Netflix and Marvel Television released Luke Cage on September 30th 2016. Unfortunately, the third collaboration between the two entertainment giants has been a slog. It is a slow and arduous season with a ton of faults but they all come as a result of one big problem: 13 episodes.
Traditionally continuous television works in a specific way. Discounting mini-series, seasons often run 10 episodes or they go long and deliver 16+. But the Netflix/Marvel series have been operating in this odd 13-episode window. And it has caused a huge problem for the narrative arc and fluidity of the shows. The showrunners can’t dive into one overarching story because it simply can’t draw the attention for 13 episodes. And they can’t start doing an episodic structure because then they take away time from the overarching story, which is what really matters.
It is because of this elongated 13 episodes – three too many – that the seasons start feeling like a chore rather than an entertaining viewing experience. Daredevil’s first season was a solid and harsh origin story for both hero and villain in its foetal phase and a rollicking tense thriller in its’ closing moments. But it’s gooey middle was teeming with contrived melodrama and rehashed themes. The addition of these three episodes at the end throws off the entire balance of the season because now the writers either have to throw in bottle episodes or pad the main story arc or attempt to have an episodic episode here and there. Often, reluctant to meddle with the feel of the show, they go for padding and it feels like a square piece being pushed into a triangular hole.
The second season of Daredevil attempted to wrestle with the 13 episodes by effectively splitting the season in two. The first half was spent with The Punisher and his crusade against the scum of Hell’s Kitchen whilst the second half was spent with Elektra and the Hand. On paper this looks like a damn good solution to the problem as we’re effectively getting two six-episode mini-series. But when one mini-series is abundant with quality and emotion and the other is spearheaded and backed by a bulk of action, the scale becomes imbalanced. As a result, everyone loved the first half of Daredevil’s second season as Matt battled with Frank Castle but the second season ebbed away into obscurity.
Jessica Jones has similar issues as well. Despite being the first Marvel property to be headlined by a female superhero – Agent Carter doesn’t count – Jessica Jones was a hollow viewing experience. Why? Because when the show was stretched to 13 episodes, we had to spend time with characters like Simpson, Hogarth and the weirdo twins. What should have been an intimate and important social and emotional battle between Kilgrave and Jessica gave way to a frankly disappointing show.
Instead of spending more time with the eccentric and fractured Kilgrave, we just had to see why Hogarth couldn’t keep her marriage going. Instead of peeling away Jessica’s gruff exterior, we had to endure the show setting up Simpson as a future villain. Instead of more insight into Jessica and Trish’s relationship, we spent time with a couple of crazies living next to Jessica. I don’t blame the showrunner Melissa Rosenberg for this because she’s been told to write and pull the story into 13 episodes. She could have had 20 and shown Jessica solving a case a week whilst supplementing the story with the overarching story. She could have had 6 or 10 episodes to compress Kilgrave’s torture into a claustrophobic and efficient arc. Instead Rosenberg was thrown into No Man’s Land and told to produce 13 episodes. In the end, Jessica Jones limped over the finish line with an interesting villain that it didn’t use enough, a host of supporting characters no one gives a damn about and a soulless hero we didn’t get to really know.
But perhaps the worst of them all is Luke Cage. Luke Cage arrives at a time in society in which it should have been ground-breaking. A story headlined by a black superhero sporting a hoodie and impervious to bullets? This is the best time for Luke Cage to send a message. So why did it fail? Admittedly, Luke Cage’s problems are a lot deeper than the elongated run of episodes but it is still a factor. Instead of focusing on the relationship between community and law enforcement, Luke Cage has to fill 13 episodes with a trip across America that could have been avoided with a line of dialogue, constant coincidental reasons to stop a death battle and episodes that operate at a lull.
First Luke Cage tries to take some advice from Daredevil’s second season and falls into the same trap as its’ stablemate. Instead of capitalising on the brilliant character moments and character development in the first six episodes, the show decided to get rid of its’ main villain six episodes in. It reset the show halfway through purely because of shock value and the series never really recovered. And the only reason showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker did this was because he didn’t feel like a feud between Cottonmouth and Cage could last 13 whole episodes.
But Luke Cage raises a huge issue about using a long format to tell an intimate superhero story. Let’s take The CW’s Flash or even Agents of SHIELD for example. What these two shows do is present a main villain and have him/her power up for half the season. This usually leads to the first confrontation in the mid-season finale and its cathartic yet leaves you yearning for more. The second half of the season has the opposing sides recover, build up again and head towards the final confrontation in the finale. A villain-of-the-week template occupies the space in between. Because Luke Cage occupies that middle ground it cannot build up to a confrontation so it is constantly having the villain and hero go face to face and writing in utterly infuriating ways to split them apart again. It is because of this reason that SHIELD and Flash are both better than Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. SHIELD and Flash have their heroes and villains separate with one imposed narrative moment. Luke Cage has to impose these exasperating narrative moments every single episode because it just wants to end the show. It just wants to pack the fight into one emotional and hard-hitting episode and leave the audience reeling but because of the 13 episodes it goes longer and becomes wasteful.
No one is arguing that were one to judge Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage on cinematography, acting and direction, then they would far outclass the likes of Flash and SHIELD but that falls to the wayside if the whole show is off kilter. And with the 13 episodes being forced on these shows, the showrunners will always struggling with what the characters should be doing. Thank god The Defenders will see Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist join forces for 8 episodes because stretching that apart would be horrifyingly laborious. I can guarantee that The Defenders will feel like a compact and efficient television show when compared to the separate series.
It is true that the these Netflix and Marvel collaborations are critically acclaimed as well as deeply successful in terms of viewership numbers. But I would be extremely interested to see how attentive the audience actually is towards the latter stages. The shows sag and crumble under their own weight as they struggle to choose between being episodic and loose like SHIELD/Flash or being confined and focused like Luther or True Detective. And if the template of 13 episodes continues to loom over the heroes, they will find audiences switching away from boring stories that have characters going in circles and doubling back on development simply to pad the time.
This is all avoidable but until someone has to the balls to say they want LESS episodes or even MORE episodes, you will find that bingeing these shows will take longer and longer after an initial burst of speed and engagement. And even if that isn’t the case, the quality will definitely ebb away as the shows try to justify 13 episodes.