TV · TV Reviews

TV Review: The Spectacular Spider-Man

I searched “best spider-man tv shows of all time” and one result regularly topped the lists – The Spectacular Spider-Man. I’d heard good things about the series before (it was originally released in 2008), but I never bothered checking it out. Now I’ve watched both seasons, and I’m impressed. 

The Spectacular Spider-Man retreads ground so old its foundation was laid by comic book legends Stan Lee and Steve Ditko way back in 1962. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The series skips any sort of origin episode and leaps right into Peter Parker juggling super hero antics and high school teenager drama. It’s a formula that works well throughout the series – Peter’s life is often just as interesting (if not more so) than Spidey’s. Peter, like most high school boys, is a fool. He belongs with Gwen Stacy, but dates Liz Allan and pines for Mary Jane Watson. C’mon man, get your life together.

A hero is only as good as his villains, and the series mostly succeeds in throwing compelling enemies at Spider-Man. Doctor Octopus creating super-powered rogues to compete against Spidey is a nice twist, and it makes sense for common criminals to feel a desperate desire to knock Spider-Man down a peg or two. The guy constantly pokes fun at them while webbing them up. I especially enjoy Spidey’s banter with Kraven the Hunter. Kraven wraps Spider-Man in a bear hug and says, “Be still. The noblest prey ends the hunt in silent dignity.” Perplexed, Spider-Man responds, “Prey? Silent? Dignity? Ah, you don’t know me at all!”

It’s also nice that Spider-Man regularly defeats his enemies using guile. Rhino outclasses Spider-Man in strength, so Spidey lures him down to the sewers and uses stream to overheat the sweating Rhino. Brains beats brawn. The only villain that falls somewhat short is Green Goblin. The Goblin is one of Spider-Man’s greatest foes because he terrorizes both Spider-Man and Peter Parker. The Spectacular Spider-Man gives Venom that role (which works well, no complaints there) while the Goblin’s story revolves around the mystery of his identity. The mystery gets old fast. But it’s easy to forgive that when the series also treats us to an epic Sinister Six battle in “Group Therapy” in which the symbiotic suit wrecks shop, treating the Vulture and Shocker like play toys. The fight choreography and battle scenes are excellent throughout the series.

I mentioned Spidey’s banter with Kraven, and what really sells that banter is voice actor Josh Keaton. Keaton is an excellent Peter Parker/Spider-Man, embodying the joking nature of the hero and delivering during the more serious moments. After Sandman sacrifices himself by absorbing an oil tanker explosion, Spider-Man is impressed to say the least. He says, “You wanted a big score, Marko? Far as I’m concerned, you just scored about as big as a man can.” The line works thanks to Keaton’s earnestness.

There’s a lot to like about The Spectacular Spider-Man. Watching Peter Parker and his buddy Harry try out for the football team, Venom acting like the petty kid he is, Spidey battling the Lizard at the zoo – it’s all engaging and fun. It’s a damn shame the series never received a proper ending. The showrunners deserved at least a couple more seasons to wrap everything up. If it ran for more seasons, I’m sure it could overtake my personal favorite Spidey show, Spider-Man (1994). Speaking of which, that 90’s theme song still kicks ass.

Best Eps · TV

Best Eps: Batman: The Animated Series – “Nothing to Fear”

In this feature I take a look at one episode that marks a high point in a television series. It’s not necessarily the absolute best a series has to offer (that’s always debatable), but it’s an episode that remains lodged in memory long after I first watched it.

Longtime Batman voice actor Kevin Conroy died on November 10, 2022. Conroy’s Batman is the best Batman, a hero who is tireless in his quest for justice, a man who has sympathy in his heart even for his greatest foes. I’d already planned on writing this article before Conroy’s death, but now this feels like a fitting tribute. A quick note – I always loved that Conroy portrayed Batman’s voice as his true self while his Bruce Wayne spoke with a put-on, airy lilt. It may seem a small thing, but it showed that Bruce Wayne was the man’s actual mask. That’s a big difference from the Batmen who put on gruff voices while in costume (see: Christian Bale). Okay, onto the meat of the article.

