And so we return to the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and their ongoing battles within and without the ring. Netflix’s feminist underdog story, which traces the fortunes of a troupe of dreamers, wannabes and cynical veterans at the very fringes of the entertainment world as they try and carve out a place for themselves in the fascinatingly lurid milieu of professional wrestling, is such a vibrant, funny, and defiantly weird piece of television that it’s easy to forget that, under all the spandex and big hair, it’s actually doing serious cultural work.
At base, GLOW is about marginalised women fighting for self determination. The ace up its sleeve, the thing that makes it such a pitch perfect cocktail of comedy and drama, is that failure is built into the narrative model. Hell, most of the characters have already failed, from Alison Brie’s would-be serious actress to Betty Gilpin’s fallen soap star to Marc Maron’s cynical B movie auteur, and they expect to fail again. Moreover, the world expects them to fail. What this means is that every little victory, every incremental win, feels momentous. It means that even when we’re laughing at the excesses of the period and the setting, we’re cheering for our characters – it’s a heady emotional high.
Season 2 does lack the novelty of the previous run, although it still pops with vitality. Whereas the sheer audacious weirdness of the conceit could carry us through the first 10 episodes, now the show – like its characters – has to settle into the production groove. The sprawling ensemble means that there’s always something going on, even when it feels like, overall, we’re not making too much narrative headway. As we said, small victories, incremental steps. The focus remains more or less on Ruth (Brie) and Debbie’s (Gilpin) frenemy-ship, as the latter tries to flex her muscles by taking on a producing role on the show-within-a-show, while the former leans into her position as the wrestling franchise’s chief bad guy, the USSR-themed Zoya the Destroyer.
There’s more interesting stuff happening elsewhere in the ensemble, though, especially when the show grapples with issues of race and representation. Kia Stevens’ Tammé “Welfare Queen” Dawson has to deal with her college student son learning that she’s playing a damaging African American stereotype in the ring, while Sunita Mani’s Arthie struggles to shed her character “Beirut the Mad Bomber”, a role she finds particularly demeaning given that she’s actually Indian.
Meanwhile, Maron’s embittered Sam Sylvia tries – and largely fails, because, hey, he is who he is – to forge a meaningful relationship with his newly discovered daughter, Justine (Britt Baron), although the real meat of his arc is him dealing with his feelings for go-getter Ruth, whose talents he both respects and finds threatening. Men feeling threatened by talented women is a big theme in GLOW, and its embodied by guys we’re also positioned to like – mainly Sam and rich kid producer Bash (Chris Lowell), who spend a lot of time shutting down freshly minted producer Debbie just because they can.
Which sounds heavy, but GLOW‘s charm is that it channels these themes inside a bright, poppy, garishly candy-coloured package, and it never lets its thematic concerns bog down the action of the narrative, which nimbly skips along. For a show that concerns itself with failure and the fragility of dreams, GLOW is almost never not fun. It’s hard to see it lasting for too many more seasons – after all, what’s the end game here? – but while it’s here, it’s a must watch.
Following on from the events of last season and crossover series The Defenders, season two of Luke Cage (or Marvel’s Luke Cage if you prefer) sees the titular Hero for Hire (Mike Colter) settling into the groove of being Harlem’s champion-about-town. Old enemies are still around to make life difficult for him, chiefly politician-turned-crime-boss Mariah Dillard/Stokes (Alfre Woodard) and major-domo Shades (Theo Rossi), and a new threat arises in the form of Jamaican gangster Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), who wants to take Harlem for himself and has no qualms about employing horrifying violence to do so.
Which sounds like there should be plenty for our man to deal with this year, but unfortunately Luke Cage Season 2 is a fairly sluggish affair. It’s a show that absolutely shines in the details but fumbles the big picture, filling the screen with fascinating and vibrant elements of African American culture (the soundtrack, again highlighted by live performances at the nightclub Harlem’s Paradise, is all killer), but hampered by leaden pacing and an almost terminal lack of narrative direction. It’s always fun to hang out in Luke Cage’s Harlem, but this season it seems to have a real problem with figuring out what kind of story it’s trying to tell.
That’s weirdly appropriate in a way, as Luke’s main arc is figuring out what kind of hero he’s going to be. He spends a lot of time this season ruminating on his position in the community, and figuring how to get paid (Hero for Hire, remember?) without compromising his ethics – and he’s not always successful. In parallel, we get Mariah trying to negotiate her transition from political player to, ultimately, gangster, which is a rough journey and not as well written as you might hope. The series seems to have a real problem with understanding who Mariah is or who they want her to be, and as a result her characterisation is wildly erratic and inconsistent, lurching from calculating mastermind to drunken mess to aggrieved matriarch and back. Luckily Alfre Woodard is an absolute gun and remains eminently watchable even when the script doesn’t give her the support she deserves.
Season 2 also continues the grand Marvel thematic tradition of Oh No My Dad Was Problematic, bringing in the late, great Reg E. Cathey (this was his final role and the series is dedicated to him) as Cage Senior, a preacher who has been alienated from his son since the latter was jailed, and who blames the stress of that ordeal for putting his wife into an early grave. Mariah is also struggling with her legacy, trying to reconnect with her daughter, Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis) a doctor-turned-naturopath who has turned her back on the family legacy. Between this and season 2 of Jessica Jones that’s two instances of Oh No My Mum Was Problematic we’ve had from Marvel this year, which is some kind of blow for representation, we guess.
Still, themes of family, legacy and community run deep in Luke Cage, with pretty much every character directed by, or struggling to get out from under, generational issues – old debts, bad blood, family shame, cycles of violence and revenge. Even Bushmaster, a charismatic and ruthless villain with a nice line in capoeira kick-fighting, is driven by the desire for vengeance for crimes against his family. This is the good stuff – by grounding the action of the series in this palpable sense of place and history, the whole thing has a greater dramatic weight.
