Spotlight: Stranger Things Season 2

 

Warning: minor spoilers for “Stranger Things” follow.  Read at your own risk.

Ain’t no hype train like the “Stranger Things” hype train.

If shows like “Daredevil” and “House of Cards” put Netflix on the map when it came to the push for original programming from streaming services, “Stranger Things” is the one that put them over the top, as if to say “dude…this is serious business”.  The stellar first season was a massive hit.  And ever since the teaser trailer for season two dropped during the Super Bowl, the hype train has been steadily chugging along.  So the question becomes, does the second season live up to the first?

 

Spoiler alert: bad things happen to Will this season.

 

The first thing many people will likely notice is the difference in pacing.  Compared to season one, season two does a lot more building up and creating tension before anything really happens.  In fact, it’s not until the third episode when things start to get moving.  And this was a common theme I noticed in reviews: the slower pacing.

There seems to be this weird assumption in critic-land that having slower pacing than before is somehow a bad thing.  I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.  In many ways, it’s a good thing for this season.  It gives us some room to breathe, especially when compared to the breakneck pace things moved at in season one.  It also allows us to view these characters when they’re not under constant threat.  We get to watch them live their lives.  And it’s refreshing to just see some of these characters on a normal day, before everything inevitably goes crazy once again.  This season definitely has a larger focus on inter-personal relationships and conflict.

 

It’s especially refreshing to see Joyce Byers under normal circumstances, as she spent pretty much the entire first season as a nervous wreck on the verge of collapse.

 

Now, this does mean that each episode doesn’t necessarily have that cliffhanger hook that makes you want to keep watching, but that’s fine.  This is the second season.  At this point, we should be tuning in because we’re invested in the characters themselves, not because we have to see what comes next.  That’s something I’ve noticed a lot in modern television, and is particularly evident in broadcast television (i.e. not cable or satellite).  Advertisements for new episodes often are built around teasing a “shocking twist” that you’ll “never see coming” and will “blow your mind”.  Cliffhangers aren’t bad by nature, but if they’re used as the primary hook for a show without any substance behind them (such as complex characters), it just feels cheap and soulless to me.

But I digress.  “Stranger Things” season two introduces us to some new characters as well.  First off, we have new kid Maxine (Max for short) and her step-brother Billy, who basically spends the entire season being a massive a-hole.  Because of her step-brother and her family situation, which we learn a bit about later in the season, Max is a more hard-edged character than the other kids, although she does eventually end up following along with them.  And this is one of my only real gripes with this season.  While I appreciate the injection of new blood into the dynamic of the kids, Max and her step-brother don’t really seem to serve much purpose aside from causing tension within the group (although Max does have a pretty badass moment at the end of the season).

 

Sean Astin also stars in this season as Joyce’s new boyfriend. You’ll likely remember him as Sam from “Lord of the Rings” or from “The Goonies”, one of the movies “Stranger Things” took inspiration from.

 

 

Speaking of gripes, the various plot lines in this season may become a point of contention for some, as certain plots end up more fleshed out than others.  There was one in particular for me that fel underdeveloped.  As season two opens, we’re treated to an action scene with an unknown group of people fleeing the police.  It turns out one of them has psychic powers and a connection with Eleven.  It’s a great opener that entices us in with a bit of action.  My problem comes from the fact that this thread isn’t explored until near the end of the season.  There’s only one episode that centers around these people, and its only purpose seems to be to push Eleven in the right direction.

Oh yeah…Eleven’s back.  Spoilers I guess…although if you saw any of the trailers you already knew that.

Despite the complaints I or others may have, no one can doubt that the magic that permeated “Stranger Things” season one is still here.  Even if the beginning’s slower pacing rubs some people the wrong way, the season ends on a very strong note with some great character moments.  I’m always impressed by just how well-written and acted this show is, especially when it comes to the kid characters.  It’s funny too, because apparently when the Duffer brothers were shopping the show around to different studios, the studios wanted to cut the kids characters out entirely.  And now it’s hard to imagine the show without them.  It’s hard to imagine the show without any of the characters we’ve come to know and love.

And that’s the key thing: characters.  The characters are why we’ll return to Hawkins for season three.

Well…that and the spooks.  Everybody loves the spooks.

