Messiah

For as controversial as I thought this show would be, I have heard surprisingly little about it. Much of what I have heard is a general condemnation based purely on its religious nature. Personally, I loved it. I’m not one to usually binge watch, but I found myself unable to look away. Each episode seemed to end too soon and I needed to know what happens next.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Messiah is one of Netflix’s originals, all 10 episodes dropping on January 1st, 2020. It essentially asks the question, what would happen if the second coming of Christ occurred in our current political climate. Central to the story is Al-Masih (Mehdi Dehbi of Tyrant and London Has Fallen), an enigmatic figure that begins to amass a following in the Middle East and then, somewhat mysteriously, winds up deep in the heart of Texas. Swept up in his path are a wildly disparate group of individuals. First, we meet Jibril (Sayyid El Alami of Zombi Child), a Syrian orphan convinced that Al-Masih is the Messiah. Two government agents, Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan of True Detective and Boston Public) working for the CIA and Aviram Dahan (Tomer Sisley of We’re the Millers and Eyewitness), who is possibly a Mossad operative, are both convinced that he is a terrorist. Felix Iguero (John Ortiz of Little America and Kong:Skull Island) is a Christian pastor who has lost his faith and has it restored when Al-Masih saves his daughter, Rebecca (Stephania Lavie Owen of The Carrie Diaries and Krampus) from a tornado. He becomes a dedicated follower, as does his daughter, which drags his reluctant wife, Anna (Melinda Page Hamilton of Rectify and How to Get Away with Murder), into the mix.

And the best part about this show is that we just don’t know who is right about Al-Masih. The way his character is written, and fantastically portrayed by Dehbi, is delightfully ambiguous. The best description I’ve heard of this show is political thriller. They sidestep the entire religious aspect and focus on the effect this charismatic figure has on those around him and how he shifts the balance of geopolitics. Dehbi performs with the imperturbable confidence of a man who has the full support of God himself, unnerving those who attempt to question his mission and his faith. He acts and talks as one who has an unshakable belief in carrying out God’s will and the acceptance for whatever that may be. His seeming lack of Earthly agenda throws the lives of both Eva and Aviram into disarray, used to being in control, but now letting self-doubt creep into their minds. The pastor, Felix, is initially swept up Al-Masih’s faith, but must wrestle with his own doubt as he finds that God does indeed work in mysterious ways.

The pace of the show is a bit slower than I normally like, but there was a sustained tension around the mystery surrounding Al-Masih. Is he the second coming of Christ, or is he the Antichrist, or merely some con-man terrorist with his own plan? Tantalizing clues are sprinkled throughout, each one supporting a different conclusion. There is a constant feeling of, “What’s going to happen next?”, to the extent that, if there isn’t a season 2, I’m going to be a little annoyed. That being said, while IMDB is rating Messiah at a 7.6, other critics haven’t been so kind. With the religious baggage such a story line is going to carry with it, I’m not sure Netflix will want the risk of a second season.

But the premise is such a fantasy fulfillment theme that it seems like it would have a guaranteed following. Given the predominance of the Christian faith, the second coming of Christ is a wish fulfillment that cannot be ignored. I know few people who would say that the current state of society is great. I’m not going to make the obvious MAGA reference, but I know few who are happy. And the returning of Christ is the equivalent of daddy making it all right again. Whether one hates gay people or their persecution, whether one champions the separation of races or complete integration, or so many other societal controversies, the return of God satisfies the culmination of all of these conflicts. To have a higher power descend and give a clear indication of what should and shouldn’t be? Holy fuck, how satisfying would that be? Not to everyone obviously, but most of us feel that we are living right with God and that those who oppose us would be wrong, so having an actual emissary of God come down and give us a definitive answer would be a fantasy of almost anyone who believes in a JudeoChristian structure of the universe. The premise of this show is an extension of the revenge genre, except the viewer doesn’t have to accept the role of revenant. I am not the aggrieved one, but I find satisfaction in justice being done.

