I just need to talk about how much I love The Mandalorian
I just finished watching Episode 4 of The Mandalorian, “Sanctuary,” and I don’t have much to say apart from damn I am loving this television show.
Just when you think they’re going to go full-on Lone Wolf and Cub, they dive right into the Seven Samurai, and fair enough. It’s TV law that every episodic series needs to have a Christmas Carol episode, with an exemption for Westerns as long as they do a version of Seven Samurai.
There’s also a little bit of Shane in there, too; or was it Hud? I haven’t actually seen either, but only know enough about them to make vague references to them and hope they work. One of the things that’s so brilliant about The Mandalorian is how well it incorporates all of those references without feeling derivative.
I was being dismissive about the series doing another take on The Magnificent Seven, but there are two things about The Mandalorian that make it work: first, it tells the story so matter-of-factly and un-self-consciously that it doesn’t feel like derivative pastiche or even respectful homage. Instead, it feels like it’s just a part of this heritage of storytelling that effortlessly jumps across genres and cultures: Western, Samurai, “space opera,” Japan to the US to Italy and back to Japan again. It still feels like a series from the late 1970s that couldn’t possibly have existed until the 2010s.
The second thing that makes it work is a seriously bad-ass take on the AT-ST. Yes, it was jarring to see super-tough heroes immediately freak out at the suggestion of an AT-ST, considering everyone in the audience saw a montage of dozens of the things being taken out by tiny, marketable bears with twine and tree trunks. But if you ignore that, it was a great way to bring in the Star Wars nostalgia by turning it into a fantasy element. It had been turned into a monster with glowing red eyes, changing the story into a classic one of noble villagers fighting off a giant bear, or a dragon.
One remarkable thing about The Mandalorian is that every episode has gotten an audible reaction out of me at least once. Usually I watch television and movies with as much detachment as I can manage; even things that make me cry still engage my brain at the “hey, that’s clever” level instead of making me genuinely emotionally invested. But in this episode, I audibly gasped at two points: once when the baby spit out a frog after all the village kids laughed at him, and again at the end when an assassination attempt failed.
The latter of those scenes is a familiar fake-out, and in fact is one that the series has already done in the first episode, and it’s filmed and edited in an extremely predictable and even cliched way. (A shot rings out, birds fly panicked from the trees). But because of the confident, straightforward storytelling that this series excels at, I thought of it as “old-fashioned” instead of “cliched.” It evokes old TV westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke not just with style or premise, but with overall sensibility: earnest stories with no sense of irony or self-awareness. And then The Mandalorian adds laser blasts and jet packs and aliens and Werner Herzog — and clever twists on the western like the gambler with a life-saving playing card in his breast pocket, or stubborn droids replacing spooked horses — which all dance across the surface of it to make it feel alien and fantastic.
The Mandalorian continues to be everything I could’ve wanted from a Star Wars TV series. It fills out the universe and shows us elements that have been hinted at but never realized. And best of all it’s so well written. Completely accessible to everyone who’s going to want to watch a show like this, but it never panders or stops to explain every detail. It’s wonderful to see a Star Wars story told with some trust that the audience will be able to keep up. I hope they keep up this caliber of skillful storytelling, but even if they somehow whiff the ending, what we’ve seen so far has been some of the best Star Wars since the early 80s.
And in case I’m reading this years from now and fail to understand the title: this episode had Eugene Cordero playing one of the villagers, and he also played Pillboy on The Good Place.
The first Star Wars live-action TV series gets so much right that it’d be a shame not to notice its amazing soundtrack.
It feels like I’ve been looking forward to a live-action Star Wars TV series for decades now. Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated Clone Wars series is one of the most original and brilliant things ever to come out of the Star Wars license, but it was deliberately small in scope I’ve heard good things about the animated series The Clone Wars and Rebels, but both are hamstrung by some insistence that animation is for kids.I believe people when they say that The Clone Wars series got really good, but I also have to point out that early episodes still had Jar-Jar.
There’s so much potential for smaller, more deliberately-paced stories in the Star Wars universe, it could be surprising that it’s taken so long for anyone to make a non-juvenile take. After seeing the first two episodes of The Mandalorian, though, I no longer find it that surprising. It seems like every detail and choice in tone demonstrates how badly this could have gone wrong.
The overall tone is like a 1970s Western — or rather, our memory of what they were like, since the reality is that they were painfully slow-paced and dull to 21st century audiences. It’s as if the makers of Wild Wild West had chosen to do a sci-fi sequel, inspired by A Fistful of Dollars. And instead of presenting it as a theme or re-skinning, like Firefly‘s HEY LOOK WE’RE MAKING A SCI-FI WESTERN approach, I think The Mandalorian does it a lot more subtly and “holistically.” It uses storytelling techniques from 1970s Westerns — like montages, long sequences without dialogue, and even end credit sequences over still frames of painted concept art — that make its setting and tone seem an integral part of the story, instead of just a clever pastiche.
That includes the series soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson, which is one thing I love about The Mandalorian (that I’m choosing to write about). This is a work that acknowledges how crucial music is to the Star Wars experience but doesn’t just mimic John Williams’s soundtracks. It also doesn’t fall into the second most obvious trap, which would have been to mimic Ennio Morricone or any of the other iconic western movie and TV soundtracks. The music never seems to be trying to capture a style, but trying to capture a feeling or a concept.
Because so much of The Mandalorian‘s second episode happens without dialogue, it allows the music to come to the forefront. And while the soundtrack doesn’t borrow themes directly from the Star Wars movies, it does use a lot of the same ideas. At least, it seems that way to those of us whose knowledge of classical music is limited almost entirely to John Williams’s soundtracks. The Mandalorian doesn’t have an opening theme song, but in the second episode, the leitmotif for the character of The Mandalorian starts to become more recognizable as a replacement for the main theme. That reliance on characters’ having their own recognizable themes is an integral part of what makes a Star Wars soundtrack.
Throughout the episode, the action sequences are scored with heavily percussive, almost chaotic sounds. It sounds alien, first off, asserting that this isn’t just a conventional Western. But it’s also evocative of the music in Star Wars as the Tusken Raiders attack Luke Skywalker, without being a direct imitation. Even more than that, though, was how much it reminded me of the music in The Planet of the Apes. None of it feels to me like a direct reference, but is instead part of the overall tone and setting of the series, planting it solidly in the realm of late 1970s science fiction.
The music is one perfectly-realized detail of many in the series. And all of the details are working in tandem to make it feel as if it were an inextricable part of the Star Wars universe that’s been sitting in a Lucasfilm vault since 1979. (Even though the seamless effects work and puppetry would make this series impossible before around 2010).
Göransson himself seems like the kind of musician who could only exist in the 21st century, though. His entire career and body of work are super-exciting to me, because it suggests a media environment where genres are irrelevant, and it’s all a huge cross-cultural mash-up. If you haven’t listened to the episode of the Song Exploder podcast in which he talks about recording the soundtrack to Black Panther, you absolutely should.
Los Espookys on HBO is weird and brilliant and I already miss it, even though it’s not over yet
Los Espookys is a comedy series on HBO about a group of four weird friends in some unspecified Latin American country, who stage real-life horror scenes for their various weird clients. Even if you don’t have HBO, you can watch the first episode on YouTube.
I’ve read a bunch of articles and reviews trying to explain why the show’s so surprisingly fun and charming, but I don’t think any of them really nail it. And neither will this blog post, because it’s practical inexplicable. It’s the best weird concept for a comedy I’ve seen since The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt, and it’s probably the surprisingly funniest series I’ve seen since 30 Rock, and it’s somehow more impressive than both because it plays simultaneously to both Spanish- and English-speaking audiences. Which leads into the thing I’m picking as One Thing I Like About Los Espookys:
There’s a scene in the third episode where Andrés’s (Jose Torres) handsome but awful boyfriend asks “will you marry me?” and Andrés responds with a hilariously perfect expression that he later describes as “I said maybe with my eyes.” It’s great first of all because it’s perfect for Andrés’s character. He has a perpetual expression that’s a combination of being haunted by his dark mysterious past and annoyed to the point of he can’t even.
Even more than that, though, it’s a moment that’s hilarious but that doesn’t depend on language. Very little of the comedy in Los Espookys is wordplay or referential humor, since everything has to work for people relying on the subtitles as well as people who understand Spanish. Still, the dialogue is often hilarious, but more from stringing absurd ideas together. There isn’t a lot of slapstick, either, although there is some — like the best comedies, Los Espookys is constantly jumping across the lines between cerebral and silly. Because it’s not dependent on being “too Spanish” or “too American,” the humor is more universal.
I read an interview with Torres in which he downplays concerns about trying to sell a show predominantly in Spanish to an American audience, simply by pointing out that he grew up in El Salvador watching American programming with Spanish subtitles, and he handled it fine. That sensibility seems to drive everything about the series: it doesn’t feel the need to sacrifice any of its voice (literally or figuratively) to cater to an English-speaking audience, or in fact any kind of “mainstream” audience.
It doesn’t assume American by default; it’s conceived by people who grew up in Latin American cultures, and it’s adamantly about aspects of that culture — B-movie horror, ever-present Catholicism, copyright-infringing knock-off chocolate companies (a detail that I’d never heard of before but Torres asserts is common) — but is in no way an “intro to Latin America.” It really doesn’t feel as if it’s made for either audience; it’s universal. Or at least universal among people who like weird humor, and who pick up shared references to exorcisms, alien abductions, inheritance scares, and that thing where someone is sucked into a bed and falls through the ceiling to land on the bed again.
I also like that scene because it’s a gay marriage proposal in a universe where nobody treats being gay as all that exceptional. So far it seems like two of the main characters are queer and one seems to be asexual, but it’s just an aspect of their character and not any kind of plot point. In fact, there’s a moment when Andrés’s boyfriend tells him “good luck finding another gay guy,” and it seemed jarring, because until then no one had even seemed to acknowledge that they were a gay couple.
