The 2015 – 2016 TV Season In Review

The 2015 – 2016 TV season is done, and the past year felt like such a mixed bag. This was the first season in a while that I felt any excitement about, and in a lot of ways it failed to live up to my expectations. Here are my thoughts about the shows I watched (but don’t expect any deep analysis here. A TV critic I’m not).

BEWARE! HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!

The Flash

My favorite show of the season. Unlike DC’s cinematic properties, The Flash is optimistic, light, and fun, and the drama never reaches the state of quasi-nihilism that has made the DC movie such downers. Grant Gustin is a highly likable protagonist and he has a great support cast, particularly in Carlos Valdez and Jesse L. Martin. My wife and I have vowed to abandon the show if either of their characters are killed off.

The-Flash2The show also knows how to press the geek button in obvious and subtle ways. A geeked out hard when the show recreated the iconic Flash of Two Worlds cover in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene. Pure nerdvana.

Season two also did a better job with Candice Patton’s character, Iris West. The writers gave her more to do than simply be the hero’s love interest, which is great. The character still had a few moments that made me roll my eyes, but the season as a whole gave me hope she’ll continue to improve.

It’s perhaps ironic that The Flash has a tendency to fall apart at the finish line. The season one finale ended on an abrupt, awkward cliffhanger that set the stage for season two, and similarly, the season two cliffhanger on a “Huh?” note that lines up season three. The creative team needs to be better about putting a button at the end of a season arc.

Supergirl

Supergirl had some first season shakiness, but its issues were minor as far as I’m concerned. As with The Flash, Supergirl  benefited from a brighter tone and a more upbeat, positive lead in Kara Zor-El, played with irresistible charm by Melissa Benoist.

How can you not love this face?
How can you not love this face?

However, Calista Flockhart — as Kara’s boss, Kat Grant — almost stole the show every time she appeared on-screen. She started off as a typical boss-from-hell ice queen but quickly developed depth and texture as a character. By the end of the season, she was as lovable (in her own aloof, prickly way) as Kara, and the two made for a great if unlikely team.

I also have to give the writers credit for a great swerve. In the comics, Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) became the Superman villain known simply as the Cyborg Superman (as a result of the overhyped Death of Superman storyline) and I was expecting the TV show to go the same way — and then it blew me away by revealing Henshaw was in fact J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter.

I’m happy the CW has picked up Supergirl for season two, and I trust it’ll have a good home there alongside the other DC series. Now, if only someone would pick up my other favorite new series from the past season…

The Muppets

Deadly Boy ToyABC canceled The Muppets after a full (if short) season and I hate them so much for it. Like a lot of new shows, it was a bit rocky for a while as it tried to find its tone (early eps were a little too cynical for the Muppets) and a lot of people didn’t like the more adult edge or the mockumentary style of storytelling, but I thought those were minor points. The gags landed far more often than not and were legitimately laugh-out-loud funny. Anytime Uncle Deadly was on screen was pure comedic gold.

It only got better as the season went along, and a change of showrunners mid-season shored up the lingering weak spots. By the end, The Muppets was running on all cylinders. Unfortunately, it seems that the ratings damage was already done. and the show got axed. Bah. BAH, I say!

Galavant

I never expected to love Galavant. When my wife and I checked it out last year, we were expecting a light, fluffy, kid-friendly program, not a sharp, witty, edgy musical-comedy with some surprisingly catchy tunes. Season one ended on a cliffhanger, and I was worried I’d never see a resolution due to the show’s tepid ratings.

The producers knew better for season two and ended things decisively, thought they left an opening or two to continue the story in case season three got the green light — which it didn’t. I can’t complain, though. I feel a show like this could too easily get stale if it went on too long, so I’ll take two solid seasons and a high note conclusion and be happy for it.

Agent Carter

Conversely, I’m unhappy that Agent Carter is also over after two good seasons. In so many ways the series is superior to Agents of SHIELD and has one of the best protagonists on TV in Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), as well as one of the best partners in her totally platonic buddy/sidekick Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy). Their chemistry and crack comedic timing were on full display in the second story arc, which took Peggy to California where she crossed paths with Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett), who is known to comic fans as the super-villain Madame Masque.

