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Stranger Things was the summer hit we deserved

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When future archaeologists dig up the remains of our global culture, Stranger Things, the Netflix original written and directed by Matt and Ross Duffer, could be our Rosetta Stone (let’s ignore the logistical issues for a moment, since we still don’t know how digital content will actually be preserved.) It might not be timelessly good – although this writer quite enjoyed it – but it encapsulates everything fun, exciting, derivative, bloated, and nostalgic about modern media.

Will, Dustin, Mike, and Lucas are four kids in suburban Hawkins, Indiana. They spend their days surviving dangerous dice-enabled campaigns on Dungeons & Dragons, until one night Will goes missing. While his mother, Joyce, desperately tries to find him, aided by local Police Chief Jim Hopper, the three remaining buddies organize a search of their own, running into the mysterious Eleven in the woods. She doesn’t say much, but she can move things with her mind. The backstory behind her powers – as anyone who’s ever consumed Cold War-era science fiction can anticipate – leads inexorably to a secret government experiment. Meanwhile, Will’s brother and Mike’s sister find time for adolescent love, slasher-movie scares, and photographic sleuthing worthy of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Outside of these plot particular, however, Stranger Things also tells another story: that of contemporary television.

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What’s peculiar about our ongoing TV Golden Age is that its claim to greatness is founded on self-hatred. As Diego Mate writes in the Argentine cultural supplement Revista Ñ, “Most current shows are seemingly trying to erase the marks of their television origins by looking towards cinema, its genres, its stories, and its worldbuilding.” Indeed, Mate argues, that in this streaming era, when series are designed with binge watchers in mind and are often structured as long films, “we should ask ourselves what’s left of television in television shows, besides a narrative organized in episodes of forty minutes or so, and whether we should perhaps find some other term that more precisely describes this phenomenon.”

Stranger Things is drenched in silver-screen references: gee-whiz teenage adventurers from Spielberg, high school romance from John Hughes, spooky body horror and boogeymen from John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. In short, Stranger Things is the ultimate 1980s flick – except longer. Its running time, far from being a liability, is what allows the disparate pieces to coalesce. Proper time is given to each character and trope. This prevents the citations from standing out as fragments, since they’re so thoroughly integrated into the whole. More than storytelling, it’s landscaping. Watching Stranger Things, we’re faced with a garden of pop culture, a perimeter collecting the flora and fauna of a collective memory.

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Yet the Duffer brothers’ cinematic references, as Mate points out, “already looked at the past.” Spielberg and his pal George Lucas paid homage to old 1940s serials with Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Carpenter’s The Thing is a remake of a 1950s classic; so is Cronenberg’s The Fly. The Breakfast Club is like a watered-down update of the serious-minded teen movie tradition kickstarted by Rebel Without a Cause in 1955, with its cast of suburban youths debating the meaning of it all in a brave new world of absent adults. But there’s a difference: these 1980s movies, as nostalgic as they were, did not really compete with their forefathers, which were then not as readily available as they would be (and in fact are) now. 30-odd years ago, home video was getting off the ground and there was no Internet as we know it. For most of these filmmakers, rewatching childhood favorites meant attending screenings at film clubs, taking advantage of theatrical re-releases, or watching cropped, shortened, un-remastered, or broken-up cuts on television and, later, VHS. The same applied for their audiences. This made nostalgia trips more like archaeological digs, diving deep into materials remembered but perhaps unseen (and if seen, in relatively bad quality) for decades.

Stranger Things doesn’t have that luxury. The movies it’s lifting from, like E.T. or The Goonies, are literally a click away – anytime and anywhere – on the same streaming service where the Duffer brothers are strutting their cinephilic know-how. They’ve also been out on VHS, DVD, or Blu Ray for a long time, in remastered versions and in widescreen format. Many fans, this writer included, have not deposited these films in distant, hazy, rose-tinted memories. No, instead they’ve worn out their cassettes and scratched their discs. They’ve replayed them a thousand times. They’ve memorized the lines and grew up with their heroes and heroines. A show like Stranger Things inhabits the same valley of constant online availability as its predecessors. The return to our childhood, once so dramatic, is now a short cursor-move away. Viewers need only choose a different box under a genre tab on the Netflix library.

