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Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

For those who didn’t watch (and judging by the ratings, that’s just about everyone), Marvel’s Agent Carter is the story of Margaret Carter, aka Peggy, who, although she once dated the man who would become Captain America, does not quite live in the world of superheroes. Instead, she’s a modern ’50s gal-slash-spy whose savvy and tough regularly win the day.

In season 1, Peggy thwarted some plans involving Russian operatives undercover in the U.S., cracking wise and a few skulls all while wearing a sensible pantsuit, unless she was under cover at some fancy gala; never underestimate the nefarious potential of formal events. Her success in the field, however, was not enough for her colleagues back in the office to trust her fully, in part because she was British but mostly because they were all males and it was the ’50s and competent spy was not regarded as an acceptable career path for a lady. Yet, Peggy knows her worth and continues to fight for truth, justice, and the American way, in spite of the lack of respect and recognition from the men around her.

Unfortunately, season 2, which wrapped on Tuesday, was missing a lot of the spunk and verve that made season 1 such a delight. In the second season, Peggy relocated to Los Angeles to meet up with a few other members of her team that had also coincidentally relocated to the west coast. Peggy’s main office antagonist from season 1 – Jack Thomas – did not make the transition, leaving Peggy solely with a team of men who recognized her leadership and deferred to her judgement.

Which shouldn’t have been a problem, but, weirdly, the lack of sexism was a running disappointment throughout the season. I understand that the writers might have wanted to tell a different story than season 1, but, as a viewer, watching a woman fight monsters or secret KGB assassins is perfectly fine, but seeing that same woman fight again and again the everyday spectre of sexism – a very real threat we still face, lo these 60 years later -without feeling diminished or the need to prove herself, all the while wearing comfortable shoes? That is appointment viewing. Certainly, the long overdue recognition was nice to see, but the occasional appearance of Jack Thomas, who popped up from time to time to needle Peggy and flaunt his special brand of untrustworthy smarm, served mostly to highlight how vital that tension had been to the first season.

With Peggy getting along well with everyone at work – about which, more later – the burden of conflict for the season fell almost entirely on the villain, and here, too, this season was inferior to the first. Whitney Frost, a moderately famous actress and brilliant yet unappreciated scientist, absorbs a deadly otherworldly substance during an accident in a lab. The substance, Zero Matter, disfigures her in the most artful fashion, and imbues her with the terrific power to, uh. . .absorb more Zero Matter, and talk about how powerful it makes her? I mean, she does also have the ability to absorb actual matter from time to time, which leads her to kill a number of people who betray her as well as a bunch of rats that did nothing other than be be rodents, which was kind of sad.

But, despite all Whitney’s blathering, it seems that the main benefit of absorbing Zero Matter is that it gives her the capacity to absorb more Zero Matter; apart from that, it’s no more impressive than if she were harming people with more run-of-the-mill weapons. If anything, it’s less threatening, because the Zero Matter occasionally does not do what Whitney expected. Which is frustrating for her, but doesn’t have any kind of impact on the story because Zero Matter is a brand-new substance in the world and not well-understood by anyone, character or writer, is seems; without any definition, there’s nothing surprising about what Zero Matter does, since we have no expectation that it will do anything other than what is convenient for the story. Can Whitney absorb people’s matter from many feet away? Sure, but not when Peggy and Jarvis are escaping from her.

Poorly as Whitney compares to the season 1 threat in theory, it becomes even more starkly contrasted when Dottie Underwood herself actually arrives for a few episodes to show Whitney how it’s done. Whitney supposedly gets the upper hand in the scene they share, but Dottie later remains undaunted in her strange, non-romantic flirtation with Peggy, and Dottie is the one who escapes by the end of the episode. But, while the visit from Dottie makes Whitney a little less impressive, what it really throws into relief is how much this show would benefit if Peggy were working with a few of these strong, capable women, instead of against them.

