Stranger Things – Grade: A
Every so often a series comes along that’s so good and unexpected that’s like a bolt of lighting to the head — and this year that series is Stranger Things on Netflix.
Stranger Things takes place in the fictional small town of Hawkins, Indiana in 1983 where one dark and stormy night a boy goes missing while at the same time a mysterious girl known as “11” or “El” for short (Millie Brown) appears. El isn’t quite normal — she can only speak in very short words/sentences, is wearing only hospital garb and, most of weirdly of all, has telekinetic powers. On her trail is Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) who was trying to use El’s powers for his own purposes and wants his property returned. But on El’s side are a group of misfit boys who’re looking for their missing friend while at the same time discovering just what El’s capable of.
Best of all Stranger Things stars the wonderful Winona Ryder playing the missing kids mother, David Harbour as the town sheriff and Natalia Dyer as Nancy, Shannon Purser as Barb, Charlie Heaton as Jonathan…
I think that’s the first thing that Stranger Things co-creators the Duffer Brothers got right — they had a great cast and great characters. And let that to be a lesson to other series creators out there: if you have a great cast and great characters you’re more than halfway to having a classic series.
And that’s exactly what Stranger Things is: a modern day classic.
Stranger Things has taken flack from some corners saying that it’s a nostalgia driven show. That it borrows too freely from what’s come before and isn’t that original. Which is totally true. But only if those same people who ding Stranger Things for taking elements from what’s come before are also willing to ding things like the band The Rolling Stones from feely borrowing from the blues or Nirvana from punk.
I’ve never understood why when bands “borrow” from the past and are successful they can be considered top acts, but when movies or TV series do the same thing — well, apparently those are only supposed to be completely original, new and unique.
Which is total hooey. Is there anything these days that’s totally new and unique?
Sure, Stranger Things borrows elements from the works of Stephen King and some of the visual stylings of Steven Spielberg — though much less than talk and internet marketing would lead you to believe. It also uses elements from slasher horror movies of the 1980s, especially how some of their scenes are constructed, and a bit from the manga/film Akira too.
Which, admittedly, could be the recipe for disaster. Except here what the Duffer Brothers did with Stranger Things was rather than to just copy those elements they created something new with them. Stranger Things shares no direct link with any Stephen King story but it feels like it could, and the same goes with the films of Steven Spielberg too. There are certainly visual cues from Spielberg’s movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Stand By Me here, but on the whole Stranger Things is its own thing that’s building upon previous works of others.
Just like The Rolling Stones and just like Nirvana and just like 1,000 other pop culture things have built new things on the previous works of others.
My only concern with Stranger Things is that recently Neflix has strongly hinted that a second season of the series will soon be in the works. My concern is that the first season ended so perfectly that it’s this brilliant encapsulated story with just the right amount of questions answered and, more importantly, unanswered. I’d hate to see the Duffer Brothers come back and do a season two of the series that was a let down to the first. I’m not sure I want or need all the questions raised in the first season to be answered. Some things are better left to the imagination.
Then again, what do I know? Here I am giving suggestions about a series I hadn’t even heard about a few months ago that knocked my socks off this summer. My guess is that whatever the Duffer Brothers do next is going to be interesting regardless of which angle they take to tell it.
Now I feel like I need to go re-watch/read the Akira series and the movie The Mist again to keep on this Stranger Things high!
Angie Tribeca season 2 – Grade: B
The second season of the TBS series Angie Tribeca finished this week. I enjoy this goofy series that’s in the vein of an Airplane or Naked Gun but I think I enjoyed the first season a bit more. The second season of the Angie Tribeca told a season long throughout all the episodes which felt a little forced to me. The series is essentially a comedy where goofy fun takes precedence over plot but having a season long story means that plot becomes important.
I think where Angie Tribeca works well is when the episodes are just off the wall humor where literally anything can happen between scene to scene let alone episode to episode, so to have to follow the plot to a story was a bit constraining.
A third season of Angie Tribeca is set to debut sometime in 2017 and I’m genuinely interested to see where the series goes from here.
