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Lightning Has Struck Twice in Season 2 of ‘Stranger Things’

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Editor’s Note: There are no spoilers in this article. 

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Last summer, Stranger Things took the world by storm. Season 1 received widespread critical and popular acclaim, and it’s not hard to see why. Stranger Things is, at the same time, a love letter to and departure from the era in which it’s set. The series defies convention and abides by them. It takes what’s familiar to a modern audience and plays with their expectations. Nostalgia for the 80s is a byproduct, and never a crutch that the show relies on. For all of these reasons and more, Stranger Things’ first season is a hard act to follow.

Season 2, thankfully, strives to tell its own story and never gets lost in its own popularity. The Duffer Brothers, the creators of Stranger Things, have proven once more that they’re able to juggle several moving parts and craft a well-told story. This new season continues the trend of establishing a wonderful balance of nostalgia, compelling characters, and well-paced, interesting narrative. There’s a fantastic montage in the first episode that jump-cuts between different shots of life in the 80s. Rather than consisting of gratuitous references and callbacks to the era, they’re candid peeks into a decade with a distinct personality. It’s a reminder for the audience of where they are: the time is 1984 and the place is Hawkins, Indiana.

It’s this nostalgic setting that informs the characters, who were given so much room to grow in this new season. Episode 1 picks up a year after the events of the previous season’s finale and builds upon what has happened to further develop the main cast. The curtain has been peeled back, they’ve gazed into the abyss, and each character is coping (or failing to) in different ways. This is the biggest difference between Season 1 and 2: Season 2 deals far more heavily in personal and interpersonal struggles. This has, with a couple noticeable exceptions, resulted in a narrative that takes a strong cast of characters and pushes them forward through interesting and unexpected arcs.

What Worked

Pacing – Giving ample screentime and character development to nearly a dozen cast members is no small feat. The genius of Stranger Things as a series is its ability to maintain fantastic pacing and stay true to its characters. It expertly juggles multiple narrative threads and manages to convey enough information such that the audience is both informed and interested. There is a distinct lack of pandering; the show respects the viewers to fill in the gaps and understand what is going on.

One of my favorite aspects of the show is how it manages to thematically tie several stories together. In Episode 5, for example, there are four story threads happening parallel to each other, but the show still links them together around a central theme: piecing together the truth. That central idea manifests in different ways, from the Byers family figuring out what’s going on with the Upside Down to Eleven seeking out her past. The episodes, for the most part, are laser-focused and showcases the writing team’s strength at keeping a big idea from falling apart.

StrangerThingsSeasonTwoReviewCharacter Development – The main cast knows what the threat is: they’ve been to the Upside Down, brought down the manipulative secret organization, and faced the monster head-on. But the events of the first season don’t exist in a vacuum. Several of the main characters struggle to deal with the emotional and psychological stress of what happened: Mike, Will, and Nancy have trouble returning to a normal life, Joyce, Hopper, and Steve try to regain some semblance of structure, while Eleven, isolated from her friends, searches for a place where she belongs.

Season 2’s strength lies in a narrative driven by character motivations and conflicts. The main cast has goals they want to accomplish and personal fears that threaten to stop them from doing so. This new season is interesting because of how those needs and fears overlap and intersect. Where this shines the most is in some unexpected character combinations, like Dustin and Steve and Hopper and Eleven. Character dynamics are pretty varied this season but are held in place thanks to actors that understand and convey their characters’ strong personalities.

Stranger-Things-season-2-Dacre-Montgomery-Billy-1108543New Characters – New characters are simultaneously some of the best and worst aspects of Season 2. Sean Astin and Paul Reiser as Bob Newby and Dr. Sam Owens, respectively, make fantastic additions to an already stellar cast by adding some much-needed optimism. I and, from what I’ve seen, many others fully expected the worst of Bob and Dr. Owens. This natural distrust of newcomers can be chalked up to a mix of genre-savviness and a protective instinct towards characters we’ve grown to love. But, like with many other facets of the show, Stranger Things defies expectations.

Using Tropes – It’s one thing to turn a trope on its head. Stranger Things does far more than that. Films from the 80s have a firm hold on popular consciousness and the show uses this to its advantage. Not only does it subvert tropes, it does so in a way that fully fleshes out the writing and the characters. Season 1 established this trend: the stuck-up jock ends up being a pretty nice guy, the surly town sheriff quickly drops his disbelief, and the kids feel like real kids, not movie kids. By playing with the audience’s expectations, a familiar story is retold in a way that’s fresh and exciting.

What Didn’t Work

Even at its worst, the new season is pretty great.  Season 2’s weakest aspects are still enjoyable and inform the characters, but unfortunately, do nothing for the plot. Ironically, some of the best parts of this season also make for some of its worst.

Pacing – Those who have already watched Season 2 will know what I mean when I say that Episode 7 feels like it comes from a different show. For six straight episodes prior, Season 2 had a crystal-clear focus on its plot. The ticking clock of malevolent forces plotting in the Upside Down served to push forward and tie together the disparate character arcs and narrative threads. Except for one.

Sadie-Sink-Mad-MaxEleven takes this season to better understand her past and her place in the world, which is all well and good. The issue arises when her character arc takes her out of Hawkins and into what can ostensibly be called a superhero origin story. Without spoiling too much, it’s safe to say that you feel like you’re watching a different show. The silver-lining to this is that Episode 7 still does a wonderful job of letting Eleven grow as a character. It allows her to explore one of the major themes of this season: how people deal with trauma and move on with their lives. Despite that, Episode 7 sticks out like a sore thumb because of the abrupt halt it puts to the well-established pacing of Season 2.

New Characters – Bob and Dr. Owens weren’t the only new characters this season, but they certainly were the best. Sadie Sink and Dacre Montgomery join the cast as Max and Billy, a pair of dysfunctional “siblings” who have no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the plot. That’s not to say their screentime is useless, far from it. They do an excellent job of promoting character development (specifically with Lucas and Steve). It was frustrating to watch, as Max and Billy had some interesting things going on with their backgrounds but the show simply didn’t (and couldn’t) spare the time to make them more fully integrated into the narrative. At the end of the season, you’re left wondering what exactly it was that they did.

In Summary

Despite some rocky bumps along the way, Stranger Things continues to impress with a fantastic second season. The Duffer Brothers have a keen understanding not just of their story and characters, but of their audience as well. Theirs is a show that respects its predecessors, the culture it comes from, and its own popularity. It’s unclear where the show will go from here, but with two strong seasons under its belt, Stranger Things is undoubtedly bound for greater things.

Kyle grew up with a controller in one hand and a book in the other. He would've put something else in a third hand, but science isn't quite there yet. In the meantime, he makes do with watching things like television, film, and anime. He can be found posting ramblings on liketherogue.tumblr.com or trying to hop on the social media bandwagon @LikeTheRogue

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Ricky D

    November 1, 2017 at 6:14 am

    I was ready to call this better than season one. In fact, I think I actually did on Twitter. That was before I watched episode seven. What a mess. 🙁

    I’m not sure I want a third season now given that it will most likely include her sister’s gang.

