The Sopranos (season five) – Review

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T. and I approached season five of The Sopranos with some trepidation. The show’s writing started to tank after season two and I thought season four was pretty awful. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find I enjoyed the first few episodes of season five, wondering if perhaps the show had turned a corner. The season begins with an injection of new blood, as several mobsters get released from jail around the same time, so there are several new faces. These include Steve Buscemi as Tony Soprano’s childhood friend, Tony Blundetto (known as Tony B.). The new characters give the show a bit of oomph, and it also helps that Tony and Carmela are no longer together. We’re therefore spared the inane family melodrama that dominated seasons three and four… for a while, anyway.

Season five initially sees a renewed focus on the FBI and their efforts to take down the various Mafia families in New York and New Jersey. This storyline drives much of the season’s better action, just because it’s interesting to see how the federal police plan and execute operations like this. Other shows have since done this sort of thing much, much better – think of The Wire, or even Sons of Anarchy – but nevertheless, The Sopranos’ fifth season has some good moments early on. Unfortunately, the season’s early momentum comes to a screaming halt by the time of episode six, “Sentimental Education”. This is one of the first Sopranos episodes written by Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men – not a favourite show in these parts), and it marks a new low for a show that had already served up some pretty poor episodes. From this point onwards, narrative complexity is largely abandoned in favour of a straightforward story centred around Tony’s personal neuroses.

I’ll admit that for a while I thought Tony’s psychological problems provided an interesting frame to view the goings-on of the Soprano crime syndicate. But they are not enough to sustain a drama for this length of time. By this stage, Tony’s psyche and personality are as overexposed and repellent as his corpulent physical form. Just as Tony’s sessions with Dr Melfi go nowhere and cover the same ground ad nauseam, so too does the storyline repeat itself; simply with new characters performing the same narrative function as the likes of Richie Aprile and Ralph Cifaretto before them. Side characters are never given any time to develop, merely being used as triggers for Tony’s rage or depression, and the show relies on a procession of “star power” to maintain any interest in its cast. Like with Tony, series regulars such as Carmela and Chris Moltisanti are so one-dimensional and over-familiar that you just don’t want to see them on your screen any more.

A show like The Sopranos has such an aura around it that people explain away things that would elsewhere be called out as downright bad or incompetent. Season five fails to maintain a basic level of storyline continuity and credibility. In the space of a few minutes, Tony B. inexplicably abandons his deeply-felt plans to “go straight” which had been built up over six hour-long episodes. Halfway through the season a ranking member of Tony’s crew is caught sucking off another man in a car park; nothing more is said about it. Another character accidentally sets themselves on fire making a sandwich. Then there are the editorial decisions that only the most over-indulged show can get away with, such as Tony’s interminable surreal dream sequence; a laughable reminiscence montage when Tony is thinking about a childhood friend; or a “mic drop” freeze frame after Carmela dumps someone that would have felt cheap on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. None of this is helped by the fact that Tony’s main rival for much of the season is the singularly dull, unthreatening and effete mafia “boss” Johnny Sack. As unconvincing mobsters go, he rivals even Andy Garcia’s cringeworthy performance in Rob the Mob. How did we go from Brando, De Niro, and Pacino, to this?

The last couple of episodes of season five see some basic competence restored to the storytelling, albeit brought about in an abrupt and contrived manner via the police acting as a deus ex machina to move events forward. The sections of the show which follow the police tend to be the more interesting, as are the all too rare occasions when we see how the mafia try to cover themselves or, you know, actually conduct their business. As countless police procedurals and historical dramas have shown, the ways people operate in the world tend to be of wider and more lasting interest to viewers than summoning forth the obscure goings-on from inside someone’s mind. For all that its first two seasons were very, very good, The Sopranos has a lot to answer for. Not least the way it helps legitimize this kind of introspective claptrap as a form of serious entertainment.

4/10

Cheers (seasons five and six) – Review

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Warning – this post contains spoilers about Cheers season five.

