October 19, 2016

Luke Cage Review, Part 2 (Episodes 5-8)

Mike Colter as Luke Cage and Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth meet on Luke Cage.

The superhero TV genre has come a long way in the past few years. There once was a time when talking seriously about these shows might seem strange. The success of the Netflix Marvel series (and ABC’s Agent Carter) has opened the door to more than by-the-numbers action. Daredevil went to surprisingly grim places, and Jessica Jones was really a survivor’s tale of abuse and rape. The bar was set ultra-high for Luke Cage, and its start didn’t let us down. However, the second-act challenges of its predecessors are hard to dodge completely. I’m intrigued by the tonal shifts during these episodes, but it feels like the show is still finding its way.

The often-disjointed middle episodes of the 13-episode Marvel seasons build a bridge to the ultimate conflict. This trend continues with episodes five through eight of Luke Cage. Following Pop’s death and the initial battle with Cottonmouth’s gang, our hero must regroup and decide where he stands. On the other side of the aisle, Cottonmouth reckons with his fading status in Harlem. His fall is the key arc of act two. Cage’s efforts weaken his enemy and set him up to fall. Of course, that defeat could signal the rise of a tougher adversary in his stead.

A notable change that we see is the rising darkness in Harlem; both Cottonmouth and Cage face their inner demons. It was fun to hang out at the barbershop and club in the opening episodes, but that charm slips to the background. The plot kicks into gear, which leads to more action. On the other hand, the conflicts follow a more predictable route. It’s a comic-book series, so this switch is expected. Still, the greater intensity doesn’t always lead to gripping drama.

The Tragic (Sort Of) Fall of Cottonmouth

It’s sad to lose Mahershala Ali from this show, but Cottonmouth’s demise is inevitable. Cage proves to Harlem that its crime boss is fallible. The arrest doesn’t finish the job but creates the tense environment that leads to Cottonmouth’s death. The flashbacks to his childhood in episode seven (“Manifest”) predict that the end is near. Events from decades earlier lead directly to the raw emotions that cause the murder. It’s a tragic end for a talented guy that never had a choice.

It’s interesting to see the evolution of Mariah Dillard, who initially appears to be the opposite of Cottonmouth. Alfred Woodard brings range to a character who’s frustrated with it all. Her cousin’s defense of Dillard’s childhood abuser is the final straw. This bloody scene approaches melodrama and is quite jarring for the once-airy show. We’ve moved away from the laid-back early vibes. That killing will haunt Dillard forever, and the darkness inside her will just grow. Her associate Shades is basically the devil on her shoulder that appears to help but really pushes her to greater depths.

Luke Cage has an interesting undercurrent about how social class plays a role in where people land. Crime made Cottonmouth’s family powerful, but it also locked him into a certain life. The club is his way to connect with his dreams of a different path. Dillard is desperate to prove she isn’t a cold and brutal person like Mama Mabel (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). Unfortunately, the pressure to be someone different makes Dillard just as bad (if not worse). Her political ambitions rest on the back of Cottonmouth’s crime world. Both are stuck in the life created by Mabel, and neither wants it. Dillard is still alive yet is dead inside after killing her cousin.

Another important subject is race, which is pivotal in understanding how Cottonmouth and Dillard act. They constantly push to prove they’re better than what others think. Her attempts to be reputable draw scoffs from journalists and even her own cousin. Society has trained Cottonmouth that crime is the only way. His giant painting of the Notorious B.I.G. isn’t just because of the music. That larger-than-life artist used his talents to rise up from the streets. Cottonmouth built the club into something grand, and Cage could tear it all down. Selling the club would be like chopping off an arm. Cottonmouth created it against the odds, but that achievement isn’t enough to escape past demons.

Claire Temple in Harlem

Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple also appears in episode five (“Just to Get a Rep”) and plays a larger role than usual. The constant messes in Hell’s Kitchen would be enough to push anyone to leave. The bridge across each Netflix series, Temple has a refreshing outsider’s perspective. Dawson is excellent, though her conversations with Cage about being a hero are too obvious. Their words are right on the nose and loudly proclaim the main themes. Dawson and Colter do their best to express genuine emotions, but there’s only so much they can do.