    • Kyle Rogacion

      November 1, 2017 at 12:49 pm

      I don’t think the -content- of Episode 7 was bad, just the execution. I quite enjoyed Eleven’s interactions with her sister as they fleshed out her character’s personal and moral dilemmas. Hopefully the writers will figure out how to integrate that storyline more naturally into the narrative of S3.

      • Mike Worby

        November 3, 2017 at 12:03 am

        Honestly, after all the hubbub, I was really expecting the worst from episode 7. What I got was an episode that sort of derailed the central arc, but was otherwise fine. I liked the conflict and the growth it offered the mythology.

  2. Joanna

    November 1, 2017 at 4:39 pm

    I think season three is going to explore more of the backstory behind where the kids like Jane (11) and Kali (8) came from, and I really hope it does because The Upside Down world feels done. Like I don’t know what else can be done with that.

    I was def not a fan of how they integrated/introuced Kali’s gang and Max/Billy. It was sloppy and rushed. But season 2 did do a great job with some of the characters’ development. Hooper and Eleven, Lucas, and Steve were who I thought grew the most in season 2—not to say that the other’s didn’t develop, but it felt like the writers paid the most attention to those four that I mentioned.

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‘A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa’ Captures that Old Muppet Magic We All Love

25 Days of Holiday TV Specials

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A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa

Join us as we spend the next 25 days writing about some of our favourite Holiday TV specials! Today, we look back at A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa.

What’s it About?

A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa is an hour-long Christmas special starring the Muppets, which first aired on December 17, 2008, on NBC.

Geared exclusively toward a younger audience, the plot involves the Muppets mistakenly intercepting three letters sent by children to Santa Claus after they get thrown out of the post office for causing too much ‘Muppet’ mayhem. When Gonzo realizes the post office has already closed, he and his friends attempt to personally deliver the letters to Santa – even if it means travelling to the North Pole.

A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa

Review

The Muppet Show lasted five short years and after Jim Henson’s surprising early death, but the Muppeteers tried several times at attempting a comeback on the small screen. Long before Jason Segal ever stepped in, there were plenty of TV specials including Muppets Tonight, a sitcom about a variety show that nobody seems to remember, Cinderelmo, The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, Kermit’s Swamp Years, It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, Elmo’s Christmas Countdown, and finally, A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa.

The Muppets have always been among the most loveable characters to spend the holiday season with, and while Letters to Santa may not be as famed as the television special/album collaboration with John Denver, nor It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas MovieLetters to Santa was certainly an improvement for the Muppet gang who spent years struggling with the heartbreaking loss of their creator.

Opening with a song-and-dance number (essentially a peculiar and over the top tribute for the United States Postal Service), the Christmas special features the standard brand of corny Muppets gags one expects. Propelled by the same variety of natural charm and offbeat humour we remember from the Muppet gang, Letters to Santa was the first one-hour Muppets television Christmas special since 1987 and for the most part, it lived up to the hype. The makers promised audiences would get the old Muppet magic from their golden years, and while they fell just short on their promise, Letters to Santa is still consistently funny, balancing the signature mix of craziness, cleverness, and camp that made the Muppets the multimedia sensation they are.

A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa

As with all of the Muppet projects since Henson’s passing, the new voices aren’t always spot on, and those with sharp ears will pick up on the differences. Steve Whitmire has been voicing Kermit for decades now but still hasn’t perfected his sound, but the biggest disappointment comes with the bland uninspiring songs, featuring poor production values and synthesized music by Paul Williams (who previously penned the memorable tunes of The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Christmas Carol). Thankfully there is a barrage of celebrity cameos and the writers show a willingness to be modern without being dated – with references to Blackberrys, the internet, social networking sites and cameos by the cast of The Sopranos (Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa).

Nathan Lane and Uma Thurman both turn in big laughs in their brief screen time. Beaker lands a dream date with Petra Nemcova using Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s “wish machine,” and Pepe, who has grown to be one of the funniest of the new generation of Muppets, steals the spotlight with his every appearance. Some cameos (as always) serve no real purpose other than to pad out the thin storyline. An appearance from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg misfires and Jane Krakowski’s comparatively bigger supporting role is pretty much wasted. Other celebrity appearances include Whoopi Goldberg , Richard Griffiths, Jesse L. Martin and Madison Pettis.

Despite a few shortcomings, Letters to Santa captures both that old Muppet magic, the spirit of holiday cheer and togetherness. In a closing number, the Muppets proclaim this to be their “best Christmas,” but we can all agree we’ve seen better.

– Ricky D

A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa

How Christmassy is it?

100% – The Muppet gang travels to the North Pole, meets up with Santa Claus, ride his magical sleigh and throw the biggest Muppet Christmas bash ever seen.

You May Like It If…

The pervasively child-friendly atmosphere ultimately cements A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa for anyone under the age of 12 or those already fans of the Muppets.

Other observations:

A DVD of the special was released on September 29, 2009. The disc’s bonus features include deleted scenes and interviews with the cast. A soundtrack album of the four original songs from the special was released for download on the iTunes Store and Amazon.com.

Here is the list of the original songs written by frequent Muppet collaborator Paul Williams, who appears in the special as Santa’s chief elf.

  • “Delivering Christmas”
  • “It’s All About Heart”
  • “I Wish I Could Be Santa Claus”
  • “My Best Christmas Yet”
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The Best TV Shows of 2019 (So Far…)

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Best TV Shows 2019

What are the Best TV Shows of the Year?

As the dawn of the Second Streaming Wars between Disney+, Netflix, and the hundreds of other streaming services, networks, and cable channels approaches, television finds itself in a strange place, an increasingly influential – and overcrowded – medium of art, one facing the end of an era with the conclusion of cultural touchstones like Game of Thrones and Big Bang Theory.

It’s still been a wonderful time for television, though – a time for wildly creative auteurs, some memorable performances – and of course, the final season of HBO’s iconic tale of dragons & boobs. We’ve compiled a list of our favorites from the strange, weird half year it’s been – here are Goomba Stomp’s Best TV shows of 2019 (So Far).

Editor’s Note: As of now, this list is in alphabetical order. We will be updating the list one last time on December 22, 2019.

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Best TV Shows 2019 - Barry

Barry

Barry‘s first season felt like a well-contained story; like many shows in the current era of television, it felt like less might be more for Bill Hader and Alex Berg’s black comedy about a lonely hitman trying to convince himself to live a clean life. Boy, did they prove me wrong: Barry‘s second season quietly transformed itself into one of the best, most devastating character studies on television, catapulting itself into the highest echelon of television with episodes like “rony/lilly” and “berkman > block” (both directed by Hader, who firmly establishes himself as one of the best directors working in the medium).

