Here are a few overdue capsule reviews of Netflix & Hulu’s summer offerings. (Spoilers ahead!)
GLOW, Season 2 (Netflix)
The first season of GLOW was a delightful surprise, perhaps the most purely entertaining series of 2017, and my expectations were high for Season 2. And it didn’t disappoint, at all — these ten episodes (clocking in at a mere five hours and change altogether, so take note, other series) were a blast, somehow finding ways to service its sprawling and charismatic ensemble. That said, Liz Flahive & Carly Mensch try to do a lot. Maybe too much. For the season’s first half, it feels a bit like they’re running down a checklist of Current Topics to address, especially the #MeToo moment where Ruth (Alison Brie) flees the advances of a randy network executive, getting the show banished to a middle-of-the-night slot and herself chewed out by frenemy Debbie (Betty Gilpin) for not just putting up with what countless women have before. It’s all handled well, but it costs the series time for many of the supporting character beats that made the first season so much fun.
That moment also marks a key inflection point for the season, and the scrappy wrestlers (along with the still-great Marc Maron and Chris Lowell backing them up) have to get even scrappier. The show-within-a-show aspect allows GLOW to find thematic connections between in-ring and out-of-ring action, like the standout fourth episode, “Mother of All Matches,” which focuses primarily on Debbie/”Liberty Belle” and Tammé/”Welfare Queen” (Kia Stevens) on the day of their much-hyped tangle. Debbie is in full post-divorce meltdown, impulsively selling most of her possessions (but forgetting to pick up her baby from daycare), while Tammé tries desperately to keep her Stanford-bound son from finding out what she does for a living — especially the racist persona she has to play.
Stevens is remarkable carrying drama on the series for the first time, but Gilpin demonstrates all season long that she’s just on an entirely different level. Her face can flicker between a dozen different emotions in just a few seconds, and as consistently hilarious Brie is as “Zoya” (oh, how I love Zoya), Gilpin’s “Liberty Belle” has evolved from last season’s patriotic caricature into a living, breathing, rictus-grinning creature you can’t take your eyes off of, even more so when Debbie’s internal breakdown violently manifests during the show’s taping and forces her and Ruth to either destroy what they’ve made or bury the hatchet for good.
That all said, the season’s real high-water mark is “The Good Twin,” a dadaist stunt episode in line with detours taken by Parks and Recreation (“Johnny Karate”), 30 Rock (“Queen of Jordan”), and others, where you go from Wow, they’re really committing to this to This is now my favorite thing. Just in time for GLOW (their show, not the show) to be cancelled and reborn as a live Vegas production, we get to see in its purest, most bonkers, Brie-and-Gilpin-heavy form.
Only one real note: Please stop trying to make Ruth and Sam a thing. They don’t need to be a thing. Just let them be friends and inspire each other. It’s a little gross, and a lot distracting.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Season 2 (Hulu)
I wrote in my Best TV of 2018 (So Far) feature, which posted before Handmaid’s polarizing season finale, about wanting to bail on the series about every other week but being unable to because it’s just so well done. Elisabeth Moss is incredible. Yvonne Strahovski is my Emmy pick. Alexis Bledel and Ann Dowd are superb. (The men…are okay, but I loved Bradley Whitford’s late-season appearance playing to both early- and late-career type.) The show’s cinematography is frequently breathtaking, and you could cut the tension of every scene with a butter knife. But God Almighty, can it be a miserable watch. Todd VanDerWerff at Vox described the show as “The Walking Dead for progressives,” which is both a sick burn and, I’d argue, absolutely true. Every time we think things can’t get worse for June, they somehow do. In case the point hasn’t been made the first dozen times about how easily a country can slip into theo-fascism, here’s another uncomfortable flashback.