Although I’m sure the pay and celebrity help make up for it, it must be hard work to write a sitcom for hundreds of episodes without it going to crap after a while. The first few seasons of Cheers were generally very good, often excellent, and had a winning formula; but nothing lasts forever. Either the show would end, or something would have to change. It seems like Shelley Long, the actress who played Diane Chambers, felt the same way, as she decided to leave at the end of season five. There are various explanations and theories about why she left – creative differences, ambition, worries that the show would become stale – but ultimately, a major change like that would have been necessary at some point.

So, Cheers’ fifth and sixth seasons are significant as the last to feature Diane, and the first without her. The relationship between Sam and Diane is, of course, the driving force of season five, and for the most part it’s handled well. The two constantly fight their feelings for one other; and although they can be alternately maddening (Diane) or sleazy and boorish (Sam), as with most good relationships they round the corners off each other, and make one another better and more likable people. That said, I felt there was a slight tendency to paint Diane as a more and more eccentric and unsympathetic version of herself, possibly in preparation for her exit. It’s not quite Vince McMahon turning Bret Hart heel before packing him off to WCW, but at times it has that sort of feel to it.

Most people watching today will know that Diane leaves and that, in the end, her and Sam don’t make it as a couple. Cheers was very popular during its run, and I wonder how people felt about this. For all her pretentiousness and fragility, Diane is a hugely endearing and sympathetic character, the sort of person who radiates a warmth and light which helps those around her live more fully and feel better about themselves and the world. I can only imagine it must have made a lot of people very sad to find out her story wouldn’t have a happy ending. The final episode of season five ends on a note of real pathos, showing what could have been between Sam and Diane, and it’s a beautiful sequence which surely ranks among the most poignant moments in television history: a painful but not unfitting end to one of TV’s greatest romances.

In a way, it would have been preferable for Cheers to finish at the end of season five, but with a happy ending instead of the one we got. However, that’s not the way these things work: Cheers was a lucrative property and there was much more money to be made. So, the show continued into a sixth season, albeit with a few changes. The main change was the arrival of Rebecca Howe (played by Kirstie Alley) as the new manager of Cheers. Not only has Diane left, but the show contrives a way for Sam to lose the bar, and he returns as a mere bartender. For some reason, Cheers has been bought by a large corporation, and Rebecca is employed as the manager. I wasn’t expecting it, but the season hits the ground running, and Rebecca is an immediately engaging and likeable character, different enough to Diane not to invite unfavourable comparisons. Initially, Rebecca comes across as a confident and assertive businesswoman, very much in the ’80s style, and she’s invested with personality and considerable sex appeal by the remarkable Kirstie Alley. Shelley Long was a bit before my time when I was growing up, but I do remember admiring Kirstie Alley, in particular her incredible voice (she even gives Kathleen Turner a run for her money). Against the odds, season six does everything right to get off to a good start.

Unfortunately, things start to go downhill rather quickly. With Diane gone, Sam regresses to sleazeball mode, and begins a campaign of weapons-grade sexual harassment against Rebecca which lasts throughout the season. Cheers is a show that, on the whole, has aged pretty well, but the incessant nature of Sam’s sexual overtures towards an obviously reluctant Rebecca are guaranteed to make most contemporary viewers uncomfortable. Rebecca’s characterization also tends to collapse over the course of the season, her initial self-confidence evaporating. This is in no small part due to professional sabotage by Sam, who is spiteful at having lost the bar and constantly being rejected. Finally, Rebecca is turned into an object of ridicule due to her comedic inability to convey her unrequited love for her own boss, Evan Drake, played by a moonlighting Tom Skerritt (of Alien and Top Gun fame). The cumulative effect is distasteful, and more than a bit misogynistic.

Season six is not helped by the fact it drags on far too long: 25 episodes is too much weight to bear for a season that lacks a single compelling, well-written arc. With the main cast failing to carry the load, the season relies heavily, but not enough, on Frasier and his partner Lilith. Frasier and Lilith have solid chemistry, are often hilarious, and their interactions go a long way towards redeeming things, but as secondary characters there is only so much they can contribute. Woody (Woody Harrelson) is entertaining and likable as ever, but receives little development. Instead, many of the episodes tend to focus on Norm and Cliff, but their screwball humour and “massive loser” schtick has worn thin by this stage. Carla’s character again sees no development and continues to stink out the show, and what’s worse is that two of her nightmarish teenage children start to make semi-regular appearances.

