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Marvel’s The Defenders

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And so after five seasons of Marvel Netflix superheroic shenanigans, from the highs (Daredevil Season 2, Jessica Jones) to the lows (goddamn Iron Fist), we come to the inevitable culmination: Marvel’s The Defenders, which sees our four street level vigilantes come together to take on – who else? – The Hand, the shadowy organisation of ninjas, zombies, and ninja zombies intent on taking over New York City.

The good news: it’s a damn sight better than the woefully misjudged Iron Fist. For one thing more care has gone into the production of The Defenders – it lacks the rushed, haphazard, undercooked feeling that marred poor Danny Rand’s first TV outing. For another, Danny (Finn Jones) is a much more appealing protagonist when he’s got other characters sharing the spotlight – especially when they’re a blind guy, a woman, and a black man who are all more than happy to tell the rich white kid when to check his privilege when the need arises.

It’s Danny who drives the plot engine, in fact; he and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) have been hunting down The Hand around the world, and it’s their crusade that brings them back to NYC and into the orbits of lawyer/vigilante Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), private eye Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), and ex-con Luke Cage (Mike Colter), none of whom really want to get mixed up in any kind of shadowy back alley war. Murdock has given up his Daredevil persona (shades of The Dark Knight Rises there), Jones is content to drink and take the odd PI gig, and Cage is focused on tracking down a Harlem teen who has gone missing after taking a mysterious job (again, shades of DKR). It takes a bit of maneuvering to get them all in the same place and punching in the same direction, but it’s worth the wait.

In the blue corner we have Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra, the face of The Hand, pursuing a mysterious but doubtless world-threatening agenda. Weaver’s no stranger to genre fare – she’s Ellen Ripley, for crying out loud – and she’s never less than watchable, but seems a little ill at ease with the often portentous dialogue she has to get her mouth around. She’s also ill-served by the glacial, repetitive way that we’re introduced to her character, a series of brief scenes, isolated from the main story, that are determined to drop veiled hints at a character trait we’ve all guessed long before the show deigns to tell us.

Indeed, pacing remains an issue with The Defenders, even though it runs at a cut down eight episodes rather than the usual Marvel/Netflix 13 episode season. As has been the case with every series so far, there’s simply not enough story to stretch comfortably over the allotted hours. Happily, the character interactions are enough fun to keep you interested – at last we get the Luke Cage/Iron Fist meet-cute/punch up we’ve been waiting for (it’s a thing), and streetwise Jessica Jones telling Matt Murdock his secret identity isn’t much of a secret is never not funny.

We also get cameos from the supporting casts of every preceding series, including Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, Simone Missick’s Misty Knight, and Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson (Cage marveling that Foggy lets people call him that is a riot). However, the key returning players are from Daredevil’s neck of the woods: Elektra (Elodie Yung), now a living weapon wielded by The Hand, and grumpy old ninja master Stick (Scott Glenn), who remains a curmudgeonly delight in every scene he’s in.

The action, when it hits, is pretty great – and certainly an order of magnitude better than Iron Fist‘s disappointing choreography. Part of the fun in these sort of things is seeing how the different characters’ power and abilities compliment or contrast with each other, so we get to see what happens when Iron Fist’s, er, iron fist, meets Luke Cage’s unbreakable skin, and how martial artists match up against opponents with super strength. For all that, the feeling remains that Marvel/Netflix are still chasing – and falling short of – the high watermark that is Daredevil Season 1’s hallway fight, but not for want of trying.

Perhaps inevitably, it lacks the thematic and narrative cohesion that defines the better works in the overall series, but based on the four episodes released for review, The Defenders does exactly what was promised, delivering the requisite action, quips and character interplay, but not quite managing to push into any new territory. Everyone already on board will be well satisfied, and newcomers should find enough to keep them engaged, too.

 
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Atypical

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Created by sitcom veteran Robia Rashid, best known for her work on How I Met Your Mother, Atypical strives to offer an authentic portrayal of the autism spectrum. As shown through Sam (played superbly by Keir Gilchrist), we get a series of embarrassingly awkward social situations coupled with an all-too-familiar need for independence and love. His mannerisms, mainly his fixation on his favourite topics and his very to-the-point way of talking to others, ring true of my own experiences. I was diagnosed with autism at an early age, and through all the support groups and social gatherings I’ve been a part of, I’ve met more than a few people that would see something of the familiar in Sam. Consulting real professionals in the medical industry for reference, Rashid creates Sam as a depiction of autism that may come across as a caricature, but carries enough of his own character to make it fit. He’s unflinchingly honest, to the point of inducing cringe comedy with his matter-of-fact statements in almost every scene, but nevertheless, this rings true.

