By Derek May:
YIN: THE BOYS (SEASON 1)
Imagine, if you will, a world where superheroes rule our entire collective consciousness. Movies, comic books, t-shirts, and coffee mugs. Everywhere you go, there they are—and we love them, practically worship them as heroes and idols, looking up to them for moral guidance and a reinforcement of the belief in good triumphing over evil. Maybe not everyone feels that way; maybe a few are sick of them and their ubiquitous domination and have no use for false gods. And yet, there they are, ever-present.
I know, hard to believe, right?
But despite the best efforts of DC and the MCU, their heroes aren’t real. Sure, they’re given human flaws, but they remain otherworldly, better than us, able to make the right decisions for the betterment of us all. So the question remains: What would heroes be like if they really were REAL? What would a true, honest portrayal of a person with powers beyond comprehension actually look like? What if these gifts weren’t given to Clark Kent or Steve Rogers, but to the asshole that cuts you off in traffic and gives you the finger? The jerk relishing in blasting his music at 2 a.m. because he doesn’t give a damn about anyone else? You know, the people we deal with on a regular basis who are likely perfectly sweet to a chosen few but happy to let the rest of the world go to hell.
That’s the basic premise of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s acclaimed comic series The Boys, which centers on a misfit team of ordinary schmoes who attempt to police, regulate, and when necessary take out superheroes who get out of line—which is pretty much all of them all the time. I’ve been familiar with the property for a while. I’d read one or two issues, but the only set I finished in its entirety was the spin-off Herogasm (you read that right), about an annual super-orgy that . . . let’s just say can get severely out of hand. If that shocks you, then I can tell you now this show is not for you. The comic is graphically violent, full of intense foul language, nudity, and sex and pulls no punches whatsoever in every aspect. It is a complete deconstruction of the superhero mythology, presenting them more as petulant, spoiled children with powers who will readily indulge in everything that power affords.
So needless to say, it was merely a matter of time in this day and age before The Boys would be given the live-action treatment. A film version had been planned for years but ultimately never came to fruition. But with the success of another Garth Ennis property, Preacher, producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg had enough clout to push through their vision for Amazon Prime Studios. Rogen and Goldberg are known for their raunchy comedies such as Superbad, Pineapple Express, and the recent Good Boys. So The Boys would seem right up their ally. But if you’re concerned that their track record also includes the Green Hornet film, fear not. They not only seem to have learned from their mistakes, they are smart enough to bring in high-profile showrunner/producer Eric Kripke, known for the best seasons of Supernatural, the acclaimed series Timeless, and the recent House with a Clock in Its Walls.
Between the trio, The Boys excels as a darkly funny and often deeply emotional reproduction of the comic. It certainly retains the hardcore nature of the source material—believe it or not, the show is actually tamer—but more importantly, it stays true to the intent. This first season sets up something of an origin story as frontman Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) recruits recent hero-trauma victim Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) in his crusade to take down The Seven, the most-elite superhero team in the world. With little idea of how to really go about such a feat, they slowly pull in some of Billy’s nefarious pals, including Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso) and Frenchie (Tomer Capon). Together, they slowly begin to unravel secrets of massive proportion while dealing with their own deeply personal issues.
Meanwhile, small-town superhero Starlight, a.k.a. Annie (Erin Moriarty), is our way into the world of The Seven as their newest recruit. Through her, we see the extreme corporate micro-management of these supposed do-gooders and behind the veil of their meticulously crafted public personas. In reality, each “hero” is anything but, ranging from junkie to soulless shill to homicidal sociopath. While it would be easier to simply villainize these characters, the show takes the harder path, injecting just enough humanity to give each of them breadth and depth.
In fact, what makes the show so intriguing is that there may not be a truly good or truly bad character in the bunch, but a mishmash of varying degrees. Hughie himself struggles most as the audience identifier, the seemingly spineless pushover whose life is upturned by these superhumans and is simply looking for some sense of cosmic justice. His core morality is tested with each step he takes further and further over the line, but it’s his struggles with that understanding that make him so rich and so relatable. His relationship with Annie is a perfect counterpoint, as she battles with the same demons, sometimes literally, with both characters grappling with the realization that the world is not as black and white as the comics might make it seem.
The show is chock-a-block with such dichotomies, but I’ll focus on one more pair. Like Hughie, Billy’s life was completely shattered by the actions of a hero, in his case, the greatest of them all: Homelander (Anthony Starr). A hybrid Superman/Captain America, Homelander leads The Seven through a terrifying mix of fear, intimidation, and sheer domination, all while beaming an apple-pie smile to the masses. Billy and Homelander’s lives are far more intertwined than either truly realizes, and while they hardly interact through most of the series, their battle consistently drives the show’s plot and ideological undercurrents.
All of this depth is what sets The Boys apart from everything else out there. Sure the blood, language, and sex add a layer of shock-value enticement, but what sticks with the audience are the commentaries on corporate greed, false nationalism, sexual harassment, and the pressures of idol worship. Throw in some epic-level plot twists, surprises, and a constantly evolving connection between all the various characters and you’ve got a recipe for high-drama as well as popcorn entertainment.
None of this could have worked without the right pieces in place, and the producers did a phenomenal job casting the show. Urban nails the charming yet volatile Billy. Despite trading his Kiwi accent for cockney, he cements the outlandish leader with real conviction and smothers his ever-present rage with off-beat humor. Fellow New Zealander Starr finds a similar balance in Homelander, moving seamlessly between terrifying and disarmingly cheerful. It’s one of the tougher roles in the show, and Starr manages to express the dark inner workings of such a depraved mind often with simply a look.