There’s just a sense of confidence and fearlessness throughout Los Espookys that makes it seem like true 21st century multicultural comedy with its own unique voice. And it refuses to do anything that would compromise that voice. It doesn’t tell you that it’s some kind of cultural bridge between English- and Spanish-speaking audiences, it doesn’t over-explain its gags, it doesn’t try to justify its weirdness. It just feels like a smart, goofy show that only tries to be funny; all of its multicultural and multilingual significance is something it says with its eyes.
The Good Place silently rejects decades of “white by default” in favor of showing what heaven is really going to be like.
I’m going to be careful not to post any spoilers about the series, and I won’t go into detail about any actual plot points.
The thing I love most about The Good Place isn’t that the human characters all come from different ethnic and economic backgrounds across the world. The thing I love the most is that The Good Place doesn’t even acknowledge its diversity as anything unusual. Of course heaven wouldn’t be populated mostly by white, English-speaking middle class people of European descent — why would you ever imagine otherwise? That doesn’t even make sense.
And yet it’s such a pervasive idea that I fell for it, subconsciously. I spent a long time thinking of this as a liberal progressive show, just for showing diversity. But it’s not actually progressive to acknowledge that the majority of the people on Earth aren’t white Americans. We’ve just let things get pushed so far out of balance that globalism and more equal media representation feel like bold progressive concepts, instead of just reality.
The Good Place isn’t a political show — in fact, I can think of a few opportunities it had to make political commentary, and it wisely avoided it. It always keeps a careful balance between cerebral and lowbrow humor, with its best gags suspended in that perfect state between brilliant and idiotic; making a pointed topical reference would cheapen the whole thing, somehow. And it deliberately touches on a variety of philosophies, but its own voice is a kind of optimistic humanism.
And it’s definitely, refreshingly, not the vapid, performative nonsense that tries to pass itself off as progressivisim in the 21st century. The show relentlessly mocks Florida, Arizona, America in general, and trash and douchebags of every variety, without seeming cruel but also without deflating into toothless, lowest-common-denominator humor. It demands that we all strive to be better versions of ourselves, but without ever succumbing to pearl-clutching or self-righteous indignation.
(Also, it almost never indulges in outright sentimentality, but it has made me cry on more than one occasion. Every time, it felt earned).
I definitely love The Good Place for all the ways it explicitly defies my expectations. For instance: at the end of the first season, I imagined what format the second season was going to take. They covered all that in a montage in like the second episode of the second season, then proceeded to go off in an entirely different direction.
But even more than that, I love the way it implicitly defied my expectations, challenging me for patting myself on the back for being a good liberal progressive. It doesn’t just say that men, women, black, white, American, Senegalese, Pakistani, Filipino, poor, rich, even angel or demon, all have the potential to be good. It says of course that’s the case, and it’d be stupid to think that that’s some kind of a big deal.
About the return of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the creepy complexities of nerd ownership
There’s a new season of a new version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 running on Netflix and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of it. Cry Wilderness is my favorite episode so far; I love the band playing “classic” MST3k songs like “Wild Rebels” and “Creepy Girl;” and even as much as I hate change, all the new cast quickly won me over.
My only complaints: I have a hard time telling the guys’ voices apart, and the pacing is rushed. It feels like they’re trying to cram too much into a show that was originally designed specifically to kill as much screen time as possible. The recurring gimmick that Jonah gets sucked out of the satellite to re-enact the opening credits seems weird and unnecessary. And the mad scientist segments are no longer shot with a Batman ’66-style dutch angle, which was one of my favorite subtle gags from the original.
Well, those are my only legitimate complaints. My main complaint is that all of a sudden out of nowhere, there are thousands of other MST3k fans who claim to enjoy the series as much as I do.
The series was formative for me. It didn’t just play into my sense of humor; it helped define it. I still find myself using phrases I picked up from the show without realizing it. I can distinctly remember the first time I watched it, and the joke that got me instantly hooked. (From Robot Holocaust, “Is that Wendy, or Lisa?”) My .plan file had an animated version of the “Turn Down Your Lights (Where Applicable)” opening. (Yeah, I just used USENET as evidence of nerd cred).
But that’s not particularly unique, as it turns out. I had to get my animated ASCII art from somewhere, after all. There were thousands of MSTies in the info club, and I’d see photos and video from conventions and such. I went to a screening of Zombie Nightmare at UGA during a college tour, and the theater was filled with hundreds of obsessive fans. Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax live shows in San Francisco would have lines around the block. Obviously, a lot of the cast of the new MST3k are there specifically because they were huge fans of the original.
It should create a kind of camaraderie, which is why it’s odd to see the long list of Kickstarter backers at the end of each episode and feel a bit deflated. In this review of the new series on “What the Flick?”, Alonso Duralde points out that nerds have taken over pop culture, for better or worse, and “I long for outsiderdom.” Of course, it’s completely irrational — even counter-productive — to begrudge something you love becoming successful. But it does inevitably change the dynamic to go from feeling like the creators of the show are talking directly to me, and then to find out it’s more like they’re talking to thousands of people, and I’m listening in.
“Missing Richard Simmons” didn’t do a lot for me overall, but one of the few “larger themes” of it was the asymmetric relationship between a creator or a celebrity and their fans. It’s not accusatory or anything; even artists who knock themselves out being accessible and personable will inevitably run into the fact that it’s a one-to-many relationship. And while the internet does bring fans of weird niche stuff together, it’s perversely isolating, because it reminds you that you’re not all that special.
It’s not entirely my weird nerd neuroses at play, either; I think Joel Hodgson is at least partly to blame. There’s an old quote from Joel that MST3k fans tend to love: “We never say, ‘Who’s gonna get this?’ We always say, ‘The right people will get this.'” In 2017, it can seem a tiny bit insufferable, but for those of us who were fans of a weird puppet show in the early 90s, it was like being inducted into a special private club. I’m one of the right people!
Even though it’s a bit disappointing to find out that my super-special private club wasn’t all that exclusive after all, the show’s still a heck of a lot of fun. Coming from a skeptical and overly-possessive fan, that’s high praise. Even though it feels “bigger,” more polished, and it forgoes the original’s awkward charm for more confident gags, it’s still resolutely its own thing. I found that I enjoyed it a lot more when I stopped trying to compare it to the original and just watched it on its own merits. After all, it’s just a show.
The end of Westworld‘s first season has felt like a series of reveals for the sake of having reveals. This post is packed full of unmarked spoilers.
It’s totally unfair to lump all of Jonathan Nolan’s and Christopher Nolan’s work together, but watching the season one finale of HBO’s Westworld had me flashing back to dozens of different last-act reveals over the years. The last couple of episodes have felt more like big reveals for the sake of having big reveals more than for the sake of being actually revelatory. I don’t think it completely undermines the season as a whole, but it does feel ultimately like a missed opportunity. It ends up feeling like a slick and entertaining ten episodes with a couple of brilliant moments, when it started out feeling like it had the potential to be more.
In my other post about the series, I was getting annoyed at the critics who demanded the show be more explicit in its sympathies. Considering that there seems to be an entire cottage industry of recaps, reviews, interpretations, and predictions all second-guessing what the series is saying, I suppose I can’t fault it that much for having a relatively by-the-numbers finale. If you’ve got people concerned that the show isn’t being explicitly critical enough of the world it depicts, maybe you do just have to show an hour of robots killing people, to make sure everybody’s on the same page.
Even if that means we’ve ended up with a new, modern, and more mature interpretation of the 1970s movie Westworld that ends up being about nothing more than a futuristic Old West theme park where the robots start killing guests.
My biggest issue with the finale is that it repeatedly undermines Dolores’s character while it tries to stitch the narrative together around her. It’s difficult for me to tell what agency she had in her own story. We’re told it was a torturous 35-year-long process for her to gain sentience, but Maeve seems to have done it a lot more efficiently. Ford’s plan was ostensibly for Dolores to repeat the massacre at Escalante but on her own volition instead of at Arnold’s programming, except in the end she does exactly what Ford wants her to do.
And in the final scenes, she seems to be slaughtering folks without hesitation. That works fine as a robot rebellion story — humans are the enemy! hosts are a new species! — but we already had a robot rebellion story in 1978. (And again in 2004, with Battlestar Galactica). This version of Westworld had been promising to be more about sentience, consciousness, and how our identities are defined by the choices we make; and less about violence and peen.
Still, there can be merit in a somewhat shallow story that’s told in an interesting way. A reveal, when done the right way, can be satisfying for its own sake, even if it doesn’t have any deeper resonance or insight into the human condition. Westworld has had a few of those moments where a brief moment shown on screen explodes into a huge network of implications and potential narratives, the way podcast ads describe opening a Casper mattress.
The best of the entire series was the moment in episode seven, in which Bernard and Theresa are exploring the old replica house that Ford had been keeping hidden from the rest of the park. “What door?” It was brilliant on multiple levels: wait, did we see that just a second ago? Can we trust anything that we’ve seen? Does that mean what I think it means? Has he always been a host, or was he replaced? What does that mean about Elsie’s disappearance? Who’s controlling him? Is Theresa walking into a trap? Is something really bad going to happen to her right now?
But I still say that the first episode’s “twist” reveal — that Teddy was a host and the Man in Black was the human guest — was a strong one. It’s just that in retrospect, it’s most like Lost‘s reveal of the inside of the hatch in episode 2: it implied so many story developments that it couldn’t possibly deliver on.
Worse than a missed opportunity, though, are the ideas raised in episode one that seem to be contradicted by the finale. The first episode twist challenged our assumptions about sympathies: we assumed that it was a story about a beautiful young man and a beautiful young (robot) woman, only to discover that the story’s “villain” was a human and our supposed protagonist was merely programmed to take the fall over and over for eternity. By the end of the season, though, I’m left wondering why Dolores was a protagonist and Teddy a major character in the story at all, other than the fact that they’re among the prettiest?