Alas, we didn’t get to see Frost in full-on Madame Masque mode, and probably never will thanks to so-so ratings. Fortunately for Atwell and her fans, she’ll be returning to TV next year in a new series, but she should have been coming back for a third go-round as Peggy.

iZombie

While it bears little resemblance to the Vertigo title, iZombie is entertaining nevertheless. It’s basically a procedural, but the gimmick here is that the heroine, a medical examiner, is a zombie who, after consuming someone’s brain, takes on the subject’s personality and has flashes of their memories.

The writing in spots is cheesy, as evidenced right up front with the main character, Olivia Moore (Rose McIver) — aka Liv Moore, ha ha — but the jokes fire off consistently and the characters are likable, and when it comes to procedurals, that’s all I really need. I don’t expect deep drama and compelling plots.

However, the show could be getting more ambitious in that regard next season. The finale was a major game-changer and I’m curious to see where they take it.

Arrow

I plan to stick with Arrow into season four, mostly because I’m jazzed at the prospect of a massive four-show crossover that the producers have been teasing, but season three had some serious frayed edges.

RIP. Until they bring you back to life, which happens a lot in "Arrow."
RIP. Until they bring you back to life, which happens a lot in “Arrow.”

The show’s worst sin was killing off Laurel Lance/Black Canary (Katie Cassidy). One producer said the decision was born of the fact that “It kind of feels like Laurel’s story has come to a very organic… if not ‘conclusion,’ certainly a ‘plateau.'” But apparently finding a new story for her was too much of a hassle.

The season also felt too familiar in spots: Oliver’s grating, self-centered brooding and constant need to push people away; the traditional springtime threat to Star City; the increasingly pointless flashbacks that feel more and more disconnected from the main storyline…

And then there was the finale, which traded a logical story for some cheap feels. One guy shouting “Stop!” atop a car before delivering a poor man’s St. Crispin’s Day speech quells a raging riot within seconds? And Oliver uses magic that he barely learned a few weeks earlier to stop a demi-godlike bad guy? Yeesh.

I hope Arrow takes a few steps back next season and goes for something a little smaller and more personal rather than yet another overblown “villain plots to destroy the city” story.

Agents of SHIELD

Agents of SHIELD has improved considerably since its tepid first season (specifically the first two-thirds of the first season, prior to the events of Captain America – The Winter Soldier) and is entertaining, but it has yet to become truly awesome. The season finale had some good twists and emotional depth, but it felt like too little too late for this particular season.

The show has a great cast, likable characters, maybe the best fight scenes on TV, and has finally found a consistent sense of low-key humor. What it lacks is strong season arcs (the Inhumans storyline is getting old and feels like it’s not going anywhere significant) and a real sense of place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel could decide tomorrow that the events in Agents of SHIELD never happened, retcon the show out of existence, and it would have absolutely no impact on anything that’s happened in the movies.

Marvel could also learn a lesson from DC when it comes to appeasing the geek audience. The DC shows constantly mine the DC Universe’s deep vault of characters, but Marvel barely scratches the surface of its available roster.

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow

The weakest of the DC/CW shows, and the fault for that is all on the creative team. I like the cast and the mix of characters, and there were some damn cool action sequences throughout the season, but the “Hunt for Vandal Savage” storyline felt sloppy and disjointed, and too often the episodes relied on this plot point:

RIP HUNTER: All right, people, don’t go screwing around with the timeline.

TEAM: We won’t!

TEAM then proceeds the screw around with the timeline.

RIP HUNTER: What did I tell you?!

TEAM: Well, what were we supposed to do? I mean, we’re not big picture people here.

Blindspot

I had higher hopes for this show. I love Jaimie Alexander, the concept was intriguing, and it was good, but it somehow never rose to greatness for me. The supporting characters, with the exception of techie Patterson (Ashley Johnson, who you might know as the waitress from the closing scenes of The Avengers), are as boring as a beige room, and as the season progressed the plot relied too much on the trope of characters keeping secrets from one another.

