What with all the grunt­ing and ham­mer­ing and blud­geon­ing, Net­flix’s lat­est dam­aged-su­per­hero se­ries is a de­press­ingly ac­cu­rate metaphor for our times

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - TICKET - PA­TRICK FREYNE

My first en­counter with men­tal health on tele­vi­sion was on The A-Team. I’ve writ­ten about this be­fore. I’m slightly ob­sessed with The A-Team. The most on-the-nose char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion was that of pi­lot “Howl­ing Mad” Mur­doch who was clin­i­cally “howl­ing mad” and whose treat­ment was halted when­ever his friends broke him out of the men­tal in­sti­tu­tion. You see, they didn’t care about his health, they just wanted him to fly a plane.

This was dou­bly trou­ble­some be­cause an­other mem­ber of the group, irate pea­cock BA Bara­cus, had a pho­bia about fly­ing and so, log­i­cally, had to be reg­u­larly ren­dered un­con­scious with a blow to the head or drugs. Times have cer­tainly changed. To quote the HR depart­ment of The Ir­ish Times: “The an­tics of

The A-Team are no guide to in­ter­act­ing with col­leagues in the mod­ern work­place, Pa­trick.”

And yet, that didn’t stop TV drama us­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems as a quick and easy way to give an un­der­writ­ten char­ac­ter “depth”. For a while in the aughts, the way to pitch a cop show was to pick a ran­dom noun for a name and a di­ag­no­sis from the Di­ag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual of Men­tal Dis­or­ders in lieu of an ac­tual per­son­al­ity. So, we had Monk, for ex­am­ple, with his ob­ses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der-aided de­tec­tion skills. Ar­guably this should have gone away in the golden age of tele­vi­sion, but after a stel­lar first se­ries of Home­land, I be­gan to sus­pect that Car­rie Mathi­son’s bipo­lar dis­or­der was a sim­i­larly shal­low shtick and that she would soon be in­tro­duc­ing her­self as CIA agent John Home­land.

This has all been made even more prob­lem­atic be­cause an­cient su­per­heroes are tak­ing over the cul­ture. So we got nerdy Bruce Ban­ner with his rage is­sues and short-shorts and Bruce Wayne who pro­cesses child­hood trauma, like most bil­lion­aires, by dress­ing in rub­ber and beat­ing up the poor. All of th­ese char­ac­ters have be­gun wash­ing away the sub­tleties of pres­tige drama with sim­plis­tic psy­cho­log­i­cal bol***ks orig­i­nally cooked up to en­ter­tain bright chil­dren in the post-war years. (The one ex­cep­tion is

Le­gion by Noah Haw­ley with its in­ven­tive, stylis­ti­cally stun­ning ex­plo­ration of schizophre­nia.)

The most re­cent ad­di­tion to the canon is Net­flix’s The Pu­n­isher. Even in his comic book form, Pu­n­isher is barely a su­per­hero at all. His power is that he is an­gry and has PTSD and his cos­tume is a skull-themed jumper like that worn by Danny from the Bash Street Kids.

He’s not en­tirely new to tele­vi­sion. We last saw him on a roof in gruff So­cratic de­bate with Dare­devil (an an­gry su­per­heroic lawyer who was once bit­ten by a ra­dioac­tive bondage, dis­ci­pline, dom­i­nance and sub­mis­sion fetishist) over the cor­rect way to de­liver bru­tal vig­i­lante jus­tice without trial. Nowa­days, this is what passes for phi­los­o­phy in main­stream su­per­hero sto­ries (see also Cap­tain Amer­ica: Civil War). It’s also an in­di­ca­tion of how far the Overton win­dow in the US has moved to the right. Dare­devil and his “let’s beat them to the point of death but not kill them” pol­icy seems like a cen­trist Demo­crat by to­day’s stan­dards.

The new show be­gins with an open­ing mon­tage in which Pu­n­isher, aka Frank Cas­tle (Jon Bern­thal), en­acts vi­o­lent re­venge on the peo­ple who killed his fam­ily, then re­tires to a New York con­struc­tion site to grunt­ingly ham­mer a wall with a big mal­let for days on end. Why? How use­ful is that, re­ally? I sus­pect it’s a metaphor. Are we not all, in our own ways, grunt­ingly ham­mer­ing a wall with our mal­lets?

Frank is bearded and fluffy haired to in­di­cate that he is in de­cline (see by­line photo above for con­fir­ma­tion of this phe­nom­e­non) and he is scorned by his brutish col­leagues, who fool­ishly mock him and will, by the end of the first episode, be writhing around in bloody bro­ken-limbed agony.