After an uneven premiere, it appeared Barry was going bigger in its second season: while it certainly has that feel in an external sense (at least, in the show’s wandering first few hours), Barry‘s second and third acts doubles down on its central theme of honesty, and just how it easy it is for people to lie to themselves. The fallout of this self-deception plays out in a number of powerful ways, from Barry’s attempts to extricate himself from Fuches and his bullshit, to Sally’s beautifully layered arc of trying to capture her truth as an artist (the show’s most marked improvement of the season).  With it, Barry found a way to refine its mix of violent comedy, industry satire, and deep character study into something much sharper, and wildly more satisfying. (Randy Dankievitch)

Best TV Shows Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies

Adapted from the book of the same name from Liane Moriarty by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Sharp Objects), the first season of Big Little Lies was a huge hit for HBO. It received 16 Emmy Award nominations and won eight, including Outstanding Limited Series and acting awards for Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgård, and Laura Dern. The trio also won Golden Globe Awards in addition to a Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries or Television Film win for the series. Kidman and Skarsgård also received Screen Actors Guild Awards for their performances. So, of course, there was going to be another season of a closed-ended story starring one of the most talented ensemble casts on television ever. And this time around, gifted filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road) has taken over direction from Vallée, with Meryl Streep joining the cast as Mary Louise Wright, the grieving mother in pursuit of the killer(s) of her beloved son. After the critically acclaimed first season, the biggest question going into this new installment was can it live up to the tension of the first season? The answer is yes!

This time around, the central question commanding the series isn’t who murdered who, but rather how the Monterey Five deal with the aftermath of Perry’s death. Season two raises the stakes for all five women at the center of the show and it doubles down on the dark humor while also giving its cast even more juicy drama to chew on. Needless to say, if you like season one, you’ll love season two but if there is one reason to watch, it is for the performance from Laura Dern who breathes dragon fire into Renata Klein — she’s by far the most fascinating character on television this year. (Ricky D)

Best TV Shows 2019 Black Mirror

Black Mirror

For years Black Mirror has been turning our latest technological advances into our newest fears and anxieties. From social media to smartphones, Black Mirror has found surprisingly inventive ways to turn our modern conveniences into nightmare fodder.

The fifth season continues this trend with three new tales about online gaming, social media addiction and holographic performers. While it may not be the best season of Charlie Brooker’s anthology series, Black Mirror still packs a punch in its latest effort. The middle episode, “Smithereens” (focusing on the kidnapping of an intern for a social media conglomerate, and the international incident which follows) is particularly involving.

With Nine Inch Nails, Miley Cyrus, and other talented performers behind the fifth season of Black Mirror, the show still succeeds in being entertaining, even when it’s not at its best. (Mike Worby)

Best TV Shows 2019

Bojack Horseman

Bojack Horseman carried on the strong trajectory of seasons 4 and 5 as it headed into the first part of its 6th and final season. As Bojack finally got clean and sober, he was forced to take a good long look at his life and his choices. Other characters like Diane and Princess Caroline found themselves at similar crossroads of their lives, and while things seem to be on the upswing by the end of the season, there is a clear darkness from the past that threatens to swallow Bojack for good as the second part of season 6 looms.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. This 8 episode stretch still has the same top tier satire and stupid animal puns you’ve likely come to know and love after 5 seasons with Bojack Horseman. And with the last bit of episodes just around the corner in January, we’ll soon have the the final verdict on one of Netflix’s best shows. (Mike Worby)

Best TV Shows 2019 Broad City

Broad City

The end of Broad City feels like the end of a specific generation of late-millennial comedy, a quarter-life-crisis series grounded in one of the most nuanced, unabashedly honest portrayals of female friendship (and New York City, in all its disgusting, adventurous glory). And after a couple of seasons of resting on its comedic laurels, Broad City‘s final ten episodes are a surprisingly emotional ride, prying the two protagonists away from each other as they contemplate the next personal, and professional, steps in their lives.

Broad City‘s final season is basically a breakup story disguised as a Linklater-esque coming of age comedy: it’s equally nostalgic and hopeful, packed with callbacks to earlier seasons, but with the haunting realizations that things for Abby and Ilana are changing, and the adventures of their mid-20’s are far behind them. Neatly divided into two distinctly individual arcs, Broad City finds its genius in the earnest growth it offers both its leading ladies, culminating in the show’s impressive final four episodes, perhaps the most emotionally satisfying arc of the series.

Yes, there’s still drug-addled adventures, plenty of Jewish jokes, and failed romances for both Abbi and Ilana – this is still Broad City we’re talking about, after all. But there’s a different tenor to the show’s unwavering honesty, isolating Abbi and Ilana as they fumble to figure out who they are going to be, in a marked shift from the show’s previous, often lighthearted approach to life’s most pressing questions. Equally sentimental and unforgiving, Broad City‘s ruminations on friendship and identity makes for surprisingly powerful material, cementing the show’s legacy as one of this generation’s defining comedies. (Randy Dankievitch)

Chernobyl Best TV Shows 2019

Chernobyl

It’s been a quiet year for horror series during the first half of 2019 – until Chernobyl arrived in the spring, with the terrifying reminder that nobody is safe from the unseen terror of radiation, the toxic, silent killer at the heart of HBO’s harrowing, moving (and most terrifyingly, historical) account of the Soviet nuclear disaster. Centered around the doctors, scientists, and politicians ensnared by the government to “fix” the un-fixable, Chernobyl is a moving account of the mistakes, guesses, and half-truths that, over time, transformed bad calculus into an international disaster with an immeasurable human cost.

Perhaps the most cogent terror of Chernobyl is not the big explosions and uncertainty of early episodes: it is the creeping realization of how close we are to this happening a (third) time, and how unprepared the bureaucracies of the civilized world are prepared to handle it. Chernobyl is a powerful reflection on human persistence, and what a dangerous double-edged sword it is for the world, and particularly its most powerful men, to wield.

Led by a trio of powerful performances from Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, and Emily Watson, Chernobyl is an intoxicating mix of terrifying images and anxiety-inducing foreshadowing, a damning account of the lives lost at the expense of playing politics (or in the case of a young military recruit, a damning loss of innocence). Even without the horrifying images of seeing what happened to the unsuspecting first responders to the disaster (and the creeping realization of its main players of their own fates), Chernobyl‘s depiction of a government’s ineptitude to deal with the fallout of its own ambition makes it the most frightening show of 2019. (Randy Dankievitch)

Best TV Shows 2019 Creepshow

Creepshow

In the late 1970s, horror maestros George Romero and Stephen King teamed up to create Creepshow, a horror anthology that doubled as an homage to the old EC comics the pair grew up reading as kids. In its opening weekend, Creepshow took the top spot at the box office, grossing an impressive $5,870,889 stateside and eventually went on to become a cult classic spawning two sequels and even a comic of its own. Now decades later, horror streaming service Shudder has revived the concept, bringing back everyone’s favorite creep in the form of a weekly series that promised to capture the legacy of both the age-old comics and that 1982 movie.

Much like the 1982 movie — which spawned a pair of sequels — Greg Nicotero’s anthology series is equally frightening and funny. And like the original, not every segment is a winner but of the twelve segments crammed into six episodes, more than half deliver good, old-fashioned horror that treats its inspirations with infectious admiration. Reviving the franchise that Stephen King and George A. Romero began forty years ago isn’t an easy task, but Greg Nicotero along with his incredibly talented team pulled it off. (Ricky D)

Dark Crystal Netflix

Dark Crystal

Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is an utter feast for the eyes, pulses, and minds and it will more than exceed the expectations of fans of Jim Henson’s original. This is one of the most ambitious and immersive TV events of the year – a series that builds on the wonderment of the 1982 film and delivers a smarter, creepier, more whimsical, and more narratively thrilling adventure. Age of Resistance is made with such intelligence, imagination, passion, and skill, that you can feel the filmmaker’s passion oozing out of every frame. Anyone else looking to make a fantasy TV series should take notes since this is a prime example of how to do it right.