Again, it seems like all of the things it took Dolores 35 years to comprehend were fully understood by Maeve within a week or so. And while Dolores was essentially just pulled through her loop, Maeve was actually able to make decisions based on her newfound self-awareness. (For that matter, Hector and Armistice each went from sex robot to 80s action movie bad-ass within one cycle and a whole lot less psychological trauma). I can’t think of anything that Dolores has done that seems unique or remarkable. Her “I chose a story where I wasn’t a damsel in distress” moment is undermined by the revelation that she spent most of the following 35 years being exactly that.
And the idea that Dolores has finally advanced to the next stage of “host” by acquiring free will is also undermined by the climax of Maeve’s story, when she chooses to leave the train — and presumably, whatever pre-defined course she’d been set on by a shadow figure to be revealed in season two — for the sake of a daughter she knows isn’t “real.” Not just that, but Dolores’s supposed free will culminates not just in her killing Ford, but shooting plenty of other humans indiscriminately. Which is exactly what we’ve been shown throughout the season as the thing that makes the humans the bad guys: the guests indiscriminately inuring, raping, and murdering the hosts without hesitation. Maeve doesn’t hesitate to kill humans, but at least it’s tactical and she’ll save even the super-annoying ones.
On top of that, Ford not only deserves to die but wants to die. His speeches about spending 35 years correcting his mistake, or giving the hosts the last thing they need to achieve consciousness — they sound good because they’re delivered by Anthony Hopkins, but they’re ultimately shallow and self-serving. As gross as the guests are, the one thing that excuses all of them (except William) is that they believe the hosts are empty shells. Ford’s the only one who knew they were capable of sentience but still let them be raped and tortured for decades. Arnold is shown as being so consumed by grief he wanted to die, and so having Dolores murder him was self-serving but also served a purpose, in his imagination. The finale presents Ford’s “final narrative” as a cunning master plan that will bring about the final phase of the hosts’ “awakening,” but we’re shown little evidence that that’s actually the case.
I’m not sure if I would’ve guessed the truth about Arnold’s identity or the Man in Black’s identity and backstory and multiple timelines. There were plenty of clever clues in there — the photo fake-out and the changing Westworld logo in paricular — but that’s never been the kind of thing I get into since I’m usually too busy trying to piece together the explicit storyline and all the interpretations it implies. I am sure that I wouldn’t have had the chance to guess the truth, though, since I was inundated with theories and speculation the second I looked on the internet for any discussion about the series. As it turns out, the most common theories were all correct, and it looks like all the clues were spotted almost immediately.
I don’t think it’s possible to avoid that, though, and I’m skeptical it’d be worth the effort: to me, it’s not as important for a reveal or twist to be surprising as it is for it to be satisfying and/or meaningful. The reveal that Bernard was a host wasn’t a complete surprise, but what matters is that it was so well done in how it was allowed to play out. Every reveal after that, though, felt like the last few minutes of The Prestige or The Dark Knight Rises or, I guess, all of Memento: dead time where they’re just spooling back the plot like the end of a magic trick, eagerly asking “Did you notice that part? Did you see it? Did we just blow your ever-lovin’ mind?!”
As far as I can tell, there’s not much significance to the fact that Bernard the host was based on Arnold. The show seemed to suggest that Arnold’s suffering was a perfect cornerstone for Bernard to attain sentience, since change comes from a desire for the world to be different from what it is — that all sounds like the kind of justification that a writer would come up with after the fact. You could infer that Ford was wracked with guilt after Arnold’s “assisted suicide” and wanted a version of him that could live forever, but there’s little on screen that would support that theory.
I can’t see much weight in the reveal that William is the Man in Black, either. He was originally presented as a guest who’d been coming to the park for 30 years, grew tired of it falling just short of actual consequence, and had decided he wanted to “level up.” That version of disillusionment over time makes a lot more sense than the idea of someone who was tricked into believing the hosts could be sentient during his first visit and then spent the next three decades not learning much of anything. You could infer that that first visit to the park really did reveal his true nature, which fits in with his story of his wife’s suicide after years of being frightened of the “real” him. But this is all stuff that Logan was talking about explicitly, within the first few hours of their adventure. It doesn’t feel that the character at the end of 35 years has progressed any farther than he did at the time of his introduction.
That’s essentially what Dolores accuses him of before their fistfight (which was itself so tone-deaf as to seem like a product of a much less intelligent show). As far as I can tell, that’s the only significance of the Man in Black’s identity at all: it shows Dolores how humans are susceptible to time while the hosts aren’t just immortal but un-aging. Which is implicit in the whole premise and hardly seems like an insight that takes ten episodes to unpack.
So ultimately I still say that the most common criticisms of Westworld — that it’s all about the male gaze, that it’s heteronormative, that it’s as culturally insensitive as the older material that it’s based on — are shallow and largely without merit. But I also think that my initial take may have been overly optimistic. It’s still an entertaining, smart, and intriguing series even if it doesn’t have the spark of genius that makes it profound.
HBO’s Westworld is as much of a post-millennial meta-textual exercise as the original was a 1970s fear-of-technology thriller. That doesn’t mean it has nothing to say, though. Spoilers for the first three episodes.
I was two when the original Westworld came out, so there’s no way I could’ve seen it until the early 80s. I don’t remember anything about the movie itself. But it had so much pop cultural weight that I vividly remember images from it, in particular Yul Brenner’s Gunslinger, and especially the image of his face coming off. It’s one of those iconic images of the 1970s, right up there with Steve Austin fighting a Sasquatch and Charlton Heston cursing at the Statue of Liberty.
Which is a big part of why I think the reversal in the first episode of HBO’s Westworld is so brilliant. It’s not just a silly attention-grabbing twist like having Captain Kirk’s most famous lines delivered by Spock and vice versa. When it’s revealed that The Man in Black played by Ed Harris is actually one of the guests and not the robotic hosts, it’s packed with a lot more significance than just a fake-out callback. It’s an overture for the entire series.
Where do your sympathies lie, and how quickly do they change? Why do they change once it’s revealed a character is “real” or not? If you can’t tell the difference between the hosts and the guests, then why is there a difference at all? Are the Man in Black’s actions still reprehensible when you consider that he’s just playing a game? And what happens when we realize we’re at least one level removed from everything, and the question of “real” or “fake” is moot because everyone’s a character in a TV series?
The Assassination of Teddy Flood by Some Griefer smh!
On the podcast Shall We Play a Game?, the hosts (human, I’m presuming) JJ Sutherland and Chris Sullentrop have spent a couple of episodes talking about Westworld, specifically how the central conceit of the theme park compares to open-world video games.
They were disappointed that the series focused so strongly on the implications of artificial intelligences becoming sentient, because that’s a concept that’s already been exhaustively explored in decades of science fiction. Here’s a TV series that has the opportunity to be fully informed by video game culture, and it seems like a waste to spend that just doing a retread of all the Star Trek episodes about Data.
In particular, Sullentrop felt that the show clearly wanted us to empathize with the hosts and find the Man in Black completely reprehensible. But he’s merely playing the game (or, as we later find out, the meta-game). If he’s been visiting Westworld for 30 years, then he’s seen the cycles repeat over and over. He’s seen all of these characters be murdered and come back the next day with no signs of trauma and no memory of what had happened. He’s seen the older models, which are just barely removed from current-day Audo-Animatronics and couldn’t possibly be mistaken for a human.
By that measure, the Man in Black was just killing an NPC in a video game, but the series was playing it up as grand tragedy. That’s the same kind of thing that’s been used as a gag, like Austin Powers asking why nobody thinks about how things affect the family of a henchman.
I don’t quite agree with their criticisms. The idea of AIs gaining sentience isn’t a new one, but I think Westworld is combining it with the notion of interactivity and intent to add more nuance to the entire question of ethics and culpability in arts and entertainment. It’s a discussion that came up a lot about games in the early-to-mid-2000s, as opportunists tried to create a panic about “murder simulators” like Grand Theft Auto. Everybody who played and/or made video games was forced to take a step back and consider the question: is it obscene, or at best unhealthy, to be enjoying a hobby that’s disproportionately focused on murdering ever-increasingly realistic computer-generated human beings?
At the time, I thought we generally came to a consensus, and the consensus was a resounding “…err, probably not?” Whenever a watchdog group tries to go on a crusade against an artistic medium, all the hand-wringing and pearl-clutching ultimately falls to the basic fact that most adults can distinguish fiction from reality. Players do things in games like GTA specifically because they know they’re not real. So much time was wasted criticizing the game for glorifying violence, when it would’ve been better spent criticizing the game for believing that its adolescent bullshit was howlingly clever and biting satire.
Stay a While, and Listen
Westworld responds to the whole discussion with the question: “okay, fine, but what if the NPCs were really convincingly realistic?”
Episode two introduces us to a new everyman protagonist William and his douchebro companion Logan, two for-real-this-time guests who give us a chance to experience the park as an outsider coming in. William’s a first-time visitor who’s guided through an orientation by a beautiful woman. He asks, indirectly, whether she’s one of the android hosts or an employee of the park. Her response is one of the core ideas of the entire series: “If you can’t tell, does it matter?”
The characters tend to use the term “theme park” to describe Westworld, but most of the terminology throughout the series treats it like an open-world video game. There are mentions of levels, zones, and easter eggs. We see the guests get invited on quests in much the same way they do in video game equivalents: a seemingly random encounter with a character who introduces a side story.
When William gets approached by one of these — a grizzled old prospector with a story about a missing treasure — Logan warns him not to waste his time on such a “low level” distraction. When the same prospector tries again to tell his story, later inside a restaurant, Logan responds by stabbing him. He pins the old man’s hand to the table, causing him to scream in pain and shock and bleed all over everything in the middle of dinner.
There’s no question that the character is an android, or that it’ll quickly be reset with no memory of the event, patched up to give his quest to someone else. There’s also no question that it’s a supremely dick move on the part of Logan, vulgar and needlessly cruel. Knowing that it’s not “real” doesn’t do much to mitigate the fact that he chose to violently attack someone that could scream and bleed. Westworld‘s not content to say “they know it’s not real” and leave it at that.
