TV: BoJack Horseman (season three), Watchmen
Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze
I read the first three trade paperbacks of Ta-Nehisi Coates's 2016-2017 run on Black Panther.
This was a challenging read. These volumes very much drop you into the middle of an intricate story-in-progress. Mr. Coates adds exposition here and there to give you the facts you absolutely need, but in a clunky sort of way that's easy to gloss over. And on top of that, there's just a lot to keep track of — you have to hit the ground running with a dozen characters (almost all of whom weren't in the movie) and a whole pile of plotlines from previous issues. To be honest, I never quite felt like I knew what was going on — it was always a bit like walking awkwardly into a party when a violent argument is in progress.
This all made more sense to me when I learned this was Mr. Coates's first time writing a comic. And yeah, this Black Panther run feels like it was written by a great *thinker* who's taking on the comics medium for the first time. So yes, all the backstory you need gets delivered, but it's not necessarily clear if you're picking up the comic for the first time, and the exposition isn't presented in a way that's dramatically compelling — you have one character who knows that Shuri got sort-of-killed (?) telling another character who already knows that, as opposed to, say, someone revealing that fact to someone who desperately needed to know it (which would make it 'stick' a bit better for a new reader).
Exposition is hard. Exposition in an ongoing comics property is harder. I would only expect a very experienced comics writer to get it right. As it is, I feel like we're watching Mr. Coates get the hang of it as he goes.
But before I go any further on 'newbie missteps', I want to make it clear that Mr. Coates's *ideas* absolutely shine in these volumes. This may be the only time I've seen a character set up as a brilliant philosopher who actually makes brilliant philosophical points. I'm sure this is the only time I'll see a comic book quote John Locke — and not only that, but quote it not just as a placeholder for "important philosopher that no one in the audience has read", but because Locke's work is directly relevant to the discussion at hand.
This really is a comic arc about philosophy.
Mr. Coates is tackling a thorny question, one that's absolutely central to the source material, and one that we've all ignored because, well, it's thorny: if Wakanda is "the most advanced nation in the world," why does it have a king? Autocratic rule is very, very bad — or at the very least, very incompatible with the Western notions of freedom that are the bedrock of the Marvel-verse. And Mr. Coates goes further, showing all the inevitable failures of an autocracy and drawing painful analogies between a king ruling his people and a society keeping slaves.
And yet, how can Wakanda *not* have a king? How could it throw away millennia of tradition about how a just king should rule?
I find it strange to do another comparison to the classics again this month, but this comic run feels like a classical philosophical dialog: characters with sharply different attitudes about how a just government should rule, all stating their case and responding to one another. I honestly didn't 100% get all the points this arc made, but what I did understand struck me as nuanced and perceptive, which makes me think a slower, more pensive read would be rewarding.
And now I circle back to the "first-time comics writer" thing. The philosophical dialogs are excellent, but other aspects of the work fall short. For instance: Black Panther has always had a stately, mannered form of dialog — high-register, like Thor. In Mr. Coates's hand, it becomes much more thoughtful — longer sentences, careful structures. But unfortunately, this has a way of "flattening" the dialog: everyone sounds the same, with long, thoughtful, high-register sentences.¹ Occasionally you get a character with a different voice — Luke Cage shows up, for example — and it feels somehow awkward, like it hits the clearest signifiers of how this person talks without feeling comfortable in the voice.
And the storytelling gets weaker the further it gets from "people in rooms arguing about ethics". Action sequences feel a little perfunctory, and never solve the hard, hard problem of making "superheroes punching each other" matter to the character arcs or the themes of the story. The story juggles many, many characters in many, many locations (nothing if not ambitious), but it again makes it hard to follow. Who are these people again? I know the caption named this place, but what *is* it, again?
To be clear, I'm glad I read this. I doubt I'll ever read another comic — certainly not another superhero comic — that shares this particular kind of ambition. And if this is his debut, I'm sure Mr. Coates has gone on to do great work. This just wasn't as entertaining as I'd hoped.
BoJack Horseman (season three)
This is the 2014 netflix show about the life and career of a movie star battling crippling depression, all in a version of Hollywood populated with anthropomorphic animals. The third season covers BoJack's Oscar campaign for Secretariat, a movie where, after creative differences, he was secretly replaced by CGI.
I enjoyed this season, but I have to admit, I wasn't blown away the way I was with season one or season two.
And I can't quite put my finger on why. It's still a hilarious show. It still does a fabulous job of "punching up" — "Rape, they seem fine with" is one of the most razor-sharp Hollywood jokes I've heard in *any* TV show. They do a fine job of letting their plot threads slowly develop over the course of the season. I was impressed that they did an episode about abortion that felt honest and empathetic.
Maybe the third season felt repetitive? Season one introduced us to what this world is like. Season two was about everyone getting what they wanted² and somehow finding ways to self-sabotage and squander it all. And now, season three kind of feels like more of the same. I'm still watching people run into walls over and over again. That painful cycling is *accurate* to many cases of depression, and to many cases of mental illness in general. But thematically, I don't know if there's anything new here.
And plot-wise, it never quite cohered for me. The Oscar campaign provides a loose clothesline for the season, but I never really felt the stakes for it — nor, perhaps, was I supposed to, given how hard they telegraphed that winning an award would never 'fix' BoJack.