Given that attractor, the show itself never commits to what is wrong and what is right. Rightly so, as how could anyone who is not an omnipotent God could ever say that. Instead, it examines what that question would do to the cast, in particular, and to society in the broader sense. This is the central mystery. As much as I love shows like Lost that make me question what the island actually was or the Expanse that makes me wonder what the alien molecule is, what bigger mystery is there than, am I actually living my life right? When judgment comes “like a thief in the night”, will I be found lacking? Shit, you don’t get much more suspenseful than that. I mean, I love watching TV, but my existence is going to end sometime and what then? This show is actually ballsy enough to present that question to its viewers, and that ultimate, end-of-the-world shit is what makes this show fascinating for me. As Al-Masih says at the start, “This is the end of history”, and what the fuck is more final than that. This isn’t just for the people in the show, but it speaks to the audience itself. One can’t help but think, while watching this show, with the way I’m living my life right now, if it were all to end right now, how would I be judged? And it’s been a long time since a show has confronted me that directly. And I love it.

The Good Place

I was going to write about Messiah, the Netflix miniseries, but with the phenomenal NBC series, The Good Place, coming to an end, I felt compelled to speak a little about that. I’ve been contemplating exactly what to write about this show, and, honestly, it’s not easy. Mainly because I like this show so forking much. I don’t, in general, like sit-coms. I’ve been watching TV since the 70’s, so I’ve seen the entire run of M.A.S.H., of All in the Family, of Happy Days (yes, I saw them “jump the shark”) and the list goes on and on. Sit-coms have barely changed at all. I’m willing to bet I could find jokes and storylines from The Dick Van Dyke show or Gilligan’s Island that play almost verbatim on Last Man Standing or Modern Family. Don’t believe me? There’s an entire website dedicated to listing all of these worn out, over used tropes. With few exceptions, sit-coms are lowest form of television, their position only recently usurped by the worst of the worst, reality based shows.

I started watching The Good Place on the recommendation of a good friend of mine, who shares my love of television, and even then I was hesitant. But, what the hell, it’s only a 30 minute show. How bad could it be? By the end of that half an hour pilot episode, I was hooked and I’ve been a dedicated fan ever since. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and see it. See it now and let me tell you that the less you know about it, the better. The story follows four individuals that have died and found themselves in “the good place”. Elenor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars and Frozen) is a basic girl from Arizona and the first character we are introduced to. Along the way, we meet Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper of Midsommer and the Electric Company), a philosophy professor from Senegal, Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil of Freshly Squeezed and The Misery Index), a British socialite, and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto of Supernatural and iZombie), a Taiwanese monk who has taken a vow of silence. These four souls are guided in the afterlife by Michael (Ted Danson of Cheers and Becker), an “Architect” of the good place and Janet (D’Arcy Carden of Broad City and Barry), who is sort of a programmed guide to help the humans. Not a Robot!

The cast is great, each one portraying their character with enough strength to express their individuality and not just become part of the group. I’m not going to weep once the show is over (well, maybe just a little), but I’ve really developed an affection for these fictional characters, as only the best shows can inspire one to do (I’m looking at you, Buffy Summers!). The writing is smart, weaving philosophical concepts into the jokes, without being pedantic. It’s heart-warming without being sappy and deep (we’re pondering the freakin’ afterlife here) without being cerebral. While the Christian framework from which the story takes place is thinly veiled, it doesn’t let itself get bogged down in religion. God and the Devil are never mentioned, angels and demons are mostly referred to as Architects, Heaven and Hell as the Good Place and Bad Place respectively. Even purgatory gets included as the Medium Place. One of the reasons I didn’t mind bumping my piece on the show Messiah is because the Good Place fits in with the whole theme of using religion as a major plot device, though they have chosen the path of comedy, rather than drama.