Cheers has eleven seasons in total, so I’m now just over halfway through the entire run. It’s starting to feel like the golden period is over, and I can only hope season seven shows some improvement against six. But with most of the major cast and storylines now in place, and with Diane gone, I’m not sure that’s a realistic expectation.

Season five: 7/10

Season six: 6/10

Vikings (Season Four, Part One) – Review

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The first seasons of Vikings reminded me strongly of Sons of Anarchy. Not just because leading man Travis Fimmel bears an uncanny resemblance to Charlie Hunnam, but because of the shared themes of brotherhood, loyalty, and independence. Sons writer Kurt Sutter tried to make his show feel authentic by learning from and working with people involved in the world he was writing about. It’s of course quite different when you’re writing about people who lived over a thousand years ago, but nevertheless Vikings writer Michael Hirst has generally seemed concerned with making Vikings feel like a historically grounded and serious-minded drama. It was therefore regrettable to discover that this first half of Vikings’ fourth season reminded me of nothing other than Game of Thrones. I never cared for George Martin’s overrated fantasy series, but sadly Vikings’ showrunners seem to have decided that treacly pacing, betrayal, and incest are what the viewing public wants, because much of these episodes consist of just that.

Each season of Vikings has seen its scope expand, and by season four the action isn’t limited to the homelands of the Norse marauders: significant parts of the story are now set in England and France. They say success is a double-edged sword, and the critical and commercial success of Vikings means we now have 20-episode seasons, released in two parts. The beginning of season four sees the Vikings return home after a costly adventure to Paris; they won a military victory and acquired lots of treasure, but at the loss of many lives, and king Ragnar Lothbrok (Fimmel) is himself at death’s door. In his stead his son Bjorn Ironside is forced to make some executive decisions which prove that, well-intentioned and forceful though he is, he is no politician.

Much of the season sees the Vikings prepare for another attack on Paris. Irritatingly, once he recovers Ragnar continues to behave in the reckless manner that characterized him in season three, and he spends several episodes wrapped up in a quasi-romance with a Chinese slave who gets him addicted to opium. Otherwise the vikings mainly spin their wheels while waiting for Ragnar to give the order to attack Paris again. His relationship with Aslaug is increasingly one of mutual disdain, and Aslaug becomes more and more emotionally dependent on her crippled son, Ivar the Boneless. Aslaug also tries to repeat her dalliance with the mysterious Harbard. This mainly felt like an excuse to get more naked flesh on screen as Harbard shags his way through Kattegat while all the men are away in Paris.

At the end of season three, Ragnar’s unreliable brother Rollo was left behind in France in charge of the vikings who stayed behind. This has predictable consequences and Rollo is soon enmeshed in the French court. Most of the worst and most tiresome parts of the season happen in Paris, which plays host to the kind of political intriguing, backstabbing, incest and general depravity which one associates with the aristocracy. The situation in England is largely the same, the exception being that the charismatic King Ecbert (Linus Roache) invests the story with a sense of purpose and vision which is otherwise largely absent in these episodes.

I’m sorry to see the way Vikings go downhill like this. For some time I’ve been eagerly telling friends and family to watch this show, emphasizing that while it is enjoyable drama, it is also a thoughtful and responsible piece of historical fiction. In that regard the first couple of seasons felt like an antidote to the asinine titillation served up by Game of Thrones. It’s also strange that while much of the season meanders on with nothing much happening, the writers then decide to jump forward ten or more years at a stroke. Episode ten hints strongly that future episodes will revolve around Ragnar’s sons, and the writing team has a job on their hands to ensure a successful transition of the narrative from Ragnar to the next generation. At this point, as with Ragnar himself, I doubt they’re up to the job.

6/10

Cheers (season four) – Review

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Season four marks a return to form for Cheers, after an uneven third season. We witness the arrival of Woody Boyd, played by a youthful and blonde-haired Woody Harrelson, who replaces Coach as Sam’s bartender. Otherwise the main cast remains the same, and the storylines are largely similar too, although there are a few more ambitious multi-episode arcs which take us out of the bar as we see the characters a bit more involved in life outside the bar. But the eponymous bar, and the relations and sense of community it generates, continue to be the heart that drives the show’s action.

