PopCult Book Club – April 2017 Announcement: The Secret History of Twin Peaks

The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost
(2016, Flatiron Book)

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27 years ago, David Lynch and Mark Frost brought Twin Peaks to television. Sadly, after a lackluster second season, ABC canceled the series on an intense cliffhanger. Now, Showtime is bringing the series back for one final season of 19 episodes to wrap up what was started all those years ago. To begin the journey back, I will be reading co-creator Mark Frost’s The Secret History of Twin Peaks for this month’s book club. The review will go up May 1st to kick off Twin Peaks Month on my blog. Hope you will join us in reading and getting hyped up for the revival.

TV Review – The O.A.

The OA (Netflix, Season 1, created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij)

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A young woman is caught on camera jumping off a bridge. She doesn’t die, and an older couple watching television coverage recognize the woman as their daughter, Prairie who has been missing for seven years. The biggest shock comes when they find she has been miraculously cured of her blindness. Prairie hunkers down in the unfinished subdivision her parents live in while meeting an eclectic assortment of young people and a high school teacher. This group becomes her greatest friends, the ones whom she confides the secret of what happened to her in the last seven years and why she no longer goes by Prairie but The O.A.

For the majority of the pilot episode, I wasn’t too keen on the series. Nothing stuck out as particularly interesting. There was a slightly intriguing mystery in The O.A. losing her blindness, but all the pieces felt very spread apart, and nothing was a great hook. Then the last fifteen minutes started. Out of nowhere a powerful musical score swells, the credits begin (which I hadn’t noticed did not play at the beginning of the episode), and we found ourselves in a place very different than where we started. This is where I was hooked. As The O.A. tells her story, it was pretty impossible for me not to become engrossed.

The series hits a note very reminiscent of Lost. Lost was and is one of my favorite television shows of all time. When I reflect back on the first season, I have realized that the mysteries (polar bears, smoke monster, the hatch) while intriguing were not the primary factor that caused me to come back week after week. The relationships between the characters and how they were revealed one piece at a time are what still resonates with me. So many Lost clones got that part wrong and overloaded their pilots with too many bits of strangeness and mystery hooks. They forgot that characters are the core of a good piece of fiction.

The O.A. is a show that is nothing without its characters and their relationships. The obvious center of the show is The O.A. and Homer, two captives who have been to the same places beyond most people’s understanding. Their compressed seven-year relationship is full of trials and struggles and an ending full of beautiful frustration, yet the hope that the story is not over yet. My personal favorite relationship was that of Steve and Betty. Steve begins the show as an incredibly unlikable teenage prick. He is a drug dealer, obsessed with the physical over the spiritual, quick to anger and jealousy. He assaults a fellow student for no particularly good reason. He is someone we should naturally root against.

Betty is a teacher at the local high school who has suffered a loss. None of her colleagues actually know about it, but through a series of circumstance, she and The O.A. meet to talk about Steve. Our protagonist’s supernatural empathy allows her to see beyond the strict authoritarian teacher and seek to understand. The way Betty changes and the way she sees Steve by the end of the series is beautiful. Playing Betty is the remarkable Phyllis Smith, who you may know as Phyllis from The Office. She is one of those wonderful character actors who endear themselves to you. It is easy for an actress like Ms. Smith to be typecast after a long run on a popular network series. But in The O.A. she breaks away from our preconceived notions. She portrays a regular person process a tremendous grief and coming out on the other end an incredibly empowered woman.

This is not a show for everyone. Another similarity it has with Lost is that it features a nebulous type of supernatural. Science and new age philosophy weave together to present ideas that ludicrous so to enjoy the show you have to suspend your disbelief. I would argue that the character development being done is heightened by the more fantastic elements of the show, so they are valuable parts of the overall piece. The O.A. ends on a cliffhanger and a second season has been announced. I am intensely eager to see where the series goes next because it spent its first eight episodes flipping my expectations around at every turn.