 

SPOOOOOOOOOOOOKS

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Let’s Talk About Nostalgia

With the release of season two of “Stranger Things” right around the corner (October 27th), it got me thinking about nostalgia.  You know, that warm and fuzzy feeling you get while thinking about pleasant past experiences.  Those who have watched any of “Stranger Things” know that it is a show steeped in nostalgia.  It’s heavily influenced by classic ’80s movies, and takes inspiration from Spielberg, Carpenter, and the like.

You don’t even have to go past the show’s title sequence to see that ’80s influence.

This has become a common theme recently.  Many forms of media…be it books, movies, or video games…have steeped themselves in this wave of nostalgia for the 1980’s.  In fact, the game “Stories Untold” which I wrote about earlier this year has an ’80s veneer over it in the form of old text-based adventure games.  Now, I don’t hate this nostalgia…although I do feel that sometimes it becomes overbearing.  That’s something “Stranger Things” did really well with during its first season.  Despite the obvious ’80s influences, the show never went out of its way to point them out, relegating them to things like movie posters hanging on the wall in the background of a scene or taking story cues from said movies (like the van chase scene near the end of the season which is clearly inspired by “E.T.”).  The most obvious it gets is a scene where the school’s science teacher is explaining to his wife how they did some of the special effects in the movie “The Thing”.

However, there are times where I feel like the ’80s nostalgia is used like a crutch.  The book “Ready Player One” almost falls into this trap.  The premise of the story is that, in a dystopian future setting, kids like Wade Watts spend most of their time in a humongous virtual reality world.  As the book begins, we learn that the creator of this massive virtual reality passed away recently, and with his death left behind an “Easter egg” inside the game.  Whoever finds it first will inherit the creator’s massive wealth and legacy.  Because of the fact that the creator grew up in the 1980’s, this leads to a massive resurgence of ’80s pop culture as players pour over anything they can get their hands on to figure out the clues and find the Easter egg.

 

 

None of this is necessarily a bad thing.  And the book explains the origin of a lot of the ’80s references, especially the ones that are critical to the main plot.  But it teeters dangerously close to the edge of the nostalgia hole, and risks alienating younger readers who have no real connection to ’80s pop culture.  Having grown up in the ’90s, a lot of the references in the book didn’t really do it for me.  The text-adventure game “Zork” is referenced at one point, which I do have a passing familiarity with.  But most of the things I either have only a vague recollection of or I know it in passing.  Having never been steeped in that ’80s culture, part of the appeal was lost on me.

If the book wasn’t well-paced with likable characters and a fun story, the ’80s charm would have been completely wasted on me.  That being said, “Ready Player One” is definitely worth a read.  It’s a dystopian science-fiction story that manages to avoid falling into that cliché trap of lamenting the dangers of technology.

However, there is one modern instance where I really noticed the nostalgia crutch.  And that instance is…”Rogue One”.

 

Hey look, it’s Jyn Erso and Captain…umm…Captain What’s-His-Face.

 

I talked about “Rogue One” before and how I feel like the movie is a mixed bag.  The storytelling is jumbled at times.  Most of the characters aside from Jyn have very little development and aren’t memorable.  It’s part war movie, part Star Wars movie but doesn’t really nail either of those…at least until the second half of the movie.  But one thing that grated on me more than it probably should have was the fan service.  The biggest example of this was early on in the movie.  Our heroes are making their way through the holy city of Jedha when they run into those two guys from the Cantina in “A New Hope”.

You know the guys.  “I don’t like you.  My friend doesn’t like you either.”  Those guys.  They have a random ten-second cameo that adds nothing to the movie aside from making people go “hey I remember that!”

But then like twenty minutes later the entire city is destroyed by a test-firing of the Death Star’s laser.  So how did those two guys escape exactly?  Did they just happen to have a ship they flew away in just before everything was vaporized?

The movie doesn’t stop there either.  There’s a random cameo by C-3PO and R2-D2 later on.  There’s a not-so-subtle reference to Obi-Wan.  And there’s a scene with Darth Vader on Mustafar (the lava planet from “Revenge of the Sith”) that adds nothing to the plot and just regurgitates stuff we already.

And also Vader makes a pun.  So that’s cool…I guess.

My biggest gripe with all of this is that “Rogue One” was often subtitled “A Star Wars Story”, implying that the movie was meant to be standalone.  Except it isn’t, because it very clearly binds itself hand and foot to “A New Hope”.  It kind of makes sense, considering the movie is about stealing the Death Star plans, which helps the Rebel Alliance destroy it in “A New Hope”.  But at the same time, there’s so much stuff in “Rogue One” that feels like it was put there merely to appease the super fans.