I have been a Woody Harrelson fan for many years. He’s a bald badass with effortless charm and charisma, and the right age to act as an unthreatening role model. But while I was always aware of his involvement in Cheers I’d never really seen any episodes that I could recall. So his appearance as a major character was very welcome, and I personally think Woody replacing Coach heralds a big improvement in the show’s quality. Woody plays a similar role to Coach, being a rather nice-but-dim barman who arrives in Cheers from rural Indiana where he had been Coach’s penpal. (They literally sent each other pens in the mail.) His involvement at first is mainly confined to the same kind of one-liners as Coach, often based around the same kind of misunderstandings, but it works better both because it fits with Woody’s “fresh off the farm” persona, and also because Harrelson’s acting and delivery is more in keeping with the generally modern feel of the show, without the kind of overacting Nicholas Colasanto was prone to.

As in season three, Carla’s character remains one of the weaker parts of the show. Although the other characters don’t necessarily show sophisticated development, they do at least display some variation over time, but Carla is always the same sneering cynic, motivated mainly by hostility to Diane – even after that character is put through the wringer on more than one occasion. I don’t have a major problem with this in theory, but in practice it starts to grate when you have such a high episode count. The episodes that centre around Carla are generally the weakest, but fortunately there aren’t that many.

Frasier is a major secondary character in season four and definitely one of the high points of the series, though he feels underused. That of course would eventually change, and I’m looking forward to watching Frasier (the series) again, this time with a better knowledge of the character’s history and backstory. Norm and Cliff are pretty much ever-present in this season, which is fine, and Cliff in particular sees to become more and more eccentric and deluded. Carla’s best moments generally consist of barbs directed at him.

As ever, Sam and Diane are the main characters, and I was pleased that the writers seem to find a way to keep Sam’s character in a sort of balance where he’s a dick but still likable enough never to fully lose the audience’s sympathy, which was a regular problem in seasons two and three. That said, the central dynamic around which the stories weave is starting to wear a little thin. I’m not sure exactly when things change, but I can certainly see there will eventually be a need to freshen things up.

Sometimes you really need some reliable TV to provide a comforting diversion and, as this show’s famous intro says, help you forget about your worries and troubles. Just as a friendly bar can provide, for a while, a haven of fellow feeling for people who are lonely or lost, so the best TV shows can help distract and console you when your mind needs a break. Most of the time, Cheers is just such a show. It’s fourth season is a welcome return to form that I wasn’t fully expecting, but for which I was very grateful.

9/10

 

 

Cheers (Seasons 1-3) – Review

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Cheers was a hugely successful comedy, running for eleven seasons and 270 episodes between 1982 and 1993. Cheers began with a very simple formula, as a situation comedy set in the titular bar in downtown Boston. Cheers revolves around retired pro baseball pitcher and bar owner Sam Malone, and a cast of characters comprising bar staff and barflies. The first season is set entirely in the bar, and each episode begins with an announcement that it was filmed in front of a live audience. Later seasons include other scenarios as well, moving the action into the homes of some of the characters, and by the end of the third season we even have scenes taking place outside of Boston.

The physical location of the show in a single bar, filmed entirely in front of a live audience, gives the first season of Cheers a wonderful energy and at times it feels almost like watching theatre. The actors sometimes laugh and break down under the comedy of their own lines, and there’s an obvious chemistry at work on set that adds a spark to the show. In particular, there is excellent chemistry between Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and the new barmaid, haughty graduate student Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), which gives the first season real magic. For a comedy filmed well over 30 years ago, the first season is still enormously entertaining, partly because the main storyline (the will they/won’t they dynamic between Sam and Diane) is so timeless. Sometimes the episodes have a theme which belies the show’s age, such as when Sam is pressured by his regulars to exclude some gay customers from the bar. But Sam generally ends up doing the right thing, often under the direct or indirect influence of Diane.