As a visual artist, I have to give a special shout out to whoever did the sets and costumes on The Good Place. They are spectacular, some of them being so over the top that I was distracted from what was actually going on. The show itself was created by Michael Schur, who also did The Office and Parks and Recreation, so the type of comedy is really no surprise. In researching the show to write this piece, I learned that he based a number of the premises and cliffhangers on the show Lost, which came as a total surprise to me. There is nothing I don’t love about this show, including, unfortunately, its all-to-short, four season run. In the wise words of Elenor, “Every human is a little bit sad, all the time, because you know you’re going to die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” While I am sad to see it go, the ending is one of the things that makes this show so special.

Evil

So I’ve just finished binge watching the CBS horror, Evil. It was a fun watch that I never would’ve found had they not put up all 10 episodes for free on their website. The trailer they released seemed a bit corny and I’ve long since given up on most network television. I know, I know, they occasionally come out with a Hannibal or a Marvel’s Agents of Shield, but, for the most part, it’s all Two and a Half Men and The Bachelor. But I’m always looking for something new to watch and there are few shows that I won’t at least try. I hadn’t heard much about this show, so when they put the first 10 up for free, it wreaked of desperation, but the ploy worked. The show was a very pleasant surprise and now I’m hooked, so, bravo to whoever made that marketing decision.

For those of you who haven’t seen the show, the best description I can offer is that it’s a Catholic X-files that balances a big-bad of the week style with a longer story arc, and does so quite satisfyingly. The first protagonist we meet is Dr. Kristin Bouchard (Katja Herbers – Manhattan, West World), a forensic psychologist working for the courts to assess the mental statuses of the accused. While interviewing a serial killer, she meets David Acosta (Mike Colter – Luke Cage, The Defenders, Jessica Jones), a former war journalist, now a priest in training. He works for the Catholic church, investigating extraordinary occurrences, such as miracles and possessions, for the presence of the infernal or divine. Aiding in these investigations is Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi – The Daily Show, The Brink), a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic and tech nerd.

I was a bit shocked at how much I liked this show, at how much I look forward to the next episode, now that I’m following it on the weekly. I find the characters likable, fleshed out and the cast already very comfortable in their roles. The horror elements are amazing! I mean, they’re no Channel Zero, but for network, I’m pretty fucking impressed. The writing itself is spot on. The elements of mystery draw me in and I actually care about what happens to the characters.

I gotta give a special shout out to Michael Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest), who plays the vile, Leland Townsend. He played a bad guy on Lost, but, holy fuck, is he evil on this show! Slimy, hateful and all around misanthropic; Mr. Emerson, if you are reading this, I have no idea what you are like in real life, but your fantastic acting makes me want to punch you right in the face. Bravo! And to the FX crew, I found the demon, George, genuinely unsettling and felt anxious whenever he was on screen. Noice!

What I find most interesting about this show is (or what I am assuming is) its intended audience. I was raised VERY Catholic and I’m not sure this show would have the same impact on someone without religion. There’s no ambiguity on this show. There’s no X-Files style of “was that really an alien, or was it swamp gas and we may never know”. Here there is evil with a capitol E. The supernatural exists, the devil is real and those who are too dismissive of God will open the door to demons who will drag us all to Hell. There is a holy war going on and it will determine the fate of the human race. That’s not to say there isn’t a role for the skeptic in this world. A scientific mind and critical eye are valued here a utilized liberally throughout the show. The characters are not blind followers, but intelligent individuals whose lives drive them to constantly reevaluate their beliefs. It’s a show that allows for a world in which faith and a belief in God do not negate intelligence and a reasonable mind. That being said, when it comes down to a choice between faith and reason on this show, faith wins every time.

