The IP strikes out?
'Ahsoka' & 'Loki' disappoint, plus 'Only Murders,' 'Lupin,' 'Starstruck,' and 'Our Flag Means Death'
This week’s What’s Alan Watching? newsletter coming up just as soon as I avoid losing all my skin…
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Odds and/or ends
It’s going to be a fairly spoiler-heavy edition of the newsletter this week, so let’s start out with a couple of items that don’t tell you anything you will have to avert your eyes from.
After a two-year absence (which has become an frustratingly common element in the streaming world), Lupin returned to Netflix this week. As I say in my review, the show remains fun largely because Omar Sy is among the most charismatic human beings alive, but the people and stories around him are a lot less thrilling. Not Miami Metro on Dexter levels yet, but concerning enough.
Also back this week, after only an 18-month break, is Max’s pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death. This is one of those situations like BoJack Horseman where I watched the first few Season One episodes, recognized what the creative team seemed to be doing, didn’t really vibe with it, and moved on. But as the season moved along, I could see on social media that people had come to love this show. So I recently decided to go back and finish the first season, and watch a handful of the new episodes. While I’m not sure I’m ever going to fall for Our Flag in the way so many others have, I definitely enjoyed it a lot more once we got deeper into it, particularly with the highly dysfunctional love affair between Stede and Blackbeard. This is among the queerest TV shows of recent vintage, in every sense of the word, and Taika Waititi’s sensibilities remain very much on display. (Side note: it’s fascinating that there have been three Taika-related shows in recent years, but he’s had mixed levels of involvement in them. Other than a cameo, he’s really had nothing to do with the What We Do in the Shadows show, and he co-wrote the Reservation Dogs pilot before essentially giving all responsibility over to Sterlin Harjo. And here he directed the pilot and plays Blackbeard, but he’s not the creator or showrunner. Yet of the three,this feels most obviously in line with his comic sensibility.)
Starstruck, and the end of the affair?
Okay, we’re now in the spoilers section of things, starting off with Starstruck Season Three. The challenge with a show about a couple that’s constantly breaking up and getting back together is that you reach the point of diminishing emotional returns after a while. That’s especially true when the couple is so unbalanced in terms of on-screen appeal, where Jessie is delightful and weird and complex, and Tom is… there. So it’s a credit to Rose Matafeo and company that Season Three never really tries to put them back together after they break up again in the opening montage. They kiss a few times, and flirt at others, but there’s not a sense that they are on the verge of giving things another go. Tom has a lovely and understanding fiancée, and Jessie has found an appealing, extremely low-maintenance new boyfriend. While there are bumps for both new couples along the way, the season ends with each trying to make it work, while Jessie explains to Tom in pretty definitive fashion that the two of them are simply not meant to be together in the long-term.
The main question I had after the finale was whether this was meant to be the end of the series, or just the season. Because the show has always been tilted so much more towards Jessie than Tom, it doesn’t need them to be a couple anymore, or even to have Tom as a character at all. The season did a good job of building up Jessie’s friends into a real ensemble, and there’s a version of the show where she continues to have misadventures, Kate and Ian struggle with parenthood, Shivani says mean things, etc. It would be a drastic shift from the original premise, and the title wouldn’t really apply anymore, but it would be far from the first show to have either happen. And since Tom is now best friends with Ian, there might be excuses to keep him as part of the story. Which I care about less for Tom than for the chance to continue having Minnie Driver drop by for one episode a season to be utterly horrible to Jessie.
But would it be better for Matafeo to keep this project going, or to end on an obvious closing note and move onto something new? This was a fantastic showcase for her, but I’d love to see what else she can do.
Only Murders opens and closes
Most of my Only Murders in the Building finale review dwelled on the underwhelming resolution to this season’s mystery. That’s because I felt that most of this season’s jokes didn’t really land, with exceptions like Matthew Broderick’s self-mocking cameo. So where once you could enjoy the show as a comedy and a genuine whodunnit at the same time, this year the mystery had to do too much heavy lifting, and the story wasn’t up to the task. It’s still fun to watch Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez bounce off of one another, and Meryl Streep and Paul Rudd were enjoyable season-long guest stars. But I’ve had to make peace with the idea that the perfect balance of genre and tone in Season One just isn’t coming back. Hopefully, Season Four will be funnier.
