Welcome to entertainment’s Golden Age of Combustible Humanity.
Nearly 40 years after the rudimentary head-popping pleasures of David Cronenberg’s Scanners, technology has finally made it possible to depict the explosion of the human body in a variety of visceral forms and artists are taking advantage — from HBO Max’s Raised by Wolves to the upcoming Katherine Langford feature Spontaneous, a dark comedy that appears to be entirely based on teens going kablooey.
And then there’s Amazon’s The Boys. Seriously, if the team behind The Boys put half the time and thought into plot, characterization and action that they put into finding different ways to blow people to kingdom come, it would truly be one of the best shows on TV.
It’s not. But it’s definitely one of the best shows on TV for fans of watching people go boom (and occasionally “pop,” “zap” or “sizzle”), and the second season continues to have enough unrelenting snark and cynicism and occasional commentary for plenty of other viewers as well.
When we left things after the first season, Eric Kripke’s adaptation of the Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson comic series was dealing with anti-superhero vigilante Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) discovering that his wife Becca (Shantel VanSanten) was alive, and that she’d had a son by beloved superhero (and secret monster) Homelander (Antony Starr). Homelander and the team at nefarious Vought International, led by CEO Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito, whose TV ubiquity has become a superpower of its own), were hoping to keep buried the secret of Compound-V, a hero-creating serum. Part of their strategy involves ginning up the threat caused by terrorists with enhanced abilities created by Homelander and Compound-V as a distraction mechanism.
Offering another distraction is the addition of snarky and cynical — everything in this show is snarky and cynical and I say that as somebody prone to both — newcomer Stormfront (Aya Cash), a social media-loving hero whose motives are, naturally, ulterior.
Our actual heroes — including Hughie (Jack Quaid), Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), Frenchie (Tomer Capon) and the enigmatic Kimiko (Karen Kukuhara) — are looking to bring down Vought with the help of Hughie’s ex, Starlight (Erin Moriarty), something also attempted by a newly added AOC-esque congresswoman (Claudia Doumit).
And if that sounds like a lot, I haven’t touched on Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) becoming part of an unlikely empowerment campaign; the consequences of A-Train’s (Jesse T. Usher) Compound-V experimentation from last season; or The Deep’s (Chace Crawford) quest for redemption in Ohio, which comes to involve a celebrity wellness cult that you’ll quickly recognize as resembling Scientology, because The Boys loves satire, but never wants to make you work hard to recognize what it’s satirizing. Probably all that explains why more than half of the episodes in the second season are over an hour, which is something that really shouldn’t happen.
The Boys is a clever show. This I don’t dispute. Its vision of a world in which superheroes are test-marketed like a new breakfast cereal and authoritarian law and order comes in form-fitting spandex and capes is consistently current and sharply needling. Like the mockery of Scientology, everything in The Boys is a little on-the-nose, but it’s a superhero show, so it’s entitled to some genre-based broadness. The tweaking of Hollywood’s own superhero fascination — much of the season season is built around production on a team-up movie starring and focused on Vought’s signature The Seven — is somehow both perceptive and facile. A lot of the show is like that, and I’ve struggled since the pilot to pinpoint my sense of the show’s sourness.
Here’s the best I can do: The Boys is bad at action. Yes, it’s great with gore and it’s liberal with violence — have I mentioned the number of people who explode this season? — but that’s not the same thing. Action is sustained and, ideally, coherent. The biggest fight sequence in the entire second season comes in the third episode shortly after a marvelous scene of gore that I won’t spoil and that fans are going to go nuts over. But what should be a set piece with multiple supes bashing their way through a neighborhood is one of the worst-choreographed and -edited sequences I’ve ever seen, at least at this budget. It’s a visual mess.
The challenge, of course, is that super-on-super action is hard, relying on extensive destruction for minimal gain (see Superman vs Zod in Man of Steel). That’s why The Boys avoids it whenever it can. The show’s preference is for torture, which is much easier because it’s somebody with strength working over somebody in a restricted position. But the more you rely on torture, the more the tone of your series tends toward sadism, which is certainly the case with The Boys. Like I said: Sour. Plus, with the torture tending to be perpetrated on women — only amplified by how utterly uninterested the show is in sex without kink or notes of violence — the sadism tip-toes into misogyny.
The second season feels somewhat bored by Butcher’s sputtering rage and somewhat resigned to Hughie’s blandness. It works best when Starlight and Kimiko are front and center, with Moriarty and Fukuhara both doing good work. Queen Maeve, too often the show’s forgotten superhero, steps up big in the second half and McElligott has a line reading in the penultimate episode that packed more emotion in a few words than the previous six hours combined.
The men are also best when they’re learning to show more respect for the women, especially Frenchie and The Deep. But is this a good thing or a calculated thing? Since The Seven have the new snarky and cynical slogan “Girls Get It Done,” what might have felt like improved storytelling doubles as sour commentary.
TV’s oddball superhero team-up genre is one that often coheres better in second seasons. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow made a huge qualitative leap. Netflix’s Umbrella Academy remained frustratingly uneven, but still tightened up its storytelling. The Boys, definitely better than either of those shows in its first season, didn’t make that leap for me. It’s still fun, quick-witted and, to its detriment, glib. But it’s explodier than ever and you can take that to the bank.
Cast: Karl Urban, Erin Moriarty, Antony Starr, Dominique McElligott, Jessie T. Usher, Chace Crawford, Nathan Mitchell, Laz Alonso, Jack Quaid, Karen Fukuhara, Tomer Kapon
Creator: Eric Kripke from the comic by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson
First there episodes premiere Friday, September 4 on Amazon.