Every year, in “First Look/Last Look,” I pan for TV gold in the fetid riverbed of the new fall season. While I always hope this experiment will yield at least one show that I want to add to my regular viewing—if not reviewing—schedule, I’m not holding my breath. Call me pessimistic, but, in most cases, I expect my first look to also be my last.
Alas, this was a thin week for premieres, as neither the networks nor the premium cable channels had anything new to offer.
Fortunately, the streaming services dropped two major new productions: one that’s very good, and one that’s fairly awful. Otherwise, your poor, beleaguered critic found himself desperately searching the rarely trod, “do-we-even-get-that-channel?” avenues of his cable system for things to round out this weekly roundup. (Spoiler-alert: it wasn’t worth the effort.)
LUKE CAGE (Netflix)
The cream of the crop—and really the only thing I can recommend this week—is the new Netflix series Luke Cage, the third of Netflix and Marvel’s “street-level” superhero shows (after Daredevil and Jessica Jones). Here, the action moves from Hell’s Kitchen to Harlem, and Mike Colter’s stoic, invulnerable strongman—first introduced as the sometimes partner and paramour of Jessica Jones—moves to the spotlight. It’s a space he occupies easily, which comes as little surprise to anyone who saw Colter’s effortlessly magnetic, disarmingly tender performance on the earlier series. (Don’t worry if you haven’t watched Jessica Jones, however: Luke Cage barely refers to events on that show, and its eponymous heroine is casually dismissed as Luke’s “rebound chick.”)
Luke Cage opens with its protagonist laying low in Harlem, struggling to pay his rent by working two menial jobs under the table. He’s working for his late wife’s relative Pop (Frankie Faison), sweeping up at a venerable barbershop that serves as a vital cornerstone of the community. He’s also working as a dishwasher and occasional bartender at a swanky Harlem nightclub owned by local crime lord and arms-dealer Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (a mesmerizing performance from Mahershala Ali). These two figures—former friends—serve as the ideological poles in the escalating fight for the soul of Harlem: Pop’s trying to provide a safe haven from crime and violence for the residents of the neighborhood, while Cottonmouth—with the help of his cousin, a well-intentioned but corrupt city councilwoman (Alfre Woodard)—is getting rich by preying on the community and escalating the gang-wars. As the story opens, Luke is just trying to get by, and has no interest in being a hero—but, of course, it’s only a matter of time before he gets drawn into the fray.
These Netflix series are structured to be binged, and Luke Cage is a little slow in getting to the inevitable point when Luke will go into action. The first episode feels a little murky and languid, as creator Cheo Hodari Coker (Ray Donovan) is in no hurry to light a narrative fire: he takes his time introducing the players, establishing the complicated dynamics between them, and letting us get a feel for the milieu. But it’s time well-spent: Coker’s Harlem quickly comes to feel like a real, richly textured place, with its own rules and its own way of doing things. (“The streets will handle it, just like they always do,” one character tells Detective Misty Knight—an excellent Simone Missick—when she tries to offer him official protection.) By the time Luke goes into action with his own way of handling things, we’re fully invested in both the story and its stakes.
I’ve watched the first four episodes of Luke Cage so far, and I’m enjoying the hell out of it as pure, smart comic-book entertainment. There’s enough action and intrigue to satisfy my inner 12-year-old. (I will never grow tired of watching fight choreography cleverly tailored to Luke’s unique abilities: an unbreakable object, Luke is all slow-and-steady offense, no defense.) But the overall tone is more serious and sophisticated than other shows in the genre, and the cast—particularly Colter, Ali, Woodard, and Missick—are proving that superhero stories can feature complex, nuanced characters deep with layers of history and contradictions. A weak second-season of Daredevil notwithstanding, Netflix continues to operate on the highest level of storytelling that a superhero premise can support.
But I’m also enjoying Luke Cage for its sheer, proud blackness. Jessica Jones demonstrated that a superhero show can deal with serious sub-textual themes—in that case, trauma, misogyny, and female empowerment—but Luke Cage isn’t really bothering with sub-text. This isn’t a show about a superhero who just happens to be black, and it isn’t a show that’s using elaborate genre metaphors to feint at discussions of real life issues. This is a show about a strong black hero in a disenfranchised black community, written by black creators, touching (so far) on issues like criminal justice, economic inequality, identity politics, police and political corruption, and gentrification. It’s no statement at all to say that Luke Cage thus represents a landmark in Marvel’s growing cinematic and television empire—which has thus far been ridiculously white—so I’ll go further: I can’t think of another action-adventure, sci-fi, fantasy, or even crime drama that has been so completely located in black perspective. (The passing name-drops alone are a welcome and refreshing delight: when was the last time you heard a show reference Crispus Attucks, Ralph Ellison, Shirley Chisholm, Bill Russell, Chester Himes, and Walter Mosley?) I recently suggested that we may be on the cusp of a new renaissance in black television, and Luke Cage provides an honorable genre example to join the excellent comedy (Atlanta) and drama (Queen Sugar) that have already premiered this season.
Superhero stories—even socially conscious ones—are still fantasies, and their function is still primarily escapist. But let’s face it: Luke Cage has a special resonance at this moment in history, as social media has raised awareness of—and outrage over—the near-constant murdering of innocent black men and women across America. Luke Cage—a bulletproof black man in a hoodie, fighting the good fight for his community—may be just the hero we need right now.
