Friday, November 17, 2017

Who Would Have Guessed?! The Punisher Knocks Out A Series Premiere With "3 AM!"

The Good: Well-performed, Realism of conflicts, Excellent pacing, Great direction
The Bad: Some of the initial characterization feels expository
The Basics: The Punisher opens with "3 AM," which is an engaging pilot that will suck in viewers who are up for an exploration of consequences, not just a revenge tale.

When Frank Castle turned up in the second season of Daredevil (reviewed here!), I was admittedly indifferent. I've never cared about the character of The Punisher and, much like the first season of Daredevil was a long origin story of Daredevil, the second evolved Frank Castle into The Punisher. Given the success of the second season of Daredevil, it was somewhat unsurprising that Netflix decided to fast-track The Punisher Season 1. Given, however, the relative disappointments of the first season of Iron Fist (reviewed here!) and The Defenders Season 1 (reviewed here!), it remained difficult for me to actually get excited about an entire season devoted to Frank Castle and The Punisher.

But then, the preview trailer dropped and the sheer artistry of it - which, admittedly, I needed my wife to point out as I was not at all familiar with the musical piece in it, which was essential to understanding the depth of art in the trailer - made me look twice at the concept of The Punisher. I was still not particularly interested in thirteen episodes of revenge, gore and violence, no matter how well Jon Bernthal had played Castle in Daredevil. Still, I decided to give the show a chance because of my love of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the way that Netflix has pulled off almost all of its works in that franchise. The Punisher Season 1 opens with "3 AM" and the shock of the Marvel Cinematic Universe this year might well be how engaging such an off-putting character's story might be!

Frank Castle is hunting motorcyclists in rural Alabama, eliminating the Dogs Of Hell, before moving on to Juarez, Mexico to kill off more of the cartel that was involved in the death of his family. After El Paso, Castle returns to New York City to kill the last person even remotely associated with his family's death before hanging up the mantle of The Punisher. Six months later, Frank Castle is quietly working demolition for a construction crew under an alias, where he is mocked by his peers and does what he can to keep to himself. While others at work mock and resent "Pete Castiglionni" (his constant work is cutting into their overtime), the new guy, Donny Chavez reaches out over a lunch break when none of the guys will talk with him.

Rather than actually attend a meeting of veterans who are suffering through shellshock, Frank listens outside to the group therapy. There, he hears reactionaries blaming the government for all they went through during and after the wars in which they fought. After the meeting, he has a heart to heart with his old friend Curtis Hoyle. F.B.I. Agent Dinah Madani arrives at Homeland Security where she meets her new partner and tries to explain to him why she is hunting leads into the death of her former partner, Ahmad Zubair. Madani asks her partner to investigate Frank Castle and one of his also-dead partners, while Donnie goes out for drinks with his co-workers and ends up with a $344 bill to pay. Donnie and Pete's coworkers are pulling robberies to get out of their debts and Pete overhears two of them the next day planning to rob a mob card game. When one of their crew gets wounded on the job, Pete steps away rather than get involved, much to the chagrin of Donny.

Anyone not looking forward to The Punisher only has to give "3 AM" five minutes before thety are likely to be sucked in. The immediate violence comes with a clear purpose; Frank Castle is cleaning up all of the organizations involved in the death that inspired his transition into The Punisher. And it seems like he actually makes a good-faith effort to leave that violence behind, but Castle is pretty reasonably tortured by the memories of watching his family be slaughtered in front of him. Even those who might be unfamiliar with the backstory laid out in Daredevil for Frank Castle and The Punisher are likely to quickly understand that Frank Castle is trapped in the moment where he lost his family. He sees his family while he works, while he tries to read, pretty constantly.

"3 AM" does the essentials for a pilot episode; it defines the protagonist enough to make him accessible to a new audience and surround the established character with new people to send him in a new direction. Donny Chavez, a nice guy who is simply trying to take care of his grandmother after being out of work for a while, immediately leaps into the role of sidekick and in "3 AM," it is hard for the viewer not to feel like he's either generic support or destined to die horribly to push Pete back into being Frank Castle. The moment Jason R. Moore appears as Curtis Hoyle, his screen presence is enough to make it clear that he is destined to become Frank Castle's moral core (his Foggy Nelson, Claire Temple, Malcolm, etc.). The "type," though is fleshed out with realism in the writing that is refreshing for what one might expect of a simple revenge story.

As "3 AM" builds its support staff for Frank Castle, Castle starts to un-repress memories of what he did in Afghanistan. "3 AM" is well-written in that the moment Castle first mentions Afghanistan, a new character - Agent Madani - pops into the narrative with an unsolved case from Afghanistan. Madani is quickly set up with her own sidekick, Sam Stein, and her own adversary in the form of her boss, Wolf. Wolf is presented in "3 AM" as a generic boss who holds the cards and exerts power over his subordinates.

"3 AM" does a decent job of characterizing Madani and Castle in an adult way. Castle is messed up from his past and Madani's mother worries that she is drinking too much to actually deal with her problems. Much more often than not, "3 AM" works to characterize in an organic way. Madani's mother makes statements about religion (he father is a theist, her mother an atheist) that read as inorganic until the kicker line (characterizing religion as a threat to Madani comes out as anything but artificial).

For a pilot episode that has a lot of work to do make any of the characters interesting enough to watch, much less able to empathize with any of them, "3 AM" does an amazing job. Donny is young enough to make viewers believe he would succumb to peer pressure for the robbery and Lucca De Oliveira is amazing at finding the balance in his physical performance to balance naivete and desperation. Donny feels surprisingly real based on De Oliveira's performance and when he cries out at the episode's climax, it is virtually impossible not to feel agony for his character.

"3 AM" is not the unrelenting blood and violence one might expect from The Punisher, but it is definitely R-rated Marvel content. And it is surprisingly well-executed, making it easy for those who have no inherent interest to get sucked into the story of Frank Castle and the new life has has built for himself.

For other Marvel Television Universe Series Premieres, please visit my reviews of:
"Behold . . . The Inhumans" - Inhumans
"AKA Ladies Night" - Jessica Jones
"Pilot" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.


For other television season and episode reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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