Stranger Things

This week, I binge watched the Netflix series Stranger Things. It’s not something I would necessarily have gone for had I not seen it billed as pretty great by a few friends and colleagues. Here are some random thoughts on the series, in more or less chronological order from the time I started the series until now, starting maybe halfway through.

  • Steve is an asshole. He’s like Brendan Frasier meets maybe Johnny (sweep the leg!) from Karate Kid and every other entitled shithead kid from every 80s movie ever.
  • Is Nancy a riff on the female lead from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?
  • The kid missing his front teeth is great, sort of a highlight of the show for me, basically Gertie from E.T. meets Chunk from The Goonies meets, I dunno, kid Jeff Goldblum?
  • The title graphic is so perfectly Stephen King/all-horror-authors-from-the-80s that I can hardly bear its perfection.
  • Little twinges of Twin Peaks in the title music.
  • Look, these walkie talkies aren’t actually the ones we all had as kids (you know, the gray ones with the black and orange buttons). Get it right or go home. Also, they said at one point to tune to channel 6, but later we see that they’re three-channel walkie talkies. Are they counting by twos or is this a mistake?
  • Oh god, please don’t kill the black kid when he’s up in the tree watching the evil people at the nefarious science/whatever facility. We see enough murder of black kids by authorities in real, daily America.
  • Look, is this show for real or are you, with your super duper promiment 80s kitsch “background” details, just trying to appeal to my nostalgia for my childhood?
  • Who the heck are the Duffer Brothers?
  • The El actor is kind of horrible, but she’s also a kid and this is probably pretty hard to pull off.
  • Steve’s sidekick is the most freckled brown-headed kid I’ve ever seen. (It’s ok, I can say it, since I’m a freckled person.)
  • Ah, the good old 80s, when a 17-year-old and his nemesis’s girlfriend can buy a bear trap, some gasoline, and a bunch of ammo and nobody bats an eye. ‘Murica, Fuck Yeah!
  • The (uh, maybe spoiler?) isolation tank bits seem kind of right on.
  • Look, Winona puts on all the makeup except eyeliner when she’s suddenly not feeling like an isolated raving lunatic and is tramping about in an (uh, spoiler) alternate universe looking for her kid.
  • I swear the Matthew Modine character (the evil white-haired scientist guy) reminds me of some other guy who starred in a like WB show a decade or so ago about a widowed dad and his kid (One Tree Hill? — checked, and nope), but the only name that comes to mind is “Chut,” which isn’t a real name.
  • Awww, Steve’s an ok guy after all. Pretty bad (ironic? I think maybe not) taste in sweaters, though.
  • Please please end this and move on. Like, let there be closure and let us understand that, sure, there may be a second season, but it’ll be a whole different problem set with maybe whole different people. Please for the love of all things pleasant in the world don’t do some stupid bullshit thing where you give us a hint of some vague continuation of the next season, which’ll just be a like pandery pale shade of the current reasonably tight 8-episode season just because. Please don’t have one of the main characters under sort of mysterious, shady circumstances find some mystery box in the woods in which to place some food for the maybe disintegrated sort of beatified terribly acting numerically named character who all along I’ve thought of as sort of a surrogate for his tragically dead daughter and who happens to horde Eggos oh fuck my life, you’re putting Eggos in the box aren’t you Elliot Hirsch neé David Harbour?

On the whole, I liked it. I’m glad it was short, and if there’s another season, I hope it’s not a continuation of this season, though it seems like it will be. Everything doesn’t have to have a sequel.

Twin Peaks

I guess I lived a pretty sheltered life as a kid. I wasn’t really allowed to watch MTV (though sometimes I did), and there were many shows that my mother would say were garbage that I wasn’t allowed to watch. I spent my after-school afternoons with the casts of Happy Days, The Brady Bunch, M*A*S*H, and Gilligan’s Island. MacGuyver was kosher, and of course Columbo and Matlock were staples. It’s not that I wasn’t allowed to watch a great lot of television — I spent most Saturday mornings of my childhood in front of the television from 6 or 7 in the morning until lunchtime — but the television I could watch without getting into trouble or having to sneak around was pretty vanilla. Twin Peaks was not on the list of approved shows.