There are plenty of standout Batman: The Animated Series episodes, but I’ve always gravitated towards the episodes that shine a light on Bruce Wayne’s humanity and vulnerability. Right from the start “Nothing to Fear” puts Bruce on the defensive in the worst way. Dr. Moss, an older man who knew Bruce’s father, insults Bruce and says he’s shaming the family name. As if that’s not bad enough, Scarecrow drugs Batman with a fear toxin, and Bruce is immediately haunted by visions of his father echoing Dr. Moss’s words.

Scarecrow is an interesting villain for Batman because he uses people’s fears against them. Batman is an agent of darkness, and a big part of the reason he’s successful is he instills fear in criminals. That shared connection creates a nice symmetry within the episode. Scarecrow introduces himself in a grandiose way, proclaiming, “I am fear incarnate. I am the terror of Gotham. I am the Scarecrow.” More on that in a bit.

Bruce survives Scarecrow’s attack, but his mind is bubbling over with the fear toxin. He looks and feels terrible, and he confesses his visions to his butler/surrogate father Alfred. He tells Alfred his great fear of shaming the family name. And in his best moment of the series, Alfred says, “That’s rubbish. I know your father would be proud of you, because I’m so proud of you.” I love that.

Of course the Scarecrow continues his quest for revenge, and despite his mental state, Batman rushes to the rescue. The final fight takes place on a zeppelin, and while hanging precariously onto the nose of the airship, Thomas Wayne once again looms large and calls Bruce a disgrace. This is when Batman shows his mettle. He overcomes the fear toxin without an antidote, any tricks, and no superpowers. And then he speaks his best lines of the series: “No, you are not my father. I am not a disgrace. I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman!” Chills. And there’s that symmetry I mentioned earlier. His words call back to Scarecrow’s, but Batman’s ring true. He becomes Scarecrow’s worst nightmare and takes him down using his own fear toxin.

“Nothing to Fear” shows the resourcefulness and grit of Batman even when he’s at his worst. Because nothing can be worse for Bruce than enduring the cruel words of a father he loves and misses so much. And no one could have conveyed Batman’s emotions the way Kevin Conroy did. Rest in peace.

Other Best Eps candidates: “Appointment in Crime Alley,” “Day of the Samurai,” “Tyger Tyger”

Top Ten · TV

Top Ten: The Challenge One-and-Done Competitors

The Challenge has featured hundreds of competitors since its inception in 1998. One of its main draws is it features recurring cast members growing up together in a real-life soap opera. It’s rewarding to watch young bucks like Chris “CT” Tamburello and Derrick Kosinski change and mature over time.

But what about the flash in the pan competitors? Some competitors are too entertaining, too athletic, and way too fun to just disappear after one season. In this feature I’m counting down my favorite one-and-done competitors featured on The Challenge. For purposes of historic diversity, I limited myself to choosing only two competitors per season, one man and one woman (it still bums me out to leave Kelly Limp off the list). I gave preference to competitors who lasted through to the final, showed a strong desire to win, had a personality, and otherwise stood out from the pack in some meaningful way. It’s been difficult cutting out competitors like Heather B. Gardner, Mitch Reid, Brittini Sherrod, and Antoine de Bouverie, but I’m happy with my picks. We should have had more time with all of them.

Note: This list originally featured Teck Holmes, but he’s since been featured on The Challenge: All Stars. Adam Kuhn, welcome to the list!