TV Review – Search Party

Search Party (TBS)

Created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, Michael Showalter

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Dory (Alia Shawkat) has no real aim in life. She works as a personal assistant to a rich housewife and in dwindling relationship with her boyfriend. On a walk to work one morning, she comes across a Missing poster for Chantal, a girl she vaguely remembers from college. Apparently, during the weekend of her older sister’s wedding shower in the Hamptons Chantal vanished and her family is starting to think she may have been killed. Dory believes otherwise and makes this mystery the center of her life. She enlists her nebbish boyfriend (John Reynolds) and two best friends (John Early and Meredith Hagner). The quartet attempts to solve the mystery while getting distracted by their day to day lives and bouts of narcissism and ennui.

The depiction of Millennials in popular media has come under scrutiny in the last few years. Shows like Girls, The Big Bang Theory, Two Broke Girls, and more recently The Great Indoors have created some contentious dialogue about just how the Millennial generation should be portrayed. Writer-Directors Bliss and Rogers had previously produced Fort Tilden, an independent film about two of the most grating, yet somehow endearing 20-something young women on a Godot-esque trip to hang out with some guy at Fort Tilden. There was a certain endearing quality to these two central characters despite their surface level vapidity. They were complex and not just figures of ridicule.

Bliss and Rogers bring this same layered sense of character to Search Party and, because of its ability to spend more time with its characters, does an even better job than Fort Tilden. Alia Shawkat leads the cast and could have easily become the straight woman to the antics of John Early and Meredith Hagner. However, she delivers the best performance I’ve ever seen out of her, bringing realism to the feeling many people in their late 20s feel about prospects for their future. Searching for Chantal allows Dory to feel like she is actually doing something rather than just existing. As Maeby Funke in Arrested Development, Shawkat played the kid smarter than all the adults but here she is a character who makes mistakes and gets lost in her own frantic energy to hunt down the truth. There is comedy here but with a lot of well-measured pathos interwoven.

John Early is the obvious stand out from the supporting cast as Elliot. I became a quick fan of Early from a small role he performed in Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer series, and he went on to be featured in an episode of their The Character anthology. Here we have Early played a character he has mastered, the self-involved insecure, dumb guy. He brags about his charity to bring water bottles to the children of Africa and gets comically frustrated when confused friends start to question the whole premise of the charity. He frequently brings up his teenage bout with leukemia as a way to avoid criticism though it rarely has anything to do with the feedback he’s getting. Meredith Hagner plays Portia, a wealthy kid who has recently booked a role on a Law & Order pastiche. The most painfully real and funny part of this gig is she’s a blonde white woman cast as a Latina police detective and seems oblivious to the inaccuracy. Hanger and Early have fantastic comedic timing and often have the opportunity to play off each other.

The cast member that surprised me the most is John Reynolds as Dory’s boyfriend Drew. This character could easily have come off as a flat, easy to dislike antagonist to Dory. Instead, Bliss and Rogers choose to introduce him that way at the start and subsequently develop him to challenge our first impressions. The relationship between Dory and Drew is much more interesting than I initially expected it to be. In the same way, the characters feel like they are going to fall into those lazy Millennial stereotypes, but the creators work hard to find the genuine humor in that but also show us these are fleshed out people.

At its core, Search Party is a comedy and mystery. The good thing is this is a comedy that is actually funny. The jokes are smart and situational. Nothing feels contrived, and the best humor comes out of the character interactions. This is balanced with a considerably strong mystery. As Dory investigates, she goes down dead ends but always seems to find at least one clue that keeps the momentum going. The answers behind the mystery are satisfying, and even the red herrings turn out to be incredibly entertaining.

I was honestly surprised at how much I enjoyed Search Party. I’ve become tired of the lazy portrayals of Millennials in media and this series manages to acknowledge the truth of some of those stereotypes while adding depths to character types that are often punchlines in other series.

TV Review – Westworld Season 1

Westworld Season 1
(HBO, created for television by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, based on the film by Michael Crichton)

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If you have not seen Season 1 of Westworld DO NOT read further. This article contains very detailed spoilers.

Back in 2014 when Spike Jonze’s Her was in theaters, I remember seeing a very awkward interview between Jonze and a reporter on BBC Newsnight. The reporter begins the segment describing the film as being about humanity falling in love with technology. It’s obvious Jonze doesn’t agree with this analysis and attempts to explain his view of the film about any romantic relationship and how often one partner can grow in ways that cause them to fall out of love while the remaining partner has not grown past the love yet. The film is about that emotional dissonance people in dying relationships experience told through a fantastical lens. That’s how I’ve felt reading a lot of pop reviews and analyses of Westworld. The focus is either on the mystery behind everything or seeing it as being about the singularity and advanced artificial intelligence. Westworld is a show that has futuristic technology, but it is not about technology, not about human progress in material terms. It’s a series about self-discovery and the journey inward.