One episode the Waterfords are in Canada, receiving a vindicating clapback the very same week our real-life president is attacking our Northern neighbors; the next episode, after we were inundated with images of family separations at the border, we had to watch June get her daughter ripped away from her again. And on and on, a never-ending cycle of emotional and physical abuse, executions and forced marriages. One step forward, two steps back. June had three (three!!!) chances to escape her hell this season; she hid out at the abandoned Boston Globe office, but got nabbed before she could leave on a prop plane; she hid out at an abandoned mansion, nearly pulled the trigger on the Commander, gave birth by herself, then just waited to be picked up again; then, in “The Word,” she had the chance to leave with Emily and her new infant on a truck, but simply handed the baby over and chose to stay behind to…what, exactly? How much more can viewers be expected to endure because something is Important Art?
I don’t know, but I don’t blame anyone who hopped off the train this year, or is planning to now. The idea that showrunner Bruce Miller has mapped out ten seasons of the show is, frankly, alarming. I would need to see a major structural change next year — if June just goes back to the Waterfords for more of the same, even with the baby gone and Aunt Lydia murdered, I’m out. If she becomes an Underground Railroad figure trying to bring down Gilead from within while looking for Hannah, that’s at least more interesting, and Emily’s escape to Canada should improve that storyline as well. I’m perhaps most interested in what becomes of Strahovski’s Serena Joy, who doesn’t deserve any credit for only now realizing — now that it affects her — how horrific this world is that she helped create, but is still smart and powerful enough to make a difference. I just don’t know if I trust the storytellers.
Luke Cage, Season 2 (Netflix)
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe reaches its operatic crescendo, its Netflix productions have been on a steady downward slope since the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Even uniting Manhattan’s Defenders in their own 8-hour event series couldn’t juice it; Jones S2 was a letdown, and I still have no interest at all in the hyper-machismo of The Punisher. The biggest culprit has simply been bloat. There is no reason for these series to run 13 episodes. The writers don’t have enough plot; the pace is too slow; many of the characters simply aren’t interesting. But while those issues still hound the second season of Cheo Hodari Coker’s Luke Cage, it’s somehow the best-balanced (though not quite the best) of any of these seasons to date.
Great superhero stories need a great villain, and Cage has that in Bushmaster, played with intelligent menace by Mustafa Shakir. The Jamaican/Atlantean influence is all over this season: not just the ubiquitous reggae music (including a live Stephen Marley performance) and the folklore, but in the unsubtitled patois that forces you to pay attention and really think about what those characters want, and in the subterranean themes of colonialism and its continued effects on the black diaspora. It’s admirable for a series that began with a hook-y “bulletproof black man in a hoodie” premise to expand its reach, and gives Cage a weight that Daredevil, and certainly Iron Fist, simply don’t have. By the time a broken Bushmaster leaves Harlem for good, you’re feeling nothing but sympathy.
As for the man himself, Coker’s second bold choice is to make Luke mostly suck. He never wanted the “Hero of Harlem” mantle, but he starts to enjoy it a little too much, and push away many of the people who know him for who he really is. His argument with Rosario Dawson’s Claire is brutal to watch, as he tries to justify his choices then punches a hole in a wall when he realizes how feeble those justifications are. He’s great at beating up gangsters, but thinks so highly of his own incorruptibility he’s closing the door on Misty Knight (Simone Missick, great as always) at season’s end, a moment ripped straight from The Godfather. Now, with Mariah Stokes-Dillard (Alfre Woodard) dead and the mercurial Shades (Theo Rossi) cowed, Luke’s set himself up as Harlem’s Prince that was Promised, an anti-hero who thinks he can do bad things for the right reasons. From a storytelling perspective, that’s a fascinating place to leave it. As a viewer, you’re screaming at Luke to pull himself together.
Even at an unsustainable thirteen hours, Cage short-shrifts a couple of the most interesting subplots: Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) trains Misty (and her new bionic arm) in vigilante combat, but that’s cut short when Misty inexplicably decides to stay a detective after all. Then there’s the whole thing with Shades and Comanche (a surprisingly good Thomas Q. Jones), which is only given a couple of scenes to breathe, but has to hold up several hours of character motivation. Shades is mostly inscrutable, with Rossi shifting between just two main gears, but shining a small light on his history went a long way to humanize the series’ most cardboard major character. For the first time, I’m actually looking forward to seeing him again.
But please, please, Netflix, cut back episode orders to 10 or fewer. It’s so incredibly wasteful.