10. Adam Kuhn (Battle of the Exes II, 2015)

Does anyone else remember Adam? Alongside his partner/ex-girlfriend Brittany Baldassari he won three eliminations on Battle of the Exes II before getting sent to Exile (where Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio eliminated him for good). Adam looks like Superman, but he doesn’t act at all like a shy Clark Kent. During his time on Battle of the Exes II he performed a stripping routine, flipped Brittany upside down for a 69 style dance move, and overall gave off the stench of a type-A asshole. And that’s great. He could easily fill a Wes Bergmann type role, being the obnoxious young gun that brags about his good looks and penchant for winning. Apparently, Adam’s been spending time in Thailand doing some sort of fighting, and he looks lean and mean. Let’s get him back on TV so he can fight for a million bucks.

09. Ellen Cho (Battle of the Sexes, 2003)

I’m tired of fake drama and Twitter battles. Ellen brought none of that back in the early 2000s. In episode one of Battle of the Sexes she said “fuck you guys” to the inner circle and she later told David “Puck” Rainey his televised wedding was “just for show” and called him immature. Ellen never shied away from a fight. She also clawed her way into the inner circle and finished the season second in points behind superwoman Ruthie Alcaide. Ellen’s aggressive cheerleader personality sometimes rubbed people wrong, but she tried to act in her team’s best interest, even when her actions made waves. She’s a tough competitor, and I bet no one else in history has told Coral Smith “kiss my baby ass.” Puck told Ellen he would kick her ass, and Ellen told Coral to kiss hers. That’s legend status.

Continue reading “Top Ten: The Challenge One-and-Done Competitors”
Best Eps · TV

Best Eps: Young Justice – “Homefront”

In this feature I take a look at one episode that marks a high point in a television series. It’s not necessarily the absolute best a series has to offer (that’s always debatable), but it’s an episode that remains lodged in memory long after I first watched it.

Young Justice is about a team of young superheroes (don’t call them sidekicks) that work together to keep the world safe from local and galactic threats alike. The show features awesome powerhouse characters like Miss Martian and Blue Beetle, but one of its standout episodes is all about new team member Artemis. Artemis is an archer lacking super powers, and alongside Batman’s protégé Robin, she’s forced to save her superpowered friends from certain doom.

“Homefront” begins innocently enough. Artemis is attending her first day of school at Gotham Academy, and Dick Grayson (Robin) sneaks a photo with her, taking advantage of the fact she doesn’t know his secret identity. The two costumed heroes meet up once more before using a telephone booth to portal into their hideout, the cave. They are immediately attacked by fireballs and flash floods, and the action doesn’t stop for the remainder of the episode.

There are a few reasons “Homefront” is so good. Like I mentioned before, Artemis and Robin are lacking any extraordinary powers, yet they must save their super powered friends. While Artemis believes defeat is imminent, the younger Robin teaches her that every problem has a solution, no matter how difficult it may be. Their enemies are elemental and mysterious, creating deadly mystery. Anyone can imagine how awful burning alive or drowning would be, and both of those options are on the table here. Our first look at one of the antagonists is a haunting silhouette living in an inferno, a far cry from a zany villain in a colorful costume. There are horror/thriller movie moments galore in “Homefront.” Though this is ostensibly a kids show, the threat of death feels very real (the machines and their countdown cannot be reasoned with), so the heroes have no room for error. After Robin is captured, Artemis hides and curls into a fetal position. She knows she can’t win. But she decides to risk her own life to save others, and her perfect backflip arrow shot secures victory against the machines.

“Homefront” reminds me of Uncanny X-Men #143, the issue in which an outmatched Kitty Pryde cleverly destroys a powerful demon that’s stalking her in the X-Mansion. Everyone loves an underdog, and with Artemis there’s added complexity. She lacks the tutelage of Batman, but she gains valuable lessons from the more seasoned (albeit younger) Robin. Artemis is also keeping important secrets from her teammates, and it’s been difficult to build trust because of that. Regardless, Artemis gets traught and saves her new family. That’s about as heroic as it gets.

