Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Stranger Things 2 - The Scariest Enemy is Time

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't binged on Stranger Things 2 then stop here. Please...

“If you’re lost you can look and you will find me, time after time” - Cyndi Lauper

By the time the gate closes, the Hawkins Lab shuts down and we reach the Snow Ball slow dance with Cyndi Lauper’s iconic refrain to “Time After Time” playing in the background, something is abundantly clear in Stranger Things 2: The real enemy to the Party hasn’t been the Demogorgon or the Demodogs, or the Shadow Government facility workers or even the all-powerful Mind Flayer. Rather, the greatest existential threat to Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas is Time. It’s the threat of growing up and leaving behind the things that at once made them (and really all of us) innocent, sweet, selfless and brave. It’s the difficult and confusing slow burn into their formative teenage years and the prospect of time changing everything they fundamentally know about themselves and each other. If life is like a string of movies then puberty is the horror genre. That’s the truly scary thing about Stranger Things 2. That as we move through this world there’s a real chance we’ve seen the last of the Party as a true unit of friendship.

Stranger Things 2 is a lot of things. It’s a horror tale replete with all the things that go bump in the night, scaring the bejeezus out of us. It’s an homage to the eighties and all of the movies, music, Farrah Fawcett hairspray and style therewithin. It’s a classic science fiction tale with mind-bending action, superpowers, and government testing. It’s a fantasy flick with Dungeons and Dragons at its backbone. But at its very core, it’s a coming-of-age story about friendship, growing up and navigating through the formative middle school years.

As the group slowly breaks off and dances their way through the Snow Ball we see the beginning of the end. They’re paired off rather predictably, but no less sweetly into Mike and Eleven, Dustin with a huge solid by Nancy, Zombie Boy Will with a brave stranger, Lucas and MadMax. This, more than any other time in Stranger Things is the ultimate turning point. This is where they’ve truly walked through a gate into a new world. The mystery that lies beyond here isn’t parasitic vines or ashy snowflakes but rather a teenage landscape that will ultimately challenge the bonds of friendship as strong in this group as any you’ll ever see.

Growing up is hard enough on its own without all-encompassing evil breathing down your neck, spreading like a virus underneath your town and possessing your best friend. And yet at no point does it feel like this is the ultimate danger to The Party. We rarely remain friends forever with our best friends from middle school. Too much life happens during the in-between. While the Upside Down represents the true darkness on the other side of the world, the passage of time and growing up offers a greater threat.

We see this happening in stages. When the group shows up on Halloween in “Trick or Treat, Freak,” proudly dressed as The Ghostbusters, realizing they’re the only ones donning costumes, it's the beginning of the end of their youth. That moment you realize the world has grown up without you totally noticing.

And we see other threats to their Party. The decision about whether to add Max to the group threatens to divide them more than at any other point. Bringing Mike around to her Zoomer skills isn’t instantaneous and the reasoning from Lucas and Dustin bringing her on isn’t necessarily because she possesses any great immediate need to the group beyond those dudes crushing on her hard.

Even the simple act of Lucas and Max grabbing hands after the narrow Demodog dodge in the junkyard is painful in Dustin’s reaction. He sees it, he knows what it means and there’s nothing he can do to stop it (even if he wanted to). These are all little things, but when added together paint a picture of a group in serious pubescent flux.

Hopper and Joyce, as adults understand this. It’s why there’s comfort (even in their darkest hour) in looking back with fondness at stolen moments smoking cigarettes in stairwells while running from teachers. It’s their own look back at a more innocent time before they grew up and realized the world was kind of (seriously) fucked up.

I don’t think it was just overwhelming popularity that made “Time After Time” and “Every Breath You Take” the final two songs of the season. Sure, they were top of the charts in 1984 and 1983 respectively, but it’s the message of the two that really mean something here. “Time After Time” is about the unbreakable bonds of love and friendship, it’s about being with someone despite their flaws and how really nothing can come between people who love each other unconditionally. This is analogous to the group’s bond. They’ve literally been to hell and back with each other. That simply can’t be undone.

But “Every Breath You Take” (while a perfect 80’s slow dance) is about something else. It’s about a breakup. It’s about the sadness and regret of moving on from a relationship. It’s about looking back at someone and knowing you won’t be with them again.