This means Stranger Things feels derivative in a way that stuff by Spielberg or Lucas did not. Viewers have a stronger grasp on the originals, and the Duffer brothers can more accurately replicate their sources. They can just stream them and note down their relevant beats and tricks. Still, what’s weird about Stranger Things is that, despite everything, “the story itself feels organic and immersive,” as Emily Nussbaum wrote for The New Yorker. “It’s an original.” And so it is, because it’s television.

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The plot, the characters, the imagery: much of it might be borrowed, but it has never quite been laid out, with so much professionalism, in a mainstream series. It’s The Goonies, but as long as Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó; seven-hours’ worth of drama and nostalgia eye-food. Super 8, from J. J. Abrams, scouted the same territory, the same Spielbergian influences, but it was a movie, had less time to have its fun, gave us less compelling characters, and quickly resolved its central mystery. When compared to its progenitors, it’s not as bright, not as efficient, and not as wondrous. Stranger Things doesn’t suffer the same fate. It has an ace up its sleeve: it’s longer, denser, and filled with more content than any 80s genre standard. That doesn’t mean it’s better ? only that its existence is justified.

Its length, as argued above, is what makes everything come together. Length offers great possibilities for worldbuilding, for digression, for incorporation of various genres and narrative strands. It gives the characters breathing room. Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven is haunting and deeply endearing. The script might not give her much to work with in terms of dialogue, but her eyes do the talking. All she suffered during the experiments that untapped her telekinetic skills is conveyed in a look or a sigh. Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin is an immensely likable personality. Brash and practical-minded, he’s the childhood friend everyone wishes they had met. Even Winona Ryder’s Joyce, though one-note in her hysterical suffering, manages to have a cumulative effect. Her continuous tears and screams are at first tiresome, then – precisely because of their repetition, because she cannot stop herself – increasingly worrying and depressing. This degree of characterization is possible because there’s over 400 minutes of it. Super 8 drowned its protagonists in a cramped feature-length room of vintage curios. Stranger Things lets them move around and stretch their limbs, all the way into the alternate reality of Upside Down. As Adrian Martin writes, regarding long form television in general, on a World Wide Angle column for De Filmkrant, “An episode can spend fifteen minutes in one communal room, ‘obsessing’ about the movements of nameless characters who we may never see in any other moment of the series (…). TV, as a narrative medium, can take the liberty to wander and digress in this (highly structured) way.”

Stranger Things taps into our current fixation on nostalgia, but without drowning in it. Updating cinematic conventions, it proves that – even as we enter Peak TV, where too many shows compete for too little of our time – the story of three kids, a magical girl, and a missing boy can serve as a media hub, connecting with all genre history, a water-cooler sensation that nearly everyone has seen. With a new season is coming up, can the Duffer brothers strike gold twice? A tricky proposition, given that what made Stranger Things special is what it already did. That is, it added 300 minutes to an 80s movie, which is great – but what’s left to do? Nostalgia culture has that drawback: it tends towards paralysis. Our imagination and our fictions currently find it necessary to return, over and over again, to the same narrative watering holes. Stranger Things shines like a diamond, but it doesn’t light the way. Itself an inspired imitation, it might not allow for more successful imitators. It remains to be seen whether it’ll even be able to properly emulate itself.

Guido Pellegrini was born in Spain. At the age of three, he decided that Europe would not be the only continent to endure him. He traveled to Argentina and spent his childhood there, confusing his classmates with his strange Spanish accent. Several years later, just when he was getting the hang of Argentinean, he set his sights on California, where he would annoy a host of new classmates with his awkward English. In particular, his classmates were stumped on Argentina's actual location, and estimates ranged from Europe to Asia and even Africa. Almost never, however, South America. As Guido became older, he finally began to master the English language, until he became nostalgic for emigration, of all things, and moved again, now back to Argentina, where Guido has continued to confuse and annoy his classmates and acquaintances, who now struggle with his Spanish-Argentine-American hybrid accent and word usage. At any rate, he's technically a journalist with an English major. You know, the worst.

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The Boys Season 2 Episode 3 Review: “Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men”

The Boys’ marks an improvement and pays big dividends in an explosive, violently revealing hour.

