Posts Tagged ‘vulture’
“Weird” and “like nothing else on television” are two descriptors that need to be purged from the critical vocabulary immediately. Believe me, I’d be first against the wall were that to happen, because quite frankly a lot of stuff on the air these days is weird and isn’t like anything else on television and at a certain point you have to call it like you see it. But simply saying so sells the work short, even before those descriptions are used to, say, lump an empty-calorie sci-fi and/or superhero and/or horror pastiche like Legion together with the trailblazing surrealist exploration of abuse and exploitation that was (and hopefully will be) Twin Peaks. The best “weird” shows aren’t just zany or confusing — they deliberately mess with your head to sneak difficult ideas in there while your guard is down. Shows that truly are “like nothing else on television” are, by definition, doing something so unique that an equally unique description is warranted.
So without further ado, let us discuss “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” tonight’s episode of The Leftovers, which was indeed both weird and like nothing else on television. Let’s talk about the title sequence, which reintroduces the memorable family-photo fade-outs of the previous season but drops the jaunty country-music accompaniment in favor of … the theme song from the cornball ‘80s sitcom Perfect Strangers? Let’s talk about the credits, which list the writers of the episode as … Tha Lonely Donkey Kong & Specialist Contagious? Let’s talk about the first thing we see after this disorientingly goofy stuff draws to a close … Jardin’s resident old hermit plummeting to his death?
What we’ve just witnessed is the proprietary blend of utter emotional devastation and madcap audio-visual trolling that has made The Leftovers what it is.
Comedy, tragedy, horror, symbolism: The Leftovers fires them at you one after the other and doesn’t much care whether you’re able to field them. To find another show this confidently manic in its creativity you’d have to turn to Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope — minus its emotional ambiguity and gorgeous European pomp and camp, perhaps, but with a relentless focus on grief, trauma, and all-American God and guns and self-improvement schemes that make for a pretty fair trade. For Lindelof (co-writing with Patrick Somerville), a creator who once seemed debilitatingly preoccupied by the reactions of his audience, this show is an absolute breakthrough. For director Mimi Leder, it’s a showcase for a steady hand and keen eye that keep all the disparate parts working as a powerful, often beautiful whole. For its very lucky viewers, it’s a sign from television heaven that rumors of Peak TV’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. That crazy frisson you feel while watching the best shows, where you start each episode having no clue what will happen, but every confidence that it will somehow feel right? The Leftovers is one of the chosen few that can give it to you.
We’ll never know what caused the Sudden Departure, the instantaneous disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population at the center of HBO’s critically acclaimed drama The Leftovers. Series co-creator Damon Lindelof has said so, repeatedly, and if anyone knows the danger of promising answers he’s in no position to deliver, it’s the guy who did Lost. It’s a smart move, too. By taking “What happened?” off the table, it leaves the show free to explore a far more open-ended and rewarding question: “What happens next?”
But here’s the thing. We in the audience may know that the Sudden Departure will always be an unsolved mystery, but the people in the world of the show itself sure don’t. Much of The Leftovers is driven by the theories, belief systems, religious doctrines, mystical mumbo-jumbo, and out-and-out nihilism embraced by its various characters to explain the world-changing event and give life meaning afterward. Below, you’ll find the major schools of thought through which the people of The Leftovers attempt to understand their weird world.
Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux)
Kevin is the handsome, brooding, handsome, mentally ill, handsome, dead and resurrected, and last but not least, handsome patriarch of the fractious Garvey family. Kevin served as the chief of police in the sleepy New York suburb of Mapleton, a job he inherited along with a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia from his father, Kevin Sr. (Scott Glenn, whose character is currently holed up in Australia). Kevin’s “is it real, is it supernatural, or is it a hallucination?” visions and misadventures have driven much of the show’s action.