However, more so than the accuracy, it’s the fact that his condition informs his character, rather than solely being his character, that deserves praise. Representation of people with autism in the mainstream still has a long way to go in terms of proper acceptance, given how the mostly erroneous stereotypes attached to the term ‘autistic’ still exist, but it seems that Rashid’s intent has paid off.

If only the rest of the show was as finely-tuned. For a show literally called Atypical that has a tagline of ‘normal is overrated’, it is quite frustrating that this show feels as tired as it does. Outside of Sam, the rest of the cast is populated by stereotypes that have been regular staples in film and television for a very long time by this point. The overworked mother, the distant father, the abrasive and bratty sister, the best friend whose dialogue is 70% sexual innuendo, the high maintenance girlfriend; after a while, it becomes less a show about autism and more a standard sitcom that an autistic character just happened to wander into.

To make matters worse, the fact that such a frank and honest depiction of autism is sided with so many characters that rarely feel connected to the same level of reality induces cringe in the worst way possible. Any scene that doesn’t involve Sam’s sister (made into the most watchable character of the lot thanks to Brigette Lundy-Paine’s performance) ends up feeling like this is a show that wants to understand autism but apparently still hasn’t figured out basic human interaction itself yet. Then again, when your comedy reaches the point of comparing people with autism to meth addicts, chances are that human interaction wasn’t on the cards in the first place.

Atypical, for as faithful and (mostly) considerate that it is concerning autism, is swimming in too much of the same old junk to really stand out.

 
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Ozark

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If you ever wondered how Narcos’s Pablo Escobar gets his money laundered, Netflix is back with a show for you. Ozark, created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams (who worked together recently as writer and producer on The Accountant, respectively), is Netflix’s latest original drama, and shows a side of drug smuggling rarely portrayed on screen: the banking.

Jason Bateman plays financial planner Marty Byrd, who goes into business with a cartel to launder money. After his business partner is caught stealing money, Marty and his family have to move to the Ozarks (the same region that served as the setting for Winter’s Bone), a rural area in the middle of America, to launder an incredible amount of money for the cartel or risk death. What they find is not a pristine lakeside community, but rather an area filled with problems that further risk their lives.

It’s Breaking Bad with a financial planner and set on a lake, and fans of the series will find it rewarding, but Ozark does not exceed expectations. The cast is fantastic and the show will hook you in, but it is not a groundbreaking show in its genre.

Jason Bateman’s Marty is a departure from his deadpan/straight man comedy shtick that has helped him become such a likeable presence on screen. Along with his recent turn in Joel Edgerton’s masterful The Gift, Ozark is clearly a way to diversify and break out, and this is reinforced by Bateman directing and executive producing on the series. Despite one “Buddy” bit of dialogue reminiscent of Michael Bluth, Bateman convincingly plays Marty with a new degree of intensity.

Laura Linney also stars as Wendy, a matriarch secretly just as strong-willed and determined as her husband Marty, or any of the influencers in the lakeside area. Linney gives emotional heft to many of the series’ key turning points, reminding the audience that a family is at the center of this laundering scheme. Linney is able to convey the desperation of a woman on the edge in scenes where her character is forced to keep it together for her family and her life.

Sofia Hublitz and Skylar Gaertner play Marty and Wendy’s children, Charlotte and Jonah Byrde. The family dynamic is more central to the storyline than in other dramas, which allows the young actors to explore the ways that the (in this case extreme) actions of their parents would affect children at these ages.

Julia Gardner steals scenes as Ruth Langmore, a kleptomaniacal Ozark native that becomes a major player in Marty’s life. Jason Butler Harner plays Roy Petty, a manipulative and borderline sociopathic FBI agent tracking down the family from a motel room. Petty prioritises ending the drug cartel over his relationships, including one with another FBI agent, to a criminal fault, pointing to the moral that there are no innocents in this world.

The plot weaves elements from storylines into one another in a sophisticated way not seen in many other dramas. New challenges arise naturally out of existing circumstances rather than out of the blue, which further complicates the web of hatred and employment in the series.

Tropes of the crime drama, like competing gangs and FBI agents, take an Ozark-twist. “Redneck” drug dealers trade in opium while selling their poppy flowers in the farmer’s market and a pastor, played by Michael Mosley, preaches on the lake from his boat.

Ozark is a quiet drama set in a violent world, and while it’s not Breaking Bad, for those who like well-thought out criminal dramas, Ozark delivers. Between an all-star cast and an interesting set-up, located in an intriguing and relatively unknown environment, this new Netflix show is a great option for crime-show-lovers to binge.