Black Lightning: Season One

"The devil deals the cards."

When the first episode of Black Lightning aired, I watched it. And it didn't grab me, so I didn't keep watching. Where was my head? Maybe I was reaching peak superhero. Or maybe I need a show to have a few successful seasons before I give it a serious try.

At any rate, I tried Black Lightning again a couple weeks ago, and this time it did indeed grab me. So I'm committing to writing season reviews for the foreseeable future. Here's my review of season one.

And yes, it includes SPOILERS.

What works

Black Lightning himself works. Cress Williams is a presence, physically big and powerful, with a surprisingly beautiful smile. Black Lightning's superpower is that of electricity, but Jefferson Pierce, the high school principal, has an even more important superpower – education.




And Jeff's superpower is not all sweetness and light, pun intended. He didn't choose it; it was done to him as a child, and he pays a physical and emotional price for his superpowers. While Jeff is an exceptional father to his two daughters, there was also a cost to his marriage; more about that below.

Anissa Pierce, a.k.a. Thunder, works for me, too. She's my favorite character, and I particularly like how her strength is connected to her respiration, which is an interesting limitation. Anissa is a medical student and a teacher, a lesbian and out, totally accepted by both her parents. She's idealistic about the world and was unreservedly enthusiastic about her new superpowers. I particularly enjoyed the reveal when Anissa took on Black Lightning, not knowing it was her own father.



Peter Gambi works for me, too. I reviewed eight seasons of Dexter, where James Remar played a critical role as Dexter's ghostly father and conscience. In Black Lightning, Gambi, a tailor with a small shop of his own, functions as Jeff Pierce's Alfred and Lucius Fox. He designed and now maintains and upgrades Jeff's supersuit, and designed one for Anissa as well. Gambi doesn't always stay in the background, either. He killed Joey Toledo and Martin Proctor, so that Jeff wouldn't have to do so.

Season one revealed that thirty years ago, Gambi was assigned as a "spotter" of meta kids by the shadowy government organization, the ASA, that was experimenting on the young people of Freeland. Instead of giving up young Jeff Pierce, Gambi leaked what the ASA was doing to a local reporter, Pierce's father, who died because of it. It is obvious from the first episode that Gambi loves Jeff like a son.

While I enjoyed Gregg Henry's over the top bigot Martin Proctor, it's the drug dealers in Freeland that work as the despicable continuing villains on this show. During this gritty first season, there was a lot of progression up and down the ladder of villains – from Will, who made the mistake of kidnapping Jeff's daughters, to Lala, to the 100 Gang, to Tobias Whale, to Lady Eve and her cartel. Note that this was all human evil, and none of them wear costumes. The Green Light drug destroys lives like any other addictive drug, just with metahuman side effects.



Tobias Whale turned out to be the villain left standing, and he did turn out to have a superpower – anti-ageing and resurrection. Lala coming back from the dead only to acquire tattoos of the faces of his victims was mildly creepy. So was reconstructing the spine of Jennifer's ex-boyfriend Khalil, who seems to be hanging around hoping for a bigger part in season two.

Inspector Henderson pretty much worked for me, too. All through the first season, I kept wondering if Henderson was as good a cop as he seemed, or a villainous plot twist waiting to happen. Henderson turned out to be cool, but it could easily have gone the other way.

What doesn't work

To some extent, Jeff's younger daughter Jennifer didn't get a fair shake this season. While I loved the scene where Jennifer matter-of-factly told her parents that she was planning to have sex, it felt like she went clubbing in the pilot in order to act out for the plot's sake, and that hating her powers and complaining that they made her a freak was unrealistic. Or maybe they did that because it made the season finale, when Jennifer saved everyone, more satisfying.



But it was Jeff's wife Lynn that really ticked me off. Jeff gave up his powers nine years ago because Lynn thought they were addictive, and then she divorced him, anyway. It seemed hypocritical to me that Lynn was totally anti-vigilante right up until Anissa and Jennifer developed superpowers, too. And then, after initially trying to find a way to de-power Jennifer, Lynn was all about Jeff training them. Inconsistency, thou art not a gem.

In fact, I found Lynn so smothering and annoying that I kept hoping they were going to kill her off. Sadly, no. I hope the writers spend some time improving her as a character (I haven't seen seasons two and three yet) because I like the actress. And having a medical doctor as part of the team would be a good thing.

