TV Series Review: Marvel’s What If…?

Review of Marvel's What If

I started watching Marvel’s What If…? not really knowing what to expect, but hoping that new, innovative storylines might emerge and that some of the characters introduced might even be introduced later into the live-action MCU. After all, seeing Peggy Carter as Captain Carter is my dream! Ultimately, however, the episodes of the first season prove uneven in quality, and the point of the series only becomes clear in the final two episodes. While I would still be excited to see some of these characters on the big screen, I cannot say that the show What If…? particularly impresses.

The episodes bounce around through different concepts, moving from pure, fan “What if?” daydreaming, to humor, to tragedy, to just plain silliness. Initially, I found myself baffled. I wanted a connecting thread, some reason that I started a show that first answers the question, “What if Peggy Carter took the super soldier serum instead?” but then moves on to seemingly random questions such as, “What if the Avengers fought zombies?” or, “What if Thor had a giant party on Earth?” The question, “What if?” gives room for the creators to do literally anything with the material and all they could come up with is Thor having a party?? I was hoping for more intriguing storylines! The ones that gave us characters like Spider-Gwen. The ones that truly change the story and open up more possibilities for what the characters can be and become and do.

Still, some of the episodes are stronger than others. “What if Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” creates a real sense of pathos, as viewers watch him try to change the past and bring his lover back to life. And “What If Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” raises some interesting ethical questions, as the show goes to dark places, even if it was not my favorite episode (but, then, I have never been very attached to the Iron Man films). The strong moments of the show were enough to keep me watching–as was the hope that the final episode might ultimately tie into the larger MCU. Really, it was that fear, that I might need to know what happens, that kept me watching more than anything else.

Because, really, the premise of What If…? is a little strange– but not because we are asking the question, “What if?” Rather, it is strange because each episode essentially tries to boil down one of the Marvel films into about 25 minutes. So the first episode, takes a 2-hour film, Captain America: The First Avenger, and boils the storyline down to about an eighth of its original run time. That’s not a lot of time. Not to develop characters or relationships. It is just enough time to say, “Hey, look, Peggy Carter is Captain Carter now instead of Steve Rogers becoming Captain America! Isn’t that neat?” and then end the episode. And so on for each succeeding episode. I wanted to feel a real connection to the characters, but any feeling viewers have for them will have to come from prior knowledge of them from the previous films.

Because of the time constraints, some of the sillier episodes actually work better than the ones that rely more on their film counterparts. For instance, Thor throwing a party works as a conceit because that is all that is happening. The episode is not trying to have Thor save the world and not even trying to make Thor a better person who will be worthy to rule. Besides having Thor meet Jane and fall in love, not many parallels exist with the first Thor movie. On the other hand, “What If Ultron Won?” proves a little uneven because it basically has to start with the end of its film counterpart. A voiceover gives all the relevant background information about Ultron and his rise so the episode can jump into Natasha and Clint trying to do something about it. But there is something uncomfortable about having an entire film of tragedy and suffering dismissed into a few sentences of summary so we can get on with the “what if” changes already.

I also found throughout the series that I was a little bothered by how the “What if?” moments were presented. The series is narrated by the Watcher, who observes the multiverse, sworn never to interfere. He likes to drop “deep” statements about how one decision can change everything and one small moment create a whole new world. Sure, maybe in some cases. But a lot of the decisions made are actually ongoing ones. In “What if Killmonger Had Rescued Tony Stark?” for instance, Killmonger rescuing Stark is not the single cause of everything that happens. Tony responds to that moment in a certain way, and then wakes up every day after and makes the same bad choices. And the people around him wake up every day and enable him (hello, Pepper, another silent observer of bad ethics). In the same way, Doctor Strange in “What If Doctor Strange Had Lost His Heart Instead of Hands?” wakes up every day and also makes bad choices, despite the repeated efforts of other people to warn and/or stop him. Reducing characters to one moment in time obscures the fact that they all have agency–and continue to do so. The Watcher would make it seem as if the characters are bound by one bad choice, when, in fact, they are not–as some of them later actually prove.

What If…? proves an interesting thought experiment, but the series is not particularly gripping or memorable. If the series is not going to tie into the greater MCU, thereby compelling me to watch it just for the sake of clarity, I do not think I will continue to keep up with future seasons.

