tv review

The Boys Are Back to Blow Your Mind — Literally and Figuratively

In season two, The Boys’s signature bloody chaos is smartly tied to an increasingly convincing critique of media image-making and corporate control. Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Many heads explode in season two of The Boys, Amazon’s wry, messy, gruesome, sharp superhero drama. Some of the head explosions are figurative, like when a character’s surprising backstory is revealed, or a particularly surprising twist arrives. It is The Boys, though — a show that loves its gore almost as much as it loves sardonic music cues and skewering capitalism — so most of the minds that get blown in season two are gleefully literal. Heads pop open at unexpected moments, splattering gray matter hither and yon. Mid-conversation, a head might simply cease to be, replaced by a bright spray of red and a sound like dropping an open carton of orange juice on the floor. “Heads will roll” is such an old-fashioned way of thinking about violence. Heads that burst like party balloons full of shiny red confetti are so much more fun!

The Boys relies on its audience’s ability to experience exploding heads as “fun”; it is unapologetically and unrelentingly the kind of show that asks you to be down for whatever bananas bloody nonsense it can think of. If you’re uncomfortable hanging out with, say, a superhero who unthinkingly splatters a guy’s head into oblivion while getting a hand job from his superhero girlfriend, then this is not and will never be your show. For everyone willing to jump on board with that mentality, though, The Boys has one of the most bracing, uncomfortable, and piercing points of view currently on TV.

By now, there’s a hearty tradition of gritty superhero stories. I remember writing in my review of the first season of The Boys that on its own, the concept of dark and twisty superheroes has become rote enough to have totally lost its original luster. It’s no longer exciting to point out that superheroes are probably bad; Watchmen broke that ground decades ago, and we’ve all lived in its long and influential shadow ever since. But The Boys — in original comic but especially in TV adaptation form — is the most interesting and trenchant update of that original idea that I’ve seen, and the show ups the ante on all of its most suggestive ideas in season two, the first three episodes of which drop on Friday, September 4, with new episodes released weekly after that.

It’s most centrally and most effectively a show about superheroes, capitalism, and consumer culture. Homelander (Antony Starr), the Captain America knock-off and leader of the show’s Avenger-style superhero team The Seven, is the character most invested in maintaining a shiny superhero public identity and is also among the biggest, scariest sociopaths on the show. Season two introduces a new member of The Seven, Stormfront (Aya Cash), who swiftly undermines Homelander’s popularity, delivering what feels like authentic humanity in all of the heroes’ stilted press appearances. For anyone well-versed in the darker online message boards, however, the slow reveal about Stormfront’s true motives will come as little surprise. (On The Boys, “who’s the most sociopathic” is a title with a lot of competition.)

The difference for The Boys is that while the heroes fight each other with familiar superpowers, they are all even more obsessed with soft power. Who has the better brand? How is this unexpectedly tough interview with Maria Menounos going? When The Deep (Chace Crawford) joins a Scientology-esque church and starts rehabilitating his image, it’s not through impressive feats of world-saving derring-do, it’s through a vulnerable sit-down interview with Katie Couric. The show is really smart about media images and the all-powerful impact of a Q score, and it’s even better at thinking about how the soft power and the hard power wielded by these characters combine into a truly combustible, terrifying cultural hegemony.

The Boys is so good at the specifically horrible contours of its awful superheroes and their corporate overlords Vought International, in fact, that its storytelling about the titular Boys is a tiny bit of a letdown. Don’t get me wrong, Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) are completely effective as sort-of leaders of a ragtag bunch of nobodies who’ve made it their mission to uncover the gross truths about Vought. But you get the sense that the show’s most baroque bits of nightmare fuel, both physical and mental, are reserved for the Supes. The Boys do their best to pull off the usual desperate plots to find world-shattering information that will change everyone’s minds about heroes forever, but it feels like they’re mostly there to help us register how fucked up everything is. Did I mention the exploding heads? It’s all pretty fucked up.

Guts and a defiant lack of glory are not usually my bag, but The Boys does it with such gusto that I found myself not minding that much. If it were purposeless blood splatter, it’d be easier to just turn it off, but the violence is tied to such a convincing critique of media image-making and corporate control that I was willing to endure the carnage.

There are only two things that pull me out of The Boys, two things that distract me from its otherwise compelling worldview. One of them is absolutely within the show’s power to change: the episode runtimes. For as good as The Boys is — and it’s really pretty good! — there’s no need for multiple episodes that clock in at 67 minutes. Not only does it become an endurance test for viewers, it unquestionably undermines the effectiveness of the show. Its “really pretty good” storytelling could so easily get dialed up to “wow, it’s great!” with a more concise edit. With some punchier plot beats, more deliberately chosen “here’s why I’m sad” heart-to-heart moments, and a willingness to sacrifice one level of plot twist for the sake of overall tightness, The Boys could achieve a rhythmic precision that would complement its aesthetic maximalism.

The other thing I can’t help be distracted by is something that The Boys can’t really help: It’s a show that’s at its best when it’s a critique of overwhelming corporate power, and it’s paid for by one of the biggest and most powerful corporations on the planet. Every promotion for The Boys is also a promotion for Amazon Prime, and its success is also a win for Jeff Bezos, a guy so wealthy and powerful that he almost writes himself as an ideal villain for the show.

Like it or not, though, there are only a few places where a show like The Boys can get made, only a few places funding TV production with the money necessary for a show of this scope to exist. So maybe there’s something underhanded and subversive about The Boys’s streaming home, like a cultural bomb got smuggled into the very heart of Amazon’s inescapable brand. But I also couldn’t stop thinking about Stormfront, the new season two character who becomes popular by voicing public criticism of Vought. Ultimately, she’s a Vought property; her popularity only shores up Vought’s foothold in the market share of audience appeal. So while I like The Boys, and the elements that ring truest for me are the ones that speak to corporate greed and exclusionary visions of power, I also can’t help but wonder if Bezos watches the show, and what he thinks about it.

*A version of this article appears in the September 14, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Boys Are Back to Blow Minds, Literally and Figuratively