Welcome back to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a seasonal series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. Summer used to be a wasteland of reruns, cheesy movies on endless repeat, and daytime television. Nowadays it’s only a partial wasteland.
Network television still has a long way to go—most summer season premieres are “event” programming, miniseries to test the water for series pickup, or shows the studios don’t know what to do with because they occupy the unusual space in the center of the Venn Diagram of high critical acclaim, low ratings, cheap production, and oddball genre fare. On the cable and streaming sides, they schedule whenever the hell they want, meaning the whole concept of “seasons” is completely moot. Unfortunately, they also tend to produce fewer shows worth watching, and with smaller seasons you’re still left with vast tracts of open television space and nothing with which to fill them. Binge through all the new Orange Is the New Black you want, but when your 12 hours are done, what’s left?
And that’s where I come in. I have surveyed the streaming scape and come bearing gifts. Today we’re looking at something old (Xena: Warrior Princess), something new (Sense8), something borrowed (Daredevil), and something…um…dead (In the Flesh). So get your popcorn ready, friendo, and put down that remote. We’ve got some television to watch.
The Road So Far: Remember when Agents of SHIELD was supposed to tell the story about what happens to all the people left to cleanup after the Avengers? Welcome to Daredevil. In the wake of the Battle of New York in the first Avengers movie, lawyers Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and Foggy Nelson (Eldon Henson) give up their cushy corporate jobs to help the helpless of Hell’s Kitchen. By day they counsel victims like Karen Page (Ann Woll), a woman accused of murdering a coworker, and low-income renters being gentrified out of their affordable apartments. By night, Matt dons black sweats and a mask and fights crime as the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Thing is, Matt Murdock is blind, has been ever since a childhood accident. In traditional comic book fashion, his other senses were heightened to accommodate his sightlessness, and a lot of fight training gave him the ability to do some serious damage to anyone who gets in his way. He pisses off a gang of Russians, an Asian cartel, and the Big Boss Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), and if he can’t succeed Hell’s Kitchen won’t be the only thing destroyed. Available on Netflix Watch Instantly.
The Good, the Bad, the Ugly: We’ve seen what DC and Marvel can do on the big screen—both value spectacle over internal logic and character development, but DC coats everything in grim and grit while the MCU prefers sarcasm and goofy humor. On the small screen, DC is doing gangbusters with diversity and solid storytelling while Marvel falters under the weight of its cross-platform narrative. Netflix has largely succeeded in producing high-quality fare, but no one could guess how they’d fulfill the MCU directives while also establishing their own stories. With all that shifting around in the background, Daredevil shouldn’t have worked as well as it does. It never feels like a piece in the MCU puzzle but it’s own independent entity. No matter what you think of Agents of SHIELD, it still hasn’t made its case for why we as an audience need it. Like Arrow and The Flash, Daredevil could easily exist with or without the MCU, it’s that strong. And yet it also furthers the MCU narrative by worldbuilding and exploring other stories the movies don’t have room to tell.
The Avengers exist because superheroes are the only people who can deal with supervillains. But what happens after the good guys crush the bad guys? What about the low income people whose apartment buildings and jobs are now smashed to smithereens? Who monitors the scheming developers dangling millions of dollars in front of corrupt and overwhelmed politicians? Who protects the regular people from the villains on the non-super variety? The Avengers saved the world, but shattered whole communities to do so. Daredevil takes on that responsibility, partly because he knows using his powers for good is the right thing to do, and partly because he it’s the only way he can work out his anger issues. Unfortunately, he tends to get punched as much as he punches, and spends much of the show being patched up and recovering. Daredevil shows the “reality” of being a human vigilante. There are plenty of comic book cheat codes, but they’re limited in scope and ability—when Matt gets hurt, he gets hurt. Ultron threatening to drop a citystate is intense, but Fisk trying to destroy everyone in Matt’s life is higher stakes because he can’t team, tech, or magic his way out of it. All he has is his physical and psychological strength and the love of his friends, and that makes him stronger than the all Avengers combined.
TL;DR: Debates about theology, morality, legality, and romance are woven throughout, adding a sense of import to the proceedings, all of which are buttressed by some top-notch filmmaking craftwork. There’s a reason people were freaking out about that single-take fight scene. Now imagine an entire series at that level.
