TV Review: Jessica Jones, Season One (2015)

Television

Jessica jones Poster

After being thoroughly blown away by the excellence that was Daredevil (2015), I was a bit nervous about how Marvel and Netflix were going to follow up with their next production, Jessica Jones. On top of that, despite being an avid comic-book reader I had never really read many comics with the character in; Alias, the comic on which Jessica Jones is based, has been out of print for a number of years until very recently. The “no capes” aesthetic also worried me – could Marvel make a show set in a realistic setting with non-superhero characters? My previous experience with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. told me no, although I am aware that apparently that show has become excellent since its lacklustre first season.

Once again, Marvel has captured lightning in a bottle. The “no capes” aesthetic turns out to be one of Jessica Jones’ best aspects. All of these characters feel very real, complex, and full of problems, most of all Jessica herself, portrayed by Krysten Ritter. She is without a doubt one of the greatest of heroines, and is going to go down in popular culture as such. Simply put, Jessica Jones is totally unlike anything else that Marvel has done, and also unlike anything else that has come before. It is their most original and thoughtful production to date, and perhaps their most important, too.

Jessica Jones 1

Krysten Ritter’s performance as Jessica Jones will leave you breathless. She is without a doubt one of the best female heroes of recent memory.

The show’s treatment of real-life issues, such as sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, and sexuality is perfect. I can’t think of another show, movie, or book that has done this much to explore the issues that women face on a daily basis. It’s true stroke of brilliance, though, is that the show never whacks you over the head with it, telling you these issues as some kind of political soapbox. Rather, the issues are delicately sown into the fabric of the story. They are necessary to the kind of story Jessica Jones is telling. By the same token, Jessica Jones is not a story that could feature a male lead; it absolutely had to have a female lead for it to work.

One of the biggest highlights of the show is David Tennant’s performance as Kilgrave, or as he’s known in the comic-books, the Purple Man. It would have been very easy to make Kilgrave a cartoony villain, but Tennant crafts a truly scary performance. One look at Kilgrave and you can tell he’s just a complete sociopath. But Tennant also imbues him with vulnerability and even sympathy. The writers resist the urge to make this super-powered rapist a truly evil, unlikeable villain. Instead, we spend a lot of the show in his shoes; learning about his childhood and the circumstances that his power creates. He is one of the first villains I’ve seen where he is as much a victim of his own power as the people that befall his gaze. If you were a mind-controller, and you never knew if people actually did things with consent, how could you not be a sociopath? This also gives a brilliant platform for discussing memories of trauma, and showing how the victims and perpetrators often have differing memories and opinions of what happened.

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David Tennant’s Kilgrave is one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most complex villains yet.

The show does have some minor flaws, however. It did take me a while – actually until around episode 5 – to really get into the characters and to realise what the show was trying to do. Additionally, I think the tension of the story peaked around episodes 8 and 9, leaving the ending of the show to be a little ant-climactic. Nonetheless, Jessica Jones is a quality show, and perhaps the most important and thematically rich thing that Marvel has yet to put out. It doesn’t quite reach the highs of Daredevil, but I am biased in saying that as Daredevil is probably my favourite Marvel comic. Check it out, you won’t be disappointed.

9/10

TV Review: Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Season Two (2009-2010)

Television

The second season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars improves on every aspect of the first. Most of my criticisms of the first season were dealt with throughout this second one. No more lacklustre stories. The show has a new confidence, its creators ready to contribute important stories to the Star Wars mythos. Not only that but the animation has grown in leaps and bounds, making the show even more beautiful than before. The first season is the show’s creators trying the boots on; the second is them running at full speed.

The aspect that is most notably improved from the first season is the disappearance of almost all of the major villains of the saga. Count Dooku, Asajj Ventress, and General Grievous are rarely, if ever, seen. This is a huge boon to the second season. The new villains that we get are more exciting, vicious, and well executed than these other characters. Not only that, but because these villains don’t appear in the films, there is a genuine sense of drama. You might be watching their final battle. Particular favourites for me continue to be Cad Bane, Pre Vizsla, and Hondo Ohnaka.

Cad Bane continues to thrill in season two.

Cad Bane continues to thrill in season two.

Ahsoka Tano continues to impress this season. The element I was most nervous about going into this show, the concept of Anakin’s own apprentice, continues to be one of my favourite elements of the show. She is a unique character among the Star Wars gallery, and whilst this season never delves too far into her inner psychology or past, she proves to be an adept and fascinating character.