Earlier in the series, there’s an important scene in which the park’s narrative designer pitches a new storyline to the board of directors. You can tell it’s an important scene because it’s got a ton of extras and an Anthony Hopkins monologue. The narrative designer is describing a dark and violent adventure that would tick off all the “adult content” boxes in a video game or, for that matter, an HBO series. There’s “self-cannibalism” and “something I like to call the whoroborous,” which I have to admit is genius in how economically it reinforces that this is an irredeemably loathsome character. He promises that the experience will give guests the “privilege of getting to know the character they’re most interested in: themselves.”
After his pitch, he’s completely shut down by Hopkins as the park’s co-creator and ineffable creative director. He dismisses it as nothing but cheap thrills and parlor tricks. The guests “already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.” And then the unbreakable combo burn to cap it off: “The only thing your story tells me, Mr. Sizemore, is who you are.”
It works as a statement about the “death of the artist” and an encapsulation of about a decade’s worth of online discussion about narrative games. With any game that’s not purely abstract, there’s going to be a tension between systems and narrative. I think it’s a nice touch that Westworld depicts them as two separate divisions within the company who each have no respect for the work of the other. It’s also interesting that the show so far has seemed a lot more sympathetic to the systems team than the narrative designers, considering that the show runners are both writers.
For a long stretch in the early 2000s, there was a backlash against narrative in video games, after AAA developers abused the whole notion of interactivity with over-long cut-scenes. The overriding sentiment seemed to be that narrative was a stopgap until we could realize a fully systems-driven interactive environment. Like Star Trek‘s holodecks, or of course, Westworld. Procedural generation, environmental storytelling, and emergent narratives were the future! So it was interesting to see a fictionalized account of that technology idealized and perfected, and the fiction still demands narrative designers.
The unique power of interactive entertainment is that it deals with potentials and possibility spaces. It’s well-described by that idea of players being able to discover who they could be, instead of who they are. A designer imposing a pre-determined story on players is narrowing all the thousands of possibilities down to one or two. For the player, it’s passive listening.
But a guest in the 1973 version of Westworld would be exposed to the opposite extreme: nothing but settings, characters, and systems. The only story driving the experience is the guest’s own, so there’s little chance for discovery.
The original movie and the new series have similar scenes: a newly-arrived guest comes into his own by shooting a bad guy. In the original, the new guest (Richard Benjamin) gets bullied by the Gunslinger, his pal (James Brolin) tells him to kill him, and so he does. He does it a second time, is put in jail, and his pal helps him escape by blowing up the side of the jail and murdering the sheriff.
In the new series, William leaves the orientation and chooses a white hat as his last decision: as we heard earlier, “the guests already know who they are.” Later, bandits start a shootout in town. William discovers that he’s not completely invincible in Westworld, as he gets shot and knocked back. He’s about to stay back out of the fight until he notices one of the prostitutes is in danger. He responds by aiming his gun at the threatening bandit, and he fires it for the first time, killing the bandit and saving the girl.
He’d already defined himself as a good guy, but it wasn’t until the story surprised him and pushed back against him that he took action. Without both the audience and the artist taking part, there’s little chance for discovery. It ends up like having a conversation with yourself, or having your head up your own ass.
(Incidentally: re-watching the original Westworld, I was pleasantly surprised to see the park had a NASA-style control room complete with rows of computers with spinning tape drives. They’d monitor the guests and respond with events like “initiate the queen’s infidelity” or “cue the bar fight.” It’s like a live action version of the “narrative engines” that people have spent over a decade pitching in video games, like a perpetual motion engine run on snake oil).
How The West Was 0x01
As much as I liked the series, I initially assumed that keeping the Western setting was a weird, clumsy anachronism. I’m not a huge fan of all of Michael Crichton’s work, but he was indisputibly a genius at recognizing trends and being able to exploit them. He came up with Westworld right as the western was fading and dystopian sci-fi was getting popular. But now, like Kris Straub says in his webcomic, we don’t even make movies about the Old West anymore. If it were made in 2016, it’d have to be Game of Thrones But With Robots. It’s weird to expect Westerns to have a resurgence at a time that’s far enough in the future to have androids indistinguishable from humans.
It may not be plausible, but for storytelling, it makes a ton of sense. The American frontier setting has just the right connotation of adventure, lawlessness, freedom, and familiarity for a theme park where rich people shoot and have sex with robots. Westerns in particular are all about symbols that got encoded into pop culture over decades: white hats, black hats, guns, “savages”, gallows, saloons with world-weary madames. You can instantly distinguish between the “theme park” and “real world” on sight, and you can pick up on characters’ identities, relationships, and back stories almost as easily.
One of the things that impressed me so much about the HBO series’s pilot is how economical it is at setting up the story. It focuses almost completely on Dolores and how everything relates to her. The show doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining the concept of the theme park or details about how everything works, trusting that audiences will be able to follow along through context and that amazing opening sequence. All the traditional introduction — William’s orientation and his arrival at the park — is saved for the second episode. It’s no longer strictly necessary by that point, so can mostly serve as character introduction for William and Logan.
Much of that economy of storytelling is possible because of the iconography of Westerns. The stories don’t have to be that complicated; they just have to be understandable. They’re all in service of the “real” story, which at least at the start, is all about headier stuff like what it means to be sentient and how our actions define us.
That’s also what’s so impressive about Evan Rachel Wood’s performance as Dolores. She often has to play multiple versions of the character within the same scene, constantly switching between them not just in attitude but in accent. It’s especially remarkable in her “sessions” with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), where she has to go from being completely in character, to being an android playing that character, to being an android, to being an android who’s starting to gain sentience. Each shift has to read instantly, because it often lasts for only a single line of dialogue.
There’s a scene in which Dolores is alone with Teddy (James Marsden), delivering a conversation that was written for them and that you can tell they’d both acted out countless times before, and you can tell immediately when she’s gone off script. She’s started asking questions a real woman would ask, and Teddy’s unable to answer without another cliche.
Lady Westworld for Her
Making a story that plays with well-worn stereotypes always seems to make some audiences suspicious. I’m not sure if it’s actually a new phenomenon, but over the past few years I’ve noticed that critics of popular art like games, comics, and TV series, are extremely reluctant to recognize intent on the part of the creators. Emily Nussbaum’s “The Meta-Politics of Westworld“ in The New Yorker is far from the most egregious example, but it’s the one I read most recently.
Presumably because she’s coming at the show not as a video game player but as a TV critic, Nussbaum believes that the metatext in Westworld is about television: it “introduces itself as a science-fiction thriller about cyborgs who become self-aware, then reveals its true identity as what happens when an HBO drama struggles to do the same.” She concludes that the first four episodes have their moments, but that the series never goes beyond its premise “into something profound.”
I think by making assumptions about the show’s ambitions and influences, the essay does the series a real disservice. Nussbaum ends her essay by contrasting the sexist Westerns of the 50s and 60s with the new series’s focus on characters like Dolores and Thandie Newton’s Maeve Millay, but concludes:
This is not to say that the show is feminist in any clear or uncontradictory way — like many series of this school, it often treats male fantasy as a default setting, something that everyone can enjoy. It’s baffling why certain demographics would ever pay to visit Westworld. Would straight women be titillated or depressed by cyborg hookers? Why would a lesbian guest — coded, obnoxiously, as less than hot — behave with a prostitute exactly as a straight man would? Where are all the gay male bachelor parties? […] So female customers get scattered like raisins into the oatmeal of male action; and, while the cast is visually polyglot, the dialogue is color-blind. The result is a layer of insoluble instability, a puzzle that the viewer has to work out for herself: Is Westworld the blinkered macho fantasy, or is that “Westworld”? It’s a meta-cliffhanger with its own allure, leaving us only one way to find out: stay tuned for next week’s episode.
Except it’s really not a difficult puzzle. The only things that make it tricky are the assumption that depicting something is the same as endorsing it, and holding onto an ostensibly open-minded but ultimately prescriptive notion of gender. That’s especially unfortunate when you consider that so much of the series is about how we’re defined as people by our actions and behavior instead of a predetermined identity.
Westworld doesn’t seem to be focused on gender, because its core tension isn’t men vs women but humans vs robots. The park is a movie-and-TV fantasy version of the Old West, so like its inspiration, it’s disproportionately male and women are confined to homesteads and whorehouses. But the series treats gender as arbitrary.
As far as pure representation goes: both women and men are represented at every level of the organization from management to tech staff to artistic staff to operations. Even “on stage,” the show makes an effort to show women — and robots designed to look like women — in prominent roles, like a bandit leader or a deputy.
But the criticism of Westworld as being a “male fantasy” is about more than just representation. And here, it makes assumptions about gender — the demographic split between stuff boys like and stuff girls like — that I’d hoped we were all maturing out of. It assumes that of course, straight women and “gay bachelor parties” wouldn’t want to ride horses and shoot guns and have lots of sex. In video games, players and publishers both have spent years trying to defend the shitty depiction (or lack of depiction) of women in shooters and open-world games by asserting the patently false statement that women just don’t play those games. It leads to a gross notion of demographics split down binary gender lines, where presumably, Westworld is for boys and Sex and the City is for girls (and gay men).
Even if you accept the traditional definitions of masculine vs feminine qualities, Westworld has indeed been feminist in an uncontradictory and unambiguous way. It’s in a sequence about Maeve, her appeal to the guests, and a systems tech named Elsie (Shannon Woodward). Over the course of the second episode, we see the staff reacting to Maeve’s declining popularity as a sexual object with the guests.
We see three versions of the scene where she delivers a short written monologue in which she arrived in America and discovered that she had the freedom to do “whatever the fuck I wanted” (because when Westworld has an idea, it likes to drive it home all the way). After the first fails because Maeve has a severe flashback to an earlier “life,” a pair of techs from the narrative division come in. The man does a quick exam and concludes “I’d fuck her,” and the woman orders him to double Maeve’s “aggression” characteristic; “She’s a hooker. No need to be coy.”
