Now that we’ve got so many of them, I think it is time we expanded our definition of the super-hero television show. It ain’t all Biff Pow Bam and Kellogg’s Pep any longer.
We also need to expand our definition of the dramatic television show. With seasons now structured around story arcs and streaming and binging, storytellers have an entirely different landscape than they had even a decade ago. We have opportunities to see character development on a much deeper level. We have stories with real beginnings, middles and ends that are told over the course of about 13 hours, give or take. Storytellers are relieved of the burden of reminding viewers of everything they need to know about the characters and the storyline each and every episode. All this, in turn, creates an ensemble-view of the cast and characters.
Seasons can proceed at a more natural pace as there’s often no need to arrange the show to entice the viewer to sit through commercial breaks – the all-too familiar “set-up, danger, turnaround, confrontation and resolution” formula, with a cliffhanger being substituted for resolution in the case of two-part stories. Older viewers might think the show is moving slowly; well, yes, perhaps… but for very good reason.
Case in point: Marvel Television’s Luke Cage series. It’s second season went up on Netflix this past month, and – surprise – like the other shows in the tightly integrated Marvel Netflix sub-universe it is not a show about a super-hero who does super-stunts to save the world from super-monsters. It’s about a community of people, some of whom don’t like each other but most of whom have to accept each other for who they are. Alliances come and go; people grow and, often, the bad guys (who are not all guys, by the way) show a greater respect for that community and have their own ideas about improving it – and, of course, making some personal gain along the way. It can be very heady stuff.
Luke Cage is such an ensemble show. Yes, the principal focus is on the eponymous character played by Mike Colter, and only one other character has appeared in each of the 26 episodes broadcast over the two seasons – Simone Missick’s Misty Knight. Both have gone through substantial character growth, but so has the rest of the cast. Theo Rossi as Hernan Alvarez, Mustafa Shakir as Bushmaster McIver and Thomas Q. Jones as Comanche all wind up as far more complex and far deeper characters than your typical teevee villain. So have the broad group of supporting characters who each play an integral part in the story and in each other’s path through that story.
Please allow me a point of personal privilege. The big bad in Luke Cage is Harlem politician and gangster Mariah Stokes Dillard, played by the legendary actor Alfre Woodard. Her credits are way too numerous to list in this column (but not too numerous for the ubiquitous IMDB). I suspect I first became a fan of hers during her brief run on Hill Street Blues and I most certainly was seeking her bubble gum cards and action figures when she played Doctor Roxanne Turner in St. Elsewhere – a role she repeated in a couple other Tom Fontana-produced shows (Fontana had his own strange “universe” and the world is better for that).
In Luke Cage, Woodard shows her breathtaking range of performance – often in scenes that run maybe three minutes. Watching her work in Luke Cage is akin to taking a master’s class in acting. And, perhaps, in tightrope walking as well.
The writers and her fellow actors take full advantage of her gifts in ways that would have been difficult in prior generations of television drama. She lifts everybody’s game, and it’s a joy to behold.
The world they have created here lives and breathes just fine with its own crew of supporting characters that cross through these shows as needed: lawyer Foggy Nelson, industrialist/spiritualist Danny Rand, martial arts teacher Colleen Wing, former Pasty Trish Walker, and, of course, Night Nurse to the superfolk Claire Temple all make important appearances this season…
… as do quite a number of A-list musicians who perform at the Harlem Paradise, as run by Mariah Dillard.
Because these Marvel Netflix shows are so tightly integrated, I’m not particularly interested in seeing these characters in other Marvel Cinematic Universe productions. Well… okay… maybe an extended cameo or two. After all, I am a fanboy.