Thankfully, the writers know that Temple functions best as an active character. Her efforts to save a wounded Scarfe and them Cage himself reveal her mettle. There’s also a possible romance between Temple and Cage, which pushes Misty Knight into the background. She’s busy investigating Cottonmouth’s death and facing internal affairs questions. There’s no time to re-connect with the vigilante. I hope that Temple and Knight have plenty to do in the final episodes.

Luke Cage battles Diamondback in a theater in the episode "Blowin' Up the Spot" on Netflix.

Can You Dig It?

We finally meet the fabled Willis “Diamondback” Stryker at the end of “Manifest”, though it’s a brief scene. He takes center stage in episode eight (“Blowin’ Up the Spot”) with a loud “Can you dig it?” reference to The Warriors. It’s an over-the-top entrance for the season’s Big Bad. Shades has set our expectations high with his reverence of Diamondback, and it’s up to Erik La Ray Harvey (Boardwalk Empire) to sell it. He’s far more imposing than Cottonmouth, but the jury is out on whether the character succeeds. Diamondback pokes holes (literally) in the idea that Cage is invulnerable, and that fact should keep action scenes from getting repetitive. Our hero needs a weakness.

The episode’s final act devolves into a surprisingly ridiculous one-on-one fight inside a lavish theater. Diamondback springs from a campier world and utters awkward lines about his brother receiving more love. A few made me laugh and lessened the dramatic tension. The epic shot of Diamondback looming above Cage in the balcony sells the conflict, though. This guy has arrived to teach Cage a lesson in the grandest way possible. It’s hard to take the threat too seriously, though. Even when Diamondback shoots Cage again in the chest, it’s not that suspenseful. Cage falling into a trash truck is a new low for the character and oddly funny. He’s dying and has a body filled with shrapnel, and now he’s riding around with garbage. The shame!

This battle does energize a show that needed a jolt from its more dour progression. The style is much different from the extended hallway fights on Daredevil. The melodramatic scenes as Cage unites with a long-lost friend who’s actually his brother are also interesting. The tone is shifting more towards camp, but that may be okay. It’s challenging to strike the right balance of weight and fun, however. Dillard has turned into a cold boss, and Knight struggles with the loss of her partner and department pressures. The emotions are heightened while still falling into a “good vs. evil” comics zone. Diamondback’s call-out to The Warriors feels more apt by the end of “Blowin’ Up the Spot”. He’s a villain straight out of Walter Hill’s film.

Ready for War

Cage finishes this run of episodes in awful shape. The two Judas bullets are destroying him from the inside, and he’s wanted for Cottonmouth’s murder. Even so, I suspect he’ll rebound for a final clash with Diamondback. What’s less certain is how Dillard and Shades will fit into the mix. Her story needs a hook beyond avoiding her family’s shadow. Shades is now running the low-level henchmen; is he going to connect with Diamondback? Theo Rossi is getting more chances to shine as his character’s crime role increases. I’m curious to see where he’s heading.

We have lost some interesting story lines, particularly involving the barbershop. Is Bobby Fish still trying to re-open it? I’d like to see a return to that character because it connects our hero to the community. I also wonder if Knight attacked Temple purposefully to get placed on administrative leave. Her rage seemed real, but the show made sure we knew she was being watched. Knight will likely team up with Cage and take down everyone. Will they rekindle a romance? I’m still excited about this season but have more questions now.

Luke Cage keeps adjusting its tone and has made drastic changes from its opening episodes. On the other hand, it’s effectively used a slow burn to pull Cage back into the fray and remind him that he’s not invincible. Cage is one of many powerful beings out there, and his actions to stop Cottonmouth have caused unfortunate consequences. It’s been up-and-down, but I’m still on board to see how we finish. Diamondback is a gigantic character, so we’re heading for a grand conclusion.

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Luke Cage Review, Part 1 (Episodes 1-4)
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October 17, 2016

Top 5 Episodes of The West Wing: Season One

The West Wing credits for the Pilot episode in season one.

It’s been fascinating to watch the resurgence of popular TV series on Netflix and other streaming services. For many people, shows like The Gilmore Girls and Twin Peaks are brand new. One of the best examples is The West Wing, a major hit for NBC in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Despite some limited gender representations, the show was largely ahead of its time when it premiered in September 1999. There are still many devoted fans today, and the West Wing Weekly podcast is making new ones.

Hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway and actor Joshua Molina, the West Wing Weekly is the perfect companion for how we watch TV. Listeners can easily follow along with each week’s discussion, which covers a single episode in chronological fashion. I watched The West Wing during its original run, though I didn’t stay until the end. In the age before DVR, I definitely missed some episodes. This podcast inspired me to go back and check out the show along with Hirway and Molina. It’s been a blast to re-connect with the series and its beloved characters.

Following along with the podcast, I’ve recently completed the first season of The West Wing. What I forgot was how funny the show was; we remember the big speeches and forget the jokes. Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, and Rob Lowe in particular are so good at drawing laughs. There are no duds in this cast; I don’t blame Moira Kelley for Mandy not developing. They tackle important social issues, and Aaron Sorkin’s writing gets preachy at times. However, it rarely feels too heavy and remains a light romp through the political world. It’s hard not to love the idealistic characters and wish for more of that from our politicians. It’s no coincidence that many are drawn to this show during our incredibly ugly election cycle.

What I didn’t recognize enough before this viewing was The West Wing’s confident direction and tight editing. Sorkin’s writing receives most of the credit, but Tommy Schlamme’s work is also so important. Their collaboration is what makes The West Wing click right from the pilot. I should mention the paternalistic side of the show, which comes out in conversations like Bartlet and Leo praising “these women.” There’s a similar trend in Sorkin’s Sports Night, which aired at the same time. There are strong female performances across the board, but not every story line clicks in 2016. Still, these are minor reservations given how much is right on this show.

It was difficult to prepare this list of my five favorite episodes from season one. The average quality is high, so there are few obvious misses. I eventually trimmed down the list to nine and chose the stories that shined most with me. To be clear, it’s impossible to say what’s truly “best”. We all look for different things in our favorite TV series. When I thought back to my favorite moments and story arcs, the standouts began to emerge. Ranking them was nearly impossible; the difference between the leaders and honorable mentions is extremely slim. I’d love to hear about your favorites in the comments section below this post. Let’s get to it!

Richard Schiff as Toby in The West Wing's In Excelsis Deo episode.

Honorable Mention: “In Excelsis Deo” (1.10)

I couldn’t find a way to place it in my top five but felt that I needed to credit Richard Schiff’s incredible work in this episode. Toby’s efforts to arrange a proper funeral for a homeless veteran are quite moving. Toby is often a grumpy character yet reveals so much humanity for a guy that has no one. It’s an interesting change of pace for a show that spends most of its time inside The White House. Schiff’s understated performance never makes it feel like he’s playing for an Emmy. All it takes is a look at his face to see the emotions in Toby’s heart. It’s a brilliant performance that reminds us that Schiff was regularly The West Wing’s unheralded star.

5. “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” (1.19)

A prevailing theme of season one is the administration taking the safe route on tough issues. They’re idealistic yet can’t seem to find a way to enact change. The reluctance comes from the top, though Bartlet is showing signs of shifting his tune. “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” does an excellent job depicting the challenges around every corner. Republicans threaten retribution if the FEC nominations don’t go their way. Discussions around “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” are stalling, and a memo written by Mandy identifies their weaknesses. It’s all bad.

What I love about this episode is the way it recognizes those issues and shows the bravery in standing up for something. The argument between Leo and Bartlet (which rarely happens) does such a good job in showing us the worries and doubts within the President’s soul. He wants to support his principles but also hopes to get re-elected. Leo reminds him that he can’t play conservatively, and it leads to a rousing finale. The dour faces of the senior staff quickly change to hope and inspiration. They serve at the pleasure of the president and are ready for war. It’s one of the best “hell yeah!” moments in the season and makes this a standout episode.

Martin Sheen as Bartlet in Take This Sabbath Day of The West Wing.

4. “Take This Sabbath Day” (1.14)

I love Joey Lucas. Marlee Matlin brings so much to the smart political operative that became a recurring character. She first appears in this episode and catches Josh’s eye. Their first meeting is one of the season’s funniest moments and quintessential Bradley Whitford. That moment adds a light touch to a story that involves Bartlet’s struggles to decide whether to commute a sentence and stop an execution. The final scene of Bartlet sitting with his childhood priest Father Cavanaugh (Karl Malden) is torturous but understandable given the emotional stakes.

“Take This Sabbath Day” also provides another classic moment when Toby’s rabbi (played by The Sopranos’ Richie Aprile, David Proval) gives a sermon designed for him. It’s a great moment because it’s silly yet doesn’t shy away from the issue. Sorkin’s script gives an even-handed look at the death penalty and reminds us that the situation is never easy. The scene where Charlie describes possible revenge against the person who killed his mom doesn’t follow the expected path. The way the show digs into the issue without getting too preachy is quite effective.

Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, and Bradley Whitford in The West Wing episode Pilot.

3. “Pilot” (1.1)

It’s rare for any show’s pilot to be so fully formed; even some great series have mediocre pilots. That trend makes the achievements of The West Wing’s pilot even more astounding. From the very first walk and talk with Leo hearing about the day’s issues, it never strikes a false note. In a re-watch, it’s surprising to note how late Martin Sheen arrives on the scene as Bartlet. I’m glad that Sorkin changed his mind about making the President a minor character. The focus is on the staff working for Bartlet, but he also becomes a key figure.

Barlet’s grand entrance gives him a chance to cite the 1st commandment and take down some conservative Christians. It’s a classic Sorkin moment where the heroes show off their superior intelligence against ideological enemies. We organically meet Josh, C.J., Toby, and Sam without needing huge swaths of exposition. Sorkin also doesn’t slow the pace so we can understand every minor part. We’re off to the races before our minds can grasp what we’re seeing. The episode flies by and sets the scene without the usual growing pains. It remains one of the top pilots in TV history.

Jorja Fox in The West Wing season one finale What Kind of Day Has It Been.

2. “What Kind of Day Has It Been” (1.22)

What’s amazing in this jam-packed season finale is how the cliffhanger isn’t the most interesting part. The headline is gunmen firing at the president and staff, but that’s secondary to the rest of the story. We begin at the end and then jump back to fill in the blanks. The recurring gag of the signal for a rescued pilot is funnier because we see it without any info. Each guy does the move of the plane taking off totally differently. Despite the tense ending, it’s refreshing to see joy from the group after the victory of retrieving the pilot. This isn’t a dour finale.

There’s also an intriguing scene with Josh and Vice President Hoynes where we learn a little of their past. We’ll see more of it in the season two premiere “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”. If I’d combined this episode with those two hours, it would easily be the top choice. Considered on its own, it falls just a little behind my top pick. There are so many great moments, particularly Leo’s dressing down of Josh for talking about the lost soldier in PR terms. That scene ends with a one-sided attempt at a hug that’s pitch-perfect. Despite my initial comments, the shootout also works as a strong ending. Once the credits roll, I dare anyone not to go right into next season to learn what happened.

John Spencer and CCH Pounder in the West Wing episode Celestial Navigation.

1. “Celestial Navigation” (1.15)

When I sat down to compile these rankings, one of my first thoughts was the “secret plan to fight inflation.” Josh’s disastrous attempt to sub for C.J. in the press room (and its aftermath) draws a smile every time I think about it. He’s smart and capable in his job but is no super hero. Sorkin enjoys cutting his characters off at the knees when they get too cocky. Josh’s attempts at sarcasm fall flat, and the reporters eat him alive. The moment when he explains the situation to Bartlet is classic comedy. When you combine this scene with Toby and Sam driving lost through Connecticut, the result is such an entertaining episode.

The odd part of “Celestial Navigation” is the weird framing story with Josh telling the events to a crowd at a speakers series lecture. He’s revealing quite a lot of information that just happened recently. Another thread has Leo speaking with Deborah O’Leary (the great CCH Pounder) about her openly calling the Republican party racist. Pounder does remarkable work in a brief scene with John Spencer. There’s just so much happening in this episode!

I’ve yet to even mention that Toby and Sam must retrieve Justice Roberto Mendoza (Edward James Olmos) from a local Connecticut jail. Incorrectly stopped for drunk driving, Mendoza doesn’t take racial profiling lightly. Olmos brings pride and heart to the Supreme Court nominee; the scenes in the jail are quite moving. The star power from the supporting cast helps lift this episode to the top of my list. It covers important social issues while offering big laughs. Few shows could match The West Wing with this combination, especially during its heyday.

Just missing the list: “A Proportional Response” (1.3), “The Short List” (1.9), “He Shall, from Time to Time…” (1.12)

The West Wing covers issues specific to its time period, but it still feels timeless. Despite its political setting, the show comes from a long line of workplace dramas and comedies. It’s refreshing to spend time with these characters, and we’ll follow them almost anywhere. We’re now rolling through season two, which builds well on the opening year. New characters join the fold, and the pressure on Bartlet grows towards a classic finale. Once we finish that season, I’ll return here to rank my favorites from that season. By the end, I’ll put together my top choices from the entire run. It will take a few years to reach that point, but it will be a great ride.