After that, we see Maeve deliver the same speech to an intimidated guest, who slinks away bashfully. With so many failures, she’ll have to be decommissioned! That’s when Elsie steps in, does an analysis, then undoes the clumsy changes from the “morons in narrative.” She restores aggression to normal but increases Maeve’s perception and “emotional acuity.” We see the scene play out a third time, Maeve nails delivery of the story, and she hooks up a guest with exactly who he wants, in the form of a different prostitute.
Choosing empathy over aggression: it really couldn’t be less ambiguous without delivering another explicit monologue.
The Man Who Made Out With Liberty Valance
I find the criticism annoying because one of my favorite aspects of Westworld is how it avoids explict moralizing. The show depicts sexuality and orientation as being almost as arbitrary as gender.
Either the park has a disproportionate number of gay or bisexual employees and guests, or the show is depicting a future in which nobody’s as hung up on sexual orientation as we are, and everyone’s a little bisexual. (I hope it’s the latter). Either way, neither the characters nor the show seem to care one way or the other. Logan pairs up with both a male and female host the second he arrives at the park. Later, he’s shown having sex with two different women and a man, and it’s not made explicit who’s a host and who’s a guest.
In the first episode, Elsie is shown making out with one of the female hosts when no one is looking. The show does pay attention to it and treat it as ominous, but not because it’s two women. It’s notable because it shows how even the employees are unable to stop thinking of the hosts as if they were people.
(Anthony Hopkins’s character reinforces this idea later on, when he notices that a worker has put a gown around one of the hosts. He chastises the worker, tears off the gown, and cuts the host’s face with a scalpel to prove that it’s just an object. “It has no modesty to be preserved,” he insists, even though I side with the poor worker. I wouldn’t want to spend every day at my job with a dong in my face, anthropomorphized or not).
We see two different women guests taking advantage of women prostitutes, so I’m not sure who’s the one Nussbaum describes as “coded, obnoxiously, as less than hot.” Regardless, it’s the most obnoxious part of her review. For one thing, I can’t imagine the actress would be thrilled to hear that she’s somehow not hot enough to be a positive representation of lesbian and bisexual women. For another, they’re guests. Almost all of the guests are “coded to be less than hot.”
In fact, we should’ve been able to tell that Teddy wasn’t one of the guests from scene one. Simply because he’s played my James Marsden, who has a face too handsome to look quite real. All of the hosts are cast to be striking — either traditionally attractive like Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, and Marsden; or character-actor memorable. The guests and the employees are supposed to read as real people. (Which is why someone who looks like Shannon Woodward is made to look movie-librarian average).
If You Can’t Tell, Does it Matter?
So if the puzzle is how Westworld feels about Westworld the place, there are a few clues. Like how the employees all seem miserable, paranoid, and lonely. How they comment how horribly the hosts are treated and the only redeeming factor is that they can’t remember any of it. How a guest is shown shooting a bandit leader in a clumsy anti-climax of a dramatic scene, and then he goofily gets his wife with him to pose with the corpse. How the man running the park’s “story” is vulgar, self-important, and thinks in terms of lurid, cheap thrills and stereotypes. How a drunk guest interrupts another scene by killing Teddy for no reason, right in the middle of a conversation, and then unloads his gun into the body and shouts “now that’s a vacation!”
There’s another scene from the original Westworld that has a parallel in the HBO series. It’s after Richard Benjamin’s character has murdered the Gunslinger just for spilling his drink, then had sex with a prostitute robot with the sound of gunfire from a bank robbery coming in from the street outside. He was also in a pointless bar fight that destroyed the entire saloon, shot and killed the town sheriff while escaping from jail, and murdered the Gunslinger a second time, but I honestly can’t remember what happened in what order. But at some point after his murder and sex spree, he leans back and tells his pal that he’s having a lot of fun, and they smile knowingly and the scene ends.
In the first episode of the new series, the scene cuts to a shack out in the wilderness in which HBO Series-style sex is happening all over. A generically handsome guest stands up from the bed and tells his pal that he’s having a lot of fun. His pal is “coded as less than hot” but it’s Kyle Bornheimer, who Hollywood casts as Average Everyman but we all know is really pretty hot. In any case, Kyle does more than just smile knowingly, he says how this is just the beginning and Teddy, their guide, will take them on an adventure. And if they get bored, “we’ll just use him for target practice.” The camera moves to Teddy, staring blankly with no reaction as a fly crawls across his face.
The original Westworld is an uncomplicated movie. It’s a sequence of events with no larger message apart from “don’t give guns to robots.” The new series shows sad and lonely people pouring their loneliness into robotic companions, companions who are gradually gaining sentience due to the memory of the horrible torture they’re subjected to. It expands the ethics of interactivity into a meditation on how our actions define us. I’d say that if you can’t tell the difference, it does matter.
Stranger Things would still be pretty great if it were just a shameless pastiche of 80s movies, but it ends up transcending that.
Stranger Things is so blatantly, aggressively an homage to the early 1980s that it’s amazing it works at all. There’s hardly a single shot or character or situation that doesn’t in some way reference something from pop culture during the age when Amblin Entertainment Ruled the Earth.
On Vulture, Scott Tobias made a list of film references in the series. (If you haven’t yet watched all eight episodes, be forewarned it’s full of spoilers even from the first entry). Vimeo user Ulysse Thevenon made a compilation video with even more references in a side-by-side comparison.
With all of that referencing going on, it could’ve ended up like nothing more than a dramatic adaptation of a VH-1 I Love the 80s special: a bunch of callbacks that amount to nothing more than vacuous nostalgia. But somehow Stranger Things doesn’t just strike the right balance between “inspiration” and “slavish recreation;” I genuinely think it synthesizes everything into a uniquely 21st century kind of storytelling.
It’s the pop culture equivalent of the Higgs boson: proof of something that had previously been purely theoretical. In this case, a piece of art that’s both aggressively meta-textual and completely earnest.
Since I started writing this, there’ve been dozens of hot takes, explanations, recaps, and analyses written of the series. Instead of rehashing all of that, I’ll try to keep it (relatively) simple and just focus on how I think the references worked, and how they made the series resonate so much with me.
Super 8 Upside Down
I’ve seen several people compare it to Super 8, which I liked a lot, and which is another extended love letter to early 80s Steven Spielberg. It makes sense, since they have so much in common. But essentially, I think Super 8 and Stranger Things are conceptual opposites.
Super 8 is a modern filmmaker’s attempt to reproduce the feel of late 70s to early 80s Spielberg. It’s like JJ Abrams’s American Graffiti, except he grew up loving filmmaking more than cars. It’s 2011 in “cinematic language” — the images are too sharp, and just look at those lens flares! — but it’s trying to tell a story that’s around 1984 in spirit.
Stranger Things, on the other hand, uses the “cinematic language” of the late 70s and early 80s to tell a modern story. I don’t think the nostalgia is the end goal; it’s a stylistic flourish, or (less charitably) a really effective gimmick. The story, though, is not the kind of thing they were making in 1984.
Calling it just a pastiche of scenes from 1980s movies ignores the fact that those scenes wouldn’t survive in 2016 unaltered. Salem’s Lot scared the pants off me as a kid, but the scene that frightened me the most when I was eight years old seems pretty silly now. And it only took a few years for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to ripen from “spellbinding” and “uplifting” into “nauseatingly maudlin” and “difficult to watch.”
Super 8 seemed like it wanted me to appreciate 80s Spielberg from a respectful distance. As a result, it made me feel like a guy in his 40s reminiscing about the movies he loved as a kid. But Stranger Things made me feel like I was that kid again, completely wrapped up in the story and eager to find out what happened next, the same way I watched TV and movies in those innocent days before I took cinema studies classes and started a blog.
Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jaded Eye
I was completely on board for the whole thing, without that one-level-removed detachment I usually maintain when watching a movie or TV show. The last time I can remember being so engrossed in something was — not that long ago, actually, since it was while watching The Force Awakens. That movie was criticized for being too much of a retread of the originals, or being too much of an exercise in nostalgia to become a classic in its own right. I say that using so much of the “language” of the original movies is a crucial part of why Force Awakens was able to make a 45-year-old feel like a 6-year-old again. It stops being conscious reference and starts to work subliminally.
Stranger Things does something similar. It’s constantly making references but rarely drawing attention to them. Since the Amblin influence is almost never explicit, the series isn’t making any kind of commentary on it. It’s set in the early 80s, but it’s not making any explicit commentary on the time period, either. (Apart from Firestarter-style government conspiracy paranoia, but that’s been pretty much a constant since the 70s). Phones and huge walkie-talkies feature heavily in the plot, but there’s really not a whole lot that would have to change to accommodate cell phones and the internet.
I think that’s worth pointing out because the main influences — Stephen King and Steven Spielberg — were both so focused on being contemporary. King’s entire schtick with his blockbuster novels was taking classic monsters and horror stories and giving them a modern (for the late 70s) update. And Spielberg was so dedicated to putting fantastic stories into completely mundane settings that it almost seemed like he fetishized suburbia. I think in both cases, the goal was to make the subject less distant and more relatable: vampire attacks, telekinetic teen witches, and alien encounters may just as well be happening to you in your very neighborhood!
So Stranger Things is neither contemporary nor a traditional period piece. It isn’t really like Super 8, because it’s not really making any explicit commentary on the 1980s or the love of filmmaking or the naive enthusiasm of youth. And it’s not exactly like E.T. because it’s not trying to be contemporary. In terms of period references, the Steven Spielberg movie it most resembles is Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Raiders isn’t trying to depict the real 1936; it’s a fantasy version that exists only in the movies. It borrowed character archetypes and situations from old movies not in the hope that the audience would recognize them as references, but because the imagery immediately evokes “high adventure.” And Raiders has about as much to say about Nazism as Stranger Things does about post-Watergate paranoia over government-sponsored shadow programs: nothing, except that they make great villains.
