TV Review: Luke Cage (2018)


Title: Luke Cage
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

The second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage is a lot like the first season in that it has some remarkable high points that make it compelling television, yet is mired with so many writing, storytelling, and acting flaws.  I find myself rooting for Luke Cage to be the stylish, yet socially conscious drama that examines the problems of contemporary Black American communities through the lens of superhero tropes it wants to be, and constantly disappointed when it fails.

Let’s focus on the good first:

Acting – there are once again some excellent performances that help carry this show.  I’m particularly impressed by Theo Rossi as Hernan “Shades” Alvarez who really came into his own in a bigger role this season, and his troubled friendship with Comanche is especially well acted.  I was kind of hoping that Shades wouldn’t so much turn good by the end of the season, but at least become a “frenemy” who works with Luke, which I suppose is still possible in future episodes.

The new antagonist John “Bushmaster” McIver played by Mustafa Shakir is also a good addition.  Bushmaster’s Ahab-like obsession gets kind of ridiculous, so it’s a credit to Shakir that he does so well with the convoluted writing and characterization.  Bushmaster is a brutal and cruel character and yet I was really able to feel empathy for him, and again was kind of hoping he would be redeemed and ally himself in some way with Luke.

Other good performances include: Reg E. Cathey bringing gravitas to underdeveloped role as Luke’s father, James Lucas. Chaz Lamar Shepherd provides a humorous spark as Raymond “Piranha” Jones.  And Rosario Dawson is good as always as Claire.  Alfre Woodward tends to get melodramatic as Mariah this season, but it’s still Alfre Woodward, who is always worth watching.

Direction – The show has a distinctive style of cinematography and staging that I really enjoy.  The show’s makers do a good job of choreographing fight scenes, and filming even simple conversations from intriguing angles. It’s also really good at just showing Harlem, and making Jamaican Crown Heights look distinctively different.

Music – Live performances at the Harlem Paradise are a highlight of any Luke Cage episode.  This season we get to see Gary Clark, Jr., Esperanza Spalding, Ghostface Killah, Stephen Marley, Faith Evans and Jadakiss, KRS-One, and Rakim, among others.  The music used to score the episodes is also universally well-selected and suited to the scenes and stories.

And I’m surprised to say this, but Danny Rand’s guest appearance actually worked well.  Danny and Luke have good chemistry, and if this was a trial balloon for a Luke Cage/Iron Fist spin-off comedy/action/drama, I’m all for it.

And now the bad:

Gratuitous violence – a crime drama is going to have it’s fair share of violence, but Luke Cage seems to revel in depicting it this season, particularly in a key scene of a massacre in a Jamaican restaurant.  Not only does the camera linger on the most gruesome aspects, but the entire scene is replayed as a flashback in the next episode! In a media environment where Black bodies are often seen as disposable, it’s particularly troublesome to see this done in a show that is supposed to be empowering.

Inconsistent characterization – A lot of the characters seem to have their motivations shift constantly to whatever the plot needs them to do.  This is especially true of Luke Cage is constantly said to struggling with things – his father, Claire, being a hero – and then having those struggles easily resolved or dropped until they’re needed again to create “drama.” The apparent heel turn he takes at the end of the season really feels like it came out of nowhere.

Misty Knight was one of the best characters of the first season, but here her story arc is that she’s a renegade cop reacting against the bureaucracy.  Except for most of the season, everything she does makes her look like a really crappy cop, which makes the character look stupid rather than heroic.

Finally, there’s Gabrielle Dennis as Tilda Johnson, Mariah’s estranged daughter.  She goes from compassionate doctor to dupe to righteously angry to femme fatale on whatever whims the plot needs her for.  Could be she’s a bad actor, could be bad writing, probably both.  Regardless, Tilda’s entire story arc is a wasted opportunity.

Repetition – All throughout the season entire scenes take place that give us the exact same information revealed in earlier episodes.  And the speeches – God help us, the speeches – that are repeated again and again. Luke musing on being a hero, Mariah preaching about family first, and Bushmaster relentless tirades on revenge.  The repetition just makes them look ridiculous rather than thoughtful.

Failure to heed the writing advice of “show don’t tell” – Both the inconsistent characterization and repetition are partly the result of the writers wanting to tell the audience things rather than show them.  For example, we’re constantly told that Luke is going through internal struggles, but are rarely shown this excepting a few good scenes such as his fight with Claire early in the season.

So those are my thoughts on a mostly good show that frustrates because it could be a great show.  The final episode of the show felt really out-of-place with the rest of the season, almost as if it were the opening of the next season rather than the conclusion to this season.  I don’t know where they’re going with Luke becoming a crime boss or if that’s a show I even want to watch, but I guess I’ll find out if and when season 3 is released.

 

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