Why did Obi-Wan come back to help even though he was in hiding from the Sith?  Because his friend Bail Organa asked him to of course!

Why did the Death Star have a super critical weakness that caused it to blow up from one proton torpedo?  Because Galen Erso purposefully designed that flaw of course!

(To be fair, I actually did enjoy the explanation of the Death Star’s weakness.  It was a nice little detail that filled a plot hole from the older Star Wars movies.)

Honestly I’m surprised there wasn’t a scene with C-3PO and R2-D2 getting on the blockade runner with Princess Leia, just to explain why they’re on the ship at the beginning of “A New Hope”.

At times the movie feels less like its own thing and more like a forced justification for everything that follows.  I could go on and on about “Rogue One”, and I would still say it’s a good movie.  It just isn’t the great movie it should have been.  It relies a bit too much on nostalgia and not enough on its own original content.  And in the end, that makes the movie feel lopsided.

Nostalgia isn’t inherently a bad thing.  It can help us cope with bad periods in our lives by remembering good times and reminding ourselves that things can and will get better.  But nostalgia can also be blinding.  It can blind us to the flaws in our past.  It’s like whenever people reminisce about the 1950’s as the “good ol’ days”, but fail to remember that they were only the “good ol’ days” if you were a straight, white, Christian male.  If you were anything else, your memories of the 1950’s were probably a bit different.

Perspective is a funny thing.  It can grow distorted, showing us things that have been exaggerated or blown out of proportion.  And sometimes it can show us things that weren’t even true.  Perspective is fickle.  And that’s why nostalgia can be dangerous.  Viewing the world through rose-colored glasses is pleasant and fun, but ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away.

If anything, it just lets them sneak up on you and cause more harm than they rightfully should.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

The Woes of Broadcast Shows

To get started, let’s take a look at this promo for an episode of the show Designated Survivor:

 

 

Nothing unusual here right?  Just an average promo for a television show right?  Well that’s sort of my problem with it.

I stopped watching shows on broadcast television a long time ago (the last show I followed was Fringe, and that ended its run four years ago).  My issue is the kind of thing you see in the trailer.  Instead of actually giving us a clue as to what might happen next, it dwells on the “shocking” twist at the end of the mid-season finale.  “The shot that shocked the nation,” it proudly proclaims before going on to tease “who took the bullet?”  Because that’s the kind of hype these shows are built up on.  How many television show promos have you seen tease a plot twist you “won’t see coming”?

For another example, let’s take a look at the ABC series Scandal.  Scandal‘s main premise is about Olivia Pope, who is a “fixer”…that is, someone who gets rid of problems for people who can afford it (namely the rich and powerful).  Let’s take a look at Wikipedia’s summary of season one:

“Season 1 introduced Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and the various members of her firm, as well as President of the United States Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn) and his chief of staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry). Season 1 focused on the lives of the team members, the relationship between Olivia and the President (her former employer), and the mystery surrounding Amanda Tanner’s (Liza Weil) involvement with the White House, among other cases the team solved.”

It doesn’t tell us much about what happens in season one, but it doesn’t need to.  Scandal clearly started out as a procedural type of show with some recurring elements.  I’ve never watched it myself, but that’s the impression I get from the summary.  For contrast, let’s take a look at season four’s summary:

“The first half of the season focuses on Jake’s arrest for the death of Jerry Grant after Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator. Rowan continues to try to make everyone believe Jake is guilty, which inspires Olivia to find out the truth for herself. After forcing Tom to reveal Rowan as his operator, Fitz, Jake, and Olivia make a plan to arrest Rowan. Unfortunately, the plan fails, causing Rowan to shut down B613 and start eliminating B613 agents. Olivia tries to kill Rowan when she confronts him, but he manages to flee. Abby is now the White House Press Secretary, and is struggling with gaining the respect of Cyrus and Fitz, because they choose to demean her by calling her “Red” instead of Abby. Later in the season, Abby finds herself stressed even more by the presence of her abusive ex-husband, who has been nominated for Virginia State Senator, and she enlists Leo Bergen to help ruin his campaign. Quinn has stayed in contact with both Abby and Huck, in addition to trying to find Olivia.”

Did you get that?  No?  Me neither.  It just sounds like a mess of different plot points.  And that’s not even the entire summary.

Now, to be fair, any show with an overarching plot can sound confusing if you just jump in four seasons deep.  But even so, Scandal‘s season four just sounds like it’s over-stuffed with plot elements.  Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator, but Rowan is the real operator!  They try to get Rowan arrested but the plan fails!  Meanwhile Abby has to deal with office sexism!