Whether you’re watching for fulfilled nostalgia or simple curiosity, Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance will more than keep you enthralled with its craftsmanship and pure artistry. It’s extraordinary work, grandly conceived, brilliantly executed and one of the best fantasy tales since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

What Louis Leterrier and company have accomplished here is amazing on every level. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a technical marvel and an achievement in the art form of puppetry. Every scene is teeming with life and every episode is blessed with a good script, fantastic performances, and stunning visuals. Age of Resistance is crammed with so much adventure, so many spectacular effects, so much derring-do, and so much visual wonder, it will keep some viewers coming back for more. More importantly, it’s clear the entire team went out of their way to stay true to Jim Henson’s vision and retain the spirit of the original film. Netflix deserves credit for taking a gamble on such an ambitious project and judging by how it ends, we will hopefully see a second season in the near future. (Ricky D)

Best TV Shows 2019 Euphoria

Euphoria

HBO’s button-pushing new drama Euphoria zeroes in on the lives of several high school students living in California and how they navigate a world filled with violence, profanity, drug use, overt bullying, and sexual abuse. The show has been billed as a parent’s nightmare, no thanks to the explicit sex scenes, nonconsensual-sex tapes and child pornography but beneath the show’s explicit exterior is a compassionate examination of adolescent longing. Told from the perspective of a 17-year-old drug addict named Rue, who is desperately trying to self-medicate her severe depression with whatever drugs she can get her hands on, Euphoria is both an exploitive and a surprisingly tender look at the overwhelming anxieties faced by teens today including neglect, anxiety, and loneliness. Some scenes contain powerful messaging while others seem designed simply to shock, but more often than not, Euphoria will have viewers thinking long and hard about the current modern challenges facing youth today.

Euphoria channels the spirit of movies like Kids and Gummo, and like those films, it’s best to view the series as a mood piece rather than a guide to Gen Z behaviors. If the series can slow down and stop trying so hard to shock adult viewers, it could become a worthy addition to the HBO pantheon. There’s a lot of potential here, but like the characters it follows, Euphoria is sometimes lost and trying to find its voice. That said, despite its shortcomings, it is still one of the better shows of 2019. (Ricky D)

Fleabag Best TV Shows 2019

Fleabag

Nearly three years after its genius debut, Fleabag finally returned for a second go-round in April – and somehow lived up to its gigantic expectations, delivering a second series even more darkly poignant and emotionally devastating than the first. Through the conduit of the meme-ified Hot Priest, Fleabag‘s second offering picks up the first season’s observations about human connection and gives it a properly epic feel, turning the audience into Fleabag’s only friend, and God of her world.

It’s stunning how effortless it all feels: from Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ little glances towards the camera to the layers of nuance in each of the season’s scripts, Fleabag is a work of art all to itself, lacking in the prestige pretention so many other notable series of the era get tied up in. It is undoubtedly one of this decade’s most important, reflective series on the human condition – but it never ever feels that weight, especially as it tells its tragic, comical love story of Fleabag and the aforementioned Hot Priest (who at one point, looks right through Fleabag and towards the audience, as shocking a moment as anything on television in 2019).

There are few shows as rewarding or as rewatchable as Fleabag, in all its twitchy, horny, awkward glory. It is a story of loss and discovery, of failure and retribution – and most importantly, of life’s continuous disappointments and occasional joys. Fleabag reminds us just how hard it is to latch onto the latter; but in the few moments we can, the peace and clarity we’re offered can energize an entire lifetime of beautiful misery. (Randy Dankievitch)

Best TV Shows 2019 Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones

Like Black MirrorGame of Thrones’ latest (and final) season has been incredibly divisive. With many fans lamenting the pacing issues and plot revelations behind the endgame of George R.R. Martin’s dark fantasy series, Game of Thrones may not have another Emmy in the bag, but it does leave a lasting legacy nonetheless.

The settling of some of the show’s most long-simmering and important plotlines may not have pleased all viewers, but the fact that Game of Thrones managed to tell the entire story of a seven book fantasy saga on television at all is wildly impressive.

Even with the polarizing reactions to season 8, Game of Thrones still offered the bombastic story-telling, intricate characterization, top-notch production values, and fantastic performances for which it has come to be known. These factors alone make it stand out among the best television of 2019, even if it couldn’t live up to the sky-high expectations of some of its fans. (Mike Worby)

GLOW

You would have thought a series that revolves around characters and gimmicks of a low-budget 1980s syndicated women’s professional wrestling circuit would be a hit? Sure enough, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (or GLOW) created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch has garnered rave reviews and gathered a cult following since it premiered on Netflix in the summer of 2017. With incredibly accurate 1980s period detail, a superb ensemble cast and great writing, GLOW returned for its third season and delivered exactly what the fans want.

In the third season of GLOW, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling adjust to their new casino-based lives in Las Vegas. They’re no longer starring in an ongoing serialized wrestling promotion; instead, the ladies take to the stage several nights a week at the fictitious Fan-Tan Casino where they perform in front of a live audience, often improvising both in necessity and in boredom from the usual routine. But no matter how hard they try to shake things up, the nightly attraction is just that— a routine. The season makes so many unexpected pivots as the cast of GLOW struggle with their careers and insecurities. Feeling trapped in a never-ending loop, the ladies (and men) are forced to either live a superficial life in the most superficial place on Earth and succumb to boredom— or carve a new path and find happiness in something (or someone) new. Turns out, Las Vegas makes for a refreshing change of pace as it provides new opportunities and perhaps a step up for their careers.

The third season of GLOW is nowhere near as good as its predecessors, but it remains a complex show nonetheless, calling attention to culturally relevant issues while maintaining a dark sense of humor. As hard as it tries to give everyone in the cast a story, there just isn’t enough time and so a good number of important story beats fall flat. Yet despite its flaws and odd tonal shifts, GLOW is still one of the best shows of 2019.

I Think You Should Leave

As Netflix continues to diversify its eclectic brand of offerings, the streaming service is catering to more markets than ever. One of its latest successes is the no-holds-barred sketch comedy I Think You Should Leave.

Created by and starring SNL alum Tim Robinson, I Think You Should Leave goes all in on each of its increasingly outlandish scenarios, including a cringe-inducing job interview, a man trying to get revenge on a baby, an awkward Instagram lunch date, and bikers from outer space. Yes, I Think You Should Leave is as silly and out there as it sounds, but with guest stars like Will Forte, Michelle Ortiz, Steven Yeun, and a host of others to sell the insanity, the comedy rarely falters.

With the first season coming in at only 90 minutes, and a second season already on the way, there’s no excuse not to give this brilliant Netflix sketch series a chance. (Mike Worby)

Love, Death + Robots Best TV Shows 2019

Love, Death + Robots

In case Black Mirror wasn’t enough to satisfy your appetite for a sci-fi anthology series,  Love, Death + Robots offers 18 bite-sized slices of mind-bending, futuristic goodness on Netflix as well.