Other Best Eps candidates: “Failsafe,” “Auld Acquaintance,” “Before the Dawn”

The Challenge Hall of Shame · TV

The Challenge Hall of Shame: Colie Edison

The Challenge isn’t for everyone. There will always be those who excel in competition (see the Hall of Fame winners) and unfortunately, there will always be those who consistently find themselves at the bottom. Maybe they’ve embarrassed themselves. Maybe they couldn’t win an elimination to save their lives. Worst of all, maybe they quit on themselves or their teams. Either way, they played poorly enough to enter the Hall of Shame.

Colie Edison is a successful person. She’s the first female CEO of the Professional Bowlers Association, and long before that she was the president of her sorority at Tulane University. You would think someone with a Type A personality would at least be a decent competitor, but Colie sucked on The Challenge.

The Inferno III was Colie’s first season, and she made it pretty far along considering her rookie status. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Colie got disqualified on the first daily challenge, the third daily challenge, and twice more after that. Her coordination and overall physical abilities are simply bottom of the barrel. She even struggled on a wall climbing challenge with legendary climber Alton Williams on her team. She also joined the Susie Meister and Cara Zavaleta partnership, becoming the third wheel of their popular girl alliance when she could have been Paula Meronek’s number one.

Eventually Colie was mercifully eliminated by Jenn Grijalva. The fact that Jenn called her “The DQ Queen” says everything about Colie’s contribution to the Good Guys team. Due to her disqualifications and time penalties, she helped her team lose more than she helped them win.

For some reason Colie was invited back for The Island where she spent the majority of her screen time facilitating the voting deliberations. She did finally compete in a three-way elimination, but she lost quickly and easily. At least she wasn’t deluded regarding her position in the game. At the end of the episode deliberation she gave a weird scripted speech to the competitors, asking them to send her home so that her buddy Johanna Botta can stay. In a rare display of unity, everyone agreed to send Colie away. Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio summed her up pretty well: “You didn’t contribute to the island. And as far as I’m concerned, you were dead weight around here. So bon voyage, young lady.”

There is one moment Colie truly did shine. She referred to Dunbar Merrill as a “giant asshole” and didn’t back down when he tried to argue with her. It’s easily her best contribution to The Challenge.

TV · TV Reviews

TV Review: The Challenge: All-Stars

I wouldn’t normally write a review for an individual season of The Challenge, but All-Stars is special. The spin-off began life as a “bring back the old schoolers” concept promoted by executive producer Mark “The Godfather” Long. And the Godfather delivered; All-Stars revives classic personalities and puts them through the wringer of modern challenges.

The cast features fan favorites like Alton Williams and Ruthie Alcaide, but the standout stars are Laterrian Wallace and Kendal Sheppard. Though neither of them make it to the final, that doesn’t matter. This is a redemption story for Laterrian, a competitor who always seemed to fall flat in his previous challenges. When Laterrian celebrates his first daily challenge win in 18 years while “Mo Money Mo Problems” hits, it’s impossible not to feel happy for him. Kendal is a returning champion, so she never had a chip on her shoulder like Laterrian. What she does have is a target on her back, and her elimination wins and daily challenge domination cement her as a multi-generational threat.

All-Stars is overall a quick watch, and it doesn’t use a redemption house or other silly twists that prolong a game indefinitely. If anything, ten episodes is a bit of a tease, but it is very cool to see a large number of individuals competing in a final. Daily challenges and eliminations are only part of the game, and you never know who might surprise you in a final. Jonna Mannion gave birth less than a year before the season started, and she damn near wins the entire game.

MTV absolutely should continue All-Stars, because it’s better than the Champs vs. Stars spin-off and more palatable than the 20+ episodes of the flagship show. It recaptures some of the fun and carefree vibe of past challenges, especially when natural entertainers like Teck Holmes are providing the commentary. Here’s my big plea to the showrunners: please please bring back Landon Lueck. The guy has been in his cage way too long and needs to be released.