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The Boys Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men

Half bottle episode and half coming out party, “Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men” is a sneaky little showcase for The Boys, and just how big its world’s suddenly gotten in season two. Though ostensibly an episode designed around two events – the boys getting stuck on the boat, and Stormfront revealing her inner racist sociopath – “Over the Hill” navigates a number of brewing conflicts in fascinating ways, building and building until the violent explosion at the episode’s conclusion. With a nimble script and a game group of performers, The Boys‘ second season is turning out to be a distinct pleasure – albeit one heading down a gruesome, dark path I sure hope it’s capable of navigating.

“Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men” navigates a number of brewing conflicts in fascinating ways, building and building until the violent explosion at the episode’s conclusion.

It does take a little while for “Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men” to get going; beginning three miles offshore with The Boys and the reunited super-siblings, the first quarter feels like it’s simply restating the stakes. It’s a nimble trick, though; led by Kimiko and Kenji, The Boys begins to feel like it is approaching a true moral quandary for the group. Which door descending into hell will they choose?

The Boys Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men

While The Boys often likes to posture its presenting characters with complex dilemmas, the show’s unnerving nihilism often upends any sort of nuance it looks for in its debates around “necessary” violence. Here, Kimiko’s presence throws a fascinating wrench into the proceedings; with most of the group’s members clinging to whatever mirage of family they have left (save for Hughie, who has… forgotten his dad exists?), even Butcher can’t deny having conflicting feelings about what to do with Kenji, and the deal that’s been offered to him if he turns him in.

Elsewhere, “Over the Hill” throws the brazen personalities of The Seven into their own little blenders, as Stormfront begins to sow discord through Vought, and abuse her powers to casually murder a lot of people – nearly all of them minorities, in a way that feels like an explosion of character, rather than an unpeeling of some complicated identity. Stormfront simply doesn’t give a fuck; and with her supernatural ability to manipulate feminist views (her speech to the reporters is magnificent, both in how it develops Stormfront’s character and nods to the simplistic ways in which the evilest people in society disguise themselves among the “good”).

While she’s kicking up tornadoes and electrocuting everyone that gets in her way, characters like The Deep and Homelander continue to benefit from the much-improved writing of season two. The show is still struggling to make Becca something more than the Ultimate Mother Protector trope, but Homelander’s warped sense of responsibility to his son is interesting, surely a bad sign for the upbringing of this world’s Superboy (will he also don a cool leather jacket and weird cyberpunk sunglasses? Who knows!). It’s clearly not going well; even he seems to recognize the danger in bringing his son’s powers to the surface, as its the first time in his life he’s facing a challenge as the world’s strongest hero (that is, until Stormfront doubles that total later in the episode, further frustrating Homelander’s attempts to hold domain over everything in his grasp).

The Boys Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men

It’s not going well for The Deep, either, as his slow descent into cult life is bringing his desperation for acceptance further to the surface. Like with Homelander’s stories, I wish The Deep’s story was a little tighter and more thoughtful (some of the body image stuff seems to be treated trivially, in a way that borders on insensitive and uninformed for the sake of easy jokes), but there’s no denying his character is infinitely more interesting this season, a test case for what a superhero trying to learn their own limits would struggle with. The Deep works best as a pathetic character, but not when it’s a pathetic character The Boys just kick around with bad punchlines; when he’s treated as a byproduct of a deeply flawed human being trying to find a path to good intentions, his fumbles and weak-minded rhetoric is much more amusing – and at times, the tiniest bit empathic (his sadness over Billy’s, well, butchering of his whale buddy was such an earnest, raw and twistedly funny moment).

The Boys has needed to accelerate its internal stakes for a while; the introduction of “super terrorists” to the world by Homelander, and Compound V’s reveal to the public might make the show’s world feel a bit smaller than intended – I think a lot about the “big” fight scenes at the end of Arrow‘s third season, where the ‘entire city’ is fighting, but there’s never more than six people around – The Boys does that on a narrative level sometimes. But as the stories of the show dig a little deeper into its characters – Maeve’s disillusionment, Homelander’s failure to emulate paternal behavior, A-Train’s desperation, it’s beginning to feel like the writers have a deeper understanding of its characters and world, and how to wield its inherent sadistic cynicism to more interesting ends. “Over the Hill With the Swords of a Thousand Men” benefits massively from that, setting up a number of intriguing dominoes for the back half of season two to knock over (in bloody fashion).