Originally conceived as a new version of Heavy Metal, Love, Death + Robots eventually evolved into its own creation altogether. Focusing partly on adapting classic science fiction tales and partly on creating new stories, the series travels all across the space-time continuum, weaving tales of future farmers battling interdimensional insects and cryogenic sleeping astronauts awakening to their worst nightmares.

With tones and themes as eclectic as its settings and stories, there’s something for everyone to love in this gorgeously animated, lovingly rendered anthology series. (Mike Worby)

Mindhunter Season 2

Mindhunter

With fans having waited with great anticipation for two years, David Fincher’s revolutionary Netflix series returned this year for its sophomore season, giving fans an even deeper dive into the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit.

Ultimately, the second season of Mindhunter did not disappoint— it’s hands down one of the best shows of 2019, a meticulous, well written and darkly evocative re-creation of a time and a place that captures the complexity and inherent difficulties of old-fashioned detective work. The attention to detail applied here must be applauded. Mindhunter captures every feeling and nuance of an entire era and through its brilliant commentary, it will make you want to dig through Wikipedia posts while binging several true crime podcasts just to learn more about its subjects. It’s a story about the incomprehensible nature of evil and reminds us that in the end, no matter how hard we try, we won’t learn every detail and understand every motive. (Ricky D)

Mom Best TV Shows 2019

Mom

Entering its sixths season with 110 episodes under its belt, one might surmise Mom‘s latest offering is a rather safe endeavor, settling into the established rhythms of the series with the lower stakes that often come from a group of characters well-settled into their lives. As it always does, though, Mom continues to buck tradition and expectation with perhaps its best season yet, refusing to ever let its main characters – and their larger group of friends and fellow AA attendees – get comfortable, even for a second.

Mom‘s sixth season is as impressive as its first, because of its ability to continue challenging its characters, masterfully walking the thin line between nuanced character study and broad network comedy. Never pandering or exploitative, Mom never forgets it is a show about a group of addicts: but it also recognizes itself as a show about white women of some level of privilege, constantly challenging and humbling Christy, Bonnie, and the gang (which now includes the legendary William Fitchner) as they try to navigate their complicated lives (and remain sober doing it).

Though I do wish the arcs of Tammy and Nora through the season a bit more defined, Mom remains the most rewarding show to watch about a community of women (sorry, Big Little Lies). For a sitcom on CBS, Mom remains surprisingly limber in its advanced age, able to be funny, poignant, and emotionally devastating in the same breath: few shows on television are able to balance so many emotional tenors, even fewer with the same poignancy and effortlessness Mom pulls off every week. (Randy Dankievitch)

Best TV Shows 2019

Mr. Robot

When Mr. Robot hit the scene five years ago, it was one of the breakout critical sensations of that year. It was a series that was legit must-watch television thanks to its tremendous zeitgeist appeal and Rami Malek’s performance as the disaffected hacker protagonist Elliot Alderson. Mr. Robot put its network, USA, on the map and made Malek a bona fide star. It revived the career of former Hollywood bad boy Christian Slater and it made creator-writer-director Sam Esmail one of TV’s most talked-about new auteurs. There was a time when Mr. Robot was considered the best show on television, but all the plaudits Mr. Robot received for its first season died quickly with its meandering second, as fans grew tired of Esmail continually toying with viewer perceptions. The third season was an improvement, but despite some truly outstanding episodes (most notably “eps3.4_runtime-error.r00”), it still felt like it was trying too hard to outsmart the audience. By the time season three ended, the conversation had moved on and Mr. Robot felt stuck in the past.

Thankfully, Mr. Robot returned with a satisfying, thrilling final season that surprised its fanbase and kept them at the edge of their seats. The stakes in season four are higher than they’ve ever been—opening with a major character death and making it clear that Elliot’s mission to take down Whiterose and the Dark Army was going to come at a high cost. What’s more, is that Mr. Robot’s fourth and final season has taken its stylistic ambitions to new heights. Mr. Robot has always been fond of experimental filmmaking in the television landscape—  in season three, Sam Esmail constructed a brilliant hour that was filmed and edited to seem as if it all done in one long, continuous single shot— but this season’s direction is truly special. For the most part, Esmail has maintained his undeniably unique aesthetic, taking full advantage of negative space, vertigo-inducing God’s-eye perspectives, Dutch angles, shadowy faces and of course, using a wide lens in tight spaces. The blocking of scenes involving each actor is the sharpest it’s ever been, and the art direction still feels somewhat revolutionary. There’s no denying Mr. Robot is one of TV’s most stylistically and creatively adventurous and season four brings even more to the table.

Writer and director Sam Esmail (the show’s creator and showrunner) has once again directed every single episode of the season and with each season, he becomes better and better at his craft. Episode four titled “Not Found” is one of the strangest (and best) Christmas episodes ever— as Darlene, Dom, Elliot, and Tyrell face their demons on Christmas Eve. The season’s fifth episode — “405 Method Not Allowed” is one of the most inventive entries to date and features just two lines of spoken dialogue as Elliot and Darlene undertake an ambitious heist. If that isn’t enough, halfway through Mr. Robot’s final season, Sam Esmail puts together a gripping bottle episode structured as a play in five acts, which focuses exclusively on Vera’s kidnapping and subsequent emotional manipulation of Elliot. “Proxy Authentication Required” is a riveting hour, relying heavily on extended conversations and superb performances by Rami Malek, Christian Slater, Elliot Villar and Gloria Reuben to reveal a pivotal moment in Elliot’s tragic past. With “Proxy Authentication Required,” Esmail comes across as a modern-day Hitchcock— the episode is exhilarating, horrifying, and thrilling, despite never leaving the New York apartment.

Much as been said about how the show critiques consumerism, the internet, capitalism, and the use of technology to oversee and control our daily lives—but Mr. Robot is and has always been foremost, a story about mental illness. At the center of this show is Rami Malek whose emotional range as an actor has helped carry the series through both the highs and lows. Season four is a testament to his incredible talent and that of Sam Esmail who’s given us one of the decade’s signature prestige dramas. (Ricky D)

Best TV Shows 2019 Now Apocalypse

Now Apocalypse

Once considered the angriest, most unconventional, and relentlessly intriguing voices in independent cinema, Gregg Araki first made his name as a filmmaker in the 90s, emerging as part of the new queer cinema movement when his third feature, The Living End— a controversial road movie about two HIV-positive runaways who go on a violent cross-country spree. From there, Araki went on to make several more features including Totally Fucked UpThe Doom Generation and Nowhere (which would become known as the Teen-Age Apocalypse Trilogy) and his most famous film, Mysterious Skin: the coming of age drama about a small-town rent boy played brilliantly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

If you’ve seen any of the Gregg Araki’s films, you should know what to expect from Now Apocalypse, his surreal, coming-of-age comedy series that … wait for it … explores identity, sexuality, and artistry while navigating the strange, dangerous and oftentimes bewildering city of Los Angeles while the main protagonist Ulysses, is having premonitions about the end of the world. Sound familiar?

