This approach has worked for other genres. One of the smartest, and most audacious, TV narrative gambles of recent years was the BBC’s 2005 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. Though the series had the trappings of any other Masterpiece Theater costume drama, it aired twice weekly in half-hour chunks, designed to imitate the intense serialization of Dickens’s chapter-by-chapter storytelling. Every episode ended with a shocking twist; the lean format encouraged the show to focus on plot, and it was all the better for it.
Still, despite its languid narrative style, Luke Cage is doing many fascinating things. Its mood and visual aesthetic are as well-honed as the perfectly bleak Jessica Jones; its action scenes, when they arrive, are brutal and swift; and its lead performers are uniformly terrific, most of all Mike Colter as Cage, who wrings endless charisma from his character’s resolute stoicism. The show’s creator, Cheo Hodari Coker, clearly wanted Luke Cage to be more than a typical superhero series—in a wonderful interview with The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, he referenced the frequent name-dropping of black authors, artists, and historic figures.
I know that there’s going to be people now that all of a sudden are going to read Donald Goines, they’re going to read Walter Mosley, because of the fact that Luke Cage was talking about it. I think that’s some of the power that you have in television.
Luke Cage certainly has power, and its philosophical intent shines through in its main characters’ frequent speechmaking, its musical interludes, and its vibrant visuals. But as a piece of superhero storytelling, it’s far less impressive (some spoilers to follow). Its best villain is dispatched midway through the season, seemingly for ineffective shock value, and the climactic episodes struggle to fill the void left behind, throwing increasingly uninteresting bad guys into the mix. Cage is sidelined and then kept out of commission late in the season, which reeks of story padding (it’s a trick Jessica Jones also pulled last year); frequent flashbacks serve little purpose, considering Cage has already been thoroughly introduced to audiences (again, in Jessica Jones).
What’s most frustrating of all is that Netflix isn’t getting rid of this approach anytime soon. Daredevil season three, Jessica Jones season two, Iron Fist, and The Punisher are all on their way, and each will follow the same 13-episode structure. With new heroes like Iron Fist, there’ll be hours of backstory to muddle through before viewers arrive at the major plot arc; with spinoff characters like The Punisher, there’ll be retelling of character details audiences may already be well aware of. The only respite may come in the form of The Defenders, a planned crossover series that will unite all the network’s heroes to do battle with some greater evil—over the course of just eight episodes. Who knows? The show might even surprise viewers and explain its villain’s motivations within the first hour. Until then, fans will be stuck needlessly giving over entire days to these series, while others are deterred from watching at all.