I think this is the ultimate lesson and enemy in Stranger Things 2: the Mind Flayer sits in the upside down waiting for another chance, the government is still tracking down Eleven, Billy the Bully stalks the halls and demodogs will eat your brainy boyfriend. But group friendship is only as strong as it’s weakest link. The real test for the Party lies ahead in the challenge of fulfilling the ultimate act of friendship that “If you fall I will catch you, I will be waiting, time after time”. Read more!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Michael Scott Says Goodbye

Last night was Steve Carrell’s final episode of The Office and with it ushered Michael Scott out of the Dunder Mifflin world, presumably, for good. It was a touching goodbye, bringing back a number of little moments from previous seasons and wrapping up Michael’s story in more fairy tale fashion than really anyone would have predicted at the start of the series. Hell, Jim cried telling Michael how good a boss he’d been.  If you’d told me that in Season One, I would have thought the show had gone completely off the rails. But it didn’t, and while this wasn’t the series, or even season finale, I think last night’s episode was as close to culminating as any show can be.

The place of Michael Scott in the television lexicon sits right next to the other biggies, the folks whose characters almost transcended the greatness of their already transcendent shows.  The Sam Malones, Jerry Seinfelds, and Homer Simpsons of the world who occupy a place in our hearts beyond just the world within their respective half hours.  Much of it is a testament to Carrell’s adeptness at playing a character so incredibly and naively flawed, that even in Michael’s worst moments, we could still believe his sincerity.  
Last night’s episode, replete with individual (or group) goodbyes acted more as a character summation than it did walk off into the sunset (or airplane terminal).  It reminded us of the guy Michael had been and what he’d become.  Effectively apologizing to Phyllis for spurning her oven mitt Christmas gift, finally impressing Ryan with something (even if it needed to light up), grinning and bearing the thought of having to hang out with Toby’s brother in Boulder, understanding that Jim needed no goodbye, making one last petition to use the bailer, finding humor in how little Oscar thought of him (maybe the funniest moment in The Office’s history), making good on the paintball session with Dwight and recognizing the greatness Dwight embodies in his job as a salesman, and finally just watching as he hugged Pam leaving their conversation something just between friends. It was a fantastic way to encompass a rather layered character.
Michael Scott wasn’t always the best guy and the show made its early bones on his almost irredeemable obtuseness.(Here was a guy who fake fired his secretary because he thought it’d get a laugh out of the new intern.) But The Office really hit its stride in the subsequent seasons when Michael effectively played a character analogous to Dorothy’s three friends on the Yellow Brick Road. Sometimes he lacked a brain, sometimes he needed a little more courage and many times he just had to find a heart, but like the Tinman, Scarecrow, and Lion, we always rooted for him in spite of the flaws.

There was always a sense that Michael cared deeply for those around him, he just never understood how to effectively bring that out in his everyday interactions The transformation of his character over the last half of this season (and really culminating in his final episode) into a real life working human being was entirely believable because A) we knew enough about his history to know he always had it in him and B) it is easy to believe that when someone is happy, he makes others happy. Meeting and finding love was the cure for all the ailed Michael.

Michael’s world WAS work, and I think he always struggled with those who didn’t see it the same way. (Even mentioning as much in the last episode in his quote about work and funerals). But that overly optimistic view culminated when he found everything he was looking for in a mate, right there in the same office. That she happened to be the one living being who not only enjoyed Michael’s unique brand of humor, but also replicated it, is besides the point. Meeting Holly validated everything Michael thought work to be (a place of true family and best friends) and in doing so allowed him to ultimately leave the very place he’d tied his life to (even once promising to be buried in the office). He could leave, there was nothing left for him to accomplish.

I think that last idea is what made Michael’s secret goodbye so sincere and true and really so Michael Scott-ish. He did the very last thing anyone would have expected.
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Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday Night Lights Final Season Thoughts

I plan on writing in earnest about the final season of Friday Night Lights (the second time around, it’s already aired on DirectTv) and over the next three months or so suspect you’ll be treated to at least 500 instances of me using the term “bittersweet.”Granted, I have no idea how the whole thing ends (avoided internet updates like the plague), and yet I sit here contemplating the significance of the final season, the show’s role in the greater television landscape and how exactly a series chooses to sign off the airwaves once and for all.

There is a sentimental side of me (and maybe everyone) that would like to think Friday Night Lights ends with the Lions (and maybe the Panthers too) carrying Coach Taylor off on their shoulders after a last second championship win. This would of course be after a stunning finale in which the major cast members from Smash to Street, Tyra to the Swede (kidding) came back to pay their last respects in some way to the Coach and family and town that shaped their lives. The writers have a chance to turn the final season into a long procession of memories and homages to a great thing (think: event planning your own funeral) But at the same time, an ending like that would leave me disappointed, because it wouldn’t sum up the show as a whole.