Co-written by Araki with sex columnist Karley Sciortino, the new half-hour sci-fi comedy from Starz is bound to confuse viewers who have little-to-no previous exposure to Araki’s body of work – which is fine by me because despite its utterly ridiculous plot, Now Apocalypse features everything you’d want from a Gregg Araki series. Now Apocalypse is unapologetically queer, quirky, mysterious and fun. And while it is admittedly a huge mess, it is also never once boring and quite frankly, refreshingly different from everything else on TV.  (Ricky D)

Best TV Shows 2019

Primal

One of the biggest surprises of the year came from Adult Swim and Genndy Tartakovsky with Primal. Set in a fantastical version of prehistoric times, Primal sees its two speechless protagonists travelling together across a brutal and unforgiving wilderness after a series of tragedies bonds them together. 

Though the tale of this unlikely duo and their journey is compelling enough, it’s the jaw-dropping animation that will keep you coming back for more. Tartakovsky is best known for sillier fare like Samurai Jack and Dexter’s Laboratory but his work here is some of the most stunning artistry you’ll see in the entire industry. 

At a mere 22 minutes an episode, Primal is absolutely worth a look for anyone with even a passing interest in animated entertainment, and with the season being broken into two parts (with the second part coming in 2020) there’s plenty of time to get caught up before we see how this intense, bloody tale comes to a close. (Mike Worby)

The Righteous Gemstones Now the Sons of Eli Were Worthless Men

The Righteous Gemstones

Though Danny McBride’s HBO work is often remembered for its audacious humor, it’s the fascination with modern Americana that truly makes Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals memorable series – which in a way, makes him an unnatural fit for a series as big and loaded as televangelism. And yet, The Righteous Gemstones hits the ground running, a comedy about the intersection of religion, business, and family, in one of 2019’s more interesting shows about inter-generational conflict – and more prudently, honesty and forgiveness.

Led by Edi Patterson’s mesmerizing performance as forgotten Gemstone sibling Judy (who surprisingly outshines John Goodman, an unhinged Walton Goggins, and Danny McBride), The Righteous Gemstones is the rare comedy that is as reflective as it is funny: even in the age of Peak TV’s hybridization of traditional genres, Gemstones is one of few series able to nimbly jump between identities.

Perhaps most importantly, it is as confident a comedy as there is on television, a conviction of theme and character that only grows stronger as the season builds its dramatic crescendo, resulting in one of the most satisfying season finales of the year. (Randy Dankievitch)

Best TV Shows 2019 Russian Doll

Russian Doll

Russian Doll may very well be the very best TV series Netflix has produced to date. Co-created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, the series stars Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov, a New York woman celebrating her 36th birthday, who is doomed to repeat the same endless time loop before she dies at the end of the night each time — only to awaken the next day having to start all over. Every time she thinks she might make it past the reset point, she dies again and again. The stakes are eventually raised when Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a fellow wanderer who is also stuck in his own depressive loop. What starts out feeling like a zany homage to Groundhog Day unravels to becomes something darker,  deeper and far more complex. With so much bubbling under the surface, one could say, it’s a show carefully constructed like, well, a Russian doll.

One of the most straightforward threads of Russian Doll considers addiction which makes sense considering Lyonne has spoken about how parts of the story were inspired by her own history with drugs. A more popular reading is that the curse placed on Nadia and Alan could stand in as a metaphor for mental illness as they struggle to find a way to end the loop, only starting to realize that they need to first seek the emotional closure in order to overcome their own personal struggles before moving on. Meanwhile, Russian Doll has also drawn comparisons to video games such as The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask in which Nadia, who just so happens to be a video game designer, must race against the clock in order to avoid death, and avoid starting all over again. Along with themes of trauma and existential questions about the construction of the universe and the importance of human connection, one’s interpretation of what the show is all about may vary from person to person. Somehow, though, Russian Doll manages to address all of these subjects and more, weaving countless themes and cultural references into a tight three-and-a-half-hour running time in which not a second is wasted. (Ricky D)

Netfxlix The OA Part 2 Best TV Shows 2019

The OA: Part II

There’s nothing on television like The OA, a show about trauma, companionship, love… and traveling through parallel universes by doing an interpretive dance. Nearly two and a half years after its strange, hauntingly beautiful debut, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s ridiculous, heartfelt series returned a completely different animal, trading in its poignant, quiet reflections of season one into a loud, vibrant kaleidoscope of utterly ridiculous stories.

There are deadly online mobile games, a telepathic (and horny) octopus, and mini-robots who dance the movements: these are but a few of the ridiculous twists and turns offered in The OA: Part II, which is somehow a more ostentatiously opaque, thoroughly challenging offering than its predecessor. Unlike anything else on television, The OA: Part II demands audiences to trust it, to believe in the utter bullshit it portrays as plot development on screen – a challenge it most certainly meets, with a welcome earnestness and disregard for formula, or at times, even basic coherency.

It is an utterly confounding, beautiful work of art: The OA: Part II is an unforgiving and bold, one of the rare television series that is truly “like nothing else on television.” In 2019, that is a harder and harder thing to claim, but there is nothing like The OA‘s exploration of identity, destiny, and even reality. It is something you must truly see to believe – especially its ending, one of the most purely bat shit crazy plot twists I’ve seen in the Peak TV era. (Randy Dankievitch)

Succession

The first season of Succession didn’t get the attention it deserved when it premiered in 2018 but fast forward one year, and HBO’s darkly funny drama about the Roy family (the dysfunctional owners of a global media and hospitality empire who are fighting for control of the company) became one of the most talked-about shows of 2019.

It’s easy to see why it took so long for viewers to warm up to Succession given that the characters in Succession are despicable creatures and will do everything in their power to get their share of the family media empire. This is a show about rich people— there’s no way around it— but Succession does not glamourize their wealth nor does it makes no apologies for it. The truth is, the characters in Succession are some of the worst people you’ll see on television with each episode steadily and surely raising its characters up to new levels of horrors. The Roys are destructive people and they and their organization cause other people to suffer and sometimes self-destruct in front of them, but they are so far removed from reality that they cannot see the harm it inflicts on others. Or maybe, they just don’t care. Whatever the case, Succession finds pleasure in awful people trying—and failing in doing awful things to one another. After each episode, it becomes clear that despite having wonderfully written characters, there’s nobody to root for. What makes the second season of Succession an improvement, however, is how it examines what happens when that power and privilege are stripped away.

The word “Shakespearean” is often mistakenly used to describe high-prestige dramas but in the case of Succession, it feels like the best descriptor for the series. Succession isn’t what you’d call a very cinematic series. Its strength lies in its theatrical quality, sharp writing and exceptional performances that bring a new level of sympathy for some of television’s least likable characters. In fact, several episodes don’t do much other than place the central characters in a confining space and allow the selfish one-percenters to try and outdo each other’s depravity. It is an act of torture, and yet, you can’t help but watch the drama unfold. And the reason we enjoy watching them plot, bicker, argue and backstab each other is that despite its deplorable characters, Succession is extremely funny.

The season finale itself, is one of the best hours of television this year, as we watch nearly all the members of the Roy family and their business colleagues attempt to decide who among them should be sacrificed in order to save the rest. Without giving away any spoilers, the final shocking twist nearly broke the internet and left viewers clamoring for more (Ricky D)

Superstore Best TV Shows 2019

Superstore

Perhaps the last great remaining workplace comedy on network television, Superstore‘s fourth season slowly shifts itself away from the melodramatics of its predecessor… and in the process, establishes itself as one of the more heartfelt and progressive shows on TV. More importantly, it does so without pretension, even though just about every major narrative arc of the season hinges on relevant social movements (like immigration, unionization, corporate capitalism), Superstore never lets these moments overwhelm its eclectic, lovable cast of characters, one of the most hilarious (and diverse) on television.