I sort of like David Lynch’s movies. I’m a fan of weird, up to a point, and his movies bump right up against and sometimes go just a hair past that point, so his movies tend to appeal to me. Some time back, I decided to give Twin Peaks a try, and I don’t think I made it all the way through the first episode; if I did, I didn’t make it very far into the second. It seemed so very overwrought, so melodramatic, so 90s.

Having gotten wind in the past year or so that the show was coming back with Lynch still at the helm, I thought I’d try the show again. Laura Palmer’s screaming mother in that first episode very nearly turned me off again. The distraught principal did too. But then there was Kyle MacLachlan’s delightul character and the beginnings of a few hints of the sort of weirdness I find appealing. I was lukewarm through the first half of the first season, and at some point I told my wife that I’d like it more if it were about 40% more weird.

Then it crescendoed into super duper weirdness over the next 15 or so episodes, to the point that during an 8 – 10 minute part of the final episode that I watched while very very tired that was visually arresting and really pretty interesting, I wound up wishing Lynch would sort of get on with it. As the episodes kept coming, I commented to my wife a time or two that I could hardly believe that they had played the show on prime time television and found an audience for it, so far from my notion of the mainstream taste it seemed. Still, it was neat, and I liked a lot of the weirdness.

My main problem with the show was that watching it 25 years after its creation, I had difficulty understanding whether the things that seemed overwrought and bad about it were in fact overwrought and bad or whether that’s just what television was like in 1990. Or, if they were overwrought and bad and sometimes sentimental and saccharine, were they that way in earnest (for the period) or was Lynch doing something meta with the conventions of television?At the distance of 25 years, I’m really just not at all sure.

As is pretty normal for me, I expended just about as much energy thinking about my thinking about watching the show as I expended watching the show, which is generally pretty satisfying to me but was perhaps less so than usual in this case because I partially suspect that some of the badness was just period badness and not cleverness.

At any rate, I now have Twin Peaks under my belt, and if the redux does materialize, I’ll likely watch it with interest.

CSI: Cyber

I don’t watch a whole lot of TV. Well, I do and I don’t. When I don’t, I don’t. When I do, I gulp it down. For example, last year, I watched all of The Wire over the course of a few weeks (maybe it was months?). I also watched all of Deadwood. I did the same with Battlestar Galactica a year or so before and recent Doctor Who the year before that. It’s vaguely cyclical. I’ll read books for a few months without even really glancing at the television for anything other than family movie/pizza night on Fridays, and then I’ll binge watch something, or a few somethings.

This year, I’ve recorded more reading in the first 5 months than I did in all of last year, and I had thought that last year was a pretty good year for me. But I’ve still mixed in a little TV over the past few months, mostly episodes of Castle (which is so endearing and funny) and of CSI: Cyber, the latest variant of the long-running CSI franchise.

It turns out to be a ridiculous show, but one I’ve not been able to resist because computer stuff is sort of in my wheelhouse. I’ve often wondered how much shows like that fudged (or, to be charitable, simplified) facts about the various disciplines they incorporate. I don’t know anything real about forensics, for example, and I’ve often suspected that when we hear on television about blood spatter patterns and other more technical things, we’ve been fed lies (or, to be charitable again, we’ve been fed palatable but quite lame simplifications of the truth). I’ve wondered if doctors and morgue techs didn’t sit at home and chuckle about the absurdity of these shows.