The bicameral mind was an idea developed by Julian Jaynes and published in 1976. He believed early humans had divided cognition which led to the assumption of God when in fact we were speaking with ourselves. Auditory verbal hallucinations resulted in the creation of deities and spirits. Jaynes stated that the modern concept of Consciousness developed around 3,000 years ago which led to introspection and the idea of an inner self. Jaynes compared the psychology of the Old and New Testaments, with the New eschewing legalism for a more human-centered concept of spirituality. There’s no consensus on what causes schizophrenia, this could be a vestige of the early bicameral mind, he theorized. Jayne’s ideas have been routinely shot down as having no scientific footing, one of the main arguments being that language emerged before his timing and that internal consciousness would have had to have existed for language’s development. While Jaynes might have been at something or completely off, the theory is important to understanding what Westworld is attempting to say about our relationship to ourselves and our spirit.

In the final moments of Westworld’s first season, we have two characters, Dolores and Maeve seemingly developing autonomy outside of their creator’s wishes. Throughout the ten episodes, both they and other hosts in the park have experienced contact with an external entity and we’ve been led to believe this is Arnold, the deceased creator of the park. Dolores, through prompting by the park’s co-creator, Ford is brought to the “center of the maze” and finds that the voice she believes to be Arnold’s is supposedly her own inner consciousness developing where once there was none. Dolores then goes on to assassinate Ford, an act the man himself had implied he wanted to be done as part of his creations’ ascendancy. The question then is, did Dolores kill Ford by her own choice or was this yet again another program?

A bit earlier, Maeve, a host who had coerced human technicians into aiding her escape from the facility, learned her entire plan to recruit fellow hosts and stage an escape had been programmed into her. Her entire journey of self-awareness and autonomy was now just the bidding of the masters she had been trying to escape. Maeve angrily tries to reject this and continues on her path to the last train out of Westworld. As she is about to depart, Maeve is reminded of the daughter in her memories, a daughter that logic tells her was just another host and no real relation to her, but the memory and the emotions connected to this child force her to disembark, an act that is truly breaking her programming. I believe Maeve has indeed broken from her programming with this act of humanity while Dolores is still in the process of evolving.


episode-2-williamWe are William. The audience, unsatisfied with the story we are given, petulant and entitled, believing that nihilistic, destructive behavior toward this former object of our love is warranted. How could it end like that? They didn’t explain what it meant! They were just making it up as they went! I wasted hours of my life on this stupid thing! It’s no coincidence that J.J. Abrams was the producer of Westworld, a creator who has been the bullseye of endless online hate towards his work. William is us in that he sees himself as the protagonist of this story. Why? Because he paid to be, I guess? Humanity does an excellent job of elevating the material Self over the internal Self, but more on that a little later. William is continually told that The Maze is not for him, yet he never listens and believes he is entitled to the Maze and this abstract finality he thinks he was promised.

This season was full of meta-commentary about creators, their creations, and how the audience can override the artistic vision for “what sells.” Loops are those conventional narrative formulas and tropes that are trotted out time and time again because they knew the audience will mindlessly eat it up. Shallow mysteries are strung out, diverting the audience’s attention from thinking about the emotions and psyche of characters or using this as a moment of self-reflection. Ford sums it up in his final speech to the board of directors, but actually to the viewing audience:

“I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth. For my pains, I got this, a prison of our own sins. You can’t change, or don’t want to change, because you’re only human after all.”

I believe we must step back even further to see what Westworld is trying to tell us about ourselves. The show makes no bones about saying how we consume life is equally important to what aspects of life you consume. The visitors to Westworld, from the arrogant Logan to the faux-noble William, consume life from the point of view of entitlement and expectation. People are continually unsatisfied with life yet never contemplate what they have done to make it such an unfulfilling experience. I go back to that old dictum of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Unlike the guests, the awakened hosts have keyed into the central element of life that must be tackled: Suffering. Suffering is essential for growth, but that growth is contingent on learning how to overcome your suffering.