One of the things that makes the first season of Cheers feel so special is that it is a profoundly democratic comedy. At their best, pubs and bars are leveling public spaces where people from different walks of life come together to share their problems or have a laugh over a couple of drinks. Cheers’ iconic intro sequence captures that perfectly, conveying the social importance of bars to community spirit and social bonding. This is carried through to the writing, and over the course of the first season Diane comes to relax and lose some of her superior attitude, while Sam and, to a lesser extent, some of the other denizens of the bar see their moral and cultural level rise ever so slightly. In the first season, Cheers also demonstrates a mature capacity to create rounded characters, generally avoiding the easy option of painting people as caricatures or lazily vilifying them. Sam’s alcoholism is also introduced and handled sensitively, at least at first.

The first season of Cheers received critical acclaim, but it wasn’t a ratings hit. It was only with the second season that ratings started to pick up and it slowly became the commercial success it’s now known as. The writing of the second season takes a bit of a turn for the worse, in large measure due to the decision to make Sam play a shitheel role for a number of episodes. This may be important for storyline reasons, but it’s hard as a viewer to see a character you’ve come to like behaving reprehensibly episode after episode. That said, season two is still pretty good, largely for the same reasons as the first, and continues to be very funny for the most part.

Season three sees the introduction of psychiatrist Dr Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), a breakout character who was to star in the frighteningly successful spin-off that bore his name. Frasier is a very welcome introduction to the show, and most of season three’s best moments revolve around Frasier in some way. Unfortunately, the general level of season three is notably inferior to the first two seasons, and the beginning of season three in particular contains some very disappointing episodes. One of the major problems with season three is Sam’s bartender “Coach”, a retired baseball trainer. Coach is supposed to subscribe to the trope of the dimwit with a heart of gold, but the character shows a proneness to selfish and manipulative behaviour which is very unappealing and at times difficult to watch. Coach was fine as a background character but during seasons two and three he takes too much of the spotlight, and his overacting and lame and one-dimensional jokes wear thin very fast.

The actor who played Coach, Nicholas Colasanto, became seriously ill during the filming of season three, and it’s obvious that he loses weight and looks more and more unhealthy as the season progresses. I know that Colasanto was admired by his co-stars and that many people are fond of the Coach character, so I should emphasize that the criticisms I have of Coach as a character stem from the script, and can’t be attributed to the actor’s health problems. To a lesser extent, I noticed the same phenomenon (overacting; repetitive and tiresome one-dimensional jokes) with the character of Carla, the other barmaid at Cheers. Carla’s obsessive and unrelenting dislike of Diane wears thin, and I really hope that her character sees some development or progression in coming seasons, as I’ve grown fed up of her character by the end of season three.

You can get all eleven seasons of Cheers for twenty or thirty pounds in the UK. 270 episodes is a lot to get through, but it’s pretty low-effort fare which lends itself well to regular viewing. Fingers crossed we can stick it out, because Cheers has the potential to keep T. and I entertained for a long time to come. I’m hopeful that the arrival of new character Woody (another breakout role, this time for Woody Harrelson) will see season four come close to the heights of season one. If not, we might just have to move on to Frasier itself. But the first season of Cheers is easy to recommend to anyone, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the price of admission.

Season 1 – 10/10

Season 2 – 8/10

Season 3 – 7/10

 

Fargo (season two) – Review

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The second season of Fargo acts as a prequel of sorts to the events of the first, and follows a largely new set of characters. The anthology format means we get another host of fairly big name movie and TV actors, just like True Detective was able to entice Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as they only had to sign up for one season. We don’t get anyone quite of that caliber here, but nevertheless, a cast with Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst, and a number of other recognizable actors, is pretty impressive.

The season starts quite well, although the mass murder which gets the ball rolling feels a little contrived. The main plot sees Fargo’s Gerhardt crime dynasty start to crack under pressure from the Kansas City mafia. The Gerhardts have controlled organized crime in their part of Minnesota for two generations, but find themselves presented with an ultimatum by the larger operation. They’re told they have to sell up or be put out of business. One of the few thought-provoking parts of the series is this reflection on the impossibility for small-scale family enterprises to contend with impersonal, nationally integrated corporate structures. Most of the drama revolves around the internal Gerhardt family disputes as they face up to the mob. As one of the Kansas enforcers says to the Gerhardt matriarch, if one of his guys disobeys him, he’ll kill him; a choice not readily available when your employees are your own children.

