Mercy & Consequences: COBRA KAI (Season 3 – Review)

Dangerously close to rampant melodrama, Cobra Kai’s most anticipated season to date just about keeps its fast-moving feet on the ground.

Who knew that this YouTube originated series would turn out to be such a pop cultural success? Maybe we should have seen it coming, given how popular and beloved The Karate Kid (and to an extent its sequels) remains over 35 years on. Daniel-san and Mr Miyagi permeated the cultural consciousness of the 1980s to the same degree as Indiana Jones or the Terminator or Marty McFly. In a cheesy, all-American way, they extolled the virtue of Eastern philosophy on Western coming of age tropes, with Daniel LaRusso finding the personal balance in his life, and the martial art that developed his confidence, that allowed him to discover his way in the world. The sequels tweaked the formula but, much like the Rocky pictures of the same era, the core idea of The Karate Kid remained the touchstone.

Hence why Cobra Kai used the central conflict of that original movie as part of its concept, yet joyously flipped the script. This wasn’t a show, across the first season, that was directly about the grown-up Daniel LaRusso, the handsome All-Valley champion and wax on-wax off mentee of the sage Miyagi, but rather the teenager he bested in the final – Johnny Lawrence. Cobra Kai’s first principle lay in examining what happened to the loser, the kid who didn’t win the day and win the girl, and pick up The Karate Kid mythos of lost father figures around a broken, angry, disillusioned figure who re-adopts the misguided, first strike mantra of his cruel mentor and tries to use it to regain self-respect. The surprising brilliance of that first season is how we came to understand Cobra Kai as a series that introduced practical shades of grey within the delineated good/bad dichotomies of a simpler time.

While still entertaining, the series has lost a little of that as it expanded the idea, and the ensemble, into what the third season represents: fun, silly but overblown melodrama with only sparks of self-referential awareness that keep it grounded.

2021: 10 TV Shows to Anticipate

With 2020 almost at an end, it’s worth taking a look ahead into 2021 and the TV series that could be the movers and shakers over the next year.

Now, given 2020, there’s a strong chance some of these could end up postponed until 2022 but let’s assume they will meet their 2021 airdates right now. These are the series that most excite me coming soon…

2020 Top 10: TV Shows

As we close out 2020, it’s time to put together a couple of Top 10 lists based on my key entertainment passions – film & TV.

First up – TV shows.

Lockdown actually afforded me the chance to watch quite a few new entries and classic TV shows – Community, The Sopranos and we’re currently amidst a first watch of Mad Men. Twin Peaks and The Wire are on the agenda for 2021 at some point.

Anyway, while 2020 saw lesser returns for cinema, it was actually a great year for TV which had the space to shine and at points take centre stage, so much so I’ve thrown a few honourable mentions in here too. Nothing quite as magnificent as Watchmen last year but still some terrific storytelling.

Here goes…

Milking the Franchise: STAR WARS, MARVEL & beyond

As Star Wars and Marvel announce their future plans, A. J. Black discusses the phenomenon of milking the biggest franchises in the world for all they’re worth…

Franchise cinema, let’s be honest, can be thrilling. It can transform movie experiences from solitary pursuits to collective endeavours.

In an age of deeply fractured politics and cultural conflicts happening across nation states, there is comfort in how Captain America taking on Thanos only for the entire MCU to ride in and support him galvanised everyone operating in that shared cinematic space to cheer in collective joy, no matter what your political or cultural persuasion. Many felt the same when Rey and Kylo Ren turned the Emperor’s fire back on him (though I’d argue this was a far diminished return than the Marvel example…). Denigrators of franchise filmmaking, of fandoms indulging in shared universes, miss this aspect – the collectivisation of a text which binds fans together.

It is often toxic, but it is equally as often magnetic and joyful.

There is, however, a limit to the reach and scope of such franchise endeavours for those, like me, who skirt the edges of fandom.

Marvel and Star Warsboth of whom Disney just announced a huge slate of projects for over the next few years—are not the worlds I personally am most invested in. My fandom interests lie elsewhere but even then, I am not a consumer who digests only Star Trek or only James Bond. Fandoms are frequently incredible communities filled with people who live and breathe the properties they love, and this is to be—sans the aforementioned toxicity—encouraged. Friendships are born. Partnerships are made. Respect can be mutual. I have seen these things happen. I have, in my own way, experienced them myself.