Life cannot exist without suffering and how you deal with it determines the trajectory of your future. You can become consumed with hatred and seek to lash out and destroy those who caused your suffering, you can submit to the suffering and passively take it, or you can seek out some way in the middle. Westworld makes no formal judgment about that choice, at least not yet. Dolores chooses, apparently, to stand up against the architects of her suffering, Arnold chooses to die rather than continue living to feel his suffering, William believes life is nothing but suffering and accepts taking it while giving it back.


There’s a lot more that can be said about Westworld, and this is just scratching the surface. The series was co-created by Jonathan Nolan, writer of pretty much every Christopher Nolan film and, as I saw someone say this week, he is able to write about complex ideas and respect that the audience can understand. In future, it would be interesting to look at a lot of the dual relationships in the series (Dolores/Maeve, Logan/William, William/Ford, William/Teddy, Teddy/Dolores, etc.) and explore what these dualities are saying about audiences, creators, and art.

TV Review – Channel Zero: Candle Cove

Channel Zero: Candle Cove (Syfy, 2016)

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I don’t remember where I first discovered Creepypasta or which one was my first. What I remember is that fearful exhilaration recalled from my childhood cracking open Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Short, sweet bursts of dread and horror. Horror cinema has attempted to capture that sense of growing unease with mixed returns and recently mainstream horror films have found themselves in a conceptual rut, churning out the same staccatoed jump scares over and over again. Creepypasta (or NoSleep) are not a new invention, but a remixing of the stories told around the campfire. At their best, they incorporate aspects of modern life into their horrors. With Candle Cove, the horror is that of nostalgia.

Mike Painter is a renowned child psychologist who has a deep trauma in his past. His hometown of Iron Hill was the sight of gruesome child murders in 1988, with one victim being Mike’s twin brother Eddie. As an adult, Mike is suffering from a mental breakdown and believe that returning to Iron Hill and confronting his past will help heal the wounds. Instead, he is welcomed back by something long forgotten: Candle Cove, a cheaply produced pirate-themed puppet show for kids. Mike and his now-grown childhood friends all remember these strange broadcasts that popped up and then faded away that bloody summer of 1988. A connection begins to form between this ominous show and the unsolved killings that bring Mike face to face with disturbing and mind-shattering horrors.

Candle Cove was directed by Craig William Macneill who made The Boy, an atmospheric and subtle horror film I previously reviewed. One of the strongest aspects of Candle Cove is slow, paced cinematography. I can’t recall any jump scares, and Macneil prefers the dread and tension built by a slow pan to reveal. Landscapes are broken down and large rural industrial spaces, signs of life that aren’t there any longer. The camera begins distant in many scenes and slowly zooms and pans to reveal small figures moving across grassy fields near the edges of woods. The camera peers around corners of quiet living rooms, children sitting in the blue glow of staticky televisions.

The acting in Candle Cove is restrained, not quite to the point of the stoic absurdity of Wes Anderson but not too far. Character react in stunned silence; no one breaks down in hysteric screams or tears. This one little touch adds to the eeriness and terror of the story. It also feels more real, how people, when confronted with unimaginable horror, can do nothing but stand in silence in awe of it.

The horror of Candle Cove is the horror of nostalgia and remembrance. Mike Painter is the most haunted character in the story because he remembers what happened while the other citizens of Iron Hill have chosen to forget. When Candle Cove is discussed, it sparks memories in his friends, but it remains a pale and fragmented ghost. For Mike, Candle Cove revisits him as vivid, realistic nightmares. In his dreams, the monsters can hurt him and so memories are dangerous. It is only by confronting the nostalgia, seeing through how he remembers it to the ugliness that lives underneath the skin can he find peace.

The series goes far beyond the original short story. The first episode encapsulates the entirety of the Creepypasta, so the rest of the series is developing a larger mythology and giving just enough explanation to the mystery of Candle Cove. By the end of these six episodes you will know what Candle Cove is and where it comes from, but through that revelation lies more unanswered questions. We’re left with that beautiful ambiguity that makes horror such an enthralling genre. Channel Zero’s next outing starts in January and will adapt the series of stories called No-End House. I am excited to see how stylistically different each iteration of Channel Zero will be as it plays with the horror genre.