There are two women on Peggy’s side, although they are unfortunately tangential to the action. Rose, an agent at the SSR who poses as a secretary in the headquarter’s false front, is called into service when the SSR is infiltrated and there isn’t anyone else they can trust. Rose is as capable as Peggy, albeit more comic-relief; it’s unfortunate she’s only recruited for the mission as a last resort. The other is Ana Jarvis, the inconsistently accented wife of Mr. Jarvis, who seems to serve no other function but to be fully supportive of her husband’s platonic relationship with Peggy, and then get shot, and then continue to be supportive. Ana appears to have an interesting back story, with her shifting accents and ready consumption of wine, so it’s a shame she isn’t given more to do.

The sororal relationships might suffer but the show does focus on the romantic ones, and here Whitney Frost does have the more compelling plot. Whitney gets involved with Ken Marino (played by character actor Ken Marino) after killing her husband, which, to be fair, was mostly in self-defense; repulsed by Whitney’s artful disfigurement and her Zero Matter absorption skills, her husband enlists the shadowy cabal behind his run for government to stop her. They neither succeed nor survive, freeing Whitney to turn to Ken Marino, an old boyfriend who never stopped loving her. So much so that he encourages her to flaunt her artful disfigurement – to that point, hidden neatly behind a well-placed lock of hair – to let the world see who she really is. It’s an unexpectedly touching seen, particularly given the ridiculouslness of the set-up, which is a credit to the actors. Wynn Everett as Whitney is remarkably vulnerable at this support, and her gratitude at finally being accepted for who she is is both heart-warming and heart -breaking. Ken Marino, as Ken Marino, plays his devotion to Whitney straight; there are no jokes in his feelings. For that brief moment, we in the audience genuinely hope those two will make it.

They don’t, though, because they’re villains. But still, even the failure of their romance  is more involving than Peggy’s who, sadly, is reduced to a rather conventional love triangle. It seems that, if Peggy is getting along with all her male coworkers, the only possible story is for her to have to choose between two potential romantic partners. Which, as much as I enjoy when the people inside the television succumb to their feelings to finally Do Kissing, due to the completely unnecessary dragging out of this plot it makes Peggy’s happy ending for the season that she finally picked a man. And, I mean, it was a good kiss: I was almost afraid for the fellow’s face, having to hold up under the onslaught of her feelings. But Peggy also completed her mission; she literally saved the world, along with a team of people who recognized her leadership and would follow her anywhere; it doesn’t seem like two grown-ups kissing should be equally momentous.

Even though Whitney Frost was captured and Peggy got her man, season 2 still ended on a cliff hanger. Due to poor ratings and a change in leadership over at ABC, prospects for season 3 don’t look great. Which is unfortunate; although this season was uneven at best, Marvel’s Agent Carter is a fun program with a game and capable cast, and, as the first season demonstrated, does know how to tell a good story. If there is a third season – and I hope there is one – I hope they can course-correct. I like Peggy Carter, and I’d like to see more of what she’s capable of.

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As I’m sure is typical among the kids today, I first heard about Sting’s new album The Last Ship when I caught the music being performed on PBS. I was immediately intrigued. Not only does the music fall into the very specific sub-genre of Songs About Ships Being Built and On the Water that I love*, it also, as I discovered after buying the album, seemed to be a sequel to The Soul Cages. Which, truth be told, is the last of Sting’s previous solo albums that I was interested in; everything after it, though skillful, was a bit too committedly Adult Contemporary for my tastes. It was nice, then, with The Last Ship, to hear Sting return, if obliquely, to some of the more interesting diversions of his youth. Or perhaps it is simply that, in the intervening years, I have become more of an adult. Which, while there are a lot of things about aging that I disagree with, that I am now a contemporary of Sting’s is an unrestrained positive.

Either way, when I  legally purchased the cd, again following in the footsteps of today’s kids, I discovered that The Last Ship was not just a concept album but was also the basis of the stage show. Which was a little exciting, even though I am not generally a fan of the theatre. Primarily because embracing it would mean having to leave my house, but also because it tends to be expensive. It also takes a lot more planning than staying in, or even a trip to the grocery store, which requires a list. Too, what comes to Boston seems primarily to the Lion King, which I did not care for as a movie; or The Book of Mormon, which always has discounted tickets available so it seems like a good idea, until I remember that it’s probably going to be incredibly smug, and then I lose interest.

