The Boys: the explosive superhero show that’s become as thrilling as Game of Thrones
Big year for the TV penis. There was Euphoria, and the big hog at the centre of And Just Like That. There was the talking penis in Pam & Tommy, which frankly deserved more airtime, and the dick-puppeteering that opened Jackass Forever. And then there’s a penis in episode one of the new series of The Boys (from Friday, Amazon Prime Video), which … well, even if I could tell you what happens with and to the penis, I don’t think I could in the word count I have. It has drastically made me rethink my relationship with my own penis. Let’s just leave it at that. I don’t want to talk about my penis any more before six to eight weeks of therapy.
It is probably time for us to confront the idea that The Boys is good. I know, I didn’t see this coming either. The first series – a dark-in-a-juvenile-way show where superheroes exist, are celebrities, but also have hidden horrors – had a number of great set-pieces, a decent enough eight-episode storyline, and really relied on Karl Urban growling the C-word every few minutes. It was fine. This could be as much about the platform as the content: one thing Prime seems to have struggled with is nailing a series premise, and The Boys looked as if it might go in the bin marked “Hunters”. The Man in the High Castle had its fans, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is probably the best thing they’ve done, and The Grand Tour will always have a rabid, jeans-and-sheux viewership, but while Netflix can alchemise a hit series simply by putting it on its homepage and making the algorithm convince you that you need to watch it immediately (“You must watch the entirety of Nailed It! before everyone else alive, for some reason!”), Prime has lagged behind.
The Boys is trying to reverse that trend, starting by being good and augmenting that by being persistent. We’re on series three now (of the actual show: in March, the animated anthology spin-off Diabolical dropped, there’s another X-Men college series spin-off in the works, and there is enough lore and backstory on YouTube and the like to fill an entire conference centre with people in leather dusters shouting “C—!” at Karl Urban), and it has firmly jumped from a skyscraper and landed in a power-stance on its feet. The world of The Boys is a dense one; a platform for a story or stories to squirm and skitter in a hundred different possible directions, and it makes the absolute most of its R-rating to make people’s heads and bodies graphically explode as much as possible.
I know we’ve all forgotten it happened, but there was a show a few years ago called Game of Thrones, and spiritually The Boys has borrowed a lot of the good stuff from that without all the tits-and-dragons bits: villains have redemption arcs and goodies become baddies, no character is too beloved to be safe from a violent death, the backstabbing and politicking is as good as the vibrant gore, and sometimes someone dies in a way that makes you choke for a moment and pause the TV. Series three, so far, has all of that, and some flashbacks.
But what I enjoy most about series three is that The Boys is now so comfortable in its own skin that it can make increasingly spicy choices with the culture that it lampoons. In a fairly “safe” era when people daren’t say anything in case hordes of folk disagree with or cancel them, this feels genuinely surprising. There’s a lot of good, modern subplot here: series two’s main villain was revealed to be a Nazi with a fiercesome online fanbase even after they were unmasked as evil; the faceless megacorporation in charge of the superheroes is obsessed with ratings and how a story will play with a fanbase rather than whether it’s good or not; there’s a very astute take on the wave of corporate “we hear you” back-patting that happened in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
The Boys might be about capes and exploding heads and Karl Urban, years later, still struggling with an English accent as if it’s a cat he’s trying to get into a carrier to take to the vets, but it’s managing to do all that while wryly saying things that a lot of supposedly clear-eyed, mirror-up-to-society shows right now are shying away from. There are a few blips – it’s still, visually, too blue; it does that very American TV thing of making a bad character be completely kind and normal to a child, to make us remember that, hey, they’re just human – but other than that, catch me at BoysCon 2023 in a floor-length leather duster. I’ll be the guy telling everyone about my penis trauma.