Friday, December 23, 2016

Idiot Boxing: Supernatural, season 11 (2015-2016); Agents of SHIELD, season 4 Winter (2016)

Amara, a.k.a The Darkness, is the primary nemesis in season
11. She is not only an interesting revelation of the show's

mythology, but also as powerful an adversary as we've seen 
since Lucifer way back in the 4th and 5th seasons.
Supernatural, season 11 (2015-2016)

A bit behind on this particular show, but better late than never.

An amazingly satisfying return to form for a show that, for me, had lost some of its appeal in recent years.

Not long ago, I did a rather thorough rundown of the first 10 seasons of Supernatural. My general takeaway has been that the first five seasons of the show were clearly its "Golden Age," with none of the succeeding seasons ever quite approaching the quality of that first run. A few seasons since then have been solid, even good, but never quite putting it all together the way the show did several times between 2005 and 2010. So imagine my surprise when, after five seasons, the show comes back and rediscovers its glory. This is what season 11 did, amazingly.

Season 10 ended with Sam and Dean killing Death, releasing Dean from the mark of Cain, and consequently unleashing "The Darkness," a massively powerful entity so ancient that not even eons-old angels or demons know exactly what it is or wants. Uncovering its nature and motivation is a fairly novel and compelling arc for the season. While a very picky, high-brow viewer is likely to find the answers to these questions a bit underwhelming, I found them adequately satisfying for a TV show predicated a bit more on fun than on pretentious philosophizing or cosmology.

Even more than the overall "Darkness" story line was the strong, consistent return to what made the show great during its best years. Of the 23 episodes, there was not one that I thought was weak; this is something I could not say about most of the seasons after the fifth. Even episodes which weren't advancing the Darkness plot were solid "monster-of-the-week" episodes which are all but necessary for 23-episode network shows like Supernatural. And instead of offering us lame characters who are purely comic relief (i.e. Garth or the early episodes with Charlie in seasons 7 and 8), we get back to reliable, strong supporting characters who have grit. We get Sherriff Jody Mills again, always a solid character, and we even get a great flashback episode featuring Bobby and Rufus. We also see the addition of a few new, diverse, and capable hunters with the deaf Eileen and the gay couple Cesar and Jessy. In two separate but equally strong episodes, Sam and Dean join Eileen to hunt a banshee and Jessy hunt a type of monster we haven't seen before, both on revenge quests. It was nice to get some new hunter blood in the mix, as it put me in mind of the great early episodes with Gordon.

The main players in season 11. I was pleased with how Castiel
and Crowley were granted some of their old grit and gravity
to go with more carefully portioned humor. Heck, I even found
Rowena far more tolerable this season.
I was also happy to see the character balance take on portions more to my liking. I felt that in recent seasons, Castiel and Crowley were being leaned on too much. I certainly appreciate what they've brought to the show, especially Mark Shepperd's performance as Crowley. But I enjoyed them much more when their appearances were a bit more limited, and when Castiel was more tortured and Crowley more intensely evil. Between seasons 7 and 10, though, they started to get more and more screen time, and they were used more for humor than for the gravity which they could bring to situations. Season 11 still has them in some comical spots, to be sure, but they also see a return to some welcome drama.

I must confess that the show's budget constraints can tend to show through in this season. Certain sets, while effective enough, have started to grow a tad stale. I still love the Men of Letters headquarters. That can stay. But how many more times can we see Crowley or Rowena in a shoddy warehouse converted into a throne room? It was old a few seasons ago, and it's still old. I try to remind myself that this is not Game of Thrones, which has massively deep financial resources to dazzle us with a variety of lush sets and props. Still, I'd like to see if they can show some creativity and change it up a bit in the future. I will also say that there is still the unanswered question of whether Death is, truly, obliterated. I'm surprised that the season ended without at least a slight suggestion as to what has happened to the ultimate reaper. Perhaps I am biased, though, as the show's version of Death is always one which I liked, and the actor who plays him - Julian Richings - has great presence. I do hope he makes some sort of return.

So I'm back on board. For the first time in a few years, I'm actually watching the current season week-by-week, keeping up with the episodes shortly after they air. So far, I like what the current season is doing. The balance of dark terror and fun is still holding nicely. Very nice to see this fun and sometimes creepy show back on track.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 4, Winter (2016)

The Winter segment of the season comprises the first 8 episodes which complete a sort of mini-arc before the Winter break.

Not a bad start at all, although I'm beginning to wonder if the scale of the show is outstripping the things that have made it great in the past.

This season opens with Coulson back in the field, working with familiar comrades May, Mack, Simmons, and Fitz. All of them are working for the new director Jeffrey Mace, who is eventually revealed as an inhuman possessed of immense physical strength. He's also a peculiarly positive administrator who does actually seem to have SHIELD's interest at heart. Mace and the familiar field agents have several issues to deal with: Daisy has become a vigilante hunting down Watchdog members, and a mysterious and powerful creature known as "The Ghost Rider" is slaying gang members in the Los Angeles area.

There's a lot to like about the Winter segment. The iconic Ghost Rider character is handled well, combing the innate cool of the character's look with a compelling backstory that ties into not only other supernatural elements (conveniently just after Doctor Strange was released) but also the Dark/Zero Matter that was a key element in Agent Carter's second season. There are a few nice little narrative feints, which lead you to a few false assumptions before certain aspects of the show are revealed. I'm also glad that the Director Mace storyline is taking the show in an interesting direction. My only hope is that he's not revealed as some sort of inhuman saboteur, since we've already seen the "traitor" narrative play out in each of the show's first three seasons. It would nice if we got to see SHIELD deal with a threat that comes completely from outside of themselves for once.

The primary characters of the show are still strong enough. At this point, Simmons and Fitz are the best in terms of character, as they've shown the most evolution through the course of the show. And this evolution has felt quite organic. It helps that Iain DeCaestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge have done marvelous acting jobs. The others are all fine, although I don't see any real chemistry between Mack and Elena. The romantic relationship between the two seems forced, as the show has never really shown much natural magnetism between them. To me, Mack is a character which sometimes feels fragmented, with shifts in attitude that don't always show enough internal logic. He is sometimes written as a tortured soul, at other times as a hard-as-nails badass, and yet others as a bit of a teddy bear. Those don't completely synch to me. Still, he is often given the best lines, like "My ax is plenty sharp. And a shotgun." I'll ignore that his shotgun-ax is a laughably impractical weapon and just enjoy the funny.

The Ghost Rider plot wrapped up in satisfying fashion, and the setup for Aida becoming a new threat is now in place. With the only MCU film releasing during the remainder of season 4 being Guardians of the Galaxy 2 next May, I think we can assume that there will be no obvious tie-in between the show and the movie. So the show is all on its own. Aida seems like a new kind of threat, which is intriguing. As long as it doesn't follow the same lines as Age of Ultron, then I think we may be in for the most unique second half since season 1.

Note: Word is out that Agents of SHIELD is in danger of cancellation, due to gradually decreasing viewership. I hope it's not the case, but if ABC does give it the axe, I hope it lives on through some other network. Though it's not the greatest show, I've always enjoyed its place in the MCU and think that its merits far outweigh its weaknesses.