Nothing’s specific enough to become parody or reference; it all just blends together into a pleasant melange of K-cars, mix tapes, big phones, bad clothes, and kids who still spent most of the day riding their bikes. As somebody who was around the same age as the kids in Stranger Things in 1984, it’s extremely unsettling seeing my childhood turned into gauzy days-gone-by Happy Days-style nostalgia. Especially since we were a generation so self-obsessed that we didn’t even wait until the end of the decade before we started deconstructing it and trying to define the zeitgeist. It feels like all the significant details getting sandblasted away in favor of a pair of Foster Grants and a Walkman, just like how I know nothing of the 1920s apart from flappers and prohibition.
It also means that your brain isn’t looking for specific flashes of recognition so much as taking it all in sub-verbally as the tone and mood of 1984-ish. It was a distant, simpler time, when pre-teens were always getting into fantastic adventures, and the little sister from E.T. grew up to develop pyrokinetic powers and went on adventures with The Goonies and the teens from Some Kind of Sixteen Pretty In Pink Candles to go look at a dead body that was left by the Alien.
The Epic of Lando
Although I think the “cinematic language” of Stranger Things is supposed to work silently and subconsciously, the show does make a lot of explicit references, too.
That in itself makes it weird: even today but especially in the 80s, movie and TV stories all existed in their own distinct parallel universes, each complete with fake brands, fake celebrities, and fake popular culture. Whether it was because of licensing issues, fear of being labeled a “sell out” with product placement, fear of being too topical or dated, or fear of being too unimaginative, productions almost never made mention of identifiable aspects of the real world.
Scott Tobias’s article mentions how Stranger Things explicitly mentions Poltergeist, and then creates a “hall of mirrors” as the characters go on to experience much of the same events as in Poltergeist. There’s an actual 1980s song in every episode, even if they weren’t 100% accurate to the year. (And they’re good songs, too! The Bangles’ version of “Hazy Shade of Winter” has always been severely underrated). Eleven watches a Coca-Cola commercial, and she’s nuts for Eggo waffles instead of Reese’s Pieces. There are movie posters for The Evil Dead and The Thing prominently visible hanging on walls in the background.
I don’t think they’re supposed to be just period details (apart from the Coke ad), but thematic. It’s significant that Joyce is the one who mentions Poltergeist, since the memory foreshadows the fact that the rest of the her story mirrors that of the lead character in Poltergeist. (If you don’t think Jobeth Williams was the star of that movie, you saw a very different movie from the one I did).
The other characters have references that reflect their character arcs, to a lesser degree. It’s Jonathan who has the (inappropriate) Evil Dead poster, and his “major” moment is setting up traps in a small house to try and kill a rampaging monster. Mike has the poster for The Thing in his basement, and he’ll go on to discover something alien that causes his whole group to be suspicious of each other and makes him wonder who he can trust.
It suggests that they’re using 80s references similarly to how ancient poems use allusions: they place the characters in a lineage of archetypal heroes. I don’t think that’s an entirely BS too-many-cinema-studies-classes read on it, either, since the show is even more explicit with it.
The three pop culture institutions that get the most direct references in Stranger Things are The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, X-Men, and Star Wars. One interesting aspect of that is that all of those properties were still fringe nerd-markers in the early 1980s, which had a big resurgence into the mainstream by 2016. (Even as ubiquitous as Star Wars was, there was always the idea that it was silly and you were supposed to be at least a little embarrassed for liking it).
The more interesting aspect — and possibly something that’s only possible because of their renewed popularity and status as “cultural institutions” — is that the references are used as shorthand. They mention “Mirkwood” as the scary place where the first attack took place. They describe the alternate dimension as “The Vale of Shadows” to immediately understand what it is. They understand Eleven’s powers by comparing her to Professor X or Jean Grey.
Most directly of all, they compare Eleven alternately to Yoda (as an unassuming figure who turns out to have great power) and Lando (as a traitor). To drive the idea home, they have Eleven levitating the Millennium Falcon with her mind when she’s trying to find out what she can do. For audiences in 2016 — and for nerdy kids in 1984 — the characters and story of Star Wars are so well-recognized that just the name of a character can tell you everything you need to know.
Since I made the claim that Stranger Things is “uniquely 21st century storytelling,” I’ve got to compare it to how they did it in the 1990s. The best example I can think of is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the TV series.
It was also an attempt to take classic stories about monsters and update them to make them relatable to a contemporary audience. And like the Stephen King novels, it tried to turn its monsters into metaphors. But it took the idea and did something completely — even tragically — 1990s in spirit: it made the characters self-aware. King’s early novels and short stories still showed affection for the classic monsters; the psychological interpretations and metaphors expanded on traditional horror stories.
But starting with the premise (and obviously, the title) of the movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer wanted us to know that the monsters were old-fashioned and silly, and that it was in on the joke. The TV series was more earnest and much less gimmicky, but the inherently 1990s part of the tone remained: vampires and werewolves are fun, but it’s the metaphors for young adulthood that are really important.
So when the characters in Buffy call themselves “The Scooby Gang,” the show’s acknowledging that sure, the concept of a bunch of mystery-solving teens fighting monsters is corny and silly, but they’re aware of it, and they’re doing it for a reason. Stick around for the good stuff, and you might just learn a thing or two about growing up. When they call their enemy the “Big Bad,” they’re acknowledging that the format of their season-long story arcs is formulaic, but don’t worry about it because they’re in on the joke.
Stranger Things doesn’t feel the need to be that defensive. And it’s really no longer necessary: back in the 90s when I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I absolutely loved the self-aware references, since they felt like the makers of the show were talking directly to me. But when the kids in Stranger Things make reference to Lando or Yoda or Professor X, it’s a point of cultural reference that the writers, the audience, and the characters all have in common.
No “Spielberg Stares”
The “Spielberg Stare” is the one thing that makes me keep forgetting what a brilliant director Steven Spielberg is. It makes me forget that The Lost World had one of the best extended action sequences of any film ever with the van teetering over the edge of a cliff, and remember that movie only for the scene in which a teenaged gymnast uses a conveniently-placed set of parallel bars to drop-kick a velociraptor.
The stare is when he has the camera linger on a character looking wide-eyed and open-mouthed at something unbelievable just off-screen. It’s meant to drive home that we in the audience are about to see something absolutely wondrous AF and if we aren’t as blown away by it as the characters in the movie, then what the hell is wrong with us anyway? Around 25-30% of the time — double that if the movie is E.T. — the stare ends with a sudden, rehearsed-a-billion-times-to-try-and-make-it-not-look-so-rehearsed burst of laughter, to let us know that we just can’t contain our delight at what we’re seeing.
If it’s not clear, I hate it. I think it’s maudlin and manipulative, and it didn’t even survive until the mid-1980s before it became completely insufferable. (He kept it up through the 1990s, and it’s one of my least favorite aspects of Jurassic Park).
And there’s none of it in Stranger Things. The closest I can think of would be the scene where the kid is suspended in mid-air over a cliff, or the scene where the utility truck does a back flip over the kids on bikes. Apart from that, though, the characters aren’t allowed to be stunned by anything for too long.
It’s part of the idea that the story doesn’t take place in its own separate universe. The characters aren’t seeing something completely mind-blowing, because they have a frame of reference for most of it: this is like that D&D monster, that’s like that comic book character. So much of science fiction, horror, or action TV is spent establishing how the universe works, showing characters being exposed to the unbelievable for the first time, and repeating the key “rules” in long expository sequences.
And dealing with characters’ skepticism! It’s so common in these stories to have much of the plot revolve around the fact our characters have seen something fantastic and no one else will believe them. There’s certainly some of that in Stranger Things, but it’s usually relegated to the background instead of made the focus of the conflict. Instead, characters who are exposed to the weirdness are quick to get on board and start formulating a plan of what to do next. Even Steve jumps right in to help!
It gives the whole thing a kind of forward momentum that’s so unusual in episodic television that it’s almost jarring.
The cold open has a cold open
Finally, an example of how all of this stuff works together. The still below is from the first scene in the entire series. I don’t believe I’m spoiling anything when I tell you not to get too attached to this guy:
Everyone in the target audience for this series has seen this scene, hundreds of times. Dozens of those times were in The X-Files alone.
It’s the monster’s first victim, the incident that brings our main characters into the story. It sets up a bit of intrigue, giving us some clues as to how the monster works — lights go out when it’s around — but leaving the details for us to figure out — how did it move around so quickly, is it invisible? It sets the tone for the series: how scary is it going to be? How gory? Do they show the attack or leave it to the imagination?
The scene’s always followed by one that introduces our heroes in their natural habitat. We get a few moments of character development, and then something happens that pulls into the story, tying them to the monster from the cold open. Maybe there’s a close call that our hero just barely survives. Maybe there’s a brief flash of the monster, showing us a bit more of what form it takes. Maybe the hero will see something that no one else believes.
I’ll tell you what’s not supposed to happen: the monster isn’t supposed to appear in full view in the second scene of the series. When a kid gets safely into his house and locks the door, that’s supposed to be the end of the scene. The monster shouldn’t still be outside, and the monster sure as hell shouldn’t be able to follow him inside. And on top of everything else, you’re not supposed to lose one of your main characters before the credits even start.
I think the main reason that Stranger Things so effectively scared me, without gore or violence, is that it kept that forward momentum and kept changing up the “rules.” (“We just saw the monster kill someone. Why are we seeing it again so soon after?”) I believe that they were using the same gimmick as in Psycho, but more subtly: using the audience’s expectations of how the story’s “supposed” to work against them. In retrospect, so much of the series’s story was easily explainable and full of standard, formulaic story structure.
But going into the show knowing almost nothing about it, I found myself surprised over and over again. Both by how quickly some parts of the story were moving, and by how scenes would escalate in intensity past what I’d expected them to. (I absolutely did not expect Joyce to see the monster trying to push itself through the wall of her house, for instance). Surprising for a series that’s essentially Frankensteined together from the pieces of movies and TV I’ve already seen: for the bulk of the series up until the final episode, I really had no idea what was going to happen next.