There are too many satisfying arcs to list here (though Amy’s ascension to store manager is a personal favorite) – but it’s the final four episodes of the season, culminating in “Employee Appreciation Day,” that firmly cement Superstore‘s legacy as one of the decade’s great ensemble comedies (and in a roundabout way, everything Aaron Sorkin wishes The Newsroom could’ve been). It’s striking to see a show (a network comedy, no less) take such strong stances on unions, immigration, and corporate discrimination – to do so while also remaining a deeply rewarding comedy about a cast of blue-collar misfits is something truly special. (Randy Dankievitch)

Stranger Things Season 4

Stranger Things

Stranger Things is so popular that we sometimes forget this once unknown property came out of nowhere in 2016 and surprised the world by becoming the most popular series on Netflix due to word-of-mouth. It was the first original streaming series that quickly became a water-cooler topic and three seasons later, Stranger Things shows no signs of slowing down.

Except for a few missteps, the third season of Stranger Things surpasses the creative heights of the second season if only because it raises the stakes. Not only does season two’s Big Bad, the Mind Flayer return to prey on the residents of Hawkins, Indiana but having Billy as the Mind Flayer’s surrogate villain makes the threat to Hawkins a little more tangible. As awful as Billy was in the second season, it pales in comparison to what the Mind Flayer forces him to do this time around. And thanks to great writing and a superb performance by Dacre Montgomery, we end up caring about Billy once Eleven delves into his memories and we learn why Billy is the way he is. In season two, Billy was the bully but in season three, it’s the bully who becomes the victim and he’s desperately in need of saving. Along with Russian spies, Cold War paranoia, and the arrival of a new shopping mall that puts everyone out of business, the third season of Stranger Things is packed with enough mystery, suspense, and nail-biting tension to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.

Anyone who enjoyed the first two seasons of Strangers Things should no doubt enjoy the third season. The character-based humor, funny quips, excellent cast, period-specific detail, pop culture references, science fiction horror, and moments of fan-satisfying gratification are all present and accounted for. Season Three has everything a fan could want— it’s exciting, funny, suspenseful and features arguably the two best episodes of the series so far. More importantly, the season explores the idea of friends drifting apart. In Season Three, the children have grown into young teens with new interests and shifting priorities and now they must find a way to put aside their differences and work together. Season Three ends with perhaps the most satisfying conclusion yet and features moments that could make even the most jaded viewer teary-eyed. (Ricky D)

Best TV Shows 2019 True Detective

True Detective

After a rocky second season and a four-year hiatus, True Detective has returned at last with what may be its finest noir tale yet.

Focusing on the disappearance of two young siblings, and spanning the course of four decades, True Detective‘s third season enlists the talents of Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff as troubled detectives trying to solve a mysterious case over the course of three different time periods. Moody, atmospheric and haunting, True Detective goes utterly for broke in its latest effort, and is all the better for it.

With tons of twists and turns along the way, a jaw-dropping cast, and a fantastic soundtrack, Nic Pizzolato’s third run at the classic film-noir detective story has reinvigorated the love for this series, and offers plenty of hope for an equally excellent fourth season. (Mike Worby)

Best TV Shows 2019 Umbrella Academy

The Umbrella Academy

This 10-episode Netflix series, which is adapted from the comic book created and written by My Chemical Romance’s frontman, Gerard Way, might have its share of flaws and excesses, but it, for the most part, feels fresh in what is an oversaturated genre. The basic premise revolves around seven kids with superpowers born to different mothers on the same day and brought together as young children by a wealthy inventor and philanthropist Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) who adopts all seven of these miracle babies, and creates an academy in order to teach them how to hone their powers.

Best described as a particularly bleak X-Men story with the musical and visual flourishes of WatchmenThe Umbrella Academy is as stylish as they come – featuring gorgeous costume design, stunning cinematography, dazzling visual effects, colorful sets, and thrilling action scenes. The production design is simply incredible as is the soundtrack which plays a prominent role in bringing several key sequences to life. Take for instance a split-screen shoot-out in a department store as Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” provides the high-tempo backdrop as the action unfolds – or a scene in which the team listens to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” as the camera glides through the mansion capturing each sibling dancing in separate rooms. And underneath all the razzle and dazzle is a brutal portrait of a damaged, unhappy, dysfunctional family that has drifted apart for various reasons and must now band together in order to help each other while also saving the world. The combination of family drama and superheroics is nothing new but The Umbrella Academy shows enough moments of genius, albeit brief, to warrant a spot on this list. (Ricky D)

Best TV Shows 2019

Veronica Mars

While plenty of shows have tried to do the reboot/comeback thing over the last few years, not many have managed to do so as successfully as Veronica Mars. The Hulu revival somehow manages to bring the core characters we loved into a compelling new mystery after a 12 year hiatus. Still in tact are the whip smart writing, red herrings aplenty, and the battle against corruption at every turn.

The crown jewel comes in the form of the strong cast and their chemistry though. Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni shine every time they’re on screen together and the new additions to the cast, including Patton Oswalt, all make a strong case for their characters, even as they’re shelving old fan favorites. Still, nearly every character gets a chance in the limelight during this 8 episode return, and the fact that it never feels like overwrought fan service makes it an absolute joy to see them again. (Mike Worby)

Best TV Shows 2019 When They See Us

When They See Us

Ava DuVernay pulls no punches in When They See Us, a dramatized account of how thirty years ago, five young boys came to be arrested, convicted and sentenced for raping and beating a white female jogger in Central Park, and leaving her left for dead. It is one of the most famous cases of young boys wrongfully accused of a crime they did not commit. The case made headlines around the world and the five teenagers, all of color, would ultimately become known as the Central Park Five. The story of the Central Park Five has been covered extensively by media since, including in the incredible 2012 documentary The Central Park Five, co-directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. But this scripted miniseries is different and it feels more personal due to DuVernay’s approach in closely examining the five individuals whose lives were turned upside down before they’d even had the chance to finish high school. And in many ways, When They See Us is the perfect companion piece to that famous documentary. Instead of reinvestigating this case, or delving into the circumstances that led up to it, When They See Us focuses more on the suffering the boys endured both when they were forced to do time and when they were released from prison.

The first episode shows how the police department, detectives and lawyers tricked these young boys into confessing to a crime they were not guilty of. The second episode captures the trial and the media hype surrounding the case while the penultimate episode (which brings in four older actors to play the characters as adults), tracks the experiences of Kevin, Antron, Yusef, and Raymond, the four men who emerge from their juvenile sentences and are faced with various obstacles when restarting their lives as registered sex offenders. The final episode which is the most heartbreaking runs nearly 90 minutes long, and focuses on the particular suffering of 16-year-old Korey, the only one of the five sentenced as an adult and winds up spending his time behind bars in various adult prisons. When They See Us is not an easy show to watch but it is essential viewing if you care at all about how unjust the justice system is. It’s a powerful, dense, series that examines not just the effects of systemic racism but the effects of all sorts of disenfranchisement. It is profoundly rich, urgent, unflinching, and DuVernay’s strongest work to date. It might also just be the best series of 2019. (Ricky D)

You're the Worst Pancakes Best TV Shows 2019

You’re the Worst

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece bidding adieu to You’re the Worst, one of the best comedies of the generation. In it, I said:

When the Sunday Funday crew take their final bow, You’re the Worst’s audience will say farewell to an honest portrayal about the pursuit of happiness, and why the “good” emotions of life can often be the most unsatisfying.