At the moment of the Departure, Kevin was cheating on his wife Laurie in an impulsive one-afternoon stand; his lover disappeared from their motel bed. During season one, the increasingly unstable family man and a local gun nut named Dean graduate from shooting stray dogs to kidnapping Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), the local leader of the Guilty Remnant cult. When she kills herself in front of him, he covers up her death, comes clean months later, and is told not to sweat it by the government, which in The Leftovers’ world has very little problem at all with the murder of cult members. This is cause for concern, since all three members of the family Kevin had before the Sudden Departure have done time in cults themselves: His ex-wife, Laurie, joined the Guilty Remnant and eventually helped recruit their daughter, Jill, while his adopted son, Tommy, took up with the British healer and harem-keeper known as Holy Wayne.
By the start of season two, all three have left their cults, but only Jill remains with Kevin. They’re joined by Lily, the infant daughter of Holy Wayne and one of his many ersatz wives, a young woman named Christine, left on the family doorstep by Tommy. Together with his new girlfriend Nora Durst, whose loss during the Sudden Departure was catastrophic, they move to the town of Jarden (see above). While there, his dissociative sleepwalking episodes lead him to attempt suicide in the same water where three local teens disappear that very night. Guilt-ridden and cracking up, he’s also literally haunted by Patti, who is either a hallucination or an actual ghost. (The Leftovers isn’t big on answering such questions.)
In order to purge himself of Patti, Kevin poisons himself with the help of a local shaman (more on him later) and travels to a purgatorial “other place” — a luxury hotel where, in the guise of an international assassin, he stalks and kills an alternate version of Patti who’s running for president. He then learns that her “real” self in this world is a little girl, whom he pushes down a well before falling in himself to finish the job. Once resurrected in the real world, he winds up getting shot by the father of the disappeared girl (again, more on him later), travels back to the hotel purgatory, and escapes by singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” at karaoke. Season two ends with Kevin and his whole big crazy extended family reunited.
Like James, Taboo encounters out-and-out evil as a mere obstacle to be effortlessly surmounted in the race to the finish line. It’s ruthlessly cruel to its female characters, killing off Winter, Zilpha, and Helga with barely a backward glance. Zilpha in particular is done very dirty: She falls in love with her brother, weathers his unwelcome and life-destroying advances, kills her husband for him, has unsatisfactory sex with him, gets dumped, and kills herself with a fetishistically beautiful leap off a bridge. James cries a couple of single tears and staggers up a staircase, but then he’s back to his usual routine of mumbling and murdering. Zilpha’s suffering and death only means something in the context of his manful quest, and even then only barely.
Worse still is the use of slavery as a motivator. If we’re being charitable, we could say that Taboo’s handling of this human-rights savagery as primarily a dispute about the Crown reflects how men like Sir Stuart, Coop, the Prince Regent, and even Delaney himself would think about the issue. It’s the smuggling and the treason that matter to them, not the murder of innocent men, women, and children.
Yet how do you square this with Delaney’s bizarre kiss-off to his faithful servant Brace, telling him he wasn’t born to be free? How can you countenance the show’s characterization of Delaney’s final double-cross, in which he leaves Chichester the testimony he needs to punish the EIC for its involvement in slaving? “Justice,” Chichester gravely intones to no one in particular — yet the three men who ordered and orchestrated the crime (Strange, Pettifer, and Wilson) have been murdered on the order of the man (Delaney) who nailed the slaves into their sinking ship and is already sailing for freedom.
James’s primary interest was personal vengeance, not redressing the grave moral horror in which he took part. After all, he comes right out and says that Sir Stuart’s slave-trading is small potatoes compared to the evil things he himself had done. To call the legalistic postscript to his subsequent killing spree “justice” is to subsume a centuries-long atrocity into one weirdo’s vendetta. As a stand-in for Taboo’s artistic approach, in which an entire world is meticulously constructed to give a single character the people and places he needs to show off how awesome he is, it’s all too perfect.
I did not care for the season finale of Taboo, which I reviewed for Vulture. I did not care for Taboo period, really.
Tonight, Taboo brought the pain.
