance we know there are limits to what the show can actually accomplish in the scope of the Rebellion vs the Empire, but if Clone Wars can make a half-dozen mostly compelling seasons out of a conflict with a predetermined outcome there's no reason that Rebels can't work either.  It`s unfortunate that they had to trot out Artoo and Threepeeoh in the second episode already, but it does catch us up on Bail Organa (not Jimmy Smits`voice, sadly) and his part in the Rebellion.

Two of the characters, Ezra and scruffy-looking pilot Kanan, have force powers, which is kind of mind blowing.  After consuming the original trilogy so many times as a child and being so immersed in that world, the thought that there might`ve still been other Jedi still alive around the galaxy never even entered my mind.  Kanan survived the Order 66, and he senses the talent in Ezra (Ezra, meanwhile, discovers Kanan`s lightsaber and holocron), so it will be interesting to see how they explore Jedi-like things a decade and a half after the Jedi should be extinct.

I also quite like Tiya off the bat, the Mandalorian, and look forward to learning more about her.  Chopper is a ramshackle astromech droid who looks like he will fall apart if you sneeze on him too hard.  He`s full of even more personality than Artoo, which seems like a stretch.  He also seems too much like BOB from Disney`s The Black Hole, so while I am amused by him, I don`t like him on principal.  But I guess it makes sense that if Artoo can develop a personality then why not any other droids.

The animation on Rebels is at once an improvement and a step back from Clone Wars.  Gone are the wooden beards and hair, but also gone seems to be a lot of the refined detail that the Clone Wars had.  Rebels seems to be on a bit more of a budget.

Somewhere in the past year I've turned the corner on Star Wars apathy and have come back around to "fan" again.