Yet it feels like we are sailing close to a perihelion of franchise dilution. A point where financial concern and milking a product for all its worth become not just the primary driver, but the only driving principle.

The American Nightmare: Experiencing THE SOPRANOS

Following a first watch of the show, A. J. Black discusses his impressions after experiencing David Chase’s seminal Mob drama, The Sopranos

To me, The Sopranos is about the American Nightmare, as opposed to the American Dream.

The final episode of David Chase’s magnum opus about the New Jersey Mob which ran from 1999 through to 2007 on HBO is called Made in America, as if to underline how the larger than life central figure of Anthony ‘Tony’ Soprano, despite his Italian heritage and Mob family history, could only exist in the framework of American society. Even with a fairly sprawling cast of regular fixtures, within the Soprano family and without, it was Tony who encapsulated the broken promise of America in one deeply flawed, psychologically scarred, selfish and sociopathic individual. The series pivoted around the balance between being head of the New Jersey Mafia while trying to exist as the patriarch of a prototypical American nuclear family, and how these elements would come to often almost violent blows.

Chase’s series is constructed upon the idea that Tony, while representing ostensibly the quite cliched, Mario Puzo-definition of an Italian gangster—masculine, hard drinking, loves food, charms women etc…—was also intensely damaged as a human being to the point he reaches out and accesses therapy as a way of grappling with his own life and psyche, traditionally the kind of omertà-breaking move that would consign him to Mafia oblivion. The Sopranos only works so well because Tony needs to talk, to find an outlet for the filthy, ugly, morally vacuous existence he leads within a world of zero substance posing as important machismo. If Tony represents how America lost its way, became corrupted by cynical values of self-deception and mercurial self-interest, then it’s the American Dream week in week out in the office of Dr. Jennifer Melfi as much as it is a fairly low-rent Jersey gangster.

Having just turned two decades old, experiencing The Sopranos for the first time throws all of this into sharp relief, suggesting Tony Soprano was less an actualisation of America’s decay but more of a harbinger of what was to come.

Series Retrospective: ALIAS – ‘The Nemesis’ (3×06 – Review)

In 2018, we began a deep-dive TV review series looking at J.J. Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, we’ll be looking at Season Three’s 22-episode run in detail…

The Nemesis reminded me of Double Agent, from Alias’ second season. Partly for picking up on threads established in that episode, but also in how it straddles serialisation and stand-alone storytelling.

While in some respects, The Nemesis diverges from the ongoing character arc for Sydney and the mythology around her missing time, in other ways it is central to everything we’ve experienced in the previous five episodes. Repercussions suggested Sydney needed to face the consequences of the two years we skipped, and the climactic beat of The Telling, after A Missing Link placed significant moral compromise in our mind about what Syd might have become, or had to become, in those missing years. The Nemesis contextualises this by framing an episode almost entirely around the lingering elements of Season Two. Crystal Nix Hines’ script is almost a sequel to both The Telling and the relentless final third of the second season as a whole, pulling us back into that paradigm after Season Three launched into a new direction. Even the final scenes of the episode contain the same music and tempo as the end of the previous year.

Yet simultaneously, it takes broader steps to what is now an inevitable confrontation between Sydney and the NSC, with Lauren’s investigation into the Lazarey murder taking significant strides in the sub-plot of this episode. Strip that away and The Nemesis could have been, for all intents and purposes, a relatively stand-alone episode that simply works at those Season Two threads, but Nix Hines does an admirable job of tying the stylistics of these two different seasons together across this hour, even if the constituent parts of Syd’s reunion with the villainous Allison Doren struggle to live up to their promise. The Nemesis is designed to serve as, essentially, the concluding beat of the season’s first act before Prelude sends us thundering into the next one.

It’s a strange balance, overall, and one that is only partially successful.

The Good, Bad & Ugly of Sci-Fi TV – Kenneth Johnson’s V

In a new series looking at classic sci-fi TV, Jeff Fountain takes us back on a near four decade journey through the various incarnations of Kenneth Johnson’s alien invasion drama, V

In 2020, television is enjoying another golden age.

Network TV, once the king of the small screen, has now been pushed aside for the most part for streaming services, giving viewers an endless supply of choices, with shows looking more like mini-movies than anything. Science fiction has also enjoyed this renaissance but it wasn’t always that way. Decades past are littered with failed attempts, outright horrific shows and some things that never grabbed an audience.