The climax of the show’s seventh episode is an extended torture sequence in which Coop, the Prince Regent’s right-hand man, puts the screws (and the waterboard, and something that looks like a cheese grater) to James Keziah Delaney. The goal is to extract information about his grand gunpowder scheme: the names of the co-conspirators, the location of the contraband, and most importantly, the identities of the American spies who planned to buy it from him. Perhaps because he has a sack over his head and can’t see the Hostel leftovers the props department gathered for the festivities, James refuses to divulge anything at all. He instead insists that he’ll give the Crown all the info it requires, as long as he’s first given a private meeting with the East India Company’s Sir Stuart Strange right there in the Tower of London.
What follows manages to be both gratuitously gruesome and weirdly weightless. The camera lingers on the torturers, their implements, and their handiwork with sordid glee. Techniques are trotted out one by one: scraping the flesh from Delaney’s leg, waterboarding him Gitmo-style (complete with a supervising doctor to make sure he doesn’t die), and finally securing him in an iron gimp mask, submerging him in water except for a small pipe into his mouth, and forcing him to ingest some kind of hallucinogenic truth serum. It’s not a terribly gory sequence, mind you. It’s just relentlessly unpleasant, an attempt to derive entertainment value from human suffering.
Honestly, I’d be okay with that if it actually succeeded in saying something about suffering. But of course it doesn’t: This is James Keziah Delaney we’re talking about, and he’s far too badass to succumb to torture. (Because that’s how that works, apparently!) A full 12 hours pass before the Prince Regent gets fed up with Coop’s failure and orders the man to procure Sir Stuart for James’s requested meeting. “My God, look at you,” Strange stammers when he sees his foe … for no apparent reason, since Delaney looks no more scarred and filth-encrusted than ever. For a guy who just spent half a day getting worked over, he’s sure taken it well, sitting at a desk as if this were an appointment in his office. Perhaps he’ll include “this whole torture thing was a waste of screen time” in the minutes of the meeting.
Skulking, spying, smuggling, sabotaging, and slaying: These are James Keziah Delaney’s stock in trade, and tonight’s episode of Taboo is all about his tradecraft. As the rogue’s plan to secure a lucrative trading route out from under the rival English, American, and East India Company factions moves forward, the show’s portrayal of his dirty deeds has gotten much clearer and tighter than it used to be, and more entertaining as a result….Unfortunately, many of Taboo’s old troubles — the workmanlike plotting, the half-baked supporting cast, the overreliance on James’s alleged magnetism — are still hanging around.
I reviewed this week’s Taboo for Vulture. Better than it started, still not as good as you’d hope.
But the most romantic thing about The Love Witch is the existence of the film itself. To call a work of art “a labor of love” is to imply a sort of jejune passion, an amateur’s enthusiasm, but nothing could be further from the case here. Taking the concept of the auteur to a whole new level, Anna Biller not only wrote, edited, scored, produced, and directed this movie — she also served as the production designer, the set decorator, the art director, and the costume designer. She personally built, knit, sewed, collected, or otherwise provided many of the film’s key props, from the witches’ altar to the characters’ jewelry to a rug that took her months to make. If the lengthy and thoughtful essays and interviews on her blog are any indication, she also served as the movie’s on-set philosopher. Short of starring in the movie herself, there’s no way The Love Witch could be more Anna Biller’s vision.
The result is unmistakably familiar. To watch The Love Witch is to enter the headspace and heartspace of another human being as surely as falling in love.
This becomes crystal clear barely five minutes into the film. After an opening driving sequence that’s a loving homage to similar scenes in Hitchock’s Psycho and The Birds, we enter the Billerverse in earnest — a world where every detail is deliberate and delightful. Tucking her cherry-red cigarette case into her cherry-red purse, Elaine emerges from her cherry-red car in her cherry-red dress, then takes her cherry-red suitcase out of the cherry-red trunk to enter an apartment full of occult artwork so colorful it’d make a Crayola 64-pack blush. Next, we’re off to a sumptuously appointed tea room in which every one of the all-female clientele is clad in cotton-candy pink; the matching floral-patterned tea set, hand selected by Biller herself, looks like something made of marzipan in the sugar-spun home of a fairy-tale cannibal witch.