The entire final season of You’re the Worst tackles this idea head-on, particularly in the professional lives of its main characters. As Jimmy and Gretchen hurtled towards a wedding neither of them actually wanted, You’re the Worst cemented its legacy as one of the romantic comedies of this generation, nimbly moving between stories of professional anxieties and personal battles as it built towards “Pancakes,” the beautiful, bittersweet farewell to Gretchen, Jimmy, Edgar, and Lindsay’s story. Though not quite as potent as it was in its earliest, most revelatory seasons, the continued misadventures of Jimmy’s writing career and Gretchen’s mental health struggles proved to be fertile emotional ground for the show’s final batch of episodes.  Of the many shows to end in 2019, this will be the one I miss the most. (Randy Dankievitch)

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‘The X-Files’, “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” as fresh and vital years later

25 Days of Holiday TV Specials

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How the Ghosts Stole Christmas

Join us as we spend the next 25 days writing about some of our favourite Holiday TV specials! Today, we look back at the classic X-Files episode, “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas”.

A Brief History

In case you’re somehow not familiar with The X-Files, the television series developed by Chris Carter ran from 1993 to 2002 and was later resurrected in 2016. The show was a huge hit for the Fox network, and its characters and slogans became popular culture touchstones. In the show, FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is teamed up with Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), and together they investigate unexplained phenomena and unsolved cases their Bureau name the X-Files.

In addition to the series-spanning story arc, “monster of the week” episodes made up roughly two-thirds of the series. In such stand-alone episodes, Mulder and Scully investigate strange crimes that often had no long-term effect on the storyline. This is one of them.

How the Ghosts Stole Christmas

What’s it About?

In “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas,” Mulder talks Scully into investigating a haunted house on Christmas Eve where several couples have met their fate on that very night:

Mulder: Driven by a tragic fear of separation they forged a lovers’ pact so that they might spend eternity together and not spend one precious Christmas apart.

Scully: They killed themselves?

Mulder: And their ghosts haunt this house every Christmas Eve.

Inside the haunted house, Mulder and Scully encounter endless tricks and traps set by a ghostly couple who originally made a lovers’ suicide pact in the house. “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas” plays on loneliness, and traps Mulder and Scully in a loop of depression and distrust as the ghosts try to convince them to turn on one another.

xfiles

Review

“How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” is one of the best Christmas episodes of any series— an extremely creative, arguably bitter Holiday treat, perfect for this time of year with its blend of horror, comedy, and hints of romance.

Chris Carter has often mentioned that the series never really pulled off a great scary ghost story, and admittedly there’s never a sense that the show’s leads are ever in danger, but “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” allows Carter to spin a somewhat hysterical, gutsy ghost story, into an extremely warped psychological study of Mulder and Scully – specifically their loneliness. After all, the holiday season can be the loneliest time of the year for many, and Mulder and Scully are no different. In fact, there is a subconscious implication that the two agents agree to meet on Christmas Eve because they have nowhere else to be, and no one else to be with.

In many episodes of The X-Files, Mulder and Scully run in circles and sometimes into walls – figuratively speaking – but in “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas” we’re treated to watching them do it literally. The deceased former occupants, Maurice and Lyda (played magnificently by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin) have more tricks up their sleeve than Harry Houdini. The ghosts prey on their loneliness and the ambiguity of their relationship, urging them all the while to follow their example and kill one another on Christmas Eve. Carter makes the house itself the central character, a beautifully designed and highly atmospheric entity teeming with trap doors, dead bodies under the floorboards, windows that automatically open and shut and a room that one cannot escape. Doors and walls appear and disappear within the spooky old home, and based on the clock on the wall, time itself seems to be shifting around, making the location not only mysterious but genuinely creepy.

x-files-christmas

The rapid-fire banter throughout the episode which is rich and clever is also worth noting. Early on, in what might be the highlight of the entire 60 minutes, Scully makes a passionate speech about the psychology of believing in spiritual hauntings:

“These are tricks that the mind plays. They are ingrained clichés from a thousand different horror films. When we hear a sound, we get a chill. We-we see a shadow and we allow ourselves to imagine something that an otherwise rational person would discount out of hand.

“The whole idea of a benevolent entity fits perfectly with what I’m saying. That a spirit would materialize or return for no other purpose than to show itself is silly and ridiculous. I mean, what it really shows is how silly and ridiculous we have become in believing such things. I mean, that… That we can ignore all natural laws about the corporeal body – that-that we witness these spirits clad in-in their own shabby outfits with the same old haircuts and hairstyles never aging, never… Never in search of more comfortable surroundings– it actually ends up saying more about the living than it does about the dead.

I mean, Mulder, it doesn’t take an advanced degree in psychology to understand the… the unconscious yearnings that these imaginings satisfy. You know, the-the longing for immortality the hope that there is something beyond this mortal coil – that-that we might never be long without our loved ones. I mean, these are powerful, powerful desires. I mean, they’re the very essence of what make us human. The very essence of Christmas, actually.

How the Ghosts Stole Christmas

As with most episodes of The X-Files, the production values are great. Mark Snow does a beautiful job in scoring the episode, lending to the dark brooding atmosphere (listen to a sample of his score here). The cinematography is stellar, and Carter’s striking compositions put every square inch of the manor to good use while serving to isolate and displace Mulder and Scully until they can succumb to the ghost’s desires.

The episode is overwhelmed by any consideration of character or dramatic logic, so one must be willing to suspend their disbelief – even in a series that usually focuses on alien abduction. But strip away all of its supernatural trappings, and the episode remains a sophisticated, complex, and tremendously subtle character study. The disturbing psychological insights and a handful of suddenly executed surprises make this classic as fresh and vital as the day it originally aired on television.

By the end of the episode, Mulder and Scully realize they can lessen each other’s loneliness if they could only learn to break free from their respective obsessive-compulsive behaviour. “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas” is a wonderful breath of fresh air from the usual conspiracies, covert meetings and constant cover-ups the two agents usually investigate, but what makes the episode so special is its whimsical and utterly hysterical tone.

Ricky D

XfilesXmas

How Christmassy is it?

Given the nasty, bitter, violent attitude about Christmas exhibited by our ghosts and at times, the F.B.I. agents – not to mention the unsubtle parallels with Scrooge, I’d say 100 % – in the sense that it will speak to both those who love or loathe the holiday.

Who’s it for

Anyone really. The episode isn’t scary enough to ward off small children, and as a stand-alone entry into the series, one does not need to be familiar with the series-spanning story arcs.

Other observations:

The film Mulder watches at the end of the episode is 1951’s Scrooge, starring Alastair Sim.

The song heard at the start and end of the episode is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, performed by Bing Crosby.

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