The show's Anakin Skywalker has trumped Hayden Christiansen for me as the definitive version of the character.

The show’s Anakin Skywalker has trumped Hayden Christensen for me as the definitive version of the character.

It also impressed me just how much I like Anakin Skywalker in this show. For me, now, the Anakin of this show is the Anakin that I think about. For me he is the definitive version of this character. You truly see how likeable he is, his friendships with the other Jedi, and just legendary a hero he is in the ongoing war. You get no sense of this in the prequel trilogy, just that he’s a bit whiny and occasionally kills someone, showing the looming dark side. The series thus makes the prequel trilogy retroactively that much better, expanding on elements of the character that should have been in the prequel trilogy.

On the whole, the thing that I like most about this series is that it proves that the prequel trilogy era has some worthy stories and contributions to the overall canon. For years I hated the prequel era, based solely on the films. But after watching these first two seasons of The Clone Wars, I have nothing but love for this era. It truly is one of the most dynamic and exciting times in the Star Wars canon. The storytelling has the potential to be top-notch, and it often is in this show.

"Children of the Force" sees Cad Bane kidnapping force-sensitive children so Darth Sidious can train them as Sith Lords.

“Children of the Force” sees Cad Bane kidnapping force-sensitive children so Darth Sidious can train them as Sith Lords.

The opening trilogy of episodes, “Holocron Heist,” “Cargo of Doom,” and “Children of the Force” fulfil the season one finale’s promise of Cad Bane. In this trilogy he truly makes his presence known to the Jedi at large, and proves once again that he is one of the most exciting and promising original characters from the show. You see in these three thrilling episodes just how much of a match he is. I particularly liked the sequence in which Cad Bane and his droid army fight Anakin and his clones in zero gravity.

"Weapons Factory" and "Brain Invaders" gives Ahsoka Tano and Bariss Offee a chance to shine amidst the chaos of the Geonosian campaign.

“Weapons Factory” and “Brain Invaders” gives Ahsoka Tano and Bariss Offee a chance to shine amidst the chaos of the Geonosian campaign.

The season’s high point comes in the form of a four-episode story arc dealing with the Geonosian campaign. Like the Ryloth trilogy from the first season, it shows in minute detail the entirety of the campaign from several different perspectives, and each episode makes its own great story in the larger scheme of the plot. However, in animation, plotting, and design this trilogy completely blows Ryloth’s out of the water. “Landing at Point Rain” has become my favourite episode of the series. It’s basically the show’s take on Apocalypse Now (1979) and you can feel the imprint of Vietnam War cinema all over it. The battles in this episode outdo every other battle the show has detailed so far. There are moments that will take your breath away. Non-stop action! “Legacy of Terror” and “Brain Invaders,” the latter half of the story arc, is a mish-mash of Aliens (1986) and the zombie cinema of George A. Romero. They’re fun, scary, and intense. You can tell just how much fun the creators of the show had. The story arc also sees Jedi Luminara Unduli returning, and she’s well used here. Her apprentice Bariss Offee is in tow, another great character. However, the arc’s greatest strength is Ahsoka Tano – you really get to see how proficient she is as a Jedi here. Tano fans will find these few episodes among their favourites.

General Grievous returns in the great episode "Grievous Intrigue."

General Grievous returns in the great episode “Grievous Intrigue.”

The season also sees General Grievous return in a two-episode story arc. This story arc seems to realise the dramatic downfall of using the film’s villains. Because these characters appear in Revenge of the Sith (2005), it’s very clear they’ll survive the series. However, this two-parter doesn’t suffer from this problem, and it’s great seeing Grievous strike again. The second of the two episodes, “The Deserter,” is one of the better episodes focusing on the lives of clones as Captain Rex finds a deserter clone, and together they discuss the realities of war and the individuality and purpose of clones in general. It’s thought provoking and emotional, and makes for a great episode.

The Mandalore Trilogy sees the introduction of Pre Vizsla and the villainous Death Watch.

The Mandalore Trilogy sees the introduction of Pre Vizsla and the villainous Death Watch.

The Mandalore trilogy, in which Obi-Wan Kenobi is assigned to protect Duchess Satine from assassination on her home planet is a great story, and provides some rare character development for Obi-Wan as we delve into the pasts of these characters. The trilogy also introduces the powerful Death Watch, a great new set of villains lead by Pre Vizsla, voiced by Jon Favreau. These Mandalorian warriors are a great match for the Jedi, and whilst the trilogy doesn’t completely fulfil the potential of this idea, I am sure we will see the Death Watch return to trouble our heroes again.