By the time I hit this point in the movie, I was laughing out loud in sheer joyful admiration. Whether working in true independent form like Biller or blessed with the carte blanche freedom afforded to established and acclaimed names like Scorsese, Anderson, Tarantino, or Coen, few filmmakers have anything close to this level of confidence in their own taste and vision. Pulling this off for a single scene would be reason to celebrate. Constructing an entire film from a single intelligent, idiosyncratic worldview is close to a miracle. And from its first scene to its last, from the font choice in its opening titles to the music over the closing credits, that kind of miracle is exactly what The Love Witch delivers. Watch it with some witch you love.
Look out, London: There’s a new man in charge. No, not James Keziah Delaney — he’s pretty much doing the same things he always does. I mean behind the camera. Here at the halfway mark of Taboo’s eight-episode run, director Anders Engström takes the reins from Kristoffer Nyholm, who helmed the show’s first four installments. It’s not exactly a whole new ballgame, but now it’s much more tempting to stay through the final few innings to see how Taboo ends.
Although he retains cinematographer Mark Patten, who shot all eight episodes, Engström nevertheless brings a new crispness and clarity to the show’s look. Nyholm relied on alternating muddy realism with nightmarish surrealism; the result was a murky mess that offered little in the way of arresting imagery no matter which side of the divide a given scene or shot landed. By contrast, Engstrom makes the muck a little brighter and more fantastical, and gives the dreamlike sequences more solidity, improving the power of both.
Take the early scene in which Delaney returns home from his duel. He and Lorna Bow decide to take their egg breakfast outside, and eat it while sitting on heaps of driftwood, rock, and rotted dockworks covered in lush green moss. A few episodes ago, we’d have seen nothing but mud out there; now everything’s as emerald as a shot from John Boorman’s Excalibur. The color palette really makes Lorna’s red dress pop — a scarlet slash across the screen that befits her wild-card spirit and status. A later shot of Delaney riding his white horse across a verdant green landscape takes a similarly striking approach.
Tonight, Taboo lives up to its name. To a fault. As if adhering to some arcane contract it had signed with the East India Company — “Taboo may show all the ultraviolence and sexual assault it desires, but only beginning with episode four” — the show suddenly let loose with an awful torrent of torture, rape, attempted rape, murder, and disembowelment. It’s a bloodbath in a world where no one bathes.
That’s not all: The episode’s nonviolent but otherwise quite eye-melting events include gratuitous sex scenes, gratuitous oral sex scenes, incestuous invisible sex scenes, the large-scale smuggling of prostitute urine, horny aristocrats on nitrous oxide, and a guy who eats not one but two different kinds of animal feces. Peak TV, baby!
Forgot to link to it at the time, but I reviewed last week’s Taboo for Vulture as well. It wasn’t good, which made this week’s somewhat better episode a mildly pleasant surprise.
For the sake of argument, let’s say the critics-of-the-critics are right, and politics should be left out of the 24: Legacy discussion. Fine with me: Put aside the Islamophobia, the xenophobia, the misogyny, the fear-mongering, and the glorification of the all-powerful security state … and there’s still so, so much dislike.
Following hot on the heels of its post-Super Bowl premiere, tonight’s episode offers evidence aplenty. The worst offense is the doughy, first-draft dialogue. Whether they’re spouting tech jargon, spilling their guts, or trying to make someone see we don’t have enough time!!!, every character speaks in boilerplate. Some examples:
• “Let me out of here!” “I can’t do that. Not until I know that I can trust you.”
• “Killing the Rangers is only the beginning. These people are planning attacks against our country.”
• “Will you be able to find the leak or not?” “Yes, but I don’t know how long it’ll take.”