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Look, I’m bummed how the Kenji character played out; he was such an interesting character, an examination of everything horrible about what power and war can do to a human being. It’s sad to see The Boys dispose of such an intriguing presence, especially as its a death of a minority character in service of mostly white-related stories – however, with such a hateful, nasty character like Stormfront waiting in the wings, it is easy to see how the writers found their way down that path. (like, she could’ve killed Black Noir and this show would’ve literally lost nothing… just sayin’).
  • Can A-Train just collapse or whatever, so we can get this storyline moving? We’ve been doing this since the second episode!
  • Why haven’t we seen any reaction to Becca seeing Butcher in person at the end of season one? She hasn’t mentioned it or even had a longing look off-screen to violin music.
  • Man, I’m so glad they cast Aya Cash as Stormfront.
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The Best Golden Girl is Sophia Petrillo

Sophia Petrillo was a legend in her own mind who always had her way and like Mighty Mouse, always won.

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Sophia Petrillo The Golden Girls

A seemingly harmless little old lady with curly white hair, oversized glasses, and an innate ability to tell a great story shows up on her daughter’s doorstep when the retirement home she was put in by said daughter burns down. With a simple, “Hi there,” the world meets Sophia Petrillo. For seven years on NBC’s The Golden Girlsa show about the senior set—Sophia lived with her intelligent and extremely sarcastic divorced daughter Dorothy Zbornak and her two roommates, sexy, eternally horny southern belle Blanche Devereaux and sweet but dim-witted Minnesotan Rose Nylund. Each is memorable in their own way, but it’s Sophia, “feisty, zesty, and full of old-world charm,” that stands out the most.

When TV was full of generic, sweet grandma types, Sophia was anything but. Sure, she looked the part with her bifocals, pearls, and now iconic straw and bamboo-beaded handbag, but Sophia was always trying to make a quick buck. She conned Rose into going into a sandwich-making business that pit them against the mob, faked being paralyzed to try and collect insurance, and constantly “borrowed” money from Dorothy’s purse. Instead of helping Dorothy, Blanche and Rose get out of jail when they are mistaken for hookers (don’t ask, just Youtube it). She stole their tickets to go to a party and meet Burt Reynolds. She also stole Rose’s car, worked at a fast-food restaurant, and won a marathon. Not bad for a woman in her eighties. Sophia had a sharp wit and an acerbic tongue, blaming her stroke for leaving her without the ability to self-censor. She was always ready with a zinger or a comeback, some of which she saved for her very own daughter.

Sophia Petrillo The Golden Girls

Sophia Petrillo is the Secret Star of The Golden Girls

That’s not to say she’s all schemes and insults. Beneath her tough exterior is a kind woman with a big heart who loves her family and friends. Viewers don’t often get to see her softer side, which makes the moments they do seem that much more special. One of the best Sophia episodes showed her reaction to the death of her son, Phil. She put up a wall of anger which Rose was finally able to break down in the final moments of the episode, revealing Sophia’s true feelings of guilt over Phil’s cross-dressing as she bursts into tears. Another favourite was when Dorothy expressed concern about her mother not doing enough with her days. We then get to see exactly what she gets up to sticking up for her friend and causing a scene at the grocery store while claiming to represent a fictional senior citizens union, volunteering at a sick kids hospital and later, conducting a senior citizens jazz band. Meanwhile, Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche do next to nothing except sit around and eat. When she’s asked what she did all day upon her return, she simply says she bought a nectarine, and Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche are none the wiser.

But if Sophia has one claim to fame, it is her colorful old-world tales about Sicily, which often as not, contain a pearl of wisdom or embellishment of some kind. We would have loved to have known her during her “picatta period (a wedge of lemon and a smart answer for everything),” when she was the most beautiful girl at a resort and all the men fought over her (so beautiful, in fact, that she had “a butt you could bounce a quarter off of”). She was also once painted by Picasso and was best friends with Mama Celeste. But I digress. Sophia Petrillo was a legend in her own mind who always had her way and like Mighty Mouse, always won. Her hunches were never wrong, and rarely, if ever did she meet her match. Sophia was, in short, a one-woman show. And thanks to re-runs and fan appreciation, that show will never be gone.

  • Dasilva

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.

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30 Years Later: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

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30 Years Later: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
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