CRISIS IN SIX SCENES (Amazon)
It shouldn’t be surprising at this point to realize that Woody Allen is woefully out of touch, but that sad truth has never been more evident than it is in Amazon’s Crisis in Six Scenes, Allen’s first—and let us hope last—foray into television auteurism. One of the things he’s out of touch with, as it turns out, is television: ever since Amazon bribed him into this devil’s compact, Allen has been very public about the fact that he doesn’t watch television, he doesn’t respect television, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing trying to make a television show. Hearing these self-deprecating, self-excusing comments, one might have suspected that Crisis would turn out to be just a typical (if lesser) Woody Allen film, arbitrarily sliced into half-hour segments. But that would have been far preferable to what we get instead, which is an idea that could barely fill one half-hour episode being pointlessly stretched to fill six.
Set (unconvincingly) in the 1960s, Crisis features Allen as Sidney J. Munsinger, an underachieving novelist married to unconventional marriage counselor Kay (Elaine May, whose return to performing is literally the only thing to celebrate here). The Munsingers’ safe, quiet suburban existence is disturbed by the arrival in their home of Lennie Dale (a badly miscast Miley Cyrus), a radical activist on the lam from the feds after blowing up a draft-board office. Lennie’s presence gives Sidney fuel for a never-ending outpouring of Allen’s trademark nervous, outraged stammering, but she seems to have a radicalizing effect on everyone else she encounters, including Kay, the Munsinger’s young houseguest Alan (John Magaro), and all the conservative old biddies in Kay’s book club (who abandon their discussions of Kafka to embrace Mao’s Little Red Book.)
Virtually nothing happens in Crisis in Six Scenes—and I watched the whole thing, just to make sure. The entire endeavor seems to have been conceived to engineer shallow drawing-room comedy about politics and relationships that would have been grossly simplistic and dated if it had been written in the 1960s. Lennie—who is supposed to be brilliant and charismatic—is a dully cartoonish character, spouting inane platitudes about capitalism and imperialism. Allen’s character is Allen’s Character, the nebbish, put-upon crank who just doesn’t want to be bothered. Neither they, nor anyone else in Crisis in Six Scenes, is written sympathetically enough to read as a person, or smartly enough to read as satire. What we are left with, then, is farce, but it’s a sort of farce that feels absurdly recycled from another decade. (Supporting characters—such as married couples who turn up for Kay’s counseling sessions—are horrifyingly sexist. And—for the blink-and-you-miss-them moments when one turns up—people of color are ridiculous racist stereotypes.)
When Amazon made its deal with Allen, they should have included a clause in the contract that required him to watch a little television from this century before he set about making some.
AFTERMATH (SyFy, Tuesdays at 10/9c)
Imagine, if you will, a show with a premise that mashed together all of the SyFy Channel’s ridiculous original movies. It would be Sharknado meets Stonehenge Apocalypse meets Piranhaconda meets Alien Apocalypse meets Dinocroc vs. Supergator meets Ice Spiders meets Titanic II.
Sounds awesome, right? But wait, I’m not done: now imagine that they took out all the ironic self-awareness, all the comedy, and 90 percent of the outrageously bad special effects. Then imagine that the writers and actors and directors all played it straight, as if they were actually making a serious and important drama. Doesn’t sound so awesome now, does it?
This, my friends, is the tragic reality of SyFy’s Aftermath, a show that I would call laughably bad, except that it provides no laughs of any kind, intentional or un-. Anne Heche stars as an ex-Air Force pilot trying to usher her blandly adorable blonde family through an all-purpose apocalypse that includes hurricanes, earthquakes, bizarre weather patterns, fish and snakes falling from the sky, and demonically possessed people who fly and flay and are otherwise up to no good. It’s all so ridiculously absurd that Aftermath should at least be guilty, gonzo fun, and it’s just possible that the deadpan approach to this material is supposed to be funny. But it’s all so straight-faced, humorless, and dour—with each new calamity greeted with casual, one-note acceptance by the characters—that it’s not even interesting, let alone fun. It’s The Walking Dumb.
VERSAILLES (Ovation, Saturdays at 10/9c)
Speaking of having no fun, I don’t even know how a show with as much sex, nudity, and gratuitous violence as Versailles can be boring, but I swear it took me three tries to get through the pilot episode without my eyes glazing over. A very expensive production that originally aired on Canal Plus in France and BBC2 in Great Britain, Versailles opens in 1667, as the young King Louis XIV (the disappointingly charisma-free George Blagden)—beset from all sides by enemies foreign and domestic—gets the idea to move France’s seat of power to a fabulous palace he will build at the family hunting lodge in Versailles.
The first episode of Versailles has palace intrigue, assassination attempts, torture, graphic autopsies, and sex between nearly every possible combination of human beings. It has beautiful people, beautiful costumes, and beautiful scenery. And yet somehow it’s all desperately, stuporously dull. None of the 1,700 long-haired gentleman hatching nefarious schemes in the court are distinguishable from each other, and whatever incomprehensible plans they’re plotting don’t generate the slightest bit of interest. None of the three different beautiful women Louis conjoins and canoodles with in this episode make any impression other than visual. It feels like a lot of period stuff, tarted up with sex and violence, but without any depth or meaning or narrative momentum. I was a little intrigued by Lizzie Brocheré’s character, a young woman who wants to become a surgeon but fears getting burned as a witch. And I admit to being a little pruriently curious to discover what the hell kind of kinky sexual relationship quiet Queen Marie-Thérèse (Elisa Lasowski) has with her African dwarf court jester (Marie-Agnés Ganga). But none of that warrants coming back to Versailles, a lush and smutty period drama with all the excitement of flipping through a naughty and badly-edited coffee-table book.
HBO premieres the prestige drama it hopes will transition the network safely into a post-Game of Thrones reality, Westworld. ABC debuts courtroom drama Conviction, NBC launches its sci-fi series Timeless, and The CW premieres both its high-concept comedy No Tomorrow and it’s high-concept drama Frequency. I will watch and write about…at least some of these shows.