• “We’re here to finish what my father started.”
• “I don’t expect you to believe me, but if I don’t get that money, a lot of people are gonna die.”
Sure, we could talk about the characters who uttered each line, but why bother? You’ve seen those characters and heard those lines in dozens of movies and series. Nothing here distinguishes them, complicates them, makes them clever or unexpected.
Just for fun, I spent most of my second 24: Legacy review for Vulture focusing on the show’s many artistic failures, as opposed to its political ones. But don’t worry, I kick the shit out of its politics too.
The climax of Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers takes place on Super Bowl Sunday. Wayne Gale, the tabloid-TV sleazeball played by Robert Downey Jr., has booked an interview with Woody Harrelson’s mass-murdering media sensation Mickey Knox, airing live from prison immediately after the Big Game. The killer’s Zen-nihilism ramblings and the host’s how-dare-you-sir platitudes are interrupted with soft-drink ads and shots of happy families watching at home. When the show cuts to commercial, the inmates riot. Mickey slaughters his guards, rescues his wife, and escapes, leaving literally hundreds dead, including the host of the interview. All of it is broadcast live to viewers nationwide.
This is only a slightly less responsible programming decision than the one Fox made when it chose to put 24: Legacy on the air.
I reviewed the absolutely abhorrent pilot episode of 24: Legacy for Vulture. This show features a teenage Muslim girl who immigrated to the United States for the express purpose of blowing up a high school. Ghastly, irresponsible, dangerous television.
Appropriately enough, the third episode of Taboo opens with a shot of muck. Already TV’s most dirt-encrusted show by a substantial margin, Steven Knight and Tom Hardy’s period-piece opus reached new levels of physical filthiness in tonight’s go-round. When lead character James Keziah Delaney (played by Hardy) turns to actor Michael Kelly’s American spy for lifesaving surgery, the doc’s teeth are so rotten they’re practically orange. When James staggers home to clean and dress the wound, you can barely see blood beneath the layers of grime. When he unearths a mysterious symbol from the fireplace in his late mother’s room, he winds up looking like he used his own body to sweep the chimney. Like the gag from Monty Python and the Holy Grail about being able to recognize the king simply because “he hasn’t got shit all over him,” Taboo is out to paint the town brown.
Which is not to say it traffics solely in the disgusting. On the contrary, if you’re a fan of Hardy’s thighs — and who isn’t? — there’s much to enjoy here. Whether he’s recuperating from his assassination attempt, wading through his flooded cellar (where the water comes in so frequently, it literally ebbs and flows with the tide), or sitting cross-legged after a nightmarish vision of a crow-cloaked, white-faced sorceress, he seems to do his best work pantsless. Hardy cuts a different figure when he’s wearing nothing but an oversized shirt than he does when he’s striding around London in all-black everything, but it’s fair to say the overall effect is equally impressive.
All due respect to the East India Company, but James Keziah Delaney has a new nemesis in town, and his name is Pius XIII. That’s right: We’re all stars in the Pope Show, and that’s the stage upon which Taboo co-creators Steven Wright and Tom Hardy now find themselves forced to perform. The Young Pope is undoubtedly a love-it-or-leave-it proposition, but it’s also a marvel of artifice and audacity that makes Taboo look positively tame, no matter how many tribal tattoos fit on Hardy’s nude body.
Of course, this second episode of Taboo has more going against it than stiff competition. For all the care put into constructing a convincingly squalid 19th-century London, Knight’s script too often feels like a first draft. For example: “Am I the only one in this company with a brain?” asks malevolent Sir Stuart Strange, after his East India underlings fail to grasp the nuances of his latest monologue. It’s the kind of line that could have been turned into something clever, and thus illustrated the character’s point, if it were given 30 extra seconds of thought.
As of this premiere, Tom Hardy himself is the best thing about Taboo. He’d better be, since he’s pretty much the only thing about Taboo. Everyone and everything else on the show simply reacts to his menacing presence.