I’m sorry for not giv­ing a spoiler alert there, but, to be fair, the pro­gramme mak­ers stop just short of flash­ing the word “doomed” on the screen when­ever th­ese wit­less Pu­n­isher-taunters ap­pear.

Still, I find it hard not to have some sym­pa­thy for th­ese mi­nor thugs, given that one of them teas­ingly refers to Frank as “Cap­tain Bat­shit” which is a far bet­ter su­per­hero name than Pu­n­isher. Us­ing it as a ti­tle might be a bet­ter way to sign­post Frank’s is­sues in sea­son two.

Apart from all the grunt­ing and ham­mer­ing and recre­ational killing, Frank also be­friends a young co-worker and saves him from the afore­men­tioned thugs. Then he also lurks in the shad­ows at a meet­ing of trau­ma­tised war vet­er­ans run by a friend. At one point, this friend tries to talk Frank into get­ting some ther­apy and in­ad­ver­tently makes a pitch for a Pu­n­isher branded self-help book. “The only per­son you’re pun­ish­ing, Frank, is your­self,” he says, which made me laugh aloud. I started think­ing about how you could ap­ply it to other su­per­heroes.

“The only per­son you’re Spiderman-ing, Peter, is your­self.”

“The only per­son you’re Wolver­ine­fromthe Xmening, Lo­gan, is your­self.”

“The only thing you can­not trans­form, Op­ti­mus Prime, is your heart.”

So, five episodes in, here’s what I’ve learned: Frank’s fam­ily died in con­se­quence of his own morally du­bi­ous ac­tiv­i­ties in Afghanista­n. There­fore Frank must do more pun­ish­ing. (Well, what did you ex­pect? Restora­tive jus­tice?)

Frank’s fam­ily, Mrs Pu­n­isher, Pu­n­isher Jr and Pu­n­ish­erette, ap­par­ently spent their last days in sum­mer clothes laugh­ing joy­ously. We get end­less flash­backs of them through­out the early episodes be­ing de­light­ful in the hazy sun.

Pu­n­isher likes Bruce Spring­steen (grunt­ing men are drawn to each other I guess).

Pu­n­isher’s other hob­bies in­clude go­ing full Rambo in the woods of an au­tumn evening.

Pu­n­isher’s new pal, a com­puter-whiz, can af­ford state-of-the-art sur­veil­lance gear but not a cleaner for his dusty se­cret lair. His fam­ily think he’s dead, so Pu­n­isher starts flirt­ing with his wife be­cause he’s ba­si­cally a jerk.

There’s also, in the early episodes, a bad­die who tells all his se­crets to Pu­n­isher for no good rea­son while gloat­ingly hold­ing Pu­n­isher at gun­point be­fore in­evitably chok­ing to death on his own blood. Lots of bad­dies un­der­es­ti­mate Pu­n­isher and die scream­ing.

That last bit is the sole point of the show. Ev­ery­thing else is there to pro­vide dodgy moral and the­matic jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for the ul­tra-vi­o­lence. There’s a sub­text about Amer­ica’s for­eign es­capades com­ing back to haunt a di­vided na­tion, but the cre­ators are also keen that we can en­joy the sim­ple plea­sures of watch­ing Frank blud­geon­ing some­one to death with a rock. Frank, I sus­pect, will not end up get­ting ther­apy.

Any­way, it got me think­ing about how the best tele­vi­sion pro­grammes about sad­ness in re­cent years have all been come­dies. While Pu­n­isher, through lack of imag­i­na­tion and an over­dose of dour pre­ten­tion, de­volves into te­dium, stylis­ti­cally in­ven­tive, Day-Glo-bright shows like The Un­break­able Kimmy Sch­midt, Lady Dy­na­mite and Bo­jack Horse­man man­age to mine some­thing very real and hu­mane out of their char­ac­ters’ PTSD, bipo­lar dis­or­der and ex­is­ten­tial angst.

And this week, two new shows con­tin­ued ex­plor­ing such themes: Ali­son Spit­tle’s Nowhere Fast (RTÉ2), which riffs on fail­ure and de­pres­sion, and Rachel Bloom’s com­edy mu­si­cal Crazy Ex-Girl­friend (Net­flix), which fol­lowed its on­go­ing jour­ney through one woman’s ob­ses­sive be­hav­iour, all the way, plau­si­bly and heart­break­ingly, to a very real sui­cide at­tempt. The Pu­n­isher could learn from th­ese pro­grammes. And when it does, I think they should also em­brace the name “Cap­tain Bat­shit”. Lean into it, Frank.

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