The finale shook things up considerably and is poised to send season two in a whole new direction, buy I don’t think I’ll be sticking around for it. The big plot twists were predictable and so they didn’t excite me enough to make me want to see how things play out. For Alexander’s sake I hope the show has a healthy run, but in the end it just wasn’t my thing.

Castle

This show was never high art, but that’s not a criticism. It was meant to be a fun procedural that featured a likable cast headed up by Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic engaging in lighthearted shenanigans, and for eight seasons that’s what it was. The last season or two were a bit shaky but they were generally satisfying.

The series finale was mostly satisfying. It had action, tension, and it didn’t end as many speculated it would, with Beckett (Katic) dying — but that’s only because the show didn’t get renewed. Take out that clumsy, tacked-on coda and it’s obvious that season eight was supposed to end on a cliffhanger and season nine would have opened with the reveal that Beckett had died. That would have been an insult to the viewers, so at least I’m glad the series ended on an upbeat note.

Sleepy Hollow

Ugh. This show used to be such fun…back in season one. Its Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills versus the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse storyline was gleefully off-the-wall, but with each season the show veered away from its core concept — ostensibly to make it more accessible by doing away with its heavy focus on the mythology and going a little more threat-of-the-week. It also grossly mishandled its female characters and watered down a diverse cast with bland white people. In this most recent season we watched two flat, dull villains stand around delivering stiff dialog badly episode after episode while Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie, who deserved so much better) did nothing of consequence until finally sacrificing herself in the season finale.

As of this writing, the show could be renewed, in which case Crane would receive a new partner, but who cares? Like Castle, the dynamic between Sleepy Hollow‘s two principle characters fueled the show through its weakest episodes and made its strongest episodes truly memorable. When you kill one of them off, what’s the point in going on? Did no one learn any lessons from The X-Files?

On that note…

The X-Files

Scully FacepalmI’m an old-school X-Phile. I watched the original series religiously and to this day I have a huge crush on Gillian Anderson. I awaited the revival with cautious optimism but low expectations — which, I’m sad to say, were met.

The series returned to its classic form to a fault. Chris Carter made the show’s already convoluted, ill-planned-out mythology even more confusing in the first episode, which set up a plotline that went ignored until the last episode, which not only failed to resolve the arc, it ended on a cliffhanger. The episodes along the way were hit and miss, and when they missed they missed HARD. The revival was so crushingly bad, if I watch the next season (which is in the works) it’ll be with the same sort of perverse curiosity with which one checks out the aftermath of a car crash.

Spoiler Theater: The 2014 – 2015 TV Season

I haven’t done any kind of review in a while, and I have a little bit of time before I have to head off to the Connecticut Renaissance Faire (cheap plug), so I thought I’d jibber-jabber a little about the current TV season, which is more or less at an end until the fall. As the header of this entry suggests, I may be dropping a few spoilers, so read on at your own risk.

I only had about a half-dozen series I watched steadily, but that’s more TV than I’ve watched over the previous few years. There’s some good stuff out there — and some stuff that started off good and petered out hard. I’m going to work my way down the list, starting with my favorite show of the season…

The Flash

I didn’t expect to love this show as much as I do, but this was just so much fun to watch. It’s a super-hero show, flat out, and doesn’t pretend to be anything more — and that’s fine, because it’s nice to have a lighter series to counter shows like The Flash‘s darker counterpart, Arrow.

The Flash

For me, the relationships between the characters are perhaps the high point of the show — especially the relationship between Barry (the affable Grant Gustin) and his surrogate father Joe (Jesse L. Martin), and between Cisco (Carlos Valdez) and anyone. Cisco is a treasure of a character and I will personally lead a riot if he’s ever killed off.

The show’s two flaws: its occasional habit of having characters make conveniently stupid decisions in order to keep the story moving, and its constant mishandling of Iris (Candice Patton, who deserves better). She’s regularly pushed around by the male characters, and her will-she-or-won’t-she relationship with Barry renders her rather unsympathetic. I hope the writers treat her better in season two.

