Saturday, May 20, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 4 (2016-2017); Crashing, season 1 (2017)

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 4 (2016-2017)

Spoiler-Free Section

Another solid season which I suspect will be even more fun to rewatch in binge mode.

This is the first season in which the show clearly divided its 22-episode season into three "pods" of seven or eight episodes each, with each pod focusing on a particular story arc. All of the arcs are, however, connected with an overall narrative. The first pod, "Ghost Rider," introduces a supernatural element into the series. This element, in turn, becomes connected to the "LMD" second pod, which focuses on the creation of Life Model Decoys (basically, artificially intelligent android body doubles). Everything comes together during the third pod, "Agents of Hydra," in which the agents are all trapped within a Matrix-like artificial reality generated and maintained by a massive, virtual reality program known as The Framework.

I found this season a lot of fun. The Ghost Rider arc handles the iconic character well, introducing him as one of the more recent incarnations of the spectral spirit of vengeance. He makes for a presence unique to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, presenting a real test to a SHIELD group that is still adjusting to new leadership. Coulson is back to being a field agent, while the new head of SHIELD is a relatively unknown quantity to long-standing agents almost as much as he's unknown to us viewers. The mystery around him is used well as a story device, and there are a few fun little plot twists regarding this new leader. The story manages to segue the supernatural elements of the Ghost Rider arc into the LMD arc in compelling ways, when an LMD - AIDA - designed by Fitz and fellow scientist Radcliffe reads an other-worldly, evil tome, turning her into something neither completely machine, spirit, nor human. AIDA becomes what I would argue is one of the the single most curious and fascinating characters in the MCU.

AIDA and Fitz in the Framework, where several beloved
characters have undergone radical changes. None more so
than the normally-genteel Leopold Fitz. The shifts allow the
actors to show off their range rather well.
The story is the clear strength of the season. The characters are an ever-more mixed bag, in my view. Fitz and Simmons are now, to me, firmly the best characters on the show. Of everyone, they have always seemed the most empathetic, while also being capable, and showing actual, real growth as people. It doesn't hurt that Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge continue to turn out great performances in the roles. The other regular characters, though, were lackluster to me. Mae does become a bit more humanized, which is nice, but I've never completely enjoyed Mack or even Yo-Yo. This season does nothing to really remedy that. They're not annoying characters, such as I often found Bobbi Morse and Hunter, but they also never leave me with a desire to see any more of them.

The dialogue was also a bit spotty in places in this season, as well. There is one particular episode during the LMD arc in which Mack gets to deliver a slew of hilarious lines about robots taking over the world. There are also a few gems here an there, but for much of the season, I found a lot of the dialogue a bit obvious and unimaginative. Fortunately, it wasn't so bad that it overwhelmed what was otherwise a fun season. I'm definitely looking forward to binge watching the entire run again, once its made available on streaming services, most likely in September or so.

A Few Spoilers Ahead - You've Been Warned

I love the buildup into the third arc, as well as its culmination into the penultimate episode. When AIDA/Ophelia is overwhelmed by rejection, rage, and a desire for vengeance, I was transfixed. While I did find the pacing of the final episode a bit rushed and herky-jerky at times, I thought it wrapped up quite well. My one beef is that I actually would have preferred to see Mack (though not necessarily Yo-Yo) die in the Framework. Mack has probably become my least favorite (but not disliked) character. I've generally found him less interesting than his potential for two full seasons now, and I actually think his self-absorbed rejection of reality would have made for a rather compelling, if tragic, ending to the season. I actually appreciate when this happens, as it raises the stakes for everyone when a major "hero" character doesn't make it, a la Tripp back in season 2.

My one other particular issue with this season is how the entire SHIELD team has turned into hookup central. Why do they feel the need to pair everyone off? Fitz and Simmons made complete sense, right from the show's start back in 2013. Then Mack and Yo-Yo? OK, but neither of them is terribly interesting. The little flirtation between Daisy and Robbie Reyes? Maybe a bit forced, but fortunately I don't see that one going anywhere soon. But now Coulson and Mae? I get it - on paper, it makes some sense, but can't we have just one or two agents who remain complete loners, dedicated solely to the job of protecting people? Those types of characters can bring something different to the show, since we already have a decent amount of romance in what is obviously a fantasy/action/adventure tale.

Again, these are minor gripes that I'm fairly sure won't bother me quite as much when I binge watch this season later. I was really glad to hear that the show was recently renewed for a fifth season. It's hit its stride, to be sure.

Pete, getting some assistance from the eminently crass and
equally generous and kind Sarah Silverman.
Crashing, season 1 (2017)

Solid new comedy on HBO that stays within its unique self quite well.

Created by and starring Pete Holmes, the series draws from Holmes's own life experience as a devout Christian, aspiring stand-up comedian, and recent divorcee in the New York City area. The series begins with Pete discovering that this wife, played by Lauren Lapkus, has been cheating on him with a fellow elementary school teacher. This throws the rather naive Pete into a relative tailspin, sending him running away from their house and into the city. Pete follows some highly misguided advice by a fellow comedian to "work through" his marital sadness on stage. When he inevitably bombs in spectacular fashion, he meets troubled comic legend Artie Lange, who offers Pete a place to crash in exchange for joining him on the road for night, in order to keep the addictive Lange sober. Thus begins a cycle whereby Pete tries to get his personal and professional life back together and benefits from the help of far more successful stand-up comedians, including Lange, T.J. Miller, Sarah Silverman, and others.

While the basic premise of the show isn't wildly novel, it works extremely well on a couple of levels. One is that it throws the rather sheltered Holmes into some odd and uncomfortable situations. Seeing a 6' 6", dorky, white, devout Christian struggling to keep Artie Lange sober or dealing with degenerate, foul-mouthed comedians is fodder for plenty of laughs. And while Holmes doesn't have the sharp, biting wit or surreal creativity of modern stand-up masters like Louis C.K. or even Maria Bamford and their like, he is a skilled stand-up who knows how to write a deliver some good jokes, in both the stand-up and dramedy portions of the show. I don't know that Holmes could carry the entire season, a modest eight episodes, by himself, so the structure of having other, stronger and stylistically contrasting comedians cycling into and out of the proceedings is a major strength.

Getting scenes and moments pairing the vice-addled Lange
and the straight-arrow Holmes provides more than a few
hilarious "odd couple" moments.
The show is also helped by the fact that there is a fairly compelling tale of personal growth happening throughout. Based on events in his real life, in which he was cheated on by his wife, Holmes's on-screen persona is sent into a crisis of faith and doubts about his chosen profession. A decent amount of depth is offered during Holmes's discussions about his Christian faith and worldview with oddball atheists like Lange and Silverman. One of the novel aspects is that Holmes's doesn't abandon his faith wholesale, but instead begins to alter and expand his understanding of it. The show never becomes overly absorbed with this theme, fortunately, but rather is enhanced by it.

So it's a fun first season, and hardly much of a time commitment. Clocking it at a very modest eight episodes, each being 30 minutes, the first episode is a good indicator of the following seven. I'd recommend that anyone check out the pilot, at the very least. For my part (and my wife's), we're looking forward to the second season.