Even just watching the preview for the next episode of Designated Survivor gives you an idea of how quickly things can get out of hand.  Pro tip: if you’re only halfway through the first season of your political espionage thriller show, maybe don’t make the Vice President of the goddamn United States your bad guy.  Because honestly, where do you go from there?

And that’s my big problem.  It seems that network television spends most of its time trying to out-“OMG” the competition rather than producing good, solid content.

From 2004 to 2010, Lost demonstrated the potential of serialized television shows.  It wasn’t really until Lost that network television really started to shift in that direction.  The groundwork was laid by shows like X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it was Lost that really brought it all together.  Sure, the show was (and still is) mocked for not giving any real answers to its mysteries, but its strength lay in how fleshed out its characters were.  Over the course of six seasons, you got to know a lot about their lives…almost too much.  But Lost was also known for all the crazy plot twists that happened.  They were all the crazy “water-cooler moments” that people talked about the day after an episode premiered.  And it seems that’s what network television took note of, so now broadcast shows are just a race to get the biggest “OMG” water-cooler moment of the year.

I mean, it might actually be working.  For all the guff I gave Scandal‘s fourth season, it apparently has the highest Nielson ratings of all of them.  But the story is different for Designated Survivor.  On average, the ratings have been dropping ever since the premiere episode.  This plot twist obsessed mindset is not going to be sustainable forever.

One of the most talked about shows last year was Stranger Things, a show that was exclusively on Netflix.  Broadcast television has always had an edge because it’s free, at least in the sense that you don’t have to pay a bill every month to watch.  But as streaming becomes more prevalent and more affordable, broadcast TV might be on the way out.  Instead of having to wait and see what happens next episode, you can just click “next episode” (although you’ll still likely have to wait for new seasons to come out).

I talked about this a little bit when I spotlighted Person of Interest, but one of my major issues with broadcast television is that there’s so much filler content, even in shows that claim to be serialized.  And this is because broadcast networks are obsessed with ratings, which means that they give shows these twenty-odd episode seasons that they are required to fill up.  Now, obviously, it’s nearly impossible to make all those episodes about an over-arching plot without it quickly growing convoluted and incomprehensible, so most shows opt to have filler episodes surrounding the main story.  This is what Fringe did, and while I still very much enjoyed the show, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if the show had been on a non-broadcast network or had been a streaming show.

This format isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s very stifling in a creative sense.  And unless broadcast television changes its ways, I don’t see much of a future for it in the age of on-demand streaming.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Spotlight: Stranger Things Season 1

People have a lot of nostalgia for the 1980’s.  And why shouldn’t they?  It was the era of Spielberg.  It was the era of movies like E.T. and Back to the Future.  Stephen King was writing books like ItThe Mist, and Cujo.  It saw the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which is widely credited for saving the video game market after it crashed.  Plenty of modern pop-culture nods are taken from the 1980’s, and even the book Ready Player One has nothing but reverence for the decade.

But nostalgia is a tricky thing.  If we aren’t careful, it can turn our vision rose-colored, obscuring any unpleasant details of the past.  While we owe the 1980’s a lot in terms of pop-culture, nothing is perfect.  E.T. and The Thing might be fondly remembered from the decade as powerhouse movies, but there was plenty of garbage to go along with it.  And while Mario and Zelda are revered video game franchises that continue to this day, there were plenty of games that came out that were cheap cash grabs with little in the way of intelligent design choices and frustrating controls.  Not to mention that back then there wasn’t much in the way of seeking out reviews for games, so often kids were stuck with what they got.

This is the line that Stranger Things straddles.  Stranger Things is a Netflix original series that released this past July, and follows the residents of a small town that deal with mysterious happenings that begin with the disappearance of young Will Byers.  The first season is eight episodes long, and from the start the influence of the ’80s is obvious.  The show opens with a group of kids playing Dungeons and Dragons.  After being told that they have to quit for the night (as it is a school night) the group split up and head home.  However, Will Byers isn’t seen again after that night.  He disappears after seeing something strange that chases him through the woods near his house.  It is his disappearance that strings everything along throughout this first season.

And I must say, what a damn good showing.