Agents of SHIELDAgents of SHIELD

This show deserves a ton of praise simply for fixing its many, many season one flaws. The show didn’t come alive until it starting dealing with the repercussions of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) turned bad, and it kept the momentum up in season two. Plus, it had some of the best fight scenes I’ve ever seen in a TV show.

My biggest gripe is that it still isn’t delving into the Marvel Universe as deeply as The Flash and Arrow dig into the DC Universe. It had a few great moments (I geeked out over the Absorbing Man), but Marvel has such a deep catalog of characters I’m baffled as to why it’s not taking advantage of it more. And, as a friend pointed out, the show could be retconned out of existence and it doesn’t impact the movies at all; Agents of SHIELD simply has no real relevance to the films. I’d love to see a more deeply connected universe, which might yet happen given that the Inhumans — due to have their own movie in 2019 — figure so heavily in season two.

Arrow

I’ve heard a lot of people bemoan season three as the weakest so far, but I don’t think it was bad. The Ra’s al Ghul storyline was interesting and had some nice twists, plus we got a whole season of John Barrowman as a complex antagonist, and who can complain about a steady John Barrowman fix?

JB Gif

John was part of a solid cast of supporting characters, and the tragedy here is that Oliver Queen himself (Stephen Amell) is the least likable one of the bunch. His constant cycle of pushing his crew away in the most dickish manner possible, only to later admit he needs them, is tiresome, but the season finale’s happy ending suggests that maybe he won’t be quite the brooding pseudo-loner in season four.

Sleepy Hollow

This is my wife’s favorite show, and we both agree that we should have never liked it at all. The premise sounds so stupid: Ichabod Crane awakens in the present to continue his battle against the Headless Horseman, who is in fact one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It turned out to be a rather fun adventure series, anchored by what may be my favorite TV partnership since Mulder and Scully: Crane (Tom Mison) and Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie). They have a great on-screen relationship (with no hints of sexual tension, thank god) and a lot of the fun derives from how they play off each other.

I also credit the writers for taking the “man out of time” trope in a different direction. Mison’s Crane is never perplexed by modern society or technology, but is instead alternately fascinated, frustrated, annoyed, and occasionally enthralled by new discoveries.

SH Gif

The show gets bonus points for having a woman of color as one of the main protagonists, and never treating her like the sidekick. Abbie gets to save the day as much as Crane, and has on more than one occasion pulled Crane’s ass out of the fire.

Season two wasn’t as strong as the first season, in part because it often felt like the writers had no idea what to do with Crane’s wife Katrina (Katia Winter) or what role she played in the story once she was free from Purgatory. Also, the second half of the season felt klunky; the Apocalypse storyline was mostly wrapped up by mid-season, and it became more episodic / threat-of-the-week — a move intended to make the show more accessible to new viewers, but without a driving storyline, the show as a whole felt like it lost steam.

The Big Bang Theory

I’m putting this show on my list of favorites, but it is barely holding on at this point. The humor hasn’t been as strong as in past seasons, and I’m frankly getting tired of the show trying to wring laughs out of the dysfunctional relationships all the characters are stuck in. None of the characters seems truly happy with their significant other, and with the exception of Howard and Bernadette (Simon Helberg and Melissa Rauch), everyone’s relationship was in trouble as of the season finale.

I’m in the process of re-watching Parks and Recreation from the start, and it’s really driving home how sitcoms take the easy way out and try to generate humor from bickering couples. The P&R relationships are all positive and healthy, and don’t try to make the sight of two people busting each other’s balls a source of entertainment.

I’m going to lump the rest into one chunk, since now we’re getting into the series that tried and failed to keep me entertained, and I’m going to start with the biggest disappointment, Gotham. I wanted this show to be good, but it never lived up to its potential, in my opinion. It had a great cast and some good ideas, but suffered from seriously hit-or-miss writing; when the show was good, it was great, but more often it was mediocre at best and painful at worst. Its early bad habit of heavy-handedly establishing who the characters were (Look! Selina Kyle goes by the nickname “Cat” and is playing with a dangling object! Get it?) didn’t last long, thankfully, but it continued to waste characters, often supporting female characters, and relied on characters behaving stupidly in order to keep the plots moving. Don’t even get me started on the brief plotline that stuck Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) in Arkham as a security guard.