Best episodes

1.6 Three Sevens: The Book of Thunder was the big reveal episode when Anissa fought Black Lightning without knowing initially who he was, and all was revealed. Even better was Anissa destroying a Confederate statue with one stomp of her foot. Freeland itself, a poor community that is predominantly African American, is also a character on this show, and I like that all of the Pierces have a strong and active social conscience.

1.11 Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion was about Jeff being framed by the local cops, who chose to arrest him in front of his entire school and his daughters just to humiliate him. I thought it was admirable that Jeff had the strength to quietly submit to such an injustice in order to set a positive example for his students. Seeing Jeff subjected to the indignity of being stripped and body-cavity searched was particularly effective. It emphasized his strengths as a human being, not as a superhero.

1.13 Shadow of Death: The Book of War, the first season finale, featured some lovely, moving flashbacks to Alvin Pierce and a young Gambi, a dying Jeff talking with his dead father, and the entire Pierce family versus a twenty-member SWAT team to the Earth, Wind and Fire classic "Shining Star."

Bits and pieces:

— There were only thirteen episodes in this first season. I'm becoming a believer in shorter seasons. It lessens filler.

— I am really enjoying the music they're choosing, old and new.

— There are lots of powerful black women in this series, both good and evil. Yay for that.

— Black Lightning and Thunder would be abbreviated "BLT." I know, but I couldn't help thinking about it.

— It's clear from things that were said that Freeland is in another universe than the other Berlantiverse shows.



— Cress Williams is 6'5". I had to look it up. You'd think being so tall would make it harder to pull off a secret identity.

To conclude

This first season was all about establishing the 'verse, the return of Black Lightning from his personal unpowered hiatus, and the advent of his two daughters as superheroes themselves. I enjoyed it and am looking forward to season two.

Three out of four BLTs,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

8 comments:

CoramDeo said...

I truly loved this season, every moment of it up until the finale. It was giving such a brilliant, nuanced examination of our country’s racial issues and just how complicated the solutions have to be. It was really a wake-up call for me; I didn’t really understand just how complex all those issues are because I haven't lived them. And then they threw it all away for the worst villain I've seen in superhero TV in a long time.

Over-the-top evil works in some cases, but when I was anticipating a clash with Tobias Whale, one of the greatest villains in all of superhero TV, Martin Proctor was extremely disappointing. Leaving aside the issues that I have with making your villain a parallel to a modern day real life figure (any modern day real life figure, no matter who they are), the Trumpisms he spouted instead of dialogue never even made sense in the context of the conversation. They were complete non sequiturs. None of what he did made any sense, either, like killing his subordinate instead of letting him escape with him, when it didn't even benefit him at all.

I still need to give the other two seasons a try, but that first finale was very disappointing after such an incredible build-up. At least Tobias is still around to last another season. He is the perfect villain for this show.

CoramDeo said...

By the way, I'm so glad that you gave this show another try, Billie, because it meant we got this review. Back when I first saw it, I looked eagerly for reviews here and was disappointed to find that nobody picked it up past the pilot.

Billie Doux said...

CoramDeo, thanks so much. I'm also glad that I gave the show another try.

Samantha M. Quinn said...

I think I like Jennifer more than you did, but I pretty much agree with all your criticisms both positive and negative. Lynn especially is hard to like.

CoramDeo, while I agree that Protor did not work as a villian, I feel it is because he was mustache twirling evil. As a villain representing white privilege and power, his racism and rhetoric works quite well thematically with the season. The fact that you ascribe those traits as Trumpisms is the entire reason he (Trump) is a problematic figure. No President should have any tangible associations to a villain so awful.

Anyway, looking forward to your season 2 review. I'm working my way through it now.

CoramDeo said...

Samantha, it should be noted that I am not exactly the Chairman of the President's fan club. I just tend to think that it is inappropriate ever to make your villain a direct analog to a real person who is currently living, period.

Billie Doux said...

I thought it was just the obvious that they were making a comment about racism as the ASA's motivation for experimenting on the African-American children of Freeland, with Proctor himself, as a high level representative of the ASA, an obvious racist. Not that Proctor was supposed to be an analog of the current president. But I could be wrong.

It's interesting that this is supposed to be another universe, another Earth, and Obama and Trump were both mentioned this season (the Obama mask, the Trump hat).

CoramDeo said...

That's interesting, Billie. I wonder if after the Crisis, the Black Lightning characters found themselves with a different President.

Billie Doux said...

CoramDeo, I was thinking the same thing. :)