Hondo Ohnaka returns in "Bounty Hunters," a remake of the classic film Seven Samurai (1954).

Hondo Ohnaka returns in “Bounty Hunters,” a remake of the classic film Seven Samurai (1954).

Season two also produces a great one-off in the episode “Bounty Hunters,” which is a remake of the classic Japanese film Seven Samurai (1954) directed by Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa was a major influence on George Lucas and his film The Hidden Fortress (1958) provided inspiration for Star Wars (1977). The episode shares much of what made Seven Samurai such a brilliant film – great characterization and thrilling action. The episode also sees the return of villain Hondo Ohnaka, a charismatic and treacherous villain. It’s always fun seeing him at work.

Boba Fett returns to exact revenge on Mace Windu in the season finale.

Boba Fett returns to exact revenge on Mace Windu in the season finale.

The season finishes strongly with an excellent three-part storyline that sees the return of Boba Fett and his quest for revenge against Mace Windu, who killed his father Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones (2002). I was a bit weary about these episodes, as one of the things I love about Boba Fett is his mystery. It’s what makes him my favourite Star Wars character. Seeing his origins in Attack of the Clones really annoyed me, but once again this show makes the prequels retroactively that much better. Boba Fett and Aurra Sing make for some captivating villains, full of complexity and nuance. I hope we see more of Boba Fett in future seasons of The Clone Wars.

The Clone Wars sophomore season disregarded all of the problems of the first season and just provided home run after home run. Whilst the show still doesn’t develop an overall storyline that carries the season, the individual storylines are are always at least good and often great or outstanding. The show is progressing with a confidence that wasn’t there in the first season. Hopefully with the possible addition of an overall storyline to each season, The Clone Wars can continue it’s incredible success.

9/10

TV Review: Mr. Robot, Season One (2015)

Television

Mr. Robot Poster

Mr. Robot, at its core, sounds like the plot from a trashy young adult novel. A hacker with debilitating social anxieties decides to start a worldwide revolution by destroying the evil corporation that killed his father. He’s joined on the way by a group of kooky hackers who all have personal stakes in the work.

But really, Mr. Robot is something much more than this description would make you believe. It’s a searing character study, a political manifesto, a gripping thriller. It’s the perfect combination of Taxi Driver (1976), Fight Club (1999), and The Social Network (2010). You could probably reach further back and draw links to Albert Camus’ classic novel The Outsider (1942).

Elliot Alderson, as played by Rami Malek, is a complex and captivating lead character.

Elliot Alderson, as played by Rami Malek, is a complex and captivating lead character.

The acting is absolutely superb, with a star-making performance from series lead Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson and the always provocative Christian Slater as Mr. Robot. Malek’s Elliot is an incredible character, and easily one of the most complex and interesting characters to debut in American television this year. Awkward, full of anxiety, but ultimately at the end of the day one of the purest and most honest characters, it’s hard not to sympathise with Elliot. Slater’s Mr. Robot is reminiscent of the darker side of political revolutionaries – the alluring, intoxicating power politicians such as Hitler offered. Mr. Robot offer Elliot a chance to be someone special, by devoting himself entirely to Mr. Robot’s plans. It’s a disturbing performance and one of Slater’s more memorable roles.

Even less-important characters, who may only appear in one or two episodes, leave a searing mark on the viewer. Fernando Vera, as played by Elliot Villar, who could be considered on of the series’ “villains,” is absolutely gripping. His first appearance on the show particularly, in which he converses with Elliot after (unbeknownst to Elliot) beating and raping Elliot’s drug dealer, is terrifying and absorbing. His monologue on the nature of power and hate is one of the series’ very best scenes. Elliot Villar is an actor to watch out for, he’s got great success waiting for him.

Eliot Villar delivers one of the show's most brilliant scenes.

Eliot Villar delivers one of the show’s most brilliant scenes.

Really though, it’s Sam Esmail’s writing that shines through the most. His engaging characters never fail to grip the audience. At the core, this series is a character study. Of course, the plot is important, but what will keep you watching episode after episode is just how brilliantly written these characters are. Elliot and Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) in particular grabbed me. They aren’t characters you will forget easily. Esmail’s story also fully follows up and mediates on the socio-political aspects of this revolution. In this respect it deserves a spot next to The Wire (2002-2008), Homeland (2011-now), and Orange is the New Black (2013-now) in it’s fierce rendition and criticism of modern-day American life.