My Journey with Doctor Who Begins–Again: A Reflection

I first fell in love with Doctor Who when I saw reruns of series one with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor. I was drawn to the adventure and to wonder, as well as to the emotional depth I found in the Doctor. Eccleston played him as bitter and angry, but slowly changing as a nineteen-year-old human taught him to see the good in people once again. David Tennant continued that emotional journey, adding even more complexity as audiences watched him struggle with the reality of making friends, only to lose them repeatedly. Was their loss all his fault? Was he a truly a hero or had he been the monster all along?

David Tennant is my favorite Doctor precisely because of the emotion intensity he brings to the role. Even though Doctor Who is a space and time travel adventure, at its heart, it has always been about the relationships. The Doctor finds travelling companions because he is lonely, but also because he is constantly surprised and impressed by how resilient, brave, and kind humanity can be at its best. His belief in humans is arguably what often brings out their best. They want to live up to the vision he has of them.

I am drawn to the hope inherent in the show by virtue of the Doctor’s belief in the best of the humanity. But I also am moved by how that hope is so often tempered by the Doctor’s self-doubt. He exults in the danger and the adventure of saving worlds, but he has to recognize, at the end of the day, that that same danger hurts people he cares about. People who would have never been in danger if he had not brought them there. The riddle of the Doctor is that he loves life-threatening situations and that he somehow makes other people love it, too. He delights in things that scare the average person.

Characters in Doctor Who often express anger and disgust that he seems to be enjoying their peril. But the Doctor never loves that people are in danger. He loves being in situations where he can discover new things–meet new life forms, witness an event never before seen. And he manages to share that joy and wonder not only with his companions, but also with audiences. Many sci-fi shows present aliens as the enemy. And there are plenty of dangerous, violent aliens in Doctor Who. But Doctor Who also suggests that there can be a world where humans and aliens live side-by-side learning from each other and sharing the stars.

When David Tennant left the show along with executive produce Russell T. Davies, I was sad. They had created a TV series that repeatedly urged viewers to think of life as a grand adventure, with something wonderful always to be discovered. I had hopes for Steven Moffat’s takeover, though. I had enjoyed his writing on episodes like “Blink” and “Silence in the Library” and thought he would make an excellent showrunner.

As time went on, however, Moffat’s writing made me lose interest in Doctor Who. The way he seemed to try to make the bulk of his female characters “sexy” bothered me, as did the fact that his Doctors seemed to chose his companions, not because they were ordinary individuals who could prove themselves extraordinary–think Donna the temp using her secretarial skills to solve mysteries and type at speed to save the world–but because they were “special.” The girl with a crack in her bedroom and the universe in her head. The Impossible Girl. You couldn’t be anyone travelling with the Doctor anymore. You had to be a girl with a mysterious past who was going to prove to be a major plot point.

Additionally, the female characters under Moffat’s reign so often seemed more like cardboard cut-outs written to suit the plot, more than they seemed like actual people with lives, families, and backgrounds. It was difficult for me to understand who they were as characters because that would change from episode to episode. And their sexuality was repeatedly emphasized in ways that were uncomfortable, like that was one of their main selling points as a character, rather than their bravery or their cleverness or their kindness.

I stopped watching Doctor Who sometime during series seven. I tried again when Peter Capaldi took over as the Doctor, but was disappointed by his apparent hatred of humanity, which seemed antithetical to everything the Doctor stands for. I haven’t really watched Doctor Who since, except for two episodes with Jodie Whittaker. Now I’m beginning the show again. But, as I finish watching David Tennant’s final episodes, I cannot help but wonder if I will still be disappointed with the same aspects of Moffat’s writing.

Why the World Needs “Supergirl”

SupergirlAs I write, CBS has not yet renewed Supergirl for a second season.  News releases indicate that the ratings were a bit low, though that does not necessarily mean the show will not return.  Cancelling Supergirl, however, would be a huge disappointment because the show does work the entertainment industry desperately needs.