Friday Night Lights has never been about the last second wins (a few too many for my liking as it is), never stuck exclusively to a redemptive ideal for each character’s inevitable flaws, or even necessarily tied the fates of its players to how they performed on the football field. If anything, the show has gone out of its way to emphasize that the characters’ successes, or lack thereof, on the football field holds little to no bearing on how the rest of their lives turnout. Heck, the star quarterback broke his neck at the 50 minute mark of the pilot episode (and then went on to be a sports agent). If that doesn’t send a clear message about relationship between football success and life success, then I don’t know what does.

So it begs the question: What should the final season be? And maybe more importantly, should endings have closure or leave us speculating? Exponentially more popular shows, with wildly anticipated final acts, like Lost or The Sopranos sold the viewer on the idea of finality ** (even if the ends were, to some degree, polarizing) and left little doubt that the show was indeed over. These programs knew their time was up and wrote accordingly instead of scripting for another season of treading water and ultimately limping into the finish (I’m looking at you Alias). And for those shows, closure was ultimately vital.

** Let’s remove the argument about Tony Soprano for a second. He’s dead people.

And while Friday Night Lights has afforded itself the ability to write “The End” after the last scene, it is a wholly different entity than those other shows. The writers of Friday Night Lights have produced something more organic. They’ve created a show about a town rather than about a group of characters. Just like any town there are the mainstays (the Taylors, Buddy), the folks who’ll never leave (Riggins), those itching to get the hell out (Tyra, Julie, Smash to some degree) and those who’ll always just marvel at life in the so-called outside world, only to eventually return (presumably Saracen, Street maybe). This is the unique nature of the show, in that the writers have stuck to a simple rule of: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Characters come and go, games are won and lost and though the faces change (infinitely more than any other show I can think of) the problems remain relatively the same. This is decidedly new ground for television. Just think if Brandon, Dylan, Kelly and company had moved on after season two of 90210 and a whole new group of kids just started hanging out with Nat at the Peach Pit (which Steve now co-managed). And yet Friday Night Lights pulls it off because its grounded in the Taylor family (who’ll never go anywhere) and town of Dillon. Everyone else can come and go as they so please, for better of worse, and that’s pretty much life.

Granted, Friday Night Lights is not transcendent television (although it’s awfully close), but it does reflect a certain, increasingly rare and even possibly cliche’d (in a good way) American sensibility of values and community. And though it never really caught on in the mainstream, the show probably relates to a wider range of viewers than anything else I’ve seen. I don’t have hard proof of this of course, but everyone I’ve ever talked to who’s watched, young or old, has latched on to something within the story’s walls. The sad irony is that just too few folks ever gave it the chance.

But I also suspect the miniscule viewing audience also allowed the show’s writers to take chances beyond the normal scope of television. Namely, they kept the town moving along without having to come up with new story arcs for the same old characters. The hardcore viewing audience (because that’s pretty much all that watches) were there to stay, so the writers simply worked to make the show reflect actual life. No easy feat, and probably something that won’t soon be replicated. Television is much too fickle, fast-moving, and quick to judge. Long story short: Friday Night Lights is in a world (or town, rather) of its own. I doubt anyone else will try to replicate it. After all, it wasn’t too terribly successful.

And so that leaves us rushing downfield towards the endzone and into the locker room once and for all (only two sports analogies used, not bad). I suspect the writers have discussed the idea of closure and what it means for this television show. How will Friday Night Lights end? I suspect much like it started. With expectations on Coach Taylor. With Tammy standing faithfully by his side. With a group of high schoolers seeking something tangible in their lives. And with the town of Dillon waking up for another day of living, breathing and thinking about football. It’s not sexy. There won’t be a cliffhanger.

Instead, think about Friday Night Lights less like a television show and more like a town you’re leaving. Just because you left, does the town cease to be? Of course, this is a television show we’re talking about, but really its something more. We’ll remember the good times, the familiar faces, the heartache, the neighborhood, the Riggins boys causing trouble, the day Matty Saracen’s father passed, what Jason Street could have been, that one Crucifictorious show, the state championship, when the high schools split, the tornado, the pep rallies and the “For Sale” signs on Coach Taylor’s lawn. Because Friday Night Lights isn’t really ending. We’re just moving out of Dillon. Bittersweet indeed.
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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Five Questions for Mad Men Season 4

The end of Mad Men’s Season 3 saw Don Draper’s work and home life in a state of flux. He’s entering a world without Betty and into a new business with familiar faces. With this universe upheaval comes some questions for the season premiere airing this Sunday on AMC at 10pm.