Later episodes of the series unfortunately falter somewhat as it becomes too caught up in the plot of the series, moving focus away from Elliot and his world and towards his friends and co-workers, who are much more involved in later events than he is. Still, these episodes are very well written, but they can’t hope to match the quality of the first five or six episodes. Nonetheless the series has a fascinating conclusion with lots of twists and turns that will make you want to watch the entire series again to see what you missed. While these twists aren’t original (as the plot isn’t either), they are so well executed that it’s hard to slam the writing.

fsociety, the name of the group of hackers that Mr. Robot leads, utilises much of the imagery of Occupy Wall Street and the graphic novel V for Vendetta.

fsociety, the name of the group of hackers that Mr. Robot leads, utilises much of the imagery of Occupy Wall Street and the graphic novel V for Vendetta.

Sam Esmail’s debut television show is gripping and fascinating. It’s a show that has something genuinely worthy to say of American politics, and I look forward to seeing any academic reactions to this particular strand of development. Whilst it may falter slightly in the last few episodes, Mr. Robot stands as one of the best new shows of the year. I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

9/10

TV Review: Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Season One (2008-2009)

Television

Star Wars Clone Wars Season 1

I was a bit weary about starting the process of watching through The Clone Wars initially. I had very fond memories of the Genndy Tartakovsky‘s Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003) series, and I’d still consider it one of the very best of American cartoons even after having rewatched the entire series endlessly. The fact that that series had been made out of continuity for George Lucas’ series annoyed me; also the fact that they had abandoned the hand-drawn 2D animation of the earlier series for a more CGI approach. On top of that, the idea of a “secret” padawan for Anakin Skywalker, Ahsoka Tano, made a bit nervous. However, I was happily surprised to see these concerns were needless – the first season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars is solid entertainment, if unbalanced, with some spectacular episodes collected with some more clunky ones.

Ahsoka Tano is an interesting new character in the series, seen here in battle in the episode

Ahsoka Tano is an interesting new character in the series, seen here in battle in the episode “Defenders of Peace.”

In many ways I feel Lucas was justified in discounting the other Clone Wars series for this one. Whilst that show was a brilliant series, it didn’t really flesh out the characters so much as the conflict. This new series takes a different approach – rather than showing specific conflicts across one micro-episode, you’ll get trilogies of episodes or two-parters fleshing out a specific conflict in the Clone Wars. I really like this approach, and it showed that the show-runners had faith in the audience to be able to keep up and understand what was going on. They were clearly making a show for all-ages as opposed to just for children. This vast amount of story and screen time also lead to valuable character insights – we can see these characters developing and changing before our eyes, especially Anakin Skywalker. His relationship with Padmé Amidala is explored, showing the difficulties of keeping their love secret, something the films struggled to depict. It’s also great seeing Anakin as a leader and a hero; his teaching of Ahsoka Tano particularly brings this out. Ahsoka isn’t a bad character as I expected, but well written and interesting. I have a feeling that her character will grow throughout the coming seasons and so will my kinship with her.

Captain Rex and Commander Cody are the main clone characters of the series. Seen arresting a traitorous clone in

Captain Rex and Commander Cody are the main clone characters of the series. Seen arresting a traitorous clone in “The Hidden Enemy.”

One of the best elements of the show, however, is exploring the lives of the actual clones. In the prequel films this is abandoned in favour of highlighting the struggles of the Jedi, but considering how many more clones there are I was always a bit surprised there wasn’t a clone character in the prequels that would be our eyes in the general movements of the war. This series achieves that, and it’s really interesting to see. Our key clone characters are Captain Rex and Commander Cody, two elite troopers who often command lower-ranking troopers in volatile combat scenes. You really get a feeling that there is a life and culture around the troopers, creating distinct personalities. You really root for them, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when Obi-Wan Kenobi calls Cody a good man, as Cody tosses this aside and attempts to kill him in Revenge of the Sith. Whilst the show never deals with the onset of Order 66, the order to kill all of the Jedi, it’s a spectacular and emotional part of the series, getting the viewers to commit to the clones as individuals. Dee Bradley Baker excels at voicing all of these different clones and imbuing different personalities into each of them. The episodes “Rookies” and “The Hidden Enemy” do this particularly well.

The series' landscapes are particularly beautiful and are visually stunning. Naboo capital Theed as seen in the episode

The series’ landscapes are particularly beautiful and are visually stunning. Naboo capital Theed as seen in the episode “Mystery of a Thousand Moons.”