Feminism on the Small Screen

Supergirl is great because it obviously features a female superhero (and we’re still waiting for a female to get her own lead movie, despite the domination of superhero films at the box office).  However, the show does more than throw a female at audiences, give her powers, and call her “strong.”  It features a wide array of women (indeed, they often outnumber the  men!) meaning that it can showcase women as people rather than relying on one or two to represent their entire gender.

Furthermore, the show consistently addresses feminist issues such as women struggling to receive credit in the workplace, the struggle to balance home and work and “have it all,” the need for women to support and mentor each other, and even the question of what it means to call a woman  a “girl.”  These are ongoing conversations society is having and needs to have–and the show is making them more mainstream.

Teamwork

Supergirl’s real strength is her ability to ask for help and her reliance on her team.  While Superman works alone, Supergirl realizes that she is stronger when working with others.  The women in this show do not need to compete against each other for recognition or, worse, men.  They support each other.  They mentor each other.  They respect each other–even when they dislike each other.

Sisters

Frozen was supposedly the Disney movie about sisters, but Anna and Elsa barely interact with each other in the film.  I think a great sister movie would have shown the two of them going on an adventure, instead of Anna teaming up with a man and his reindeer.  Supergirl does what I wanted Frozen to do–puts sisters together on a team so they can save the world.

Flawed Heroines

So often the media gives us a “strong female protagonist” meaning a woman in a skin-tight suit who can punch people.  Supergirl does punch people, but she’s also allowed to be vulnerable, unsure, afraid, and even dead wrong.  But that doesn’t undermine her value or make her weak.  That just makes her a person!

Joy

Stay on the Internet long enough and you’ll find the complaints about DC’s dark world view.  Supergirl breaks this pattern by giving us a heroine who’s young, perky, and full of life.  Her real superpower is hope–which is less corny in practice than it sounds.  The show embraces its campiness, its laughter, and its bright and bubbly protagonist to give a show that makes  you feel good after you watch it.

Going Forward…

Supergirl has so much to offer going forward.  I expect it will continue to address feminist issues and I also hope that it brings on more characters of color because right now its feminism looks a little white.  As the show continues to find its voice, however, I have hope that it will continue to do good work bringing important issues to the attention of viewers, and making it more common to discuss ways to promote positive change in society.  After all, stories are more than entertainment; they are inspiration.  Supergirl inspires me, and I hope it can inspire more of us in a second season.

Krysta 64

TV Review: Call the Midwife, Season 5, Eps. 4 and 5

Call the Midwife Season Five

Episode 4

Summary

A young man receives a scholarship to attend university, but his dreams are jeopardized when his girlfriend reveals she is pregnant.  Meanwhile, Sr. Julienne is called to the local hospital, where she struggles with the detached care expecting mothers received, and Barbara struggles with dating Tom, knowing that she is hurting Trixie.

Review

Episode 4 was one of the best of the season, delivering a series of emotional of emotional punches as a young man wavered between his dreams of a better life and his duty to his girlfriend, Trixie struggled with releasing Tom a year after they ended their engagement, and Sr. Julienne witnessed the almost callous care given to young mothers at the local hospital.  The fallout of the thalidomide prescriptions also continued, meaning that while Dr. Turner and Shelagh struggled to find the cause of the series of malformed babies being born, Sr. Julienne had to deal with the very real consequences–watching a limbless child die alone and exposed because the hospital decided it could not be saved.  Call the Midwife  has a track record of dealing with difficult topics sensitively and honestly.  This episode continues in that tradition.  While it was emotionally gutting to watch, it also felt worthwhile.

Episode 5

Summary

Left alone to monitor the phones, Delia finds herself coaching a Roseanne, a young first-time mother, through the delivery of her baby as Phyllis races to attend her after her car breaks down.  Violet injures herself and must rely on Fred to run her shop.  Timothy attempts to convince his father and Shelagh that cigarettes are linked to cancer.

Review

Episode 5 felt a little more erratic than most installments.  Typically the various plot threads interweave with each other to create what feels like a coherent whole, but here it seemed more like I was watching several different episodes.  Dr. Turner was trying to get a new clinic, dealing with a patient who was refusing care, and being pressured by Tim to give up smoking.  Fred was trying to run his wife’s shop while she was laid up in bed. Delia was coaching a mother over the phone.  Then the mother went missing.  For some reason, it felt like far too much was going on, and I didn’t feel very invested in much of it, though watching a mother give birth alone on the floor literally took my breath away, and it was about time we saw more of Fred–he’s hilarious. But the bright spots didn’t work together to create a whole.  Hopefully next episode will be better.