This series has a pretty high body count. Much of this is down to Hanzee, a First Nations enforcer loyal to the Gerhardt family, and particularly to Dodd, the oldest surviving brother at the start of the series. This is a pretty trope-heavy depiction, and Hanzee is very much the strong and silent type, killing in a rather cold-blooded manner though generally with a clear reason and with no apparent enjoyment. There are also a couple of typically ‘kooky’ Minnesotans who somehow get caught up in the middle of the gang warfare: Ed and Peggy Blumquist (Dunst), a butcher and hairdresser who simultaneously show terrible judgement and a strong will to survive during the course of the season. Peggy, in particular, comes across as insane by the end of the season, but Ed has his moments too. Disappointingly, the other main characters are yet another family of cops, revealing a distinct lack of imagination or ambition from the writers. At least there’s no Colin Hanks this time.

One of the strengths of this season is that, at times, it moves away from the absurdist Coen brothers style of the original movie and the first season (think Frances McDormand saying ‘oh yah?’ into a telephone for minutes on end). By contrast, at times the second season feels comparatively serious, aided by some impressive performances. Ted Danson in particular is really good here. Unfortunately, the season is still prone to hokey surrealism, and in the end is badly let down by its script. Almost every conversation includes characters going into long-winded metaphors or reciting stories about ‘the old times’ in order to make a tortured point, or to try and intimidate someone. When used properly–and sparingly–this technique can be very powerful, and in recent years has been used very well by Cormac McCarthy. However, the key here is the word ‘sparingly’, and you have to know how to mix things up. Your characters should be able to convey menace or charisma by a means other than telling stories, and the upshot of it here is that almost everyone, appearances aside, ends up seeming quite similar. A few individuals don’t rely on this method of dialogue, but then they’re mainly marked out as imbeciles and figures of fun. Our comic relief is supposed to come in the form of a drunken lawyer, fond of conspiracy theories, but I found him largely intolerable.

The unfortunate thing about this season is that it comes off the rails just at the moment when it should be starting to come to a climax, about two thirds of the way through. Right about the time the Gerhardt-Kansas City war takes off, there are a number of baffling plot inconsistencies which are necessary to create later set-pieces, but which are highly incongruous in themselves and rather spoil the overall sense of immersion. The show is also guilty of appalling overuse of a narrator, which is jarring, unnecessary and lame. Any detail or subtlety which you might want to leave to the viewer to figure out is instead rendered explicit courtesy of the grating voice of Martin Freeman. Attention TV used to be cool; is that not a thing any more? I can’t think of a single instance when a narrator has added to my enjoyment of a movie or TV series, and it certainly doesn’t help here.

Every single episode of Fargo starts with a claim that the events are all true. This is a lie, of course, which harks back to the original 1996 film. It made the same claim, a claim that was believed by many who watched it. This was before the internet, remember. Now, you could argue this is just a ‘cool’ throwback to the original film; and if it was just done at the beginning of the season, I could get behind that. However, they do it at the start of every single episode, and it sits wrong with me. It’s gratuitous, and it cheapens drama which is truly based on real events. But that’s not all. As mentioned above, so much of the dialogue here consists, tediously, of stories within a story, layer upon layer of fiction that would have you believe it is fact. The ending is framed by evocative scenes of racist abuse and violence, against the backdrop of a real historic massacre of Native Americans at Sioux Falls. And then, we have flying saucers. Just, you know, because. I guess it will give filmĀ  students something to write their dissertations on. Ultimately, Fargo’s second season is postmodernism at its finest or, to put it another way, at its worst.

5/10

 

 

Stranger Things (season one) – Review

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The 80s have made a big comeback in the last few years. Seems barely a month goes by without a new movie, TV show, or album being released that’s supposed to capture the essence of the 80s in some way. Netflix original series Stranger Things has become one of the most talked-about examples of this trend, and has become quite popular in its own right. Netflix honchos recently stated that what’s most important to them is not how many peOple watch their shows necessarily, but how much they’re talked about. Make of that what you will. But there’s no doubt that Stranger Things got people talking.