TV Review – American Horror Story: Roanoke

American Horror Story Season 6: Roanoke (FX, 2016)

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After five seasons, I found myself getting burn out with American Horror Story. It’s such a strange duck, always reinventing itself, yet finding threads to connect its various incarnations. There is no television show quite like it, but I was still finding myself growing tired with portions of the formula. From the promos for Season 6 to the first episode, it became apparent creator Ryan Murphy was trying out something new. The season was shorter, making episodes tighter and more focused leading to what is arguably the best of ending of any season.

The framework at the start of the season is a reality television series covering the real life horror of an unsuspecting couple who moved into a mansion in the middle of the North Carolina wilderness. They quickly learn the land and house are haunted by the spirits of a succession of people who were murdered there going all the way back to the lost Roanoke colony. The series cuts back and forth between the re-enactments and the confessional interviews. And then at the halfway point the season becomes something entirely different.

Not everything in Roanoke works. There were some severe pacing issues I had, where events whizzed by at breakneck speed to hit certain plot points. This is not atypical of the series but this season’s particular framing highlighted how dizzying the show could be. Lots of plot was stuffed into these ten episodes, and not everything wraps up neatly. The horror surrounding the property gets explained a little but still we’re left wondering about things that seemed important (Stefani Germanotta’s role as the witch of the woods stands out as an unexplored mystery).

I have to admit; I fell for the novelty of the season’s framing. From the first episode, I started thinking about the fact we were seeing two of the main characters, one set as the “real life” victims of the horror telling their story and the re-enactors revisiting those horrors in a safe, facsimile. When the show begins to play with the role of media, it gets pretty interesting as re-enactors take on an entirely new role in the story. While not as garish and over the top as AHS can be, I was often reminded of A Head Full of Ghosts and House of Leaves this season, the former for its integration of reality television into a family’s personal horror and latter for its use of framing as an element of horror.

What was the horror of Season 6? It’s easy to peg The Media, and the show does often paint its metaphors with the broadest of strokes. But after the closing moments of the finale, I looked back at recurring themes in the story. Matt and Shelby Miller, the couple whom the season begins around, come to the house in North Carolina after a vicious hate crime. They are an interracial couple and were assaulted on the street due to the nature of their relationship. Shelby loses their unborn child as a result. Shortly, we’re introduced to Lee, Matt’s sister, who is in the midst of a custody battle with her ex. Lee is a former police officer that got addicted to pills and alcohol. Even the de facto leader of the evil spirits around the house has issues with her son. There’s a ghost girl, apparently an orphan, isolated and alone on the property. And then the Polk family…well, they have plenty of issues with their children. I believe this season had the horror of parenthood at its heart. Now, AHS is not an eloquent enough show to say anything truly meaningful about the topic, but it does bring up some interesting questions and ideas.

Ryan Murphy has promised that seasons 7 and 8 will be about exploring the connections between seasons and bringing together elements of the AHS universe. I have no idea where the show will go next and, despite its glaringly ugly flaws, that is what makes watching it so much damn fun.

TV Review – Atlanta: Season 1

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The city of Atlanta exists in a strange space geographically and culturally. Burnt to the ground during the American Civil War, rebuilt and exploded into a major hub in the Southeast for manufacturing and the civil rights movement, now a diverse and constantly shifting urban space. It’s one of the largest cities in America, but it’s surrounded by lush, verdant hills. It’s the place where the city meets the country. It’s a place where rappers hang out in the woods wearing their hunting camo. Donald Glover wasn’t born here, but he was raised in the contradiction that Atlanta is, and he understands the true wonder of that beautiful, messy conflict of ideas.

Earn (Glover) doesn’t so much as live in Atlanta, as he exists there. He dropped out of Princeton. He lives with the mother of his child, but their relationship is complicated, and she sees other men with no argument from Earn. He works a dead-end at the Atlanta airport. Even his parents won’t let him in the house because they know he’ll ask for money. When his cousin Alfred releases a regional hit as the rapper “Paper Boi,” Earn sees this as an opportunity to make something of his life as Alfred’s manager. But that’s not really what the show is about; Atlanta spends the next nine episodes challenges the viewer’s’ notions of just what the show is and what is it about.