What a presence it is, though. Your mileage may vary regarding Hardy’s mumble-mouthed machismo, but I find the way he carries himself a delight to watch. As Delaney, Hardy saunters across the screen like he’s en route to an ass-kicking contest that starts in ten minutes and it’s a leisurely five-minute walk away. Call it “brute casual,” a trait that he’s got it in spades, and Taboo allows him to dole it out by the shovelful.
Taboo suffers from the dull, expensive look that’s endemic to prestige TV generally and its period-piece iteration specifically. Director Kristoffer Nyholm, late of the original Danish version of The Killing, captures a few magical moments on the muddy, sun-streaked London riverbank, but beyond that, you could swap entire sets and shots with Penny Dreadful or The Knick or Peaky Blinders and only students of historical fashion would be the wiser. Moreover, the show shares its rich yet sickly “realistic” lighting and color palette with everything from The Night Of to any scene involving gangsters on Marvel’s Netflix shows; you get the sense it looks this way simply because this is how TV shows look now. (I’m no fan of The OA, but how refreshing was it to watch a drama that was brightly lit?) There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.
Hey look, it’s my first review for Vulture! I’m talkin’ Tom Hardy and the series premiere of Taboo, which I’ll be covering for Vulture all season. (I’m exceedingly proud of that “Hardy saunters across the screen like he’s en route to an ass-kicking contest that starts in ten minutes and it’s a leisurely five-minute walk away” bit.)
57. Dude, where’s my theme music? (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away … nothing! Just a wide-vista shot of an unknown planet’s rim, a slightly off-brand variant of the first few notes of John Williams’s classic score by Lost composer Michael Giacchino, the words “ROGUE ONE,” and that’s it. Disney honchos had already indicated that director Gareth Edwards’s stand-alone “Star Wars Story” would jettison the traditional opening sequence as a way to set it apart from films set within the main saga’s trilogy framework, but hearing about it and witnessing it firsthand are two different things. After a lifetime of watching Star Wars movies, what didn’t happen in Rogue One’s opening seconds was nearly as striking as anything that did happen afteward.
4. The Yub-Nub Song (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)
Accept no substitutions: The original Ewok song of celebration that ends the first trilogy is the only Ewok song that matters. For reasons beyond comprehension, George Lucas and John Williams replaced this charming, percussive, gibberish-based hoedown with corny pan-flute New Age–isms when Lucas re-released the trilogy decades later. But no viewing of Jedi in my house was complete without dancing around the living room to those gleeful “yub-nubs,” the xylophone made of captured Imperial helmets, and that final choral sweep into the closing theme. For me, this was Star Wars.
With Rogue One hitting theaters, I ranked the 50 greatest moments in first seven Star Wars films for Vulture. I had a lot of fun, boy oh boy.
“We can boil fascist ethics down to one word: Dominate,” says professor Stephen Olbrys Gencarella of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who has taught about the show as well as written about it for the academic journal Horror Studies. “It’s true that fascist aesthetics anchor many shows and films, especially in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. And of course violence is nothing new; it’s the norm in American media. Other shows out there are hitting similar themes, and that shouldn’t surprise us given the anxieties of our times. But so many of those other shows demonstrate the consequences for violence or debate the ethical complexities of living with others who are different, or show the moral turmoil of people who enact or suffer violence. The Walking Dead is the only show that actively courts, rather than critiques, fascist ethics, and suggest that it’s the only viable solution to perceived threat.”