Over the course of eight episodes, Stranger Things charts the course of a few characters on the trail of Will Byers, a young boy who disappeared on the way home from his friend Mike’s house after a heavy Dungeons and Dragons session. Naturally, Mike and friends try to find Will, defying their parents in doing so. During the season, they run into a mysterious girl, known only as “Eleven”, who exhibits unusual behaviour and who seems to have supernatural powers. Meanwhile, there are two other parallel missions to find Will. One involves his mum, Joyce, who insists Will is still alive, despite apparent evidence to the contrary, and who claims that Will is communicating to her via light bulbs. She enlists the help of the local sheriff, while her son Jonathan (Will’s older brother) also embarks on his own adventure to find Will, aided by Mike’s older sister, Nancy.

Stranger Things does have a few jump scares in it, but most of the time it relies on teen melodrama and a lot of overwrought angst from Winona Ryder, who plays Joyce. The series is obviously pitched as some sort of homage or paean to the 80s, but comes across as deeply derivative. Stranger Things borrows liberally from things like ET and the X-Files, as well as about half a dozen Stephen King novels (notably The Shining, It, and Firestarter). None of that is necessarily bad, but Stranger Things is stubborn in its unoriginality. It’s also profoundly unrealistic: while the genre requires us to accept the presence of supernatural beings, it’s harder to accept a maximum security military installation allowing some hick sheriff to snoop around with practical impunity.

The mystery that surrounds the military’s pseudo-scientific experiments is one of the more interesting parts of the series, as is the nod towards the actual history of US military research into obscure phenomena during the Cold War. Unfortunately, the personal melodrama really lets the show down. Much of the show centres on the kids (rather, brats) and their efforts to find Will. I found these scenes largely irritating, partly because the so-called friends never converse or talk, but instead constantly bicker and argue. Maybe that’s what kids do, but it doesn’t make for entertaining late-night drama. Still, the brat kids are still probably better actors than the one who plays Nancy Wheeler, who relies on the same vapid expression of dull surprise in 90% of her scenes. Someone really needs to tell her to stop using that expression all the time–not just because it looks moronic, but because it will give her crazy forehead wrinkles by the time she’s 30. Nancy has a creepy boyfriend who looks like the Milibands’ evil brother; but the cast is generally forgettable, despite some familiar faces from movies and TV.

Forgettable, that is, except for Winona Ryder. As a kid I used to have something of a crush on Ryder, but that was before I had any idea what a bad actress she is. Her overacting in Stranger Things is appalling: we get it that the character is supposed to be massively worried about her son; but there is hardly any variation whatsoever in her performance; she has no depth and is ultimately impossible to relate to. She adopts this voice the whole time which is probably supposed to convey desperation but really just sounds whiny and is pretty insufferable. Inevitably, this has been pitched as a ‘comeback’ role for Ryder, but I really don’t see it.

Stranger Things is so cliched. At one point, a boffin science teacher is explaining inter-dimensional theories to the kids; and this happened:

 

We were just sitting there like, ‘please don’t do the pencil through the paper thing from Event Horizon’. And, of course, they did it. When Interstellar did the same thing a couple of years ago, we groaned. Its just become such a lazy cliche and I can’t believe writers can’t come up with another way to do this. But it’s indicative of the lazy and cliche-ridden style the writers use here. Another thing I took issue with was when the kids are explaining school bulling to Eleven, and Mike explains it by saying they’re “mouth-breathers”. Bullied children are often consoled with statements like, don’t worry, you’re better/smarter than them, etc. Now, I know getting bullied really, really sucks, and we need a way to explain it to kids so they can deal with it, but this is ultimately unhelpful and a trope we really need to move away from. As a general rule, coming to rely for your self-esteem on the intellectual inferiority of other people is not good for you.

Probably the best thing about Stranger Things is its intro music. Otherwise, its efforts to invoke the 80s generally feel like a typically postmodern exercise in imitation, reproducing the familiar iconography and cultural representations of the 80s, but not featuring anything you can learn from and certainly not saying anything interesting about the decade. The grating identification of the writers as ‘The Duffer Brothers’ also came across as a cheesy, lame and overt attempt at brand-creation. For all the retro-worship on display here, the conceptualization and execution of Stranger Things has produced a soulless and superficial experience, surprisingly embodying much of what is wrong about contemporary culture.

5/10