Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Netflix Daredevil: A Review and a Forecast [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

[Michael hasn't seen any of Netflix' Daredevil yet and found nothing spoilery in the article below, but if you don't want to know anything about the show and haven't watched it, be warned that some minor details are discussed.]

I just finished watching all thirteen episodes of Netflix's Daredevil. As superhero fare goes it was a nice surprise. The writing was multi-layered with interesting good guys and bad guys. The action sequences were stellar. The first episode features a punch-up that runs two and a half minutes long (broken only by a flashback). Short of Peter Griffon's chicken fight on Family Guy, I can't think of a longer fight on TV. As with all good TV, I watched the full run in a matter of days, and was left wanting more.

First off, let me state a few prejudices because no review is worth anything if you don't know the where the reviewer is coming from. I love superhero comics and movies. Marvel, DC, and independent. Like many people I had high hopes for Arrow three seasons ago, but have since given it up. Why? It has nothing left to say. It is silly and repetitive and irrelevant. I enjoyed the first season, which felt in many ways the same as this first season of Daredevil. A lone man against a tide of evil. Good stuff. Stephen Amell did well as Oliver Queen: buff enough, able to act to some degree. Then the team got bigger and bigger. By Season Three, everybody except the dead characters have become a superhero, or an evil mastermind, or some other reversion of "not very real." And let's be honest, if I see one more Island flashback I'm likely to strangle someone. When The Flash premiered this season, I was reluctant, but gave it a chance. Marvel's Agents of SHIELD didn't even get that the year before.

With these ill feelings, you might think I would skip Daredevil. But it had several things going for it. The first was that it would be as much a show about the legal side of Matt Murdock's life as the superhero stuff. This balance is what I miss in Arrow. Secondly, the executive producer is Steven S DeKnight, who gave us Spartacus at Starz. Though the gratuitous blood and sex got old fast, the underlying story of a man who faced the power of Rome was fascinating. DeKnight brings a similar tension to Daredevil. He also knows how to write villains well. The character of Kingpin played by Vincent D'Inofrio was as engaging as that of Matt Murdock. Third, and I think most important, was Netflix.

The Netflix platform is, in my opinion, the future of television. April 10th, the entire thirteen episode run appeared and I spent the next week bingeing on Charlie Cox as Matt, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, and strong villains like Toby Leonard Moore as Wesley fighting it out in Hell's Kitchen. The level of swearing and violence was not hampered by Network TV acceptability just as if I was watching a cable show like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. (This is another reason Arrow is quickly sinking down the toilet. As soon as Oliver Queen changed his "no kill" policy, the show lost steam.) There is no secret why the networks keep pumping out more reality shows instead of dramas. How do you compete? The answer: you don't. Netflix is a nice neutral ground where all that stuff doesn't matter. Here's the show. Watch it or don't.

To get back to my earlier statement: this is the future of TV. I think the number of episodes is telling. Thirteen is the usual number of a British show. And the Brits know a little something about "quality" TV. Unlike traditional American fare, shows like Doctor Who or Downton Abbey have short seasons. Six, ten, or thirteen episodes means no filler. Twenty-two episodes a season means a lot of people sitting around asking, "What do we do this week?" The paradigm is changing thanks to the cable networks. New shows like Jay Baruchel's Man Seeking Woman on FXX are experimental at ten episodes. If it works, do another ten. If not, move on and try something else. Baruchel is not locked into a five year contract, chaining him to a dog that should be put down.

And here is my final point: this new Netflix (watch on demand) platform is changing the writing. The producers are learning that the viewers may not be watching one episode a week. They will be lying in their La-Z-Boys and popping through three or four episodes a night. That requires a new kind of writing. It's exciting because a lot of the old "requirements" are falling away. Things like self contained episodes with Captain Kirk and his cronies all gathered around the big chair, laughing at Mr. Spock's obtuseness at the end of episode. Or over-kill excitement just before the commercial. Here's a big one for me, the required fight scene. Watching Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel (both shows I binged on DVD years ago) you get to know the structure/formula too well. You know when Boreanaz is going to be fighting a demon for about thirty seconds. Though this made sense when the shows aired weekly, it is tiresome for the binge-watcher. Thank goodness, they invented fast forward.

Watching Daredevil I noticed I never felt this way. (Perhaps I will have to re-watch them to see it.) I think the way the show was written the fight scenes are better paced and seem more logical in terms of why they happen. One episode "Nelson VS Murdoch" doesn't even have a fight scene in it (if you don't count beating up a child molester), but is a protracted argument between Matt and Foggy after his partner discovers Matt's secret superhero life. Would that work on network TV? I doubt it. I've seen the same kind of "character" episodes on The Walking Dead. Though weekly viewers complain, when the binge-watchers get to them, they will seem brilliant. And in our iTunes reality this will become (is already becoming) the way it is. A new show appears, you purchase it (directly or through a provider like Netflix), you watch it at your own pace, without commercials, without tiresome formulas, and you move on. Or you watch reality TV on the networks. I guess there are some things worse than Season Three of Arrow...

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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