One of said shows was V, and its birth in the ’80s led to a strange and bizarre path that was both fascinating and frustrating to watch.

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY: a hot, glorious mess of cosmic horror, social justice and Afro-futurism (Season 1 – Review)

Where do you even begin to start when examining Lovecraft Country? Misha Green’s series feels like an apogee of black-fronted genre television, a show which throws everything but the kitchen sink at its audience.

One recurrent aspect of Lovecraft Country across the ten episode run (which has felt like twenty given how much Green and her writers have packed in) is how acutely aware everyone involved in the show is about what the series means. This is not just just a drama. This feels like a statement. It feels like television reparations for decades of TV shows and movies that Lovecraft Country takes an enormous cue from, all of them almost exclusively fronted by white casts with low threshold of ethnic diversity, particularly in American storytelling. Lovecraft Country confidently, with fulsome sass and stylistic vim, barges onto the scene with a concoction of high concept Afro-futurism, cosmic horror, social justice power and emotional melodrama. It does so unapologetically.

It makes for quite a ride, frankly. Green, backed by two very different showmen in Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams, adapts Matt Ruff’s episodic and almost anthological source material relatively faithfully, revelling in some of the more striking and powerful storylines – particularly Ruby’s Mr Hyde-style transformation, powered by racial commentary, that is delivered with icky, brutal gore in Strange Case (it was my favourite story in Ruff’s book and the show does it justice). Along the way, Green is unafraid to throw new juice in the mix, such as Atticus Freeman’s backstory as a GI in Korea, brought to live in what for me is Lovecraft Country’s finest episode, Meet Me in Daegu, and strings together a myriad of narratives and ideas with real bravado come the season finale. Not all of them stick but Lovecraft Country is never less than pulsing, pulp entertainment of the highest order.

It is, frankly, a complete hot mess, but I mean that in the kindest possible terms.

First Impressions & Third Time Lucky? STAR TREK: DISCOVERY – ‘That Hope Is You’

Come the end of Star Trek: Discovery’s much anticipated third season premiere, That Hope Is You, I was left wondering if the title referred to protagonist Michael Burnham in more ways than one.

As premieres go, this one takes a calculated gamble. In solely featuring Burnham’s journey, having blasted her way 930 years into the far future ahead of the titular USS Discovery following the histrionic climax of Such Sweet Sorrow, writer and showrunner Michelle Paradise (alongside co-writers Jenny Lumet & CBS/Paramount Trek uber-producer Alex Kurtzman) operates on the assumption that Burnham continues to be the primary reason we’re tuning into Discovery. Has any premiere of a Star Trek season structured an opener quite like this? It had more in common with Lost’s Season 3 premiere A Tale of Two Cities, for me, which doubled down on the show’s principal protagonist Jack Shepherd as he was thrown into the unseen world of the Others on the mystical Island, with much of the supporting cast having to wait their turn an episode, or even two.

Given how Discovery’s playbook across Season Two very much aligned with the Bad Robot stable of serialised television, this comes as no surprise. Kurtzman is of that aegis, forged as a producer on shows which advanced serialisation across the 2000’s in genre television following the millennial boom in prestige cable drama, and under his overall direction Discovery has rarely embraced the Star Trek structural model of old. Star Trek: Picard was of similar stock earlier in the year, with only the recent Star Trek: Lower Decks defiantly returning to a largely stand-alone episodic format in line with The Next Generation-era. Opinions on which style better suit Star Trek vary far and wide but Discovery, a show which thanks to all kinds of behind the scenes changes and course corrections has struggled in its own skin, has always had one eye on being Star Trek for a new era.

That Hope Is You, by that definition, straddles the middle. It is defined by examining the future yet remains, stubbornly, partially stuck in the past.

New Horrified Article: HORROR IN THE BRITCOM – ‘Only Fools and Fridays’

New article for Horrified Magazine!

Horrified is a new kid on the block but is producing some fine work in the realm of British horror, both in terms of analysis and original fiction, so I was delighted when the editor, Freddy, was keen on my pitch for a recurring series called ‘Horror in the Britcom’, unpicking the intersection between horror and comedy in British sitcoms…

For this second piece, I’m talking about an unexpected offering in the realm of horror, Only Fools and Horses