On top of the great storytelling, the animation is frequently beautiful. With really great cinematography, the action scenes are always exciting and visceral. The lightsaber scenes are also really well choreographed – scenes in particular include the duels between Asajj Ventress and Ahsoka Tano and Luminara Unduli, and the battle between General Grievous and Kit Fisto and Nahdar Vebb. The character and creature designs are always great, and the background detail is really great. It frequently feels like I am watching a professionally animated film; the fact that so much time, money, and effort has gone into a television series really makes me happy. The landscape shots, always looking like etchy paintings, are particularly wonderful.

The season does falter occasionally though; any episodes dealing with Jar Jar Binks are as clumsy as the character, and I really wish they would make less use of him and more use of Naboo. Additionally, whilst the Separatist battle droids can be really funny at points, it struck me as a bit out of sync with the realities of the prequel films, and a bit forced as well. Additionally episodes dealing with heroes and villains who both appear in the films are spectacularly undramatic for me – I had no feeling that this was anything beyond a cool lightsaber battle, because ultimately I know both of these characters will survive until at least Revenge of the Sith. There are exceptions however.

“Rookies” effectively portrays life in the ranks and is one of the best episodes of the season.

Whilst the clunkier episodes aren’t always great, there is every now and then a stand out episode that reminds you why Star Wars is just so goddamn awesome. The first of these, and probably my favourite of the series, was the self-contained episode “Rookies.” It follows a group of rookie clone troopers who are attacked by stealth droids on an outpost protecting Kamino. They have to retake the base and stop the OK signal to alert the Republic forces that Separatists are attacking their home-world of Kamino. They receive some extra help from Rex and Cody. It’s a concept that could be expanded into a film, but it’s a brilliant piece of economic writing – stuffing in great personalities of around five new characters in 20 minutes, giving each a chance to shine. I don’t think anyone will forget Heavy’s last words, which will go done as one of the best moments in Star Wars storytelling.

The atmospheric episode

The atmospheric episode “Lair of Grievous” portrays the titular villain as terrifyingly as he should have been in Revenge of the Sith.

I had been a bit reticent about General Grievous up to this series as well. In Revenge of the Sith, as well as the first couple of episodes, he is cowardly and somewhat weak, at complete odds with his terrifying appearance. I missed the danger I felt and just how terrifying he was in the 2003 series, which remains perhaps one of my favourite Star Wars stories as he kidnaps Chancellor Palpatine before the events of Revenge of the Sith. However, the spectacular episode “Lair of Grievous” restores him to his former glory. It’s a brilliantly atmospheric episode, and has something in common with the film Aliens (1986). It also gives some much needed character development and background to General Grievous, showing the true extents of his grisly nature.

The final episode in the Ryloth trilogy,

The final episode in the Ryloth trilogy, “Liberty on Ryloth,” is a stirring conclusion and a brilliant showcase of Jedi Master Mace Windu’s proficiency as a Republic general.

However, the slam-dunk ending of the series, the trilogy of episodes dealing with the conflicts over Ryloth, are nothing short of stunning. Each episode works on their own, yet builds on the last to show a truly multi-faceted narrative. You feel like you are watching real history, seeing the ins and outs of the famous battles of the Clone Wars. It’s in this moment that that promise of excitement and action, when Luke Skywalker first asked about the Clone Wars in Star Wars, is fulfilled. This trilogy is full of great moments, and it’s a truly amazing piece of Star Was storytelling. It’s among my favourite of the episodes, and perhaps the first truly epic battle depicted in the series in full.

The final episode of the series,

The final episode of the series, “Hostage Crisis,” introduces the villainous Cad Bane.

If the season had ended there, I would have been pretty happy. Despite an unbalanced first season the show had kept my interest with several fantastic episodes. But the show had to go and deliver the best episode yet as their final offering, the stellar “Hostage Crisis,” which introduced a new, brilliant villain. The bounty hunter Cad Bane and his cohorts have arrived, and I feel they will be a major presence in the series to come. Bane and his allies seise control of the Senate building in an attempt to force the release of Ziro the Hutt (the rather annoying villain of the feature film that preceded the series). It’s a masterclass in suspense, as Anakin is trapped inside the building without his lightsaber and must stop Bane from killing the senators (including Padmé) that he holds hostage. It opens up a door for what is to come in Season Two, ominously titled Rise of the Bounty Hunters, and introduces perhaps the second significant original character of the series. I can’t wait for what’s to come. Despite the falters and the clunky episodes, The Clone Wars has grabbed me as exciting Star Wars storytelling always does.

7/10