In the Flesh
The Road So Far: Life is quiet, if stiflingly conservative, in the Lancashire town of Roarton when young Kieran (Luke Newberry) kills himself. Not long afterward, he and thousands of others awaken as zombies in “The Rising,” and in the subsequent Pale Wars, scores of living and dead are slaughtered. A few years later, humans have finally figured out how to treat and rehabilitate the “rotters,” and they are slowly reintroduced to society. Humans are understandably nervous about living amongst the undead cannibals, and have reduced the reanimated to second class citizens. A rebellion grows within the undead as some of them refuse to have their identity covered up and “fixed”—they want to be who they are, openly, freely, and without retribution. Kieran will soon have to choose sides whether he wants to or not. Will he stay with his family and the rest of the humans who believe there to be something wrong with him, will he learn to live with his new state of being and find happiness, or will he give into his baser needs and kill like the monster everyone thinks he is? Available on Amazon and iTunes.
The Good, the Bad, the Ugly: This isn’t just a British version of The Walking Dead. No, In The Flesh is an allegory for the hypocrisies of Western conservatism, but most especially for homophobia. It was punishingly difficult for Kieran to be openly gay when he was alive, but now with the intersectionality of being gay and undead, of being a second class citizen of a second class citizen, the poor kid is practically trapped. He is despised for being a rotter so much that his homosexuality is basically a lesser evil, even though their loathing of his gayness caused his first death. He spends the first season coming to terms with his lot, and the second wondering if there’s more to life than what he’s got.
Sometimes the allegory edges into proselytizing, which has the effect of both bogging down the story and turning the non-Kieran characters into two-dimensional caricatures. For the most part, though, it’s engagingly written, with heartfelt dialogue, meaningful storylines, and sympathetic characters. Even the villains are drawn with understanding and empathy. The writers recognize that bigots are people under all that vileness, and even the worst can mend their ways. It’s a show both about Kieran accepting his zombie-ness and homosexuality and about bigots confronting their own hate.
TL;DR: At only 9 episodes, you can hardly afford not to watch it. Out of all the detriments to BBC Three switching to online-only, killing off this show makes me the saddest.
The Road So Far: In an abandoned church, a woman (Daryl Hannah) kills herself, thereby “giving birth” to a new cluster of sensates. These eight people scattered all over the world could not be more different, but they are instantly, inextricable, inevitably bound together: Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a white American trans hacktivist in a loving lesbian relationship; Sun (Doona Bae), a Korean financial executive of a business being ruined by her family; Riley (Tuppence Middleton), a white Icelandic DJ on the run from some very bad men; Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), a closeted Mexican movie star with a secret boyfriend and a troubled beard; Will (Brian J. Smith), a white Chicago cop with a habit of seeing people who aren’t there; Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), a white German safecracker on the verge of pissing off his uncle’s mafia; Capheus (Aml Ameen), a Kenyan bus driver desperate to save his mother’s life; and Kala (Tina Desai), an Indian chemist about to enter a love marriage without actually being in love. They’re connected through their senses, and can “appear” to each other or take over each others’ bodies when called. They’re pursued by another sensate named Jonas (Naveen Andrews), who may not be as trustworthy as they think, and the sinister Mr. Whispers (Terrence Mann), who wants to turn them into mindless killing machines. Available on Netflix Watch Instantly.
The Good, the Bad, the Ugly: The characters, I could write an entire article just about them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a diverse cast. An interracial lesbian couple where one woman is trans and the other is anti-TERF. A Korean woman who pushes violently against the stereotypes of Asian women as submissive, dragon ladies, or sexpots. An Indian woman so fully realized that she can be both religious and scientific and not have it feel like a plot device. A Kenyan man who brings nuance, depth, and respectful complexity to a part of the world often looked at by the Western world with condescension and pity. A Mexican man is as trapped by his culture’s hypermasculinity as he is by his own fear of commitment. Really, it’s the straight white characters who are the weakest links. While I enjoy Wolfgang’s brutality, Will’s investigative spirit, and Riley’s earnestness, the minority characters are the ones who really shine. And just as wonderful is that the whole cast, from stars to extras, look like real people. Yes, the leads are all attractive, but none are movie star perfect. It makes them relatable and understandable.