Krysta 64

TV Review: Grantchester Season 2, Ep. 3

Grantchester

Summary

A boy confesses to murder, but the victim is still alive.  Sidney and Geordie are on the case, but will it ruin Sidney’s new romance with Margaret?

Review (with some spoilers)

In episode three, I began to get a glimpse of what this show could be.  In investigating a murder case, Rev. Sidney Chambers relies on his intuition, charm, and sympathy to draw out truths his friend Inspector Keating cannot.  His interactions with the widow of a murder victim, while somewhat unconvincing for me, at least gesture toward a show with heart, one that looks unflinchingly at the pain, the jealousy, the anger of everyday people.  If the writing had been tighter and more coherent, I think this could have been a great plotline.

Unfortunately, however, the writing is not what I have come to expect of a British drama.  The widow’s character seems a little shaky–she becomes what the plot needs her to be.  The secondary characters were nondescript; I didn’t even feel sorry for the boy who confessed to murder or the girl suffering from her father’s abuse.  How could I?  They were more like props than people.

Meanwhile, Sidney’s romantic arc took a sudden turn.  We have seen him on one date with Margaret–a date she cut short because he was not invested.  This time we see her obviously smitten with him, but their interactions consist of her initiating all the action or her being stood up while he solves a case.  Yet suddenly at the end they’re both madly, madly in love!  I have never seen such a pop-up romance.

In a side plot, Sidney’s old flame Amanda is bizarrely getting herself arrested on her way to talk to Sidney because she doesn’t like the man she married and refuses to let Sidney forget her and find love for himself.  I don’t know Amanda very well because I have not watched season one, but her character her confuses me and I find it hard to feel sympathy for a married woman who’s always running off to flirt with her ex.  Sorry, Amanda.  Maybe if you’re lucky, the scriptwriters will make you a widow and free you up for Sidney.  Until then, please leave the poor man alone.

Truly, this episode is ill-paced and ill-written.  I finally started to feel like Sidney was being given a bit of proper characterization, but I have no clue what every other character was doing.  Is this normal for this show?

TV Review: Call the Midwife Season 5, Ep. 2

Call the Midwife Season Five

Summary

As the birth of their baby draws near, a young couple finds their marriage falling apart due to financial stress.  Another mother struggles with breast feeding, but is convinced by Sr. Evageline that good mothers do not use formula. Meanwhile, Barbara continues to flirt with Tom while Trixie looks disconsolately on, and Phyllis might have found a beau of her own.

Review

Call the Midwife has finally decided to give Nurse Barbara Gilbert a character–and it’s about time.  She has been so nondescript that I often find myself looking up her full name because I cannot even remember it.  Unfortunately, I find her interactions with her patients still a little bland.  She seems invested in them, but I never feel her interest or her pain like I do with the other nurses.  Instead her characterization right now is leaning on her budding relationship with the pastor, Tom.

I admit Barbara and Tom make a lot more sense than Trixie and Tom did, especially since we know that Barbara’s father is a vicar and she understands what is expected of a family in ministry, but it is painful watching Trixie observe her friend falling in love with her ex.  And, truthfully, Trixie and her heartache are still far more interesting than Barbara fawning over  Tom is.  I feel no chemistry between Barbara and Tom.  I rather wish the show would give Trixie a new romance instead.

Because the show is handing out romances.  Phyllis Crane of all people seems to have found a charming man in this episode!  I could not believe my eyes, but I loved every moment of it.  The best part, however, was seeing how the girls came together to support Phyllis.  They gave her privacy, they helped her put on make up without making fun of her, and they offered her sound advice and a friendly ear throughout it all.  Female friendships are so under-served in media, but they are the heart of this show.

In fact, nevermind Barbara and Tom.  Let’s just watch the girls hang out together, support each other, and do their jobs like the totally incredible midwives they are.  Let’s see more of Cynthia and the sisters.  Their camaraderie and chemistry beats anything else the show has to offer.

