First look UK TV review: The Boys Season 2
James R | On 04, Sep 2020
Never let anything get in the way of an exploding head. That’s the driving principle behind Amazon’s The Boys, which makes its return this weekend for a second season. The show, which is never anything less than unsubtle, is a deceptively smart affair, managing to find satire beneath its loud, messy surface. In Season 2, the action is louder, the chaos is messier – but somehow, the satire is sharper too.
That’s largely thanks to its impeccable world-building, which swiftly dumps us back in a universe where superheroes are concocted in a lab – and managed like celebrities by a global corporation. Giving their own TV shows and movie franchises, they’re dropped in to save the day with cameras always in tow – when we join them for Season 2, they’re in the middle of preparing for a team-up crossover blockbuster like The Avengers.
Except, and here’s where The Boys finds its brutal teeth, the superheroes aren’t the good guys – they’re warped by power, twisted by authority and corrupted by commerce. They’re both pawns and purveyors of a money-first culture that is obsessed with image, perception and market demographics. Season 1 got down to grubby business immediately, after sexual abuse by Aquaman-lite The Deep (Chace Crawford) led him to be cast out from the central troupe – less because he’s a bad egg and more because he gives them all a bad image.
He’s contrasted wonderfully with Starlight (Erin Moriarty), the shiny new recruit who has since become entangled with our real hero, Hughie (Jack Quaid). She is now plotting to expose Vought’s use of Compound-V, the chemical that makes superheroes and also proved highly addictive for fastest-man-on-Earth A-Train (Jessie Usher) – now undergoing his own rehabilitation.
Substance abuse, sexual assault and media manipulation? These are all big things for a show to juggle, and The Boys manages it by throwing all of them in the air at once – and that manic determination to shoot laser eyes at any issue or target going makes for a genuinely exciting watch.
The show wants to have its cake and eat it, and there’s a dubious edge to that cynical aim. And yet there aren’t many shows as ambitious as The Boys currently on TV, and even fewer shows with the brash confidence to think it can realise that ambition and then some. Coming in the wake of HBO’s Watchmen, it’s certainly lacking the depth and nuance of Damon Lindelof’s update of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, but it’s also grappling with narrower concepts with a more visceral immediacy. More comparable to Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, it’s carved out its own niche in the superhero landscape that only becomes more distinct in its sophomore run.
Tellingly, that’s not because of our titular Boys, who continue their quest to take down Vought . Led by vigilante Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), whose wife is being held by this series’ answer to Superman, Homelander (Antony Starr), the others in the pack aren’t particularly memorable. Karen Kukuhara is magnificent as Kimiko, but Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso) and Frenchie (Tomer Capon) don’t get much screentime to make an impact.
Rather, the star of the show is Vought and its super-powered celebs, because they’re the ones who raise all the interesting questions. The show has already made a big improvement on Season 1 here, replacing Elisabeth Shue’s Madelyn with Giancarlo Esposito’s CEO Stan, a boss without the complex ties to Homeland. With that distraction removed, they can have blunt discussions about what Vought’s main product is – superheroes or pharmaceuticals – and how to capitalise on the perceived threat of super-terrorists (or “supervillains”, as focus groups prefer them to be called).
At the same time, it frees up Homelander to take charge. Anthony Starr is fantastically horrific as the Man of Steel-gone-wrong, an emblem of toxic masculinity whose desire to star in control of everything and be the number one person in the room drives him to increasingly nasty deeds. By the time he’s trying to raise his son in his own image, the result is toe-curlingly dark.
Season 2 adds a possible antidote to his insidious personality: Stormfront, a new addition to The Seven played with brash charisma by Aya Cash. Recruiting herself live on social media, she’s a savvy parody of modern influencer culture, bringing a note of authenticity to every choreographed press appearance. And yet she can ultimately only succeed in driving Vought’s popularity and media clout even higher; this is a rigged system and The Boys’ bleak power is never losing sight of that concrete truth – no matter how many amusing and weird tangents the series explores, from a trippy, musical introduction to Scientology-esque cult to a monologue about Pippi Longstocking. The question of whether she can can bend Vought’s misogynistic, commercial empire to her own equally dubious ends is the source of the main tension at the start of Season 2, and when The Boys has that in its heat vision, sparks really do fly – and, yes, heads explode.
The Boys: Season 1 and 2 is available now on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.