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October 14, 2016

The White Helmets: An Up-Close View of Hell

An aid working scans the sky in The White Helmets, a new documentary on Netflix.

The most recent U.S. Presidential Debate was a distressing experience for a lot of us. The candidates barely touched on some key issues because of the many distractions from Donald Trump. One exception was the segment on Syria, which included disagreements on the real culprits and solutions. Beyond the futility of the arguments, what bothered me was recognizing how little I know about that situation. I realize the situation is awful for the citizens, but it still feels distant because it’s happening on the other side of the world. This understanding led to my interest in The White Helmets, a new documentary released by Netflix in September. The 41-minute film by Orlando von Einsiedel (Oscar-nominated for Virunga) drops you into the action in cities that have become dreadful war zones.

The story opens on a black screen, and the only sounds we hear are bombs exploding and people scrambling for cover. Even without visuals, the horrors of war are clear. The first-person view from shaky handheld cameras immerses us in the chaos. It’s a cold open straight out of an action TV series, but the stakes here are very real. It’s disorienting and frightening; there’s no logic to this hellscape. The cold open lasts for a short time, but it makes an impression. There’s no slow build-up to an expected climax. Einsiedel wastes no time showing daily life in Aleppo, a place with no sanctity from the threats. People are constantly looking to the sky and keeping their ears open for the sounds of rushing fighters.

Working with brave videographers on the ground, Einsiedel gives us a rare glimpse at the destruction in Syria. The film’s title refers to the organization that works to protect civilians from the bombings. The White Helmets spend their days pulling kids and other people out of the rubble and risking their lives in the process. Formed in 2013, this group includes 2,900 civilians in 120 locations. It’s a large operation, but there’s only so much they can do against weapons of destruction. We see injured kids, dead bodies, and widespread carnage. The environment feels more like an apocalyptic film than anything that’s possible in our reality.

I’m a dad with two young girls, and it’s impossible not to imagine them here. There are shots of kids their age crying and dealing with serious injuries. I could envision my three-year-old daughter running in the streets, and it frightened me. A boy cries over his dad, and it’s a tragic scene. There are positive moments, however. One high point is the rescue of an infant that’s less than one month old. Trapped under the rubble for 16 hours, this “miracle baby” actually survived. That type of success motivates these guys. Their efforts seem futile on days with more than 200 airstrikes, but victories are possible. Seeing that baby as a toddler near the end reminds us why the risks are worth it.

The surprising part of The White Helmets is how much time we spend in Southern Turkey. The story focuses on three group members — Khaled Farah, Abu Omar, and Mohammed Farah. Their month-long training course in Turkey is the film’s centerpiece. I suspect this choice is practical; shooting too much in Syria could be deadly. It also reveals a sad undercurrent to their training. For these guys, it’s worse to watch the deaths on TV. They’re powerless to do anything and most hope their loved ones survive. One guy sits paralyzed by the phone and waits for news that his brother has died. The biggest challenge is maintaining hope from afar.

Despite the heroic efforts of the White Helmets, a prevailing gloom pervades this film. When the Syrian regime (and probably the Russians) targets hospitals in airstrikes, we’re entered new territory for war. There are no rules to this conflict, which is destroying the country and killing hundreds of thousands. The scenes in Turkey are a little repetitive, but they do show the bond among this group. These guys once were blacksmiths and tailors, but now they work to save all they can. The prevailing theme that “life requires sacrifice” pervades their efforts. These men (no women are present, sadly) have lost friends yet keep pushing forward.

The final shot in The White Helmets shows the men running back into the fray in Syria. They’re better trained and ready to make a difference. It’s interesting to note that it doesn’t matter who are the culprits of each violent act. The Russians are just another enemy inflicting destruction. Buildings are flattened and people are lost while the perpetrators fly away. What can anyone do to stop that type of attack? Einsiedel boldly presents the horrors of modern warfare. Airstrikes are clean in theory, but the bombs don’t only choose enemy targets. Our presidential candidates may have ideas to help in theory; whether anything can resolve this mess is another story.

The White Helmets documentary is currently streaming on Netflix. To learn more about the White Helmets organization, check out their official website

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