I don’t believe I’m alone in my appreciation for this show; it’s already been greenlit for a season 2. I’ve just started the Netflix series, Messiah, which I also hope to write about, and I’m wondering if we’re seeing a trend towards using faith and religion as a major plot device. And not the black and white battle of one faith verses another, but the constant battle we personally wage to stay true to ourselves and what we believe in. It’s not always violent and never clear cut, but it’s oh so relatable to so many people. The temptation could be as subtle as a backyard BBQ on a day of fasting to flirting with a married coworker, but to those who temptation has deep, cultural connotations, this could be as dangerous as any bette noir. I’m not sure where such stories will take us, but, for the moment, I am loving this fresh direction. 

Television

 

My guilty pleasure is television. Should I feel guilty? It seems that so many people are down on television, but it makes no sense to me. I’ll ask someone if they’ve seen West World and they automatically respond with, I don’t watch television, and then they go on about the YouTube channel they’ve been binging. It’s the same goddamn thing, people! And besides, no one watches “TV” anymore. It’s all streaming these days. 

Sorry, I digress. I wanted to talk about television. Truth be told, it’s far more than a guilty pleasure. I quite literally grew up with it. In my increasingly vague memories of childhood, the television was always on, a constant backdrop to any other family drama that may be occurring at the time. Weaned on Sesame Street and The Electric Company, I raced home to the joy of after school cartoons and couldn’t wait for more on Saturday mornings. I learned about society and interpersonal relations from Three’s Company and the Love Boat, learned about the legal system from both Columbo and the Dukes of Hazard and became a Trekkie the moment I saw the Enterprise. I gorge myself on pop culture like tribbles wolf down poisoned Klingon wheat. 

Why should I talk about this on my art blog? Well, because I watch videos whenever I do art. Some artists listen to music, I have gotten in the habit of watching multiple movies and television shows while I spend hours at work on my art. The few people I do open up to about my dirty little habits are astounded at how many things I watch. I’m not entirely uncultured about this. I do love the podcast, The Daily, from the New York Times and PBS Newshour is a regular in my YouTube feed. That being said, I have a near constant mental diet of pop culture and I’m probably going to talk about it, so consider yourself warned. 

My tastes run decidedly towards nerd fodder. Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror are my mainstays. I do love me a good justice boner, so Law & Order, Monk, Psych and the like will always scratch that itch. My wife is somewhat dismayed by how much I love Matlock, which will only get worse once I start wearing the same white suits he does and affecting a southern accent. And I do like the occasional documentary regarding the political or scientific. Dramas bore me to tears; I came from a big family, I was a doctor and I’m an artist, I am familiar with drama, I don’t need to watch it on TV. Why reality shows are a thing are beyond me. I can remember when the show Survivor first aired. There was so much hype around it that I took the time to watch. I thought it was so bad that I couldn’t last out the hour and thought to myself, “Wow, that program format will never last.” Oh, how wrong I was. 

While I started talking about television, I’ve already mentioned both movies and podcasts, so it would be closer to the truth to say that I am an absolute media junkie. The heart of the matter is that these little entertainment nuggets are a shockingly big part of my life and sometimes I will get obsessed with something and I’m going to want to write about it. And, if I do, in all likelihood, I’m going to publish it on my website and you’re going to have to read it. So, I’m apologizing in advance.  

How Nick Fury Became Black

 

Battle Scars #1

I’ve been reading comics for a long time and I’m pretty familiar with most of the big players and even a few of the minor ones. Few comic book characters are bigger than Nick Fury. For one thing, he has been around longer than most. Created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, Nick Fury first appeared in Sgt. Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos #1 in 1963, so he’s been around since the Silver Age of comics. Starting out as a grade-A military badass, his character morphed into the super secret agent leader of SHIELD. Secondly, through his involvement with SHIELD, he has, at one time or another, played some role in nearly every Marvel comic book title I can think of, from Iron Man to the Punisher. For a character so under-powered in the Marvel universe, he has been written as a shadowy puppet master, pulling the strings behind a veil of secrecy. Then, in 2002, Nick Fury shows up once more in the title, The Ultimates, but with some notable differences. In that comic, he’s black.