1.What’s ahead for Sterling Cooper Draper and Pryce?
When Roger and Don stood in the gutted Sterling Cooper offices at the beginning/end of their coup Roger asked, "How long do you think it'll take us to be in a place like this again?" to which Don replied, "I never saw myself working in a place like this."

We can probably assume the days of hard drinking, endless partying and general debauchery are over in the new company. Who would they party with anyway? There’s so few of them. But it also means an end to doing business the old way. Don has always been a master salesman; it’s his true gift. But after the falling out with Conrad Hilton, I can’t help but think the new agency will go about their business in a very different, much more progressive way. I like this idea from the context of the show because it gives the chance for business to change with the times. These are the sixties after all.

2.The Draper marriage, kaput or on hiatus?
Season 3 ended with Betty on a plane to Reno alongside new beau Henry Francis and Don promising to not meddle in the split. It also detailed painfully just how difficult a divorce like this would be on their kids as they sat watching television without either parent.

Given that January Jones is up for an Emmy, she will certainly continue to be a major focus of the show. But how? Does she realize life with Henry isn’t so different from life with Don? Does Don do what he does when he’s trying to land an elusive account? Make great sales pitch after great sales pitch? Or do they reconcile Tony and Carmela-style with more a business approach to fidelity than a loving one? Whatever the answer, there’s no easy way to completely separate them.

3.Is Don finally over Dick Whitman?
The end of Season 3 showed us the death of Dick Whitman’s father (murder by horse hoof). And with it, I can’t help but feel the story of Don’s secret life may finally be over. To some degree that happened when Betty found his memory box, and in some ways freed Don from his past.

Much of Mad Men has been about the Don vs. Dick debate waging inside Jon Hamm’s character, but the move out of his old office, his heartfelt pleas to retain Peggy and Pete, his divorce and final move into the new company looks like it could finally merge the two personas into a powerful and personal combination. Or he could remain dichotomous but now with an Old Don vs. New Don inner debate.

4.How goes the empowerment of Peggy Olsen?
Peggy has always been, in my opinion, the most mysterious of all Mad Men characters (outside of Don, of course), mainly because I’ve struggled to come to grips with her motivation. Is she searching solely for respect? Does she want to believe in herself? Does she just yearn for success? Or does she epitomize the gaining steam of Women’s Lib Movement? This last one is probably the best explanation; she wants equality after all. But Peggy goes about her empowerment more as a one-on-one war without involving the strength of her sisters. If anything, she just doesn’t get other women and doesn’t understand their complacency. Is this the season she has an awakening outside of her own job?

5.Mad Men and the Vietman War?
Historical events have mostly operated around the periphery (and sometimes in the margins) of Mad Men. Of course the Kennedy assassination in the penultimate episode of season 3 was a story in and of itself, whereas things like the Cuban Missile Crisis and Marilyn Monroe’s death were dealt with in the context of how Sterling Cooper did business.

But like JFK, the Vietnam War is just too big to ignore or cast off as a simple historical subplot. As we saw in Kevin Arnold’s kitchen in The Wonder Years, the Vietnam War was the first one televised and these guys work in advertising. Is the war an opportunity for them? A distraction? An office joke? (Mad Men has joked about worse.) Whatever it becomes, the war will certainly play a role.
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Monday, July 12, 2010

Huge Reaction - Live Action Role Play (I wish the real world would just stop hassling me)

I’m excited to lose weight, I think. I just can’t imagine what it will be like, if it’ll actually change anything. - Alistair

“Live Action Role Play” showed us each character seeking a little power in his or her life, real or fantasy. All of these kids came to Camp Victory to lose weight, but beyond that, they’ve also come seeking something else. Whether it’s love, friendship or confidence they’ve come looking for a way to feel accepted, which isn’t easy for everyone. Because even at Camp Victory, solely populated by a group of kids who’ve surely been picked on their entire lives, some still can’t help reveling in the ability to finally be the one throwing sticks and stones rather than deflecting them, making Alistair’s quote even more prescient. Read the rest of my reaction at CinemaBlend.
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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Friday Night Lights Reaction - I Can't (The Kids Aren't Alright)

"I Can't" dealt with two heavy issues without ever getting heavy handed about any debate. Instead, the writers focused on kids making adult choices. Above all, Friday Night Lights is a story about growing up and Becky and Vince were forced into impossible situations. Continue reading my full reaction at CinemaBlend. Read more!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Emmy Nominations: Outstanding Drama Screws the Pooch

I'm not asking a great deal from the Emmy's. I generally don't care too much. But when two clearly undeserving shows make the list over two of the best shows of the season? Then my friends, we have a problem. Read the entire rant on CinemaBlend. Read more!