Krysta 64

TV Review: Grantchester Season 2, Ep. 2

Grantchester

Summary

Rev. Chambers and Inspector Keating investigate the death of a professor who fell off a building, but are warned off the case as they begin to unravel a government plot.

Review

Though I found the first episode of the season  a little lackluster, I determined to carry on with this series in hopes that I would begin to like the characters more and thus feel more invested in their stories.  However, though I found the mystery in this episode more intriguing than the last, I also continued to feel as though I really ought to watch season one if I am ever to care about these characters.

The mystery revolves around the mysterious death of a professor.  Did he fall off a building or was he pushed?  And how are the Soviets involved?  I like intrigue in my stories so enjoyed this, even though the Red Scare bit seemed a little forced, as if it was added just for historical flavor.  However, I still felt distant from the characters, including the dead professor’s wife and best friend.  Normally I’d be sobbing along with the grieving friends and family, but this show somehow manages to keep me detached.

Meanwhile, Sidney’s personal plotline continues to revolve around his search for romance.  Except that even though there’s this secretary who’s into him, he’s still obviously smitten with an old flame, who is now married.  But repeatedly showing up at his vicarage or meeting him for coffee while her husband is away.  That’s…awkward.  Especially since Sidney, of all people, should not be dancing with adultery.  And everyone knows what’s happening.  They keep warning him to stay away, but he remains oblivious.

The professional seductress/glamorous cigarette-smoking and martini-drinking type of girl never really resonates with me, though, (maybe I just don’t relate?) so I don’t feel invested in these romances, either.  Sidney’s a vicar and this type of girl seems wrong for him.  He mentions that he doesn’t want to date a “nun,” meaning, I guess, a conservative or quiet girl, but can he really support the type of rich and glamorous girl he’s into?  Would the parish approve of a vicar’s wife who drinks and smokes?  Does he realize that his situation in life might require him to rethink his priorities?  I know he doesn’t really act like a typical vicar, going around solving crimes and apparently blabbing about all the confessions people make to him, but his personal growth might mean he has to accept that a vicar’s wife might need certain qualities.

Finally, I do not think the show achieves the blending of mystery and…depth? it seems to be aiming for.  Sidney’s sleuthing is generally juxtaposed with him giving a sermon that I suppose is meant to relate to his crime.  But his sermons are so vague and personal, like someone writing a Facebook post about something that happened to them but without saying what really happened, while trying to sound deep and maybe hoping you’ll ask for more information.  It doesn’t work.  It doesn’t give Sidney more depth or show his growth.  It’s just awkward.

Still, I’m in need of a historical drama while I wait for new episodes of Call the Midwife to come out, so I think I’ll keep watching Grantchester to see where it goes.  Hopefully I’ll begin to care about the characters eventually.

TV Review: Grantchester Season 2, Ep. 1

Grantchester

Summary

Rev. Sidney Chambers is accused of having inappropriate  contact with a teenage girl.  But, when the girl is found dead, the case takes an unexpected turn.

Review

I had hoped to find a the first season of Grantchester at the library and perhaps watch it this summer, but found I could not wait to watch the show I have been seeing so much about.  So I jumped right into season two, knowing nothing more than that the show features a young vicar who solves crimes with his police detective friend.  It sounded just like the type of show I would enjoy, but, for now, I am reserving judgment.

Perhaps I need to have seen the first season of Grantchester since I did not feel particularly attached to any of the characters.  The vicar was arrested in the first moments of the episode and I was only vaguely curious about what would follow.  Viewers were introduced to the episode’s victim in flashbacks, yet I did not find myself particularly interested in either her or her case. Scandalous details came to light about the victim’s past.  I really didn’t care.

I tend to prefer stories that are character-driven, so this episode fell a little flat for me despite all its twists and turns, its revelations of new sordid evidence.  However, for now, I intend to keep watching.  Perhaps if I come to know the characters better, I will be more interested in their triumphs and struggles.
Krysta 64

TV Review: Call the Midwife Season 5, Ep. 1

Call the Midwife Season Five

Summary

It’s 1961 and the world is changing–perhaps a little too fast for the nuns at Nonnatus House, who find themselves scandalized by the leotards Trixie dons for her new fitness class.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Turner and Patsy deliver a baby whose appearance shocks them.  This is only the beginning of the tragedy that will strike many homes as a result of doctors prescribing thalidomide to their patients.