Veteran Elisabeth Shue adds a sense of class to the enterprise as the oil-slick matriarch of the corporation. Her ability to smile under even the most horrific and detestable circumstances is a tribute to Shue’s impressive skills. Lastly, the star-crossed pair played by Quaid and Moriarty deliver star-making turns of their own. Moriarty made a memorable impression during her turn in Jessica Jones Season 1, and she continues to show staying power here as the somewhat naïve but morally stalwart Annie. I wasn’t really familiar with Hunger Games star Quaid (son of actors Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan), but his easy-going, everyman turn as Hughie allows for a wide range of emotional play. Somehow finding humor in some of the darkest situations, Quaid really holds the audience’s hand through the turmoil and never seems to miss a beat.
The first season of The Boys ends up answering several pertinent questions while leaving plenty open-ended. The final twist certainly sets the stage for something even more incredible in the currently filming second outing. So whether you eagerly adhere to the superhero hype of our current age or enjoy it but seek something refreshingly different—or even hate the genre and its seemingly vapid sweetness—this show might just be for you. But it’s not for the faint of heart. If you want to truly bring heroes into our gritty reality, you’d better be prepared for what that entails. And I hope that you are, because salaciousness aside, The Boys is simply excellent storytelling in all the best ways. I’m glad the perpetually stalled feature never went through, because as story as rich and complex as this needs the room to expand. So log in to your Prime account or sign up for your free trial and give this one a go. I think you’ll enjoy the ride.
YANG: GLOW (SEASON 3)
It’s Vegas, baby!!
Season 3 of Netflix’s unstoppable GLOW series pays off the jackpot ending of Season 2 in a big way. The in-show production has shifted from Tinseltown to Sin City with the ladies headlining at the fabulous Fan Tan Hotel and Casino. Fortunately for us, while the venue may have changed, the ace storytelling has not, as the third installment continues the trend of high-quality tales, engaging and supremely developed characters, and plenty of laughs, tears, and drama along the way.
As we discover early on, putting on a nightly Vegas wrestling show is no easy feat. While the ladies certainly know what they’re doing by now, the grind begins to wear on each member both physically and emotionally. With a new casino manager to satisfy in the form of Sandy Devereaux St. Clair (who, with a name like that, can only be properly portrayed by the legendary Geena Davis), the crew struggles to keep things fresh, push boundaries, and allow for that pesky personal growth that continues to rear its ugly head.
Betty Gilpin’s star/producer Debbie continues to dominate most of the screentime, but trust me, there’s still plenty to go around. While the fallout from her divorce is ever-present, she’s begun to move on finally—though not always for the better. While she’s no longer torturing Ruth (Alison Brie) over the affair, there’s still a cool distance between them that’s slowly thawing.
Overshadowing that is Debbie’s struggle with being away from her infant son. Drowning her sorrows in men, work, and bulimia, she treks a dark path for half the season until a new relationship and a bold business move present a new outlook and direction. Gilpin, of course, navigates these treacherous waters with uncommon skill, presenting quite possibly the darkest and yet most sympathetic version of the character thus far.
As usual, she’s matched move for move by Brie, who finds her character in the unusual and disheartening position of being somewhat unneeded by the rest of the team. Used to stepping up with cheerful optimism and creative insight, she finds herself somewhat aimless this time round. Each lift seems immediately followed by a smackdown, and Ruth is left to question what she really wants in life—no easy task. Brie puts a brave face on Ruth but conveys the inner turmoil all-too-clearly. The most devastating development, however, comes from the culmination of the will they/won’t they would-be romance between Ruth and the ever-crotchety Sam (Marc Maron). Their relationship progresses in the most natural yet frustrating way possible, making for one helluva roller-coaster ride, especially as a lifetime of excess and hard-living finally catches up to the old man.
While it’s come to be expected the main trio gets plenty to chew on, I’m even happier to see some of the secondary characters getting some serious exploration and growth this year. In particular, our favorite wolf-child Sheila (Gayle Rankin) rises from the depths of a somewhat one-note gimmick like a phoenix reborn, crafting whole new side of the character and giving Ruth an unexpected rival. I gotta say, while it was always clear Rankin was talented, the tasks she’s set to this year show off her remarkable range and seemingly effortless acting skills. She may be the breakout star this season, and one to watch in years to come.
Along the same lines, newlyweds Bash (Chris Lowell) and Rhonda (Kate Nash) are elevated this time by the tribulations of both a new marriage and a change in power dynamics. Their exuberance at newfound love bleeds into the show, presenting some friction amongst the producers, the wrestlers, and the management. But the most impressive dynamic is the strain between the lovebirds on a primal level, leading to some interesting, and perhaps not wholly unexpected, revelations.
You can start to glean from all that the season’s heavy focus on specific relationships. There is a sort of pairing that develops over the course. Whether it be Cherry (Sydelle Noel) and Keith’s (Bashir Salahuddin) tested marriage, Mel (Jackie Tohn) and Jenny’s (Ellen Wong) friction over stereotypes, or Tammé and her aggravated back, there seems to be a lot of duos clashing. But one conflicting pair sets the stage for one of the central themes this year, that of the exploration of sexual identity. Arthie (Sunita Mani) and Yo-Yo (Shakira Barrera) lead the charge in commenting on the dangers of homophobia that, unfortunately, have not been conquered since the ‘80s. We get several characters, both old and new, representing various aspects of the issue. And while the message of tolerance and acceptance is abundantly clear, it also feels quite naturally integrated into the various storylines.
If you’ve kept up with GLOW to this point, Season 3 should not disappoint. The writing and performances continue to shine, and I can’t imagine they won’t be properly recognized come awards season (with likely a few new nominations, I’d wager). The characters perpetually grow organically while never seeming predictable, a tough feat to pull off, believe me! Three seasons in, it feels as fresh and dynamic as its first, and at this rate I’d put good money on seeing the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling outlast their ancestral IP by a fair number of years.