So when I say that Stranger Things is a uniquely 21st century form of storytelling, it has nothing to do with the Netflix distribution and binge-watching. It’s because it’s a synthesis of the kinds of stories we’ve been telling in popular media for the last four decades.
It’s got the fascination with the mundane and realism that I consider to be the hallmark of the 70s cinema, along with the Firestarter elements of paranoia about the government that have just gotten taken more for granted in the decades since.
It’s obviously an homage to the 80s, but I think the main thing it gets from there is sense of a return to fantasy and wonder, plus the kind of genuine earnestness you get when a writer or director isn’t afraid of being too maudlin.
From the 90s, it gets the fascination with references and being self-referential, plus the attempt to assert shared modern pop culture as a type of mythology.
From the 2000s, it gets the fascination with mash-ups and meta-text, along with the decade’s lesson learned by over-saturating cinema and TV with CGI, then scaling back to over-correct.
And the result is something that’s simultaneously meta-textual and earnest, referential without winking. It’s a story focused more on forward momentum and formulating a plan of action that showing an action scene followed by multiple scenes of actors dealing with the consequences. Its scares are earned and they’re old-fashioned, and it’s surprising just how well they work. It recreates a fantasy version of 1984 that somehow feels more “real” than Spielberg’s attempts to be contemporary.
I’ve got no idea whether it can work again as well as it did the first run, or whether you could achieve the same effect without the 1980s homage being an essential part of the whole project. As it stands, though, it does a fantastic job establishing and maintaining a tone of referential sincerity that doesn’t just pay honor to the originals, but in so many ways, surpasses them.
The “problem” was that it was too good at the mood it was trying to establish. The tension of the series relies on the feeling of a city that’s irreparably broken, where the corruption goes so deep that it taints even the people trying to fight against it. It remains a solid series throughout, but it’s not a carefree, fun romp.
Now, I’ve finally finished watching the first season, and my opinion of it’s changed. Before, I thought it was really good. Now, I think it’s kind of a master work. If it just existed in a vacuum as a one-hour drama/action television series, it’d be really well-done if not groundbreaking; the hyperbole comes in when you consider it as an adaptation. Not just of a long-running series, but of a franchise and a format.
Really, what’s most amazing to me is that it exists at all, when you consider all the different ways it could’ve gone wrong. It could’ve collapsed under the weight of its own cliches, being unabashedly an adaptation of a comic book. It could’ve been pulled apart in any number of directions — too enamored of its fight scenes to allow for long stretches with nothing but dialogue, or too enamored of its “important” dialogue to realize how much storytelling it can accomplish with choreographed fight scenes. It could’ve quickly revealed itself as too derivative, or tried to crib too much from the Christopher Nolan version of Batman, considering that it’s based on a character that was already derivative. It could’ve suffocated from having its head too far up its own ass, being based on what’s maybe the most self-consciously “adult” of mainstream comics characters, and gone the route of “grim and gritty” comics’ facile understanding of what’s “mature.” It could’ve had performances that were too Law & Order for the comic-book stuff to read, or too comic-book for the dramatic stuff. The character of Foggy could’ve been so self-aware as to be insufferable, or the character of Karen could’ve been nothing more than a damsel in distress or a dead weight. It could’ve all been completely torn apart once they let Vincent D’Onofrio loose.
But it all works. (Almost). It’s a self-contained arc and a hero’s journey story and a tragedy and a character study and a crime drama and a martial arts series and a morality play and a franchise builder. It’s never so high-minded that it forgets to be entertaining, but it does insist that entertainment doesn’t have to be stupid. Yes, it is going to show you Daredevil fighting a ninja, but you’re also going to watch a scene that’s entirely in Mandarin, so don’t complain about having to turn the subtitles on.
If, like me, you were unfamiliar with the character other than at the most basic level — blind lawyer with super-senses who fights criminals with a cane that turns into nunchucks — then take a second to read an overview of the character’s history. And be impressed not only at how much they managed to retain, but how many horrible pitfalls they avoided.
My least favorite episode of the season — by far, since it’s really the only sour note in the entire thing that I can think of — is titled “Stick.” I had never heard of the character, but of course it’s from the comics. And of course it’s from Frank Miller, because it’s just an eyepatch and laser gun short of being the culmination of everything a testosterone-addled 12-year-old in the 80s would think is “rad.” As someone who was a testosterone-addled 12-year-old in the 80s, I can acknowledge this was a part of my past, but it’s not anything to be cherished, celebrated, or re-imagined. (Everybody was obsessed with ninjas back then. This was a time when Marvel thought they needed to make their immortal Canadian anti-hero with a metal-laced skeleton and claws that come out of his hands “more interesting” by having him go to Japan).
So the character of Stick is straight-up bullshit. It’s a perfect Alien 3-style example of not being able to handle what you’re given and instead, tearing down everything that came before in order to write about something else. Except even worse, because it tears everything down to replace it with something that is itself derivative: a sensei with a mysterious past in the form of a wise, blind martial arts master. (Except it’s the 80s, so he’s “flawed.” Which means he’s even more rad). It undermines the main character of the story by saying, “Here’s a guy who can do everything your hero can, even better than your hero can, and without the benefit of super powers.”
The makers of the series did the best they could. First, they cast Scott Glenn to come in and Scott Glenn it up. Then, they spun it the best they could, figuring out how to take the elements of the story that would fit into their own story arc: the idea that loyalty and connection to other people is a weakness, and the idea that it’s the choices Matt Murdock makes that define him as a hero, and not his super powers. (And then towards the end of the series, they have Foggy make a reference to how cliched and dumb the whole notion of a blind sensei is, so all is forgiven).
Throughout, there’s a respect for the source material that’s more skill than reverence. They understand not only how to take elements from the original and fit them into the story they’re trying to tell, but how and why they worked in the original. A lot of adaptations, especially comic book adaptations that try to move the story into “the real world,” are so obsessed with the first part that they lose sight of the second. I’m realizing now that that’s a big part of why Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies don’t work for me: they treat the characters and their origin stories as these disconnected bits of mythology floating around in the ether, without much consideration for how they originally worked and why they became so iconic. Especially with the last movie, it seemed to be more about mashing up familiar references instead of meaning. (Take that to its extreme, and you get a version of The Joker who has a panel from an iconic comic book about The Joker tattooed on his own chest).
But the Daredevil series takes stuff that was used as fairly empty symbolism in the comics — a vigilante in a Devil suit standing on top of a building overlooking a church — and pumps enough depth into it to make it meaningful again.
There’ve been so many “adult” interpretations of Batman that the whole notion of a vigilante hero has pretty much lost any tension or dramatic weight. Daredevil makes it interesting again. Even though it’s an unapologetically bleak setup, there’s still never a question that Daredevil is eventually going to win the fight. The question is what he’s going to lose in the process.
That in itself isn’t uncharted story, and the series doesn’t attempt to explore the material by going all-in on realism. Instead, it takes all the familiar elements and symbols and fits them into a structure where they all support each other and build off of each other. We see every single character faced with temptation, and we see how each character responds to it. None of the stories are self-contained origin stories presented for their own sake; they all reflect on that idea of holding on to your soul despite any corrupting influences. Foggy isn’t just the comic relief character; he’s the constant reminder of the ideals they’re supposed to be fighting for. Karen isn’t a story of an innocent saved by a hero; she has actual agency, and she’s an example of how corruption can gradually and subtly chip away at the soul of a good person.
The villains are straight out of the Stock Gritty Urban Bad Guy warehouse, but as with the best comic book stories, they all reflect on some aspect of the hero and illustrate why the hero’s the star of the story. Some of the corrupt cops show what results when people try to appoint themselves as above the law. One of the cops’ stories shows how he succumbed to corruption out of a desire to keep his loved ones safe. The Russian mobsters are depicted as people who did whatever they had to in order to overcome a horrible upbringing. The character of Madame Gao seems to be about moral relativism, a rejection of the idea that there are good people who do bad things. The Chinese drug-smuggling ring is a rejection of the idea that corruption is passive; it seems to insist that people aren’t forced to do bad things but choose to, an idea that’s reinforced by Karen’s story. And the Yakuza aren’t used much for other than a bit of exotic intrigue and a ninja fight, but there’s still some sense of how a devotion to honor above all else is itself a kind of corruption.
Of course, the first season is as much Kingpin’s origin story as Daredevil’s, so his is the most interesting. And again, it takes what could be the often simplistic moralizing of “comic book stories” and pumps depth back into it. There’s a scene in which he’s dramatically reciting the story of The Good Samaritan that keeps threatening to go over the edge into self-important super-villain monologuing scene, where the writer is a little too eager to make sure you get the point of what he’s been trying to say. But when taken as the culmination of his story, it’s the climactic moment that marks his story as a tragedy. It’s fairly typical for writers and actors to say that the most interesting villains are the ones who see themselves as the heroes, so it’s fascinating to see this series try to take that a step further. They’ve spent the entire season letting us into Fisk’s head, building up empathy if not sympathy, showing us how he became what he is. Then they say, “Wouldn’t it be even more interesting to show him accepting and embracing the fact that he’s the villain?” And it is, because it suggests that his story is just getting started.
Even more interesting to me, in a 2015 adaptation of a comic book that originated in 1964, is how it shows Kingpin as a male character created and defined by women. (Maybe not that surprising, considering that the source material is as well known for its relatively short-lived bad-ass female ninja character as it is for its hero). Every defining moment of his character — from his childhood to the climax of his story — is in reaction to something done by a man, but driven by the decision of a woman. His mother covers for him and protects him. Madame Gao intimidates him and backs him into a corner, effectively forcing him to abandon his pretense of fighting for good. And Gao insisted that Vanessa was a distraction for him, when in fact she was helping define him: all of the aspects of his character that he was trying to keep hidden and keep her shielded from, were the very aspects of his character that most attracted her.