That weight does slow things down though – although perhaps that’s just Netflix’s insistence on sticking to their unwieldy 13 episode season plan, which we have griped about before. Once again, there’s not enough story to stretch over the 13 hour framework comfortably, and we spend a lot of time spinning our wheels or dealing with needless complications that don’t forward either the plot or the themes of the series. This is a problem endemic to the Marvel Netflix stable, and perhaps it’s no more prevalent than in most episodic entertainment, but given we’re encouraged to binge this stuff, it becomes all the more apparent and damaging in this context.
It does allow time for little detours and fun moments, though, and as we pointed out, it’s in these little details that Luke Cage sings. We get a few fun cameos from the broader Marvel Netflixiverse, and we get to spend a lot of time with tough cop and – since the events of The Defenders – amputee Misty Knight (Simone Messick), who refuses to let the loss of a limb slow her down (even if it is eventually dealt with in the most Marvel way possible). One of the most fun interludes involves Knight hanging out with Iron Fist’s Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and kicking an impressive amount of ass in a barroom brawl – this might be the closest we get to a Daughters of the Dragon show, but we’ll take what we can get.
Which is a good attitude to go into this one with. Luke Cage isn’t a bad show, but it definitely falls short of its obvious inherent potential. It’s entertaining enough and sports excellent performance scenes, but the whole thing doesn’t hang together as well as it should. If we’re getting a third season – and S2 leaves us in a place where that seems like a certainty – hopefully it’s a tighter and more focused affair. We’ve hung out enough – it’s time to get moving.
There’s a point later on in Happy where Nick Sax, Christopher Meloni’s substance-addled, self-loathing cop-turned hitman, is using a mob boss’s family as body armour. Literally – he’s got the guy’s wife strapped to his front, he’s got the kid in a papoose kind of arrangement, they’re both alive, and the squad of mafia goombas he’s up against are fearful of firing, lest they accidentally kill one of their boss’s beloveds.
Sax has no such compunctions about firing at them. He slaughters the lot. He slaughters a lot of people over the course of Happy’s eight episode first season, dispatching all and sundry in outrageous, over the top, blood-soaked ways, all the time ruminating on his own apparent inability to be killed in turn. Sax isn’t immortal, per se; it’s just that his life is a complete toilet and he figures the universe can’t be bothered sending him to hell when he’s suffering just fine here. There’s nothing supernatural about him.
Unless you count the tiny, blue winged unicorn he’s been seeing lately, telling him he has to save a little girl from a very, very bad man.
The unicorn’s name is Happy, and he sounds an awful lot like Patton Oswalt. He’s the imaginary friend of a Hailey (Bryce Lorenzo), who’s been kidnapped by a grotesque pervert dressed in a macabre Santa suit (Joseph D. Reitman). Happy went out to find the one guy who can save her – and that’s our man Sax. Sax might be delusional. He might be hallucinating. Or he might have one last shot at redemption – if he can kill his way to Hailey. And we’re off.
Based on the comic series by Grant Morrison (The Invisibles) and Darrick Robertson (Transmetropolitan), Happy draws on a lot of influences, but reconfigures its sources into something wholly new and original. Imagine if Sin City had the good sense not to take itself too seriously. Imagine if Jimmy Stewart shot a bunch of guys in Harvey. Imagine if Law & Order SVU‘s Elliot Stabler went riiiiggghht off the rails and descended into drugs, alcohol, and murder for hire.
The whole thing is gloriously, gleefully, perverse, brutal and ugly – a trademark tone for executive producer and principal director Brian Taylor, whose works include the pretty decent Crank movies and the pretty terrible Gamer and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Everything is gritty and grimy, bathed in multicoloured neon, a nightmare New York populated by criminals, scavengers, hookers, psychopaths – and the odd innocent in need of salvation.
At the centre of it all is Meloni, who just nails it as the all-too-self-aware, all-too-self-destructive, anti-heroic Sax. It’s a bravura turn, with Meloni managing to tun every throwaway tough guy line into one for the ages. It’s an absolutely fearless performance, too; Sax might be an unstoppable killing machine once he gets up a head of steam, but he never looks cool doing it. He’s the universe’s chew toy, the butt of every joke, a loser’s loser, and he knows it.
He’s counterbalanced by Oswalt’s voice work as Happy, who is something right out of a Dsiney cartoon (well, maybe DreamWorks) and is determined to get this hulking hitman to do the right thing. The central joke is, of course, the contrast between this refugee from a Saturday morning kid’s show and the horrible urban milieu he’s forced to navigate, and the series plays with that in a number of fun and clever ways. It also toys with the nature of Happy’s “reality” a lot. The little unicorn is a self-described imaginary friend, but how imaginary is imaginary? As the season progresses the show teases out a background mythology that is more complex than first taste might suggest.
So urban fantasy fans will enjoy getting that box ticked, but they may have trouble shouldering their way through the tsunami of black, bad taste humour that is Happy’s stock in trade. The show is gleefully venal, delighting in presenting almost every single one of its characters at their worst. Happy’s supporting cast is a menagerie of sadistic killers, corrupt cops, vain mafia widows, coke-snorting card sharks, and worse – and why not? When your nominal hero is a suicidal alcoholic who kills for money, the sky – or rather the gutter- is the limit when it comes to the opposition. But don’t worry if you don’t like these people – most of them die. Horribly.
But the point is that Happy is not for everyone, and it doesn’t want to be. Having said that, those of us in its sights are in for a wild ride. It’s a perfect example of its type – deranged, hyper-violent, grotesque, too clever by half, but with a hidden heart that won’t stop beating no matter what the world throws at it. You’ll love it. Unless you don’t.