Well, now that there’s a show about computer stuff that makes a fair amount of sense to me, I can confirm that we’re all being lied to. I mean, we all know this to a degree. There’s an interview with Sandra Bullock about her appearance in The Net in which she says that she was typing all kinds of personal catharsis that made her look like quite the hacker indeed but that a program was making the hackerish things appear onscreen. Well of course it was. Typing is hard even when you’re not being filmed, and of course an actor couldn’t be expected to frenzy-type hacker stuff in real-time. I typoed while typing that typing was hard. Take a movie like Swordfish that depicts hackers as people who chug caffeine and can high-five one another while hacking whatever insanely secure system on a deadline and under extreme duress. There are probably cases in which this sort of behavior is what happens in the real world, but I don’t feel like they’re terribly common. (Let it be known: You cannot open some magical window on your computer and type “filter by credit card to show purchases on August 23 between $23 and $98 by people 28 years or younger” and actually get results (and a color-coded map of relevant area stores). Extracting data (and especially data across many sources) is really hard.)

CSI: Cyber gives us a fair amount of this sort of theater. You have your stereotypical fat bearded white-hat hacker working for the government and plenty of other socially maladjusted hacker types who perpetrate internet crimes for various reasons. Then you have what I suppose is sort of the manic pixie dream girl version of a hacker, with dyed hair often knotted up on top of her head in cute little horns. Then you have this strange little dapper black-hat-reformed hacker working out penance and being the figure of redemption. And there’s The Biscuit from Ally McBeal, and Patricia Arquette reprising her role from Medium, but instead of being a psychic, she’s a psychologist who can intuit truth from eye and hand movements of the people she casually observes during interviews. And also she goes into dangerous situations with a gun. And then there’s Dawson from Dawson’s Creek, sort of the beefcake who sort of maybe sometimes when it’s convenient knows stuff about computers but is mostly just the vaguely tragic muscle of the show (he has aged quite nicely, to be fair).

Of the various CSIs I’ve watched, CSI: Cyber seems definitely the weakest. I sort of want it to succeed because I think it’s actually a potential vector for teaching people about the various dangers of being online (though also: it’s also maybe sometimes sort of alarmist; probably nobody will steal your baby by hacking your baby monitor). But I think there’s so much that’s bad about it besides the ways in which they oversimplify the computery bits (which, let me say, I laugh out loud a couple of times an episode at how they show fragments of html or silly bits of pseudocode scrolling by, and I sort of wish I could be a code writer for the show and do my own special brand of trolling in these bits).

The show is badly dramatized. They’ve sort of blown their wad in season one with respect to the arc that is supposed to justify the Arquette character’s involvement. And honestly, her character is probably the weakest in the show. She’s the human element, but her story and Arquette’s portrayal of the character is at various times so wooden and near-mystical as to make it impossible to sympathize with her or to believe her as a person who interacts with other people as written.

The show has been picked up for a second season, and honestly, I’m surprised. I’ll probably keep watching, if only for the comedy of the failure of the seriousness with which the show proceeds. Probably I should read a good book instead.

True Blood and Dexter

When I started watching back episodes of True Blood a few months ago, I did so on the heels of having watched back episodes of Dexter. Only the other night, having gotten through most of the third season of True Blood, did it occur to me that these were both shows about blood, about killers and deviants. What am I, some kind of psycho? I suppose I’m in plenty of company if so.

It’s not just blood the shows have in common, though. Both hooked me early with story lines that made me want to stay tuned. As the episodes began to pile up, they both also turned into soap operas, and I cringe now to watch them. Yet I continue to watch. I think it becomes a matter of my feeling as if I’ve invested enough time now that there’s really no going back. I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t enjoy the shows, but I do also find them frustrating.

What’s appealing to me about these shows initially, I think, is that they offer new twists on old themes. In Dexter, we see the forensic drama twisted back on itself with a forensic investigator who is himself a serial killer. In True Blood, we see vampires trying (some of them) to step out of the shadows and join human society (with a nice glancing side-commentary on bigotry on top of that). Maybe other shows have played with these conventions in similar ways; I don’t watch a whole lot of TV and so can’t say with any authority. I can say only that I think these twists are what draw me to these shows.

But ultimately the shows disappoint me. The novelty makes way for romantic melodrama that really chaps my hide. Still, I’ll watch. The next season of True Blood begins on June 26.