Again, let's be clear: my least-favorite season of BoJack is still great work. And I do love that, at this point, they're taking some bigger creative swings with individual episodes — say, the nearly-silent and visually dazzling "Fish Out of Water". I respect and understand the massive critical acclaim the third season received. But even though they've set up some great storylines for season four, it may be a while before I get back to this.
This is Damon Lindelof's 2019 HBO drama that follows a conflict between Tulsa law enforcement and a white-supremacist group, some thirty years after the events of the seminal Alan Moore comic.
This show is very good. And by all rights, it should have been very, very bad. The original Watchmen comic is a perfectly self-contained story. It did not need a sequel. It's also very much "of its medium" — it's a critique of superhero comics, it's full of historical references to other comics (yes, horror pirate comics were a thing), and it masterfully uses techniques that only work in the comic medium (say, that relentless nine-panel page structure). You can argue that Watchmen should never even have been *adapted*, let alone given a sequel.³
So how the hell did Lindelof do it?
For me, the most striking thing about HBO's Watchmen is how you feel like they *had* to make this.
I feel certain that almost every show *starts* with such powerful motivation. Few shows get made without some passionate booster pushing it, relentlessly, to the finish line. But that has a way of getting diluted,k or outright vanishing, as a show gets from initial idea to the screen. Even great shows can feel kind of... idle, in a way. I love Firefly to death, but it's always going to strike me as more "this should be fun to make" than "something inside me will die forever if I can't make *this one story* happen".
And that's okay.
But Christ, Watchmen starts with the Tulsa race massacre and it's immediately shaking you by the lapels and imploring you to LOOK AT THIS. And it never stops doing that. It just keeps introducing elements — a white-supremacist terrorist group, a deranged megalomaniacal trillionaire, a long-standing racist police conspiracy — that command your attention. It's loud. It's angry. It's searingly relevant. And yet, the show feels somehow compassionate, like the viewer is a drowsy head-wound victim, and the series is a dear friend shouting that YOU NEED TO STAY AWAKE RIGHT NOW.
I mean, Christ, after watching this and Chernobyl, it feels like every other show is the fucking Teletubbies.
So somehow a sequel to a 1980s comic that absolutely didn't need one — and a period piece about a 1980s news item that most of its audience never lived through — have become the most relevant stories I've seen lately. Strange times we live in.
Mr. Lindelhof is working at a masterful level these days, and he had the good sense to hire a writers room that was mostly women and mostly POC. This pays off in, among other things, a rock-solid verisimilitude — which in turn pays off, in that it lets the show gently lead us to some really crazy, over-the-top, pulp-adventure territory⁴ while still feeling 'normal'.
But at the same time he's doing possibly the best job of referencing older material that I've seen, full stop. There is so much here to take notes on. First: if you're going to reference something, it's okay to not wave it in our faces and shout, "DO YOU RECOGNIZE THIS?!" One gentle spoiler: there is a sequence in the pilot that features the Owlship.⁵ But we don't immediately see that it's the Owlship. We don't get a slow, loving, steadicam SFX shot of the vehicle, with an admiring offscreen character saying "That's the Owlship!" and giving a wikipedia description.
Nope. It's just an action sequence set in a cockpit. It's only several minutes in, when the lights turn on, that you see the familiar dual windows. And even then, it's just there if you know it. If you've never read the comic, it's just an idiosyncratic-looking vehicle — exactly why it has that design isn't important at that moment.
So it is with nearly every other reference. The TV show accepts as a given that everything that happened in the Alan-Moore-penned comic happened thirty years ago, and it's patient about letting you know how the things you see now match up to the things they set up then. In the moment, it just focuses on telling a good story.
The references are also generally much more meaningful than normal fanservice-y "hey here is that thing you like" quoting. For instance, when arguably the most famous line from the comic — "I did it thirty-seven minutes ago." — recurs in the show, yes it's cute. Yes, we recognize it. But it's also doing a *lot* of heavy lifting structurally, hammering home how the situation you're watching now parallels the situation you read about then, but neatly inverted in several key respects.
It is also just astoundingly intricate. For days after watching the finale, I was piecing together just how clearly that episode matched up to the final issue of the comic. How you could describe long sequences, beat for beat, in some detail, and be describing either the comic or the show. And the whole storyline around Hooded Justice is one of the best retcons I've ever seen. Like the best retcons, it fits so many details so well, and all hangs together so well, that it seems like it *must've* been like that all along.
The only quibble I can think of is that, for a show as shockingly bleak as this one, based on a comic as shockingly bleak as the original, the ending did feel a little happier than expected. If the comic left you with a gasp, and the feeling that this world is never going to be okay again, the series leaves you feeling, perhaps, a little hope about the world. I'd have to watch it again, to more closely assess whether that feels out-of-whack or not.
But regardless, HBO has made the standard against which superhero shows will be judged. Compared against Watchmen, most of them will feel like insubstantial special-effects demo reels.
For next week: tiny backlog this week — just season one of The Witcher, though I'll shortly finish Chernobyl as well. I'm now reading a book of essays about interpreters and an excellent book of math essays. I'm finally watching The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and on The Great Courses I'm listening to an audiocourse about comparative economics.
¹ Basically, everyone sounds like Ta-Nehisi Coates.
² Or more precisely "what they thought they wanted".
³ You can also argue that, if you were to adapt it, Zak Snyder would be the worst person to do so.
⁴ If you've seen the show, imagine describing the plot of the finale to someone and *not* sounding like you're summarizing some whacked-out radio-serial from the 30s.
⁵ Technically another vehicle of similar design.