What do those ethics entail? “In fascist mentalities, kindness, empathy, and sympathy are seen as weaknesses, critical self-reflection is seen as a danger to security, and discussion and negotiation is seen as failure,” Gencarella says. “Existence is a tragic struggle to be won or lost.” This mentality can be traced back to the fascist Ur-text, The Doctrine of Fascism, ghostwritten for Benito Mussolini by his Minister of Education Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine is clear that perpetual war is the preferred mode of existing with others who are different, and especially to crush the weak in order to demonstrate that one is strong,” Gencarella says. “Fascists want the apocalypse. And the history of actual fascist movements has always been cemented by the kind of storytelling that TWD valorizes and perpetuates.” It’s this perspective, and the political doctrines likely to be appealing to those who respond to it, that the Trump campaign seemingly recognized when targeting the show’s viewers. “Watching Trump and Negan on television at the same time makes perfect sense,” Gencarella says. “I don’t say that because I think all Trump supporters are fascists. But it’s also telling that the campaign thought The Walking Dead viewers would readily equate immigration with an apocalypse for which violence is the only solution.”
I wrote about the fascism of The Walking Dead for Vulture. This is a longstanding bugbear of mine as you know, and this is the first standalone piece I’ve written about it.
Saying Stranger Things wears its influences on its sleeve is like sayingBarb had a lousy time at Steve’s party: It’s true alright, but it understates the case considerably. Entire articles have been written detailing the themes, concepts, creatures, fonts, sound effects, and imagery swiped more or less wholesale from other films — here’s Vulture’s, just for example. And any fan of genre entertainment, particularly (though by no means exclusively) from the ’80s, can rattle off the creators whose original visions fueled the Duffer Brothers’ own without breaking a sweat. Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter are the most obvious touchstones, but you can also spot Judd Apatow, Shane Black, John Byrne, James Cameron, Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, Wes Craven, Joe Dante, Richard Donner, Fred Dekker, Jonathan Glazer, Gary Gygax, Tobe Hooper, John Hughes, Richard Kelly, John Landis, David Lynch, Katsuhiro Otomo, and Robert Zemeckis from a mile away. Any show assembled from building blocks that solid is going to be entertaining, at the very least; factor in universally fine performances from the show’s many child and young-adult actors, the strongest such cast assembled since Game of Thrones, and you’d be tempted to move Stranger Things out of the “hey, that was kinda fun” column straight into “this is a stone classic, gimme season two immediately” territory.
But unlike many of its countless forerunners, Stranger Things’ story of small-town terror communicates little beyond the contents of its creators’ Blu-ray collections. It’s so fixated on stirring nostalgia for the science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and adventure tales of yore that it has no time or energy left over for what made those horror tales compelling in the first place: wrestling with the fears and desires of the time period, and the different kinds of people — boys and girls, men and women, parents and children, kids and teens and adults — who found themselves struggling with them. Nearly everything difficult about the original works, everything weird, gross, uncomfortable, unexplained, and hidden beneath the surface (“occulted,” to use an evocative lit-studies term) has been stripped away in favor of a lowest-common-denominator pastiche that retains the surface elements but loses the power within.
The more I saw of this show, the more what it did with its source material bothered me. I went in-depth on how Stranger Things squandered its potential to actually be a stranger thing for Vulture.
It starts with the character’s look. Reilly’s physical appearance has always served him well as an actor. There’s something about the combination of his large frame and round, expressive face that makes him look not so much tall as overgrown, like a child stretched to adult proportions. This gives him an air of vulnerability that belies his size; it lends pathos to his dramatic performances, like the sad-sack cop in Magnolia, and a goofball naïveté to his comedic turns, like the fake music legend in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It’s how a guy who’s six-foot-two can sing the ode to interpersonal invisibility “Mr. Cellophane” in the film adaptation ofChicago and earn an Oscar nomination, or pair up with the relatively diminutive Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights and come across like a natural sidekick.
In these strictly physical terms alone, Dr. Steve is his magnum opus, the idiot man-child he was born to play. Wearing a brown suit that’s at least two sizes too small, teasing his curly hair to fright-wig proportions, twisting his mouth and squinting his eyes to give his face a vibe of permanent confusion, Reilly leans into his quirks as Dr. Steve.
I wrote about how John C. Reilly’s turn as the title character on Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule is one of the best dang performances in TV comedy today for Vulture. I’ve been saying it for years and I’m so glad I got the chance to obsess on it publicly.