There is a reason why Stranger Things basically rocketed to the top of many Netflix queues.  It’s smartly paced and expertly written.  The characters are well acted and fleshed out over the eight-episode span.  And even despite the dark tone the show has a lot of the time, it manages to be incredibly charming.  This is especially due to the kids.  If you remember Freaks and Geeks, that show from the end of the ’90s, it feels similar to that.  It has that same charm of being part of a group of outcasts, the “freaks” so to speak.  Stranger Things even has the bully characters, who will show up every now and then simply to give the kids a hard time.

In this way, the kids feel essential to the tone of the show, which is ironic because part of the reason Stranger Things wound up as a Netflix show was because every studio the Duffer brothers (the creators of the show) pitched the show to wanted to cut out the kids as characters and make it more about the adults.  After having watched the show, I can’t imagine it without them.  I’m glad the Duffer brothers waited until they found a place that would honor their original vision.

But what about the adults?  How do they fare compared to the kids?  I would say just as well.  Everyone in this show seems to fit into their roles, even if their characters aren’t initially likable (the sheriff seems a little grouchy at first, but you quickly come to realize that he’s just reserved due to tragedy in his past).  I was particularly struck by Winona Ryder.  She plays Joyce Byers, Will’s mother, and gives a very convincing performance of a mother who’s just lost her child.  Throughout the season (especially the early episodes) we see her breaking down many times, especially so when she starts experiencing some strange events.  Predictably no one believes her and they’re convinced she’s just making it up in her head to cope with the grief.  This affects Joyce greatly, and her pain feels genuine.  It’s not easy to act a role like that without it feeling like you’re either underplaying it too much or being too melodramatic.  It’s a fine line, but Ryder walks it gracefully.  She stands out as one of the best parts of the season along with the kids.  All the other adults fit their roles, but I’m going to avoid talking about them to cut down on spoilers.

As I said earlier the show’s pacing is nearly pitch-perfect.  Each episode is briskly paced, keeping you engaged with what’s going on without feeling like it overstays its welcome.  They also keep handing you little bits and pieces of the mystery to keep you enticed while leaving you just enough in the dark that you want to learn more.  It never feels like X-Files or Lost, shows where you couldn’t be blamed for thinking they would never explain anything because they spend so much time building up the mystery.  Part of this is due to the difference in formats.  With Stranger Things being only eight episodes, they can’t spend a whole lot of time being mysterious.  They have to grab you, entice you, but give you enough to feel satisfying in its short run.  Compare that to the twenty-odd episodes in each season of X-Files and Lost, and you see how those shows can feel like they’re being dragged on too long.

Now that I’ve spent so much time hyping up how good the show is, the question becomes is there anything bad about it?  Well I can safely say that most of my gripes are minor.  Sometimes the special effects can look a little hokey and the CGI-ness of them is obvious.  One of the episode cliffhangers is resolved within the first five minutes of the next episode, despite the fact that the cliffhanger suggests that the solution should be much more difficult than that.

My only major gripe is with one of the characters.  It has nothing to do with the acting, just more with the character’s purpose.

Minor spoilers follow below.  You have been warned.

Early on in the season we are told about Lonnie, Joyce’s ex-husband.  He’s introduced as a small red herring for the characters, as the sheriff initially suggests that most of the time when children go missing they’re simply with a relative or someone they know.  Will’s older brother Jonathan goes to visit Lonnie in around episode three I think, but Lonnie shows up later on in the season to help console Joyce.  At first, when we hear about Lonnie, it sounds like he’s a total jerk-off who mocked Will for liking things like Dungeons and Dragons.  But when we actually see him in this later episodes, he seems like he might actually be a little more caring then we’ve been led to believe.  But this is where the show drops the ball.  Instead of doing anything interesting with him, all it seems to lead up to is a dramatic shouting match between him and Joyce, the only purpose of which is to cement in our minds the fact that she is the better parent of the two.  It feels like unnecessary drama that could have been filtered out.

Spoilers over.

Aside from that, I can’t really find anything bad to say about the show’s debut season.  It manages to be charming, enticing, and satisfying all at the same time.  And it sets up a few enticing tidbits at the end for the next season, which is said to be releasing sometime next year.  All that remains to be seen is if the show will fall victim to the “sophomore slump”, which is a term that means that the second season of a television show is often a bit of a letdown.  And when a show like this has such a strong first season, such a thing could be devastating for it.

But all that’s in the future.  If you’re looking for a good mystery with well-developed characters and elements of horror, Stranger Things is right up your alley.  If your alley is dark, spooky, and full of monsters that is.  Whatever man, I won’t judge.

 

That’s all I have for this time.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.