Review

Call the Midwife is back and it brings all the heart and humor we have come to expect.   Things are changing rapidly for our characters–viewers will remember that in the last season Delia lost her memory and Patsy her lover, Trixie broke off her engagement as she struggled with alcoholism, and Chummy departed for a time–but somehow the show manages to make the world seem as familiar and charming as we left it, even as it breathes new life into the plot lines.  It is, after all, the 60s!

The last season, I admit, worried me.  Delia’s amnesia made Call the Midwife seem like it might be jumping the shark and Trixie’s alcoholism, while hinted at previously, still seemed to come a little out of nowhere, as if the show had to shock viewers to keep them coming back.  Meanwhile, the show has to deal with a constant turnover in it is cast.  It lost its main protagonist awhile back.  The new arrivals since have been charming, but perhaps a little lifeless–Sr. Winifred and Nurse Gilbert, for example, are still difficult for me to describe.  They’re nice.  Quiet.  Sympathetic.  I don’t know.  They’re around.  And Phyllis?  I like her, but she appears infrequently, usually for laughs.  Despite all this, season five manages to turn everything around and bring the show back to its roots–the drama at the heart of midwifery.

This episode nicely balances its heart and humor.  The show is beginning to tackle the thalidomide tragedy, which saw a rise in birth defects in the babies of mothers who were prescribed the medication for nausea.  A baby born with shrunken limbs disconcerts the medical staff, who are unsure how to handle the matter, and shocks the parents, who are unsure if they can bear to bring the child into their home.  This heartbreaking story is juxtaposed with the story of Trixie’s new fitness class, which sees her and her the other nurses donning leotards, to the dismay of the nuns.

The episode really focuses on its characters, celebrating Trixie as she works to overcome her alcoholism, sympathizing with Patsy as she stands poised to lose Delia once more, even hinting at a romance for Barbara.  And, of course, Sr. Monica Joan is there to provide good times and eat all the dessert.  If the show continues in this vein, I am will remain a devoted viewer.   Watching this episode felt like coming home.

Krysta 64

TV Review: Mercy Street, Ep. 6 “The Diabolical Plot”

Mercy StreetSummary

With Mr. Green in prison, his family works to secure his release.  Meanwhile, Nurse Phinney tries to console a dying soldier, Drs. Foster and Hale struggle for control over who decides proper medical procedure, and Aurelia accepts that she might have to move on.  But, unknown to all of them, the Knights of the Golden Circle plan to assassinate President Lincoln when he visits Mansion House.

Review

The second half of the series has been leading up to this final moment–the day that the Knights of the Golden Circle attempt to blow up the Union hospital where most of our protagonists spend every day.  As the minutes counted down and only ten minutes remained of the show, then only six, I wondered “How will they do it?  How will they pull it off?”  After all, the Green family has broken apart as they pursue increasingly desperate avenues to aid their father and the Confederacy.  Dr. Foster has been been struggling all season to reform medical practice at Mansion House.  Aurelia remains separated from her boy.  And Frank, Emma’s beau, is about to commit mass murder even as she wavers between her loyalty to him and her new attraction to the handsome hospital chaplain.  Six minutes.  How will everyone’s story end?

I hope this is not a spoiler–but the stories do not end.  It took Mercy Street six episodes to reach this point only so the show could end with multiple major cliffhangers and no announcement (yet) for a second season.  My understanding is that historical dramas like this are somewhat expensive to produce, so it seems odd to me that the season would not wrap up, just in case the audience does not justify a second season.  (And, with three weak episodes out of six, I would not be surprised if the views did not justify a continuation of the show.)

I like to think that PBS meant to make a second season all along and that, eventually, we will learn how everyone’s story ends.  (I need Emma and the chaplain to get together!)  Until that time, however, the abrupt ending of the final episode overshadows so much of the good that it contained, from the Green family’s remarkable performances as they try to release Mr. Green to Aurelia’s small moment of triumph.  The show was finally hitting its stride when suddenly it ended.

*Need more Civil War drama?  Check out the blog explaining the history behind the show.

Krysta 64