Five Years in Hell: a Reflection on the Superhero TV Boom

Five Years in Hell: a Reflection on the Superhero TV Boom

We’re five years into the boom in superhero television kicked off by the surprise success of The CW’s Arrow, and business is so good we’ve somehow strong-armed Noah Hawley into making a show based on a minor X-Men property. But at what cost? Arrow has just come full circle by concluding the story of Oliver’s time in exile and bringing us right back to the opening moments of the show, and the genesis of television’s superhero boom.

Now seems an appropriate time to examine and evaluate the landscape of the genre over the past five years and consider what the future may hold.

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Jack of All Trades

Jack of All Trades

“Jack of all trades, master of none” is supposed to describe Master of None’s lead character, jobbing New York actor Dev, not the show itself. And yet.

Master of None has gotten pretty much universal critical acclaim and been nominated for lots of awards, but when you get down to it, it’s a pretty okay show with a handful of very good episodes. I rarely complain about things being derivative, because art being original is less important than its being well-executed, but it’s frustrating to watch Master of None get praised for inventing things that I’ve seen on TV or in movies many times before, from being a romantic comedy where the man has feelings (the works of everyone from Chaplin to Apatow mustn’t count, I guess), to doing a Slacker episode, which I felt like I’d seen a hundred times before and I haven’t even seen Slacker.

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The Last Slapstick Artist

The Last Slapstick Artist

If you know Kaitlin Olson at all, you know her as barmaid and failed actress Dee Reynolds in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the best show on television. The only comedy actress on television in the same league as Kaitlin Olson is Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Seinfeld and Veep, and in a better world, their rivalry would be the Emmy story of the past six years. We’d all hold our breaths right as they announce who’s won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series – is this Julia’s year or Kaitlin’s? Everyone would politely clap for Lena Dunham and Edie Falco and the other nominees, but we’d know it came down to Julia or Kaitlin, and if anyone else won, it would be the biggest upset of the night, like when Jeff Daniels won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for The Newsroom, a show that I like way more than the average person and which I would definitely never give an Emmy for anything.

Instead, we’ve had five years of Julia Louis-Dreyfus waltzing away with the award because her one true rival wasn’t there to challenge her.

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I Went to the Marches, Nothing Happened

I Went to the Marches, Nothing Happened

If I describe 2016’s Little Sister, it will sound like a quirky-for-quirk’s-sake, typical and self-important indie film: Addison Timlin plays Colleen, a former goth who is now a novitiate in Brooklyn close to taking her first vows. She visits her estranged family in Asheville, North Carolina where her brother, Jacob (Keith Poulson), has returned from the Iraq War, his face horrifically burned. There are countless indie films about a twenty-something returning home to a family from whom they feel alienated, where they learn something or other before returning to the big city, and if Little Sister just swapped the personalities involved – a stuffy conservative young person and their free-thinking liberal parents – it would be really boring (I know because I’ve seen Smart People and it was really boring).

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Nostalgia

What We Talk About When We Talk About Nostalgia

Save the Tiger is the story of Harry Stoner, the owner of a clothing manufacturer in Los Angeles, as he tries to keep his company afloat through a season of hardship. He goes to numerous ethically dubious lengths to do so, and worst of all, he spends the whole time pining for the simplicity of his youth, when baseball players would put the spikes of their cleats right in your face and you knew how a plane stayed in the air because you could see the propeller on the wing. Even Jack Lemmon, the most charming man in history, can’t make Harry Stoner’s meandering trips down memory lane anything but annoying.

Then Harry stands at a podium to shill for his company’s new fashion line. He looks out on the crowd and his face turns white. His audience of middle-class drunks have been replaced by a legion of war dead, young men that Harry saw blown to pieces and shot to stillness in the Second World War. They stare at him in total silence. Harry tries to speak, but he can’t.

This is what we talk about when we talk about nostalgia.

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The Agony of Suburbia

The Agony of Suburbia

I don’t fully understand music criticism. When I read (good) criticism about a book or a film, I feel like I learn something – either about the book or film itself, or books or films in general, or about politics or culture or the world. Most of the music criticism I’ve read either validates my opinions without helping me learn anything about them, or else it makes me feel stupid. A huge amount of music criticism is underpinned by a dichotomy between what is Good and Okay to Like and what is Dumb and Bad that Only Dumb and Bad People Like. What falls into each category is supposed to be obvious to the reader, because it’s never explained. (Robert Christgau is one of the most acclaimed music critics in America, and he operates on a bizarre and complicated system combining letter grades and emojis.) Declaring something good or bad is the critic’s job, of course, but even when I disagree with a film critic, they’ll still be interesting to read if they’re any good. Roger Ebert was wrong about Midnight Cowboy, but he was wrong in a way that made me think more deeply about the film.

Quentin Tarantino said that there are two ways to love film: people who love the films they like, and people who love films. Maybe that’s part of the problem – I love films, and I love books, but I only love the music I like. I love lots of different kinds of music, but I don’t love music in the generalised, abstracted way I can love films and books. Music feels too big to care about that way, in more than the small chunks I can consume. But there are genres that are small enough to love in that way, small enough to grasp in my hands.

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