Animal Kingdom season 1 – Grade: B-
The last year has seen a slew of darker series that all takes place in California. Always before California series used to focus on the sun, beaches and fun of the state but lately a lot of series have been taking place in a much different version of California. These bleaker series focus on a dirty, and dangerous place that’s as likely to give you a staph infection from swimming in the polluted waves as send you home in a body bag when you’re caught in the middle of a drug/guns/whatever deal gone wrong.
These are series I call “California Dark” like True Detective, Flaked, Sons of Anarchy and Animal Kingdom, the first season of which wrapped up last week on TNT.
Animal Kingdom, based on the Australian movie of the same name, follows the Cody family who live in Oceanside, California and make their living by stealing and robbing from unsuspecting folks. Thrown into this den is “J” (Finn Cole), forced to live with his uncles and a matriarch nicknamed “Smurf” (Ellen Barkin) who controls her sons through manipulation, deceit and guile. If J is somewhat an innocent then his uncles are hardened criminals who’ll take whatever they can get their hands on and kill whomever when necessary. But after they accidentally kill an off-duty police officer moonlighting as a security guard, the crew is thrown in disarray since they no longer have enough loot to sustain themselves and now have the police actively looking to bust up the gang after one of their own was murdered.
Animal Kingdom started off strong enough for me to watch the entire series, but I have to admit I lost interest in the show somewhere about the halfway mark. To me the series existed in their weird netherworld between two styles of show. On the one hand there’s similar series like True Detective that goes into the deep end of dark and almost play out like a horror series. On the other hand there’s network series like CSI or Chicago P.D. that are so light and unrealistic they’re soap operas with cops. And I think that Animal Kingdom fits somewhere in between these two styles. There’s a hard edge to the show, but it’s also very light in other ways.
Animal Kingdom plays out like these lite shows when it comes to the crimes the Cody family pulls off. The two big ones of the season, the first where they rob a jewelry mart of expensive watches and the final where they steal bails of cash from the US military, play out like scenes from a James Bond movie. Where there are so many intricate steps to the plan that if just one thing would go wrong the entire crew would spend the rest of their lives in jail. And in a series like Animal Kingdom while things do go wrong, they go wrong in a very TV like way.
It doesn’t help matters that in Animal Kingdom the stakes are never made quite clear for the J character. In the movie he’s in mortal danger from his uncles when he’s the only witness to the murder of two police officers they committed. In the TBS series he seems to be in danger, but not much. Here, it’s like the uncles may kill J, or they may send him out for ice cream.
I think where the movie version succeeded so well was in that palpable sense of danger for J. He’s just a kid and doesn’t really know what he’s gotten himself into — or even when he does he really doesn’t have anywhere else to go. But the TV version replaces that danger with a lot of flashy toys for the Cody family and minor heists as the uncles try to keep themselves in the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to.
I think when the TV version of Animal Kingdom succeeded was when it went dark. I especially liked Shawn Hatosy who played the unhinged just out of jail and very dangerous uncle “Pope” very well. He’s the kind of character you wouldn’t want to be around but you’d be afraid to leave his side lest he get it into his head that you have something against him and come after you one night when you least expect it. And he does something so unexpected in the second to last episode of the first season it made me shutter.
Animal Kingdom has already been renewed for a second season on TNT set to debut sometime in 2017. Depending on what else is on at the time it premiers I may, or may not watch the second season of the show. It’s not bad but it’s not something people are going to be talking about for years to come either.
Luke Cage promo
“The world is coming undone — Imperial flags reign across the galaxy.”
Out this Tuesday is the final book to list all of the Topps Star Wars trading cards from the 1970s and 1980s; Star Wars: Return of the Jedi: The Original Topps Trading Card Series, Volume Three. You may have to be a die hard fan of Star Wars, the original trilogy and of trading cards to want this book, but luckily I am. 😉
The Reading & Watch List
This week in pop-culture history
- 1954: James Cameron, writer/director of Terminator, Aliens and Avatar is born
- 1986: The Fly opens in theaters
- 1987: The Monster Squad premiers