Watching (and reviewing) Inhumans on ABC continues to be a frustrating prospect.  While for many (including the quickly evaporating audience) this frustration is due mostly to the show just not being good enough, there are some more subtle things that make the experience particularly annoying.  Glimmers of hope arise, showing that the writers and cast at times are close to something exciting, only for those things to be undercut by more Saturday morning cartoon silliness.  In particular, it seems that the show suffers from one major problem that it cannot find a way to overcome: the relatability of the characters.  (Budget and filming schedule actually are some other problems the show has not overcome, but those topics are a collective dead horse that reviewers need to quit beating.)

When one looks at the source material, Inhumans should always have been a tricky property to sell to the public.  The main characters are a royal family and deep within their characterization are the arrogance and responsibility of the crown.  Any time one citizen is set up as the authority of the land, over all other citizens, they necessarily have to make difficult decisions.  Often those decisions are the “lesser evil” sort, where they choose a terrible outcome for a few over a terrible outcome for many.  Years of this role makes on weary and arrogant.  This inherent struggle can at best be understood by a mass audience, with many still feeling uncomfortable with the situation.  (Jonathan Hickman‘s analysis of royal motifs in his Illuminati material in the buildup to Secret Wars comes to mind as a recent example of this kind of storytelling.)  This tension of royalty means that characters naturally grate the audience, in their assumption of superiority over the rest of the population and willingness to discard some of them for the greater good.  Making such conflicted personalities charming and loved by a TV audience is really hard.

The tension is terribly obvious in episode four of the series, Make Way for…Medusa!, which focuses largely on the titular character.  The interaction between Medusa and the NASA-type scientist who has discovered her plays out the way one might expect.  Medusa largely sees her counterpart as a servant who is there to do her bidding and then be disposed of.  She is used to an entire civilization doing her will.  Also, her parents believed in some sort of higher ideals and they got nothing in return.  Why should she bother with equality and civility, when real life only rewards those who work their way to the top?  The episode slowly works the two characters into a place where they understand each other, largely by delving into their backgrounds.  It is a positive end, but undoubtedly many viewers soured on Medusa before she comes around.

Medusa continues to be the strongest part of the series.  The way that the writers take her royal pedigree and villainous origins, and add in her street-smart nature, they manage to create a character who respects the source material, while also adapting it into something new and interesting.  Her years of caring for Crystal have made her fiercely independent and willing to do whatever it takes.  If that means shooting at the cops, stealing a computer, or chucking someone unconscious in a trunk, she’s capable and willing.  Her scrappiness adds a new meaningful flavor to the character.  Serinda Swan continues to be the strongest cast member on the show. Plus, her chemistry with Anson Mount is also solid.

Sadly, however, much of that character work is ignored or even mocked because it is surrounded by bizarre storylines that make little sense.  Karnak the pot dealer is the number one culprit of the sort of stupidity this show peddles as drama.  First of all, Karnak’s new love affair is just totally wrong for the character.  And the writers should know that.  In the first episode, we got the real Karnak, estimating the exact minute a possible relationship would sour.  Why would the appropriate nihilism of a man who sees the fault in everything so quickly disappear?  Probably so the writers can give us an “arc” where they redeem him from the insufferable, pretentious jerk he was in episode one into the passionate lover of episode four.  Sadly, this arc only shows how little the writers care about the source material and how insufferably obsessed they are with “grounding” or humanizing these characters.  Karnak should be a jerk who the audience only begrudgingly loves over time, like Benedict Cumberbatch’s take on Sherlock.  Instead, the essence of the character is being melted away.

(This also ignores a couple of other major issues Karnak should care about.  Generally, Inhumans have strict rules about sex and reproduction, because the Genetic Council is carefully guiding the species forward.  One does not merely have children or get married without thought to the way such a union would affect the larger society.  Karnak would never allow his passion to trump his duty to the species.  Or his duty to his King, who he now seems to not care to ever find again.  Karnak is perhaps the most loyal character to Black Bolt, at times even more so then Medusa, and yet here he is throwing that all away for a roll in the hay.  Or the marijuana.)

Black Bolt, meanwhile, is being humanized by giving him a casting reject for Maui in Disney’s Moana. The King of the Inhumans should be more loveable because he cares for this guy, apparently.  His story is fine, but still far beneath the elegant presence of the comic character.  Gorgon’s remorse is supposed to make him more likable, though it seemed like his scenes were complete filler in this episode, going nowhere.  Crystal, the audience should like more because…she looks good in some Daisy Dukes?  Her whole story with Lockjaw and the ATV is either a story contrivance to keep the family stuck on Hawaii, or, worse yet, another way to make sure the budget didn’t balloon with cow-dog money.

So much of this all is just goofy.  And the insidious nature of that terrible word “grounded” (shivers go down my spine as I type it) is that the problem is not even how many or few powers appear in an episode.  It’s that characters with royal pedigrees, god-like powers, and the attendant personality flaws are being turned into surfer dudes, inmates, and summer camp flings.  What was billed at times as Game of Thrones or Shakespeare is being diluted into a zany episode of Boy Meets World.  I have tried to give the show a fair shot and actually liked the first episode quite a lot.  But this excursion to Hawaii has basically communicated one thing: the writers and showrunner are embarrassed by these characters.  They are embarrassed by Black Bolt’s majesty and authority.  They are embarrassed by Karnak’s cold and calculating mind.  They are embarrassed by Gorgon’s foolhardy impetuous nature.  They are embarrassed by Triton’s existence, apparently.  And so they took the characters somewhat faithfully formed in the first forty minutes, and they are slowly turning them into something banal.  They’ve made the Inhumans more human that Maximus and his dud DNA.  It really is a shame, because these characters deserve better.

Final Verdict:
2 skinny dips out of 5 – Like its ratings, the mundanity of how the show treats the majority its characters continues to take a dip. It’s so frustrating seeing them have the correct ingredients to make a decent show, only for them to make progressing episodes continuously sub-par. We’re already halfway through the season and we still have yet to watch a GREAT episode.

One-shots:

  • For all his episode arc’s silliness, it was kinda cool seeing Karnak wear his signature hoodie.

  • They need to frame their action sequences better. That gas tank explosion could have been executed so much better.

  • Maximus’ genetic council buddy is that dude from *Westworld!

  • This episode was sorely missing another one of those Pulitzer Prize-winning headlines like last week’s MAN ATTACKS COP.

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