The Last Ship, though, does not suffer from being either of those things, and so, despite my aversion to the thea-tah, I decided to see it. Fortunately, because I am an overwhelmingly lazy person,I did not act on that decision for quite a while, a delay which allowed me, when I finally got around to purchasing the tickets, to see the show with Sting himself in the cast. And so it was that I took a bus to New York last weekend (as opposed to a plane to Chicago several months ago, as originally planned) to see my peer, Mr. Gordon Sumner, fret and strut his weary hour upon the stage. Oh, and also sing.

And the man can sing. Not that, at this point in time, anyone needs me to point that out. He actually opens the show, singing the very first line of “Island of Souls,” which was delightful and unexpected; when I read that he had joined the cast, it said that he was taking a rather small part. I don’t know if that reviewer, being a more experienced theatre-goer, has different definitions of “small” and “large” than I do, or if perhaps Sting had changed roles since that article was printed, but the show was basically the two leads, and then Sting. So I got an unexpected abundance of Sting in matinee, and that was unequivocally great.

So the show starts off on a high note (pun unintended but not regretted), and throughout, the music is quite good. I was familiar with most of the songs from the album, but I still appreciated the novelty of seeing them fleshed out with perhaps a bit more of the stories that inspired them. “The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance,” already a favorite, was especially well-served by the context of the play, and vice versa; while “August Winds” was just so lovely as sung by a woman whose first love has finally returned that I actually payed attention to all the lyrics instead of just the chorus.

There were also a few original numbers included in the production. Far and away, the best of these featured the aforementioned woman. The first, “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor” was a fiery rebuke to her returned first love about why she’ll never trust a seaman; the second was the lovely “What Say You, Meg?”, sung to her, which succeeded as an earnest and heartfelt declaration despite being sung by someone with an almost complete lack of charisma. Although, as the third leg in the central love triangle, and the sensible option at that, perhaps that was a deliberate actorly choice.

Despite it still being stuck in my head almost a week later, “What Say You, Meg?” points up the major, and considerable, problem with The Last Ship, which is that the story itself is just not very good. Tonally, it was a bit all over the place: many of the scenes played like they were straight out of the British sitcoms that I’ve also seen on PBS (I swear this blog is not sponsored by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), and though they were actually quite funny – Sting himself lands a very good punchline as the head of the shipbuilding crew who has serious seasickness – the play itself is not a comedy, making these scenes seem jarring when juxtaposed with those of the young man who ran away from his abusive father, or the woman he left behind and returned to, who has maybe not entirely moved on with her life.

I understand not wanting to make an overwhelmingly bleak show. The album, according to the liner notes (which I finally read after returning from New York and before I started writing this, so: just about a week ago) was an attempt to portray a more balanced view of the shipbuilding life than in The Soul Cages, an attempt to capture the joy and successes in many people’s lives, even if those things were absent from the Sumner family itself. And while that effort comes across very well on the album, I think the play suffers from trying to integrate too many disparate stories into one cohesive telling. In my mind, the play would have worked much better as whatever would be the theater-equivalent of a series of stand-alone short stories. The son who ran away and then returned 15 years later can have his story, but make it separate from the father who teaches his teen-aged son to dance; and maybe allow someone who had not been absent for 15 years to speak at the priest’s funeral. Not just because the kid who ran away still returned as a bit of a brat, but because, if you want to present a picture of life in an industrial town – a dying industrial town, at that – show us more about the people who actually live there, instead of focusing on the one who’s just passing through.

That being said, I am very glad that I saw the show, even if it is now closed. There were a lot of very impressive things about the staging of the production – which I feel like sounds like faint praise, to say that the sets were impressive after busting on the story – and maybe people who see more shows would not be as impressed as I at the use of lighting to make it seem that the last ship they build actually sails into the sea. The songs were very good, and the cast – even those with both a first and last name – are obviously very talented. Mostly, though, I’m very glad that, after all this time, I’ve found some new music from a(n slightly) old(er) favorite. It’s comforting to know that, even as we both mature, Sting and I can still find things to talk about.

 

*I tried really hard to make a reference to my wheelhouse here, but it just couldn’t work. Please don’t think I cast aside a nautical pun on purpose; I would never do that.


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