I gave Gotham a chance to get good, but I ultimately decided to cut it loose, along with The Walking Dead and, sadly, Game of Thrones. The Walking Dead has become too repetitive in its plots, most of the characters are uninteresting and in a few cases (Rick Grimes) utterly unsympathetic, and the series feels like it no longer has an overarching point to it. It’s sad, because season one was amazing, but after cutting Frank Darabont loose as executive producer, the series crashed and burned and never fully recovered.

Then there is Game of Thrones, which lost me as a viewer with the highly controversial Sansa Stark rape scene. I have heard all the arguments, both those that condemned the scene and those that defended it, and I simply cannot abide by the creative team’s decision to go there.

As a writer, I never want to deprive myself of a storytelling tool, but when it comes to rape scenes, I feel strongly that there is always a better way to achieve whatever end such a scene is meant to achieve. A female character (or a male character, for that matter) can hit a low point from which to climb up in countless ways, none of which involve a sexual assault, and if you believe you need rape to show the audience what a monster your male character is, you’re being incredibly lazy. Same goes for using the rape of a female character as a means of motivating a male character. Find another way. Find a better way.

I’ll end on a positive note in the form of Marvel’s Daredevil, which I have yet to finish but am enjoying immensely. This is such a departure for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s working beautifully because it’s everything the movies and Agents of SHIELD isn’t: more realistic, gritty, edgy, and mature.

Daredevil

The high point of the series is Vincent D’Onofrio, who is knocking it out of the park as Wilson Fisk. D’onofrio’s Kingpin is sometimes terrifying, sometimes sympathetic, and sometimes pitiable. He’s taken a character I never found interesting in the comics and turned him into a complex, living, breathing person who owns every scene he’s in. I can’t wait to finish season one!

But I’m going to have to, because I have my own stuff to write — tomorrow, as a matter of fact.

The Secret Origin Of Secret Origins

I recently heard a gripe about the upcoming film The Amazing Spider-Man, but it wasn’t the gripe I was expecting.

Me, I’m irked at Hollywood for rebooting the Spider-Man franchise all of a decade after Sam Raimi’s perfectly awesome 2002 film, but I heard someone crab that yet another super-hero movie was adapting a character’s origin story.

I’ve heard this complaint before, usually from film critics who were tired of Hollywood doing origin stories instead of all-new adventures, but from a writing perspective, it’s an extremely logical choice.

My first argument is that not everyone knows a particular character’s backstory and, from a business perspective, studios need to capture a wide audience, not just the fanboys, to make their money. To do that, they need to introduce the character to the masses, and what better way than by telling the story that made the hero a hero?

Sure, you’d be hard-pressed to find an American who doesn’t know that Superman is the sole survivor of the exploding planet Krypton or that Bruce Wayne launched his crime-fighting crusade after his parents were gunned down by a mugger, but I dare you to find anyone outside the comic-reading community who can give you the origin of, say, the Flash or Dr. Strange off the top of his head.

Second, and more importantly, by doing an origin story the movie gets to easily honor one of the most important rules of storytelling: characters should come out of the story different than how they went in.

To use Spider-Man as an easy example, the character of Peter Parker starts his story as a shy, withdrawn nerd with no friends and little going for him beyond a talent for science and a loving family in Uncle Ben and Aunt May. After he gets bitten by a radioactive (or genetically engineered, depending on which interpretation you’re presenting) spider, he gains super-powers that also grant him a new sense of confidence…a sense of confidence that quickly becomes self-centered arrogance, and that ego balloon is popped in a huge way when his selfishness winds up costing him his uncle.

That’s a great character arc, filled with drama, tragedy, and self-discovery, and Peter is definitely a changed man by the end of the story. Why wouldn’t you use it? It’s infinitely more interesting than your standard “good guy fights the bad guy” action plot.