Ahsoka, Loki, and the case of the beloved franchise blues
Finally, we come to the biggest bummer of the week: the state of both Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as exemplified by this week’s Ahsoka finale and Loki Season Two premiere. As a longtime fan of these larger franchises, going back decades before anyone had ever heard of Disney+, it really stinks to be at a point where I am pleasantly surprised when a new project from either is good.
The Ahsoka finale had some fun action — even if the rules for the Night Trooper zombies were absolute gibberish — but seemed determined to wrap up nothing, even though no one has officially announced a second season, or a new season of The Mandalorian where the characters could appear. Even the Dave Filoni movie meant to tie up the stories of all his Disney+ shows is still in development, and given how many film projects Lucasfilm has announced and then scrapped in the years since The Rise of Skywalker, it’s far from a guarantee that Filoni’s gets made. Back in the days when TV scheduling was more consistent, and you didn’t have to guess when, if, or where storylines would continue, an all-cliffhanger ending like this one would be less of a big deal. The information vacuum here, though, makes the finale extra frustrating, at the end of a season that had a lot of other problems, as I detail in my review.
That we can’t even guess where or how we’ll see Ahsoka next speaks to a larger issue with both franchises: almost nothing gets to simply tell its own story anymore. Every film or show has to be designed in some way to set up other films and shows, and all of them come with some degree of required reading. (Ahsoka just came with more required reading than most, and even then it wasn’t always helpful. I watched the Clone Wars episode with Father, Sister, and Brother only a couple of years ago, and that the statues Baylan discovered were meant to represent that trio.) Being self-contained isn’t an inherent guarantee of quality, as we saw with Moon Knight. But all of these shows struggle in various ways to deal with being just one cog in a massive machine.
Which brings us to Loki. Season One is my favorite of any of the Kevin Feige-produced Marvel shows so far. Season Two, on the other hand, feels super-flat, is drowning in techno-babble, and has largely lost any grasp on what made Loki compelling enough to get his own series in the first place. There are some entertaining performances, notably from Owen Wilson and new castmember Ke Huy Quan — plus one that I’ll get back to in a moment — but it’s all plot and no character, and the plot is largely gibberish that seems to only exist to advance the idea that the new phases of the MCU are all about the multiverse. It’s a big disappointment all around.
And then there is Jonathan Majors. On the one hand, his performance remains the liveliest, weirdest, most compelling part of the whole show. On the other, it is impossible to watch him without thinking of his upcoming domestic assault trial, not to mention the other allegations of abusive behavior that my colleagues at Rolling Stone uncovered. So I can’t even enjoy one of the few pieces of the season (filmed before Majors was arrested and charged) that’s working, because of real-world misdeeds that all but guarantee we’ll never see Majors in the MCU again.
But that’s just one small, if disgusting, piece of a picture that’s become very muddled for other reasons. Once upon a time, it was thrilling to see Tony Stark sitting in Peter Parker’s living room, or for Cobb Vanth to turn up wearing Boba Fett’s armor. Now, the interconnectivity is doing more harm than good for both Star Wars and the MCU. There are issues beyond that — as detailed in the book MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios (out next week and available for pre-order now), Kevin Feige has to oversee too many projects at this point, and can’t maintain the level of quality control that was apparent in the early 2010s — but I think a lot of good would be done by simply letting each show and movie be its own thing for a while, rather than trying to build to the next Endgame.
When The O.C. got superpowers
Oh, wait! Once again, I have failed to adequately plug Welcome to The O.C., my oral history of the seminal mid-2000s teen drama, which you can still pre-order now. Best of all, actually fits with this week’s main topic! As I’ve said, if you pre-order, you get a free bonus chapter right now, and it’s all about the show’s love of comic books, including the Season Two subplot where Seth created his own comic, Atomic County, where he and all his friends had powers:
Some of this material is still in the final version of the book, nestled into a bigger chapter about that season. But this was definitely a case of “kill your darlings,” where I realized that my own comic book obsession led to me to dive deeper into, say, Seth’s love of Legion of Super-Heroes than the overall story of the show required. So now it’s a special feature.
Pre-order early, pre-order often!
That’s it for this week! What did everybody else think?