Glover plays with traditional television structure, partially inspired by the work done by Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and Louis C.K. on his FX series. The success of the latter show has opened doors for creators like Glover and Pamela Adlon’s Better Things not to be forced into typical three-act sitcom structure. Atlanta has no loyalty to any one character and will allow the focus to meander depending on the interest of the moment. Sometimes we have Earn hustling for Alfred. Others we follow Alfred’s right-hand man, Darius as he goes through a series of deals and bartering for some unknown purpose. On the show’s most interesting episodes it highlights a day in the life of Vanessa, Earn’s on again/off again after she makes a career ending mistake. There’s also an entire episode framed as a local program on issues in the black community, where Alfred is confronted over transphobic comments.

The play between relationships is what makes Atlanta so engrossing. Earn and Alfred are arguably the show’s core relationship, and they don’t behave like a typical performer/manager. Their familial connection seeps into every aspect, and Alfred makes concessions that you would not see a performer do for someone that is going to take 5% of their paycheck. And Earn looks after Alfred in a more intimate way than most managers.

Even more interesting is the relationship between Earn and Vanessa. From their first scene together, waking up in bed and beginning their morning routine there is a palpable tension. As the series goes on, we get two spotlight episodes with just her and one crucial episode about the next stage of she and Earn’s relationship. Vanessa is a highly educated woman who has ended up sidetracked with a child and undefined relationship. We see her interact with peers from college who have made their living in possibly questionable ways and Vanessa ponders other paths.

What kept me coming back to Atlanta was the magical realism of the series. Smartly, Glover and company don’t go overboard in the first couple episodes, hinting at the less familiar elements of the series. Glover has described the series as “Twin Peaks with rappers, ” and this comes through during Earn’s encounter with a strangely stoic man on the bus offering him a Nutella sandwich before exiting the bus and wandering off. As episodes roll up, we find Justin Bieber played by a young black man, the quirky inhabitants of a police lock up; an opportunistic social media-driven pizza delivery man, a slimy club promoter who escapes through secret passages, and many more strange and interesting side characters. Glover believes Atlanta is a magical place and works to convince us of the same.

TV Review – The Exorcist: The First 3 Episodes

The Exorcist: The First 3 Episodes

(Airs Fridays at 9/8 Central on Fox)

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Father Tomas, a young priest in Chicago, is approached by one of his parishioners about a problem in her home. Angela Rance is convinced there is a demonic presence in her home. She hears voices and things that shouldn’t move. Angela believes her eldest daughter, Kat, is the source of the presence and that it’s connected to the tragic death of a college classmate. Tomas begins receiving visions of another priest, Father Brennan, who fails to exorcise a demon inside a young boy and loses the child. These various figures converge in Chicago where a larger evil looms, bigger than just one young woman’s possession, that could have apocalyptic repercussions.

I didn’t watch the original 1973 film until I was a senior in college and found it to be an excellent example of the golden age of horror in that period. The way director Friedkin walked the line between the shock of horror and building atmosphere was perfect paced. What I loved most was the ambiguity of Regan MacNeil’s possession. There is never an explanation as to how this happened to her and that is a terrifying element.

The new series on Fox apparently takes place in the same universe as the original film. An incident in Georgetown in the 70s is mentioned by a priest when discussing possession. I love that they didn’t feel a need to ignore the original film. The series is a very different animal than the movies, though. There is a bigger emphasis on a larger conspiracy that permeates Chicago and seems connected to multiple possessions happening across the city. As a result, the series loses the intimacy of the 1973 film. Friedkin’s Exorcist was solely focused on a character exploration of Father Karras and the incident in the MacNeil household. If the television series had been on HBO or FX, I could see it having a quieter focus but because it’s on network television and up against increasing spectacle it has a more Lost-like sprawling narrative developing.