The Challenge Hall of Fame · TV

The Challenge Hall of Fame: Laurel Stucky

To succeed on The Challenge a competitor must be smart, strong, politically savvy, or at the very least, lucky. Most competitors are average talents, and an unfortunate few perform poorly enough to earn a dubious honor (enter the Hall of Shame). But these competitors, the Hall of Fame class, have conquered The Challenge in one form or another, and they all share the most important quality: they know how to win.

Laurel Stucky is the Wonder Woman of The Challenge. She’s imposing, elegant in appearance, and she easily pushes around most other competitors. For a long time she remained undefeated in eliminations (her current record is 9-2), and she holds the record for most consecutive elimination victories by a woman. Laurel is the last person anyone wants to face one-on-one.

Despite her impressive ability to remain in the game – reaching three final challenges in a row – Laurel’s only win is Free Agents. That’s understandable, considering the obstacles in her way during those first three seasons. On Fresh Meat II Landon Lueck became an unstoppable force during the final, Laurel’s team imploded on Cutthroat, and the Rivals winners were Evelyn Smith and Paula Meronek, one of the better duos in the show’s history.

All of those second place finishes prepared Laurel for Free Agents. She defeated Aneesa Ferreira in a straight-up physical elimination, won the last puzzle elimination, and ran the politics of the house with Jordan Wiseley. It’s fitting, considering Laurel and Jordan are so much alike. They’re both dominating players who don’t hold their tongues. They believe in playing a straight up game and are quick to call people out, including and especially people on their own teams. During the Free Agents season Laurel learned that Theresa Gonzalez tricked other competitors into an elimination vote (while keeping the blood off her own hands), so Laurel adjusted her game to target Theresa. She can be arrogant and even mean spirited, but Laurel doesn’t tolerate snakes.

Laurel’s long anticipated return on Invasion of the Champions showed she still had a robot-like drive to destroy anything in her way. Then Camila Nakagawa shocked everyone by sending Laurel home in the final elimination, a rope tangling contest that involved strategy and stamina. It’s a well-deserved win for Camilla. Conversely, Laurel’s exit from War of the Worlds 2 is shameful. The controversial elimination ended with “Ninja” Natalie Duran winning even though T. J. Lavin had already sounded the airhorn. I’m not trying to take anything away from Ninja, but the producers should have reset the game to allow a fair conclusion. The competitors and the viewers deserve better.

Though she hasn’t seen much recent success, it’s always safe to bet on Laurel. Odds are good she’ll win her eliminations and verbally decimate those who oppose her. She’s great TV, and she’s possibly the one female competitor I’m most excited to see on the cast list when a new season is announced.

TV · TV Reviews

TV Review: Cobra Kai (Seasons 1 – 3)

Cobra Kai is not prestige TV. It’s not a show you must watch. Its heavy handed in its use of flashbacks, it gets sillier over time, and in reality most of the characters would be arrested for assault or attempted murder. Still, I watched three seasons of Cobra Kai in a little over a week. I don’t normally binge watch TV, but the ongoing struggles of Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and his new karate kids sucked me right in.

Most attempts at resurrecting old franchises are all about the cash grab, but the creators of Cobra Kai are fans first. Respect is shown for the Karate Kid movies (with plenty of callbacks), while old characters feel new due to the changes in their lives and attitudes. Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) are great frenemies, and watching them sing along to REO Speedwagon is something I never knew I wanted. The young cast is a fun group, and it’s a good sign that I want both Miguel and Robbie – combatants fighting over the same girl – to do well in their fighting tournament.

I’m glad William Zabka has been given a chance to redeem his karate character. Johnny Lawrence is a man stuck in the 80s, and it’s funny to see him trying to figure out Facebook messenger and modern dating. It’s even better to see his realization that preaching “no mercy” to hormonal teenagers is not too wise. He adapts his thinking, teaching his kids to kick ass while remaining honorable. Yeah, I can get behind that message.