Before I go further, I want to say that my issue with this change is not about race. I know there are some comic/movie fans out there that throw a fit when there’s some white-washing, or race changing, or virtue signalling, or any one of a number of bullshit things these people want to whine about. I don’t give a good Goddamn if they want to write Nick Fury as a black man, an Asian woman or a nonbinary Latinix with breast augmentation and a big dick. What does matter to me, however, is continuity. I was actually pretty shocked I didn’t hear more complaints about a character that has been white for four decades suddenly becoming a black man with no explanation. I believe the short answer that was given at the time was that this was merely an alternate dimension, which is the lamest writer cop out that I have heard. Then came Battle Scars.

A six issue limited run written by Chris Yost, Cullen Bunn and Matt Fraction, this lukewarm story actually addressed this race change perfectly, albeit somewhat weakly. So well, in fact, that I have always wondered why I have heard little mention of it in comic book discussions. I don’t think I’ve even met someone who has read it. It was such a mandatory retcon, in my opinion, that I’ve wanted to write about it for a while now. I had forgotten about it until I started rearranging my comic book collection and ran across it and reread all six of the comics in a day. This is where I must put a spoiler warning. Spoiler alert, spoilers ahead, if you at all care then you already know what I am talking about. This may be overkill, because I have a feeling that no one cares, that this little bit of comics history is so insignificant (not to mention, this blog itself) that it is but a forgotten footnote in Marvel lore. That being said, I know some people can get pretty testy out there when any sort of spoiler comes along, so you’ve been warned. If you want to read this series for yourself, without foreknowledge of the plot, then read no further.

Battle Scars #5

In the start of the series, we are introduced to Sgt. Marcus Johnson, a tough and savvy army ranger who returns to the states from his tour in Afghanistan. The return is not a happy one, since it is for his mother’s funeral, but he barely has time to mourn before he gets attacked by Task Master and his henchmen. Given that he’s outnumbered and that Task Master has fought the likes of Captain American and Spiderman, Johnson holds his own pretty well, but still has to be rescued by the Avengers. They hand him over to SHIELD who immediately take him into custody and, oddly enough, treat him like a prisoner. He does the obvious thing and escapes, determined to find out who killed his mom. Along the way, he meets up with his comrade-in-arms, Cheese. I shit you not, his nickname is Cheese and I don’t want to imagine what happened to award him that nom de guerre. What follows is a circuitous mess of a plot that I won’t bore you with.

I know I warned you about spoilers, and they’re here, but the story itself is not great. It feels like the sort of thing that could’ve been fit into a single comic, but they padded it to make a short run series. Shit, even Deadpool couldn’t make this entertaining. Yep, Deadpool is in it, but he doesn’t help that much. Long story short, it turns out that Nick Fury was up to some hanky-panky with a fellow agent on one of his missions. That agent turns out to be Marcus’s mom and, deciding to keep the baby, assumes a secret identity to keep the child safe.

Fury reveals all this just before he and Marcus get captured by Some super baddie by the name of Orion. He’s an arch nemesis of Fury’s, but he wants Marcus because his body produces something called the Infinity Formula. This is the stuff that has kept Fury alive for so long and makes Marcus just a little stronger/faster/tougher than the average human. They ultimately escape and, in the process, Marcus gets an eye taken out, hence the eye patch that Fury is known for. Once the battle is over, Fury announces his retirement from SHEILD and asks Marcus to take his place. Not only does Marcus agree to that, but it’s also discovered that the name on his actual birth certificate just so happens to be Nick Fury. Isn’t that convenient. Oh, and his buddy Cheese? He just happens to be Phil Coulson.

So, there you have it. The story of how Nick Fury became black. Again, not the best story in the world, but at least Marvel did give some explanation about the change. I rarely care what is cannon or not, but that race change was too big not to have some reason offered, no matter how thin. I’m sure you were all dying to know. Until next time, True Believers, happy reading.