In fact, all of the female characters in Daredevil are defined by their agency, while almost all of the male characters (except Matt and possibly Foggy) are shown either as passive products of their environment or as character simply living out their true nature. Ben Urich’s wife encourages Urich to stay true to his ideals, while acknowledging that being a reporter is simply in his nature, and there’s little he can do about it. Wilson Fisk tries to put a positive spin on his motivations, but both Vanessa and Gao encourage him to acknowledge that he’s doing it for power, not for good. Clare chooses to help Matt Murdock, and it’s ultimately her who chooses how to define their relationship. There’s even an element of it with Foggy and Marci — he’s incorruptible by nature, while she has to actively choose to do the right thing.
When you step back and look at it as part of the overall Marvel franchise, it makes it seem even more that the freak-out over Black Widow was missing the point. The internet would have you believe that the issue comes down to the ratio of how many men she defeats vs how many times we’re shown her ass. The bigger issue (and I’m definitely not the first person to point it out!) is that the movies are so dominated by male characters that she has to represent All Women. And even in a comic book story, “strong female characters” aren’t about super powers or who’d win in a fight.
And still, the thing that impressed me the most in the first couple of episodes stayed true throughout: Daredevil is fantastic at maintaining its tone. Sure, dialogue-heavy scenes peacefully coexist with fight scenes, but it goes even deeper than that. Some of the dialogue-heavy scenes are entirely plot driven, while a fight scene is all about establishing character. Some of the scenes are about dramatic monologuing, while others are about more subtle implications and things left unsaid. There are several moments I would’ve expected to be spun out into multi-episode arcs, but are instead left lingering in the background: for instance, a particularly well-acted moment when Foggy realizes that Karen isn’t attracted to him in the same way she is to Matt. It’s fairly subtle and heartbreaking, and to the best of my memory, no character ever utters the despicable phrase “friend zone.”
Everybody knows Vincent D’Onofrio is great at playing a psychopath, but what I didn’t appreciate is that he’s so good at maintaining it. I would’ve thought that by spending so many episodes building up anticipation for his appearance, when he first explodes and kills a guy, they’d have used up all the value of that for the rest of the season. But he keeps it going for episode after episode, filled with rage and menace and perpetually just on the verge of boiling over. And Ayelet Zurer perfectly underplays Vanessa — never trying to compete with Fisk in bombastic scene-stealing but always conveying a sense of power and control. Once she starts making her motivations perfectly clear, it’s every bit as chilling as any of Fisk’s outbursts.
And there’s a scene where Foggy and Matt are fighting because of course there is; any story about a super-hero with a secret identity demands it. I was never particularly invested in their relationship, or unsure of how it would play out, so I thought the entire thing would be a rote case of doing what it needed to for the season arc and then moving on. But it’s so well-acted (and under-written) that it actually got to me. Matt sobs in the middle of a line, and it really feels like the entire weight of the season up to that point just came crashing down on top of him.
As always, it’s another case of understanding exactly how and why a scene works, instead of simply including it because it’s supposed to be there. I’m tempted to say this should be the template for every live-action adaptation of a comic book, but I honestly don’t know how much of it is reproducible. I am excited to see how it plays out in the second season and all the spin-off series. At this point, I’d even watch a show about Cable.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp hits the right balance of high-concept stupid.
Few things are more tedious than over-explaining a bit of goofy comedy in an attempt to analyze how it works and put it in some kind of wider pop-culture context. One of those few things is the self-important “Am I the only one?”-style takedown of something, as if it’s a crisis of cultural degradation just because other people like something that you don’t.
I’m going to do both anyway, since Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is really neat. I don’t just think it’s funnier than the movie, I think it’s a lot smarter and even retroactively makes the movie better. Plus I think it may be the best example so far of how Netflix is really doing stuff that “normal” television can’t.
So yeah, to get it out of the way: I’ve never liked the movie. This weekend is the first time I’ve been able to watch it in full, and it was only thinking of it as preparation for watching the series that I was able to finish it. I liked the general concept behind it. I liked what they were trying to do with a lot of it. Paul Rudd is so innately charismatic that it’s impossible for him not to be entertaining in anything. But every time I’ve tried to watch it in the past, I’ve just gotten bored and frustrated.
To me, it feels like it treats being in on the joke as a valid substitute for actually making jokes. It looks like it’s going to be an absurdist non-parody of 80s summer camp movies, like Airplane! and Top Secret! were for Irwin Allen and World War II movies — where parodying the “source” material isn’t the point so much as using it as a jumping-off point for an absurd gag. But it’s made by people who’ve already seen Airplane! countless times and heard the gags and one-liners repeated incessantly over twenty years, so that even that is over-familiar. As a result, the fact that they’re not making the joke you’d expect becomes part of the joke. Surely this can’t be humorous.
But it does work, sometimes. It’s pretty much the same tone as Childrens Hospital, and that show is occasionally brilliant. The problems are that even at fifteen minutes, the show can feel meandering as it struggles to land a joke; and because it’s so far removed from wanting to parody its source material, there’s not much of anything holding it together. Apply that to a feature-length movie, and the effect is that I really wanted to like it, but it just felt flat. It often seems as if the fact that we all know what’s supposed to happen in this scene makes up for the fact that nothing really does happen.
I enjoyed the hell out of First Day of Camp, though, and it’s pretty much exactly what I’d hoped the movie was going to be when I first heard the concept. This article by Andy Greenwald on Grantland covers a lot of what I like about it. He also articulates that preoccupation with being in on the joke, but he calls it “sitcomity” and is a lot more charitable towards it than I am. He might also have explained why the series works for me where the movie didn’t: I’m an unabashed fan of Arrested Development, and maybe that’s just a sign I need to have the high-concept-as-basis-for-lowbrow-humor spelled out for me explicitly.
But whatever reason, the high concept finally works for me. One of the implicit gags in the movie is that a bunch of actors in their mid-to-late 20s were playing teenagers alongside actual teenagers. Which on its own, especially when it’s presented without comment, is kind of funny. But when you’ve got the same actors in their 40s playing even younger versions of those characters, it’s hilarious. And then they take it a few steps farther, when Abby has her first period and becomes a woman, and when Lindsey goes undercover as a teenager at a summer camp even though she’s obviously in her mid 20s. (I actually respect even more that they’ve got Paul Rudd right there, and they still don’t even bother with the “he looks younger than he really is” joke).
Most of the “structure” of the series is built off that basic idea: paying off on jokes they started 15 years ago. Which makes it kind of a masterpiece of comic timing. Stuff that feels like it was probably the result of a random comment after a bong hit in the late 90s is now given an overly elaborate backstory and justification. Stuff that felt like a throwaway gag in the movie, or a desperate attempt to come up with a punchline for a scene, is stretched out and forced into the shape of an actual character arc. Even stuff that would’ve just been fanservice references to the movie (e.g. “Jim Stansel”) gets turned into sub-plot. It actually made me nostalgic for a movie that I didn’t even like all that much.
Plus, it looked like a ton of fun to make. They didn’t just get (as far as I can tell) every adult member of the original cast to come back, but they added what seems to be every single actor working in comedy (and/or Mad Men) today. The movie’s gotten a reputation over the years for being the first film for a lot of people who went on to become super-famous, so “he‘s in this, too?!” becomes itself a sort of call-back. I got the sense from the movie that it might’ve been more fun to make than it was for me to watch, but the series feels like they’re letting me in on the fun.
And the last thing that impressed me was how well it was structured as a series. I read a comment online from someone saying it was basically just a four-hour movie, but I don’t agree. All of the series that I’ve seen on Netflix and other streaming services have been too beholden to either broadcast TV or movies: either they’re structured exactly like a series that was intended to broadcast one episode per week, so binge-watching really does feel like an overload; or they’re structured like super-long movies somewhat arbitrarily broken into hour-long segments. First Day of Camp is the first I’ve seen that actually uses it as a storytelling device instead of just an artifact of distribution. That familiarity with how episodic television works becomes part of why the story’s engaging (which is part of what Greenwald’s “sitcomity.”)
The whole style of the series (and the movie, and every one of David Wain and Michael Showalter’s other projects that I’ve seen) is “punchline-averse.” It often seems as if they think the traditional structure of setup and punchline is such an obvious crutch that they’ll do anything they possibly can to avoid it. Including stretching a scene out for minutes by having the characters draw attention the fact that they’re not delivering a punchline (like with The Falcon’s final scene, or the embarrassed teenager having to stand through a price check on everything except the condoms and lube). It can sometimes feel 1990s-style reactionary: we’ll comment on how tired and overused this thing is, without really putting anything in its place.
But each episode of First Day of Camp has a cliffhanger ending, a cold open, or both. They force the scenes to end on a big moment, and even in something that’s deliberately and self-consciously not meant to be taken at all seriously, it’s exactly what’s needed. For one thing, it just helps the pacing: scenes can still have funny moments piled on top of each other and veering off in different directions, but it doesn’t feel like the whole thing is just meandering while waiting for something hilariously funny to happen. (Plus the pacing is just better overall: possibly my favorite gag in the entire series is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot to a sheet of paper on which someone has written “(PHONE) NUMBER”).
More than that, though, it feels constructive instead of dismissive and reactionary. It acknowledges that you don’t have to be genuinely, deeply invested in the dramatic developments of an intricately-constructed plot, but you can still be curious to know what happens next. And that, plus everything inherent to the concept of making a prequel to something you’ve already seen, meant that I did get invested. How were they going to take this ridiculous concept and pay it off? How would they get rid of this character who clearly wasn’t around by the time of the movie? How would they explain this setup that was directly contradicted later on? It doesn’t have to be meaningful or profound, or even make sense at all, for it to be satisfying to see how all the pieces fit together. It doesn’t have to be High Art, just basic storytelling.
Of course it’s possible for something to be so obsessed with working on an intellectual level that it’s not funny or interesting (see: this blog post). But you can also go the opposite direction, so averse to pretense and protective of being-stupid-for-stupid’s-sake that it just falls apart. For me, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp was just smart enough to be hilariously stupid.