I’m not going to lie to you and tell you Sense8 is the greatest television show ever. Hell, it’s not even the best show on this list. That being said, I binged the entire 12-episode season in 3 days after work. I haven’t done that since, well, Daredevil. I cannot stop listening to “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes, a song I forgot existed until this show. When Sense8 ended, all I wanted was more, more, more, give me more. Which, not coincidentally, is exactly how I felt after Jupiter Ascending. Don’t go into Sense8 expecting logic, solid plotting, and resolved storylines. It takes until well over halfway through the season for the main arc to ramp up, and the resolution is less an ending and more like an ill-conceived stopgap. But I don’t care because it’s just so damn fun.
TL;DR: The last few offerings from the Wachowskis feel like someone threw an endless supply of cash at them to produce their teenage fanfic, and I love every second of it. They can do whatever they want as far as I’m concerned. I’ll follow them to the ends of the earth.
Xena: Warrior Princess
The Road So Far: Come on, everyone knows the premise of Xena. Xena (Lucy Lawless) wanders through the ancient world kicking ass and taking names. She’s joined by Gabrielle (Renée O’Connor), a peaceful bard/farm girl who eventually becomes Xena’s strongest ally and closest confidante. The besties (and more?) rescue those in need and punish the wicked. Xena wants redemption for her time pillaging and razing villages with her barbarian horde, while Gabrielle longs for a life more exciting than what her small village offers. She first appeared in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but she proved to be so awesomely awesome that they gave her her own show, and the rest is history. Available literally everywhere.
The Good, the Bad, the Ugly: I was just going on 13 when Xena first premiered, and she quickly became my foundational figure for modern-day feminism. The Spice Girls and No Doubt wouldn’t be on my radar for another year, and Buffy not for two more. I’d seen powerful women on television before—I was practically weaned on Oprah, The Cosby Show, A Different World, and soap operas—but none whose strength was physical. When Whitley or Erica Kane got angry, you trembled because you knew they’d talk you down a peg or two, but when Xena sought revenge she becomes the Destroyer of Nations. Men floated in and out of the series, but none of them were as important as Xena and Gabrielle. With the luxury of not having to cater to men all the time, Xena and Gabrielle could explore different roles in their society and cherry pick the parts they liked. Xena’s redemption came from her own internal struggles, not from needing to please a man or having her virtue stripped. Gabrielle’s evolution springs from her deep affection for and trust in her friend. They better each other, thus bettering the world. Uteruses before duderuses.
Like Imperator Furiosa, Xena and Gabrielle’s femaleness is both independent of and a key part of who they are as characters. Of course the show is problematic, too. It’s a great example of 90s-era girl power, but feminism has progressed beyond Strong Female Characters™. She didn’t need to be in that too-tight, cleavage-revealing leather skirt anymore than Gabrielle needed to wander around with her midriff perpetually exposed (don’t even get me started on that awful samurai bikini). A woman couldn’t just be tough, she had to look hot doing it, which, ugh. Not because she can’t be attractive or sexually adventurous, but because that shouldn’t be the default mode. There’s no reason a woman as battle-hardened as Xena would ever think a chainmail bikini would be appropriate fighting attire. Buffy the Vampire Slayer would play with that concept a bit down the line, but it’s a hallmark of female representation in that period. Yet that doesn’t detract from Xena’s place in the feminist timeline—you don’t get Furiosa without Xena. She is pop culture feminism’s founding mother. After Sansa’s rape I decided that instead of watching Game of Thrones, I would just go see Mad Max: Fury Road instead. Now that it’s out of my local theater, I’m replacing it with Xena. Give me more complex women. I want a woman character who leaps out of the screen and backhands the writer who even thinks about fridging them.
TL;DR: In season 2, they do a whole Indiana Jones-esque episode set in 1940 with reincarnated versions of Xena, Gabrielle, and Joxer as they try to locate a bunch of scrolls, but the whole thing devolves into breaking the fourth wall. That same season has one of the few positive representations of a transwoman in 1990s television. I mean really, what’s not to love?
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.