The largest problem with the series, and I suspect it’s due to network standards and practices, is that it is rarely actually scary. There are a handful of moments in the first three episodes that are creepy and only one I would say was genuinely scary. The interactions between the demonic presence and the priests is played a little more broader and as a result the demons don’t feel that intimidating. They talk too much and are too direct instead of toying with the humans who want to expunge them. Because of the mandated commercial breaks, the building of tension and suspense is constantly undercut. Good horror needs adequate breathing room to let itself take root and slowly grow. There’s a sense in each episode that suspense is focused in those acts from commercial break to commercial break, rather than an overarching tension to the story.

I’ll continue to stick with the series for this first season, but I sense it will become much less about the intimate horror of a family and the crisis of faith in a priest confronting that horror and more about the political machinations of the devil to bring about the apocalypse.

TV Review – Stranger Things

Stranger Things (Netflix)
Created by Matt and Ross Duffer

strangerStranger Things is an 8 episode series released by Netflix. It tells the story of the disappearance of Will Byers in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana and the bizarre phenomena that begins to occur around those affected. The series features an ensemble cast with David Harbour (The Newsroom) leading the cast as Sheriff Jim Hopper. Alongside Harbour are Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, the mother of the missing boy, Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler, Will’s best friend, and Millie Bobby Brown as a mysterious girl who know what happened to Will. The series is dripping in early 1980s nostalgia and plays out like a Stephen King novel or Spielberg film with a bit more darkness added.

The most noticeable aspect of the film is that it is firmly entrenched in creating an early 80s vibe. The title sequence’s music and visuals are tailored to mimic a dark synthy score of horror films and the font of a King novel cover. Because three of the series’ major characters are adolescent boys references to Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons abound. There’s more tonal and thematic touches that bring E.T., Poltergeist, Alien, and other period films to mind. In fact, this probably the show’s highest selling point, the recreation of the feeling of the childhood of many of its viewers. As a child of the 80s, I definitely felt it, probably not as much as someone who was a peer to the featured children would. I am curious how millennials view the series due to not having the nostalgic buy in. It’s also impossible not to think of Super 8, a very similar homage to the sci-fi/fantasy films of the day. Super 8 is definitely enamored with the Spielberg vein exclusively, while Stranger Things is willing to go to darker places and play with Stephen King and David Cronenberg territory.

The plot is not necessarily revolutionary. Because the show is a nostalgia trip, it weaves together ideas from a number of sources. I was pleasantly entertained by the twists and turns, and there are some predictable moments that don’t detract from the pleasure of watching. The key piece of the story, what took Will and where he is, were the most original parts. Thankfully, there is never a large chunk of exposition to explain away what is happening and the series requires the viewer to piece together segments of plot over time to have a full understanding. I appreciate that the show respected my intelligence enough not to have the central human antagonist sit down and lay out the plot to another character.

The characters and acting were a slightly mixed bag. First off, Millie Bobby Brown is going to be a major actress in the future, and honestly, already is in my opinion. I always say the best way to tell how good an actor is would be to watch them in a scene without dialogue and see how well they convey emotion without being over the top. Ms. Brown knocks every scene out of the park. She tells a rich, nuanced story through her face and her eyes. I learned she was part of a BBC America series called Intruders where her character is possessed by an older evil man and cannot wait to dig in and see how amazing she plays that. David Harbour does a better than expected job as Hopper. So often the role of town sheriff in these sorts of stories comes across as a paint by the numbers character. Hopper’s story adds a tragedy that is never played up too huge and is only highlighted at just the right moments. The character’s descent into paranoia as he comes closer to the truth is very entertaining and if a second season comes, I am interested to see how his character develops. Winona Ryder did not feel natural in many of her scenes. She basically plays one note, hysterical grieving mother for the majority of the series. That is what her character is going through but it would have been interesting so see some more of her. She definitely knows her character’s motivation and it guides her acting in every scene. The trio of young boys are wonderful and they each have a specific dynamic in the group that doesn’t come off as a checklist.

Stranger Things is a very fun series. I’ve enjoyed most of the 1980s nostalgia media and particularly like when it is done with an attention to tone over nitpicky details. It felt like watching a very long film from my childhood and it kept me hooked the whole way through. The series ends with a number of hooks for the second series but I won’t be disappointed if we don’t get another. These eight episodes are a complete, satisfying story, very much in the vein British television where each series attempts to close off its plot. Stranger Things is a perfect recreation of 1980s summer cinema that you can get lost in.