I was a kid in the 80’s. Back then, television was a much more restricted medium. You got the show when they happened, on the few channels you had, in the few hours you were able to have them. We delightfully joked that we had “three-and-a-half channels”, because the fourth one depended so much on atmospheric conditions, the placement of the antenna, whether the tinfoil wrapped around it was tight enough, and where you stood in the room.But TV was exciting: it featured shows we tuned in on a regular basis to see. It was an event, and when the Very Special Episode or Limited Mini-Series came up, it was something to stay up late for, something to get the popcorn ready for, something to get glued to your seat for.
Cable and now on-demand Internet has pretty much erased the sense of “big event” TV. I don’t even have cable anymore, content most of the time to wait until the show is out on DVD or streaming. I have lost the sense of being synchronized with people about the programs I watch, but with 1000 channels, that was pretty much lost anyway in the morass of choices.
A few shows have rattled that. The first one that really felt like it changed things was Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog. Here was a product from one of the most skilled masters in television — no, from one of the most skilled teams of masters — featuring quality cast and clever writing, memorable songs and real emotion. Joss Whedon is an incredible person for TV, inspiring loyalty from legions of fans (and co-workers) for his dedication to character-driven storytelling, sly and often absurd humour, and a real love of the artwork he produces (which elevates it from the rather generic term of “product” which seems to pervade modern entertainment).
When it was announced that Whedon would be essentially steering the ship for the entire Marvel cinematic universe, I was overjoyed: if anyone would be able to translate the joy and spirit of comic books into a real universe filled with real characters who are substantiated from beyond just a collection of abilities and powers to people with motivations, emotions and both internal and external conflicts, it would be him.
An aside, for a moment: I believe in the incredible skill of Joss Whedon, but I want to be clear that I also really believe in the people he works with and has inspired to greatness. Too often, I think, we celebrate the individual at the centre and forget to acknowledge properly the full team of producers, writers, directors, actors and so on who embrace his vision and style and take it further. One of my favourite current shows is Agents of Shield (itself both a Marvel cinematic universe element and headed by Whedon alum Jed Whedon and Melissa Tancharoen), which has excelled in demonstrating that superhero shows are not all about the superheros, but about people who are called to do more.
All of this, of course, is a timely reaction to having finished the short run of the latest Marvel series, Daredevil. If the show had been bad, it would have at least succeeded in creating an event, a feeling of general anticipation and real desire for a scheduled-release show. Granted, it wasn’t “Friday nights at 6pm” or “weekly on Wednesday nights at 10pm”, but we have generally left those models behind a long time ago. (I watch Agents of Shield through an iTunes pass for example, which means I watch the show the day after it airs for everyone else, but it’s soon enough that I don’t feel far behind the rest of the world.)
The entire season of Daredevil was released all at once on Netflix. As my previous experience has demonstrated, when I have all of a series available, I’m compelled to watch it, in as much of a rush as I can. I may not watch any television for months, but I will consume this greedily, immediately.
And the best part of all: it’s good.
The show succeeds on quite a few levels. Not only does it give us a world we can dive in to (a mythical version of a New York City neighbourhood where corruption and decay have a strong foothold), but characters which are conscious of the world. Not only does it give a hero with motivation to change things, but it also gives us a villain who is similarly motivated for change, just at odds with the methods that will matter.
And lets talk a bit about the villain: the classic elements are here, with parallel comparisons between the hero and the villain as kids, or in the fire of motivation that burns strong in each. The villain is believable, because he does not consider himself to be a villain — even when surrounded by people who clearly and proudly think that they are. This is both nuanced and explosive, a credit to the writers who provided us with human dialogue elevated to philosophical moments, and a credit to the actors who carried the words with the dignity and gravity that they needed. Vincent D’Onofrio is incredible here, with levels of performance that show us the animal that wants to be king, the boy who wants to be free, the blind figure of justice with scales and a bloody sword.
In contrast, the main character of Matt Murdock seems almost bland, but not in a bad way. The character is similarly a contrasting pair, a cautious and intelligent lawyer and an aggressive, dangerous spirit of vengeance. What’s interesting about the display of this character is he simply just is and he can simply do these things. Yes, we have an origin story, but the way this plays out in the show is much more about learning about who the character is now based on their lifetime of being, and less about dwelling on the extent or source of powers, or how they got their suit. Those things are explained, although carefully left as smaller elements in the background rather than dwelling on them.
I have to wonder, of course, whether the form of this series contributes or interferes with it. In this case, because it was all available at once, does that make a difference in how it is created or received? In contrast to most shows, it wasn’t delivered episode-by-episode. It wasn’t already out in another form and then released on streaming services. It wasn’t obscure and released a long time ago, only to be discovered by its legions of loyal fans long after it was created (and after most hopes of continuance are fading).
This was here now. And everyone knew about it. And they knew while making it that it was going to be released this way. I observed that there was a very direct sense of story continuance here, that episodes take place mere hours or even minutes after the previous one. A similar formula was introduced with 24 (a show I admit I’ve never seen), but they aren’t slavishly restricted to having an episode only involve a fixed amount of time.
There also isn’t much time wasted on repeating things. In regular shows, I believe the writers are often consciously aware that it has been a number of weeks since they introduced the Chekov’s gun to the mantelpiece, so they introduce dialogue or a visual to remind the viewer, so it doesn’t feel like it came out of nowhere. A similar experience happens in serial dramas, such as The House of Anubis which I recently watched, where an end scene is repeated as the intro scene in the next section after a commercial break or episode break, to explicitly remind the viewer what just happened.
But when I watch a show in a marathon streaming session, those elements are wastes of time. They don’t seem to happen in this show, or at least aren’t often glaringly obvious. There are no flashback scenes repeating what happened, except where it serves the story. There aren’t any dreaded “clip shows”, and people don’t reintroduce themselves constantly. Things aren’t reset constantly, so while there are repeated locations, they keep the consequences of the previous interactions. People get hurt and stay hurt (although there is some examples of typical TV fast-healing..).
The show has an episode without the main character in it. The actor playing the villain isn’t introduced in episode 1. Characters die unexpectedly — or don’t die.
But there are things that might be lost from a series like this. In series with longer runs, you often have small episodes which are self-contained stories, or events which are aren’t directly connected to the main storyline. Those seem missing here, or at least they are woven back into the tapestry of what’s going on. No time is wasted on filler, but little details are still lovingly lingered on.
Bigger plotlines are hinted at, but are obviously outside of this story. Exactly what the end-game of the villains is remains pretty much a mystery at the end of the series. That may be fodder for future seasons, or it might be part of the very conscious Marvel cinematic universe master plan, leaving room for the other three planned mini-series set in the same area, or for Agents of Shield, or The Avengers, or Ant-Man. There is a clear but muted indication that this series is contained within the larger universe, from small throwaway mentions of hammers, shields, and power armours to the mention that part of the reason Hell’s Kitchen is in such a bad state is from the massive attack featured in the last Avengers movie.
There’s also little things that probably couldn’t be done on network TV that this show can get away with. People swear — not excessively, but naturally. People drink — a lot, to the point sometimes where I wonder how they function. The fights are brutal and sympathetically painful and bloody. (They also are usually a bit showy on the main character’s part, but that can be excused as trying to portray an “unpredictable” fighting style.)
I need to conclude this while energy still allows, but it should be clear that I was impressed by Daredevil. It was a real television event (even if not on traditional television), with great storytelling carried by some phenomenal acting. If the future